By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The T-72, after the T-55 the most prolific tank series of the post-World War II era with an estimated production run of up to 30.000 vehicles. In Syria, the tank largely owes its fame due the participation in the Battle of Darayya, which was extensively covered on camera, and the large amount of videos showing the turret fly off due to an internal explosion after getting hit by a RPG. As a result, both the highest flying T-72 turret and the most destroyed T-72 were recorded inside Syria.
Nonetheless, it remains at the forefront in the Syrian Civil War and undoubtedly is Syria's most popular tank, so much even that a captured T-72 is considered as a sort of treasure by the rebels. Around 300 are still believed to be operated by mainly the Republican Guard and the Syrian Arab Army's elite 4th Armoured Division.
Although it's commonly believed Syria operated around 1500 T-72s, Syria actually acquired just over 700 T-72s in three (or technically four) batches. The first batch consisted of around 150 T-72 'Urals' ordered from the Soviet Union and delivered in the late seventies, a total of 300 T-72As delivered in 1982 make up the second batch and an order for 252 T-72M(1)s placed in Czechoslovakia was only partially completed when the country was separated into two. While 194 examples were already delivered by Czechoslovakia in 1992, the order was continued by Slovakia and the remaining 58 T-72M1s were delivered in 1993.
The most widely accepted theory involves the majority of the T-72s being held back in Syria as a strategic reserve, and that only a few T-72s did clash with M60s and Israeli Magach derivatives near Rashaya. Most sources agree the T-72s performed well, and one officer was subsequently decorated for his achievements with the type.
Hafez al-Assad is even said to have made the famous quote of calling the T-72 'Ural' ''the best tank in the world''. As a token of appreciation, Hafez donated (or more conviently traded) a captured Magach-5 to the Soviet Union, which was extensively tested here. Especially the Blazer explosive reactive armour (ERA) found on the Magach-5 was of great interest to the Soviet Union.
Syria greatly benefitted from this arrangement, as it subsequently received the first of a total of 300 much improved T-72As in 1982. What makes Syria receiving this tank so special is that the T-72A was never cleared for export by the Soviet Union, with even the most trusted Warsaw Pact countries receiving the downgraded T-72M1 instead. The first country outside the former Soviet Union to receive T-72As was Hungary in 1996, which acquired them from Belarus fourteen years after Syria received theirs!
Syria's T-72As, produced only one year before they were delivered, came directly from Soviet Army stocks. In Syria, these tanks became known as T-82s, with 82 referring to the year of delivery. The use of this designation continues even today, and neither T-72A or T-72AV was ever used to refer to this tank in Syria. To avoid confusion, only the foreign designations are used in this article.
The T-72A can be discerned from the T-72M1 by the presence of anti-radiation lining over its turret, as witnessed by the T-72AV without ERA seen below.
The 300 T-72As were split between the Republican Guard and the 4th Armoured Division. The T-72s operated by the Republican Guard were always seen in a desert livery, while the T-72s of the 4th armoured division were usually plain green, which operated alongside a limited amount of 'desert' T-72s.
Numerous BREM-1 armoured recovery vehicles were also acquired mainly for the Republican Guard, and all remain in widespread use today. In fact, the BREM-1s is the only type of ARV that is actually used as an ARV in Syria, with other ARVs either stored or used as gun-platforms.
Apart from acquiring T-72As, Syria also received the more modern 3BM-44 anti-tank round for the T-72's 125mm cannon. Believed to have never been exported to any other country under Soviet influence, it remains in use alongside the older 3BM-23 anti-tank round. The complete ammunition loadout of a standard Syrian T-72 in Syrian service can be seen below.
Although almost all of the tanks got their Kontakt-1 ERA installed the way it was intended, at least some of the 'T-72AVs' can be seen with a different installment of the ERA blocks on the turret, a contraption likely originating from one of the Armenian contractors responsible for installing the ERA.
The 252 T-72M1s were the latest additon to the Syrian tank fleet, and although inferior to the T-72AVs, they are Syria's most newest tanks, having rolled out of the factory over ten years later than Syria's T-72AVs. As most were delivered in 1992, they are sometimes referred to as T-92s by Syrians. Yet the original designation of T-72M1 also remains in use in Syria, resulting in some confusion around the Syrian designation system. To add to all the confusion, the T-72 'Ural' is also believed to have acquired an indigenous name, which would likely be T-79.
Although all were believed to have been distributed to units within the Syrian Arab Army, most can now be found under the command of the Republican Guard in an effort to replace the battered T-72AVs it lost over the recent years.
A large part of the T-72M1 fleet was originally slated to be upgraded to what was believed to be T-72M1M standard by Russia at the start at this decade. However, this plan was abandoned after the start of the Civil War alongside several other ambitious modernisation programmes for the Syrian military.
The T-72M1's hull seen below provides a good comparison between the different roadwheels of the T-72M1 and T-72 'Ural'. The green camouflaged roadwheel was taken from a T-72 'Ural' after this particular T-72M1 got damaged in battle. This T-72M1 also features improvised armour additions.
Strangely enough, instead of upgrading 122 of its most modern tanks, the T-72AV and T-72M1, Syria opted for dividing the TURMS-T systems between its T-72 'Urals', T-72M1s and T-72AVs instead. The exact reason for this remains unclear even today. It might have something to do with the units that were slated to be equipped with T-72 TURMS-Ts, that could haveaccidentally brought their T-72 'Urals' forward to be upgraded instead of their more modern incarnations. The quality of the TURMS-T installment varies on every tank, but seems to be of lesser quality on the T-72 'Urals'.
Some TURMS-T equipped T-72s also saw heavy action in and around Damascus in the early days of the Syrian Civil War, during which a number were lost. Some were still seen in and around Damascus in 2013, but their usage in Damascus appears to be minimal. A few TURMS-T equipped T-72s belonging to the 4th armoured division were deployed to checkpoints throughout the country, and at least two were destroyed at the Jassim National Hospital near Nawa.
Lots of T-72s were destroyed while used as battering rams charging through cities in the early days of the war. The usage of advanced RPGs such as the RPG-29 and M79 Osa by opposing forces didn't work to the T-72's advantage either. Subsequently, the T-72 fleet suffered the largest relative losses compared to the T-55 and T-62 fleet.
While the use in Darayya looked great on camera, it resulted in unnecessary losses with questionable results. The insurgency here was only suppressed after infantry was deployed into the now destroyed neighbourhood.
Nonetheless, new personnel is still training on the T-72s. The high attrition of tank crews and the need for skilled mechanics to quickly repair battle-damaged T-72s is now higher than ever.
The T-72 has meanwhile seen use on every front. Deir ez-Zor, previously only home to T-55s, saw numerous T-72s operating here because of the arrival of the Republican Guard's 104th brigade. Some TURMS-T equipped T-72AVs are now also attached to Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Falcons), and saw use against the Islamic State near the Shaer gas field.
A limited number of T-72s also operate around Aleppo. All of these belong to the 4th armoured division and operate alongside BREM-1 ARVs. They mainly operated around the neigbourhood of Al-Layramoun in late 2013.
Due to their heavy usage, many T-72AVs were soon left without their Kontakt-1 covered side skirts. Indeed, this was one of the complaints of tankers of the Republican Guard. An interview with one of them can be seen here. One hit by an RPG often results in the whole side skirt falling off, leaving the tank with almost no protection on this side. Some T-72AVs were subsequently used as a source for Kontakt-1 blocks, but Syria might still receive limited quantities of such blocks from one of the former Soviet Republics even today.
At least one T-72 was later modernized by the addition of new mud guards, side skirts and different ERA layout, allowing for a wider coverage on the tank's side skirts. This particular T-72 participated in the assault on Brigade 93, in Northern Syria.
upgraded with additional armour on its glacis plate and rear by Jaish al-Islam.
The poor protection of the ammunition almost always results in a fire and explosion inside the turret followed by the turret being detached from the hull. As the crew is sitting right on top of the 125mm shells, it almost always results in their death.
Most Syrian T-72s lost their 12.7mm NSV heavy machine gun in the course of the Civil War. As these guns require the commander to leave the safety of the turret, thus leaving him greatly exposed to gunfire, they rarely saw use and were often dismounted to be mounted on pickup trucks instead.S ome of the NSVs were subsequently used to cover T-72s from RPG teams after being handed over to soldiers operating in the same theatre as the T-72s. This tactic is mostly seen in Jobar.
To address some of the armour weaknesses, several programs have been initiated to improve the T-72's protection against RPGs and ATGMs. These programs were first witnessed on the 4th Armoured Division's T-72AVs, most of which received slat armour filled with bricks. Simple bricks were sometimes also used to replace lost Kontakt-1 blocks, the actual combat value of which is highly questionable.
The first upgrade consists of several pieces of metal alligned around the turret and one large plate of metal on each side of the tank strenthened by shell casings from the T-72's 125mm gun. In some cases, sandbags are also seen around the turret.
Some examples were immediately rushed into combat in Jobar, where at least two were destroyed.  Other examples see service in Aleppo. However, the actual combat performance of the armour package remain unknown. It is expected more T-72s will receive this armour package.
At least one TURMS-T equipped T-72M1 also received such armour additions, albeit in a slightly different configuration than seen otherwise.
Syria's Steel Beasts: The T-55
Syria's Steel Beasts: The T-62
The Republican Guard's armour upgrades: Products of a Four Year War