Turkey suffered its first combat fatalities over the last weekend before their foray against Islamic State (ISIS) and Syrian Kurdish forces last Wednesday was a week old. What appeared to be militiamen fighting under the banner of the Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance managed to, according to official Turkish sources, kill one Turkish soldier and wound three others by attacking their tanks seven kilometers south of the Syrian border-town of Jarabulus with rockets. Video footage ostensibly shows a tank being hit by a rocket fired by the SDF before igniting in a bright fireball:
Also on Tuesday another three Turkish soldiers were wounded when their tank came under fire west of Jarabulus.
Footage available of the Turkish incursion shows their M60 Patton tanks and ACV-15 armored personnel carriers (APCs) shielding allied Syria militiamen and the 350 or-so Turkish soldiers operating south of the border. This begs the following question: Why is Turkey spearheading such a major operation with its M60’s as opposed to its much more advanced and stronger Leopard 2 tanks?
Granted many of the Turkish M60’s have been overhauled and modernized by Israel, but they are still not the most reliable tank in the Turkish arsenal. Choosing M60’s to lead such a potential risky assault into enemy territory was certainly a questionable move given Turkey’s possession of hundreds of much more durable Leopard 2’s.
The [U.S. and Turkey] weren’t as aligned on the operation as their public statements indicated. […] While Turkey publicly cast the campaign as a joint operation with the U.S.-led military coalition, the first airstrikes carried out by Turkish jets on Jarabulus were done unilaterally, not under the coalition umbrella. — Adam Entous, Gordon Lubold and Dion Nissenbaum, “Turkish Offensive on Islamic State in Syria Caught U.S. Off Guard“, The Wall Street Journal”, 30.08.2016
When Israel launched Operation Change of Direction 11 the Israel Defense Forces planned to have helicopter-borne commandos working in tandem with their armour encircle Hezbollah in south Lebanon and secure the Israeli border from rocket attacks carried out by that group. It was an abysmal failure, poor coordination on the command level resulted in Israeli ground forces in Lebanon falling prey to well-organized Hezbollah ambushes. On one occasion a tank column consisting of 24 Merkava main battle tanks was ambushed by Hezbollah militants who fired anti-tank missiles from the hilltops, damaging at least 11 of the tanks. They even managed through small arms fire and mortars to suppress supporting Israeli infantrymen, making the ambush an overwhelming success. The tanks, foolishly operating on hilly terrain, quickly became sitting ducks for Hezbollah.
Given its emphasis on safety features the Israeli Merkava has been called the safest tank in the world. The death of some 30 Israeli soldiers and officers from the Israeli Armoured Corps, including two battalion commanders, along with the damage of a total 50 of their tanks by Hezbollah anti-tank missiles throughout that war, however, showed that those tanks were certainly not invulnerable.
In Syria, today, the Turks did not go in with the self-styled safest tanks in the world, but some of their older more ubiquitous tanks which should have, at best, played a supporting role to their more superior Leopard 2’s. These tanks have better mechanisms in place to minimize the effects of damage to the crew inside from fire; for example, its ammunition is separated from the crew in a different compartment in case it is ignited during the course of a fierce firefight.
The Leopard 2 is by no means perfect, and it is bound to start becoming more vulnerable with age given the introduction of new and much more lethal anti-tank missiles. Nevertheless it still remains the most formidable tank in the Turkish arsenal, and given the numbers Turkey has at its disposal it should really have been the tank to lead this operation.
Possible reasons Turkey might not have been able to deploy Leopards in this operation should be evaluated. Turkey is a large country and army bases closest to its southern border may not necessarily have had these tanks, or even had the required crew needed to man them given the large-scale arrests and detentions carried out by the government in the post-July 15 coup crackdown. Also, in spite of the fact that Turkey had long in mind to intervene in that part of northwestern Syria – in June 2015 Erdoğan and his top generals discussed to launch an incursion in that area using 2,000 troops, that plan was subsequently scrapped however following the Russian intervention and the ensuing warplane incident – the intervention did transpire very suddenly, without Washington being given any advanced warning before the opening salvos were fired on August 24.
Turkish and American officials said the Turkish military wanted to look decisive and to show loyalty to Mr. Erdoğan, particularly after the coup. — Adam Entous, Gordon Lubold and Dion Nissenbaum, “Turkish Offensive on Islamic State in Syria Caught U.S. Off Guard“, The Wall Street Journal”, 30.08.2016
Alternatively the Turkish government could have declared it would eradicate all terrorists on its border and then proceeded to begin deploying and building-up a significant number of Leopard tanks on that frontier from elsewhere in the country — which might have given away the element of surprise.
However Turkey has had artillery, tanks and troops conspicuously deployed to that border for well over a year now. And surprise attack or not it was unlikely that ISIS militants would have fought to the death in defense of Jarabulus, a town right on the periphery of their so-called caliphate — which is why they chose to immediately pull out. Before this operation commenced it was well understood that ISIS tactically retreated from areas where it couldn’t feasibly dig-in and try to bleed out any attacking force. Furthermore the attack was going to be inevitable for the aforementioned reason that ISIS simply kept attacking Turkish towns and cities near the border.
The question which therefore should asked is: Should Turkey really have this offensive before it had its most effective weapons at the ready? Taking the time to build-up this more effective equipment might well have increased the chance the Turkish government and military could have achieved a much more clear-cut and decisive victory, which would have re-instilled any dwindling confidence the public might have begun to have in them.
With the current composition of forces in Syria, the Turks would be well advised not to advance further south into enemy territory and see firsthand just how susceptible its aged M60 fleet is to potentially devastating hit-and-run ambushes, not to mention mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Saturday’s attack was a clear warning of the devastating consequences Turkey faces if it doesn’t reconsider its force composition it has deployed to that war-ravaged morass of a country.
Matthew Doye argues that the Leopard 2A4s are guarding Turkey’s northern border because nearby Greece and Russia have more capable equipment than their adversaries on the southern border, who have been relying on asymmetrical tactics. Regarding the alternating periods of mutual hostility and reconciliation between Greece and Turkey and the strained relations between Ankara and Moscow after the Sukhoi Su-24 shootdown until Erdoğan expressed regret to Putin for that incident this June, the northern deployment of these kind of tanks makes sense. Apostolos Olokainourios added that the main Turkish Leopard 2A4 force is stationed with the 1st Army in Eastern Thrace (Greek-Turkish border) and that until December 2015 about 25% of the 1st army’s armoured vehicles (including 2A4s) have been transported to the Syrian border. But there’s a catch: it seems that all sources about these substantial redeployments from the border to Greek comes back to this article, which doesn’t make a very reliable impression.
Does it mean — as some of the commentator mentioned — that Turkish generals will refrain modern Leopard 2A4s from combat on the expense of aged M60s? These speculations have no grounds, but there are other explanations. According to Arda Mevlutoglu (Facebook / Twitter) the 5th Armored Brigade, which is responsible for the region around Jarabulus is equipped by un-modernised M60A3’s (Israel modernized 170 Turkish M60A1 which were newly deployed as M60T’s). Because the Brigade has enough M60A3 for an operation like “Euphrates Shield” in its current inventory, the Leopard 2A4 and also the M60T are only used as reinforcement. Observations that the Turkish Army has begun to move Leopard 2A4 to the south border region after the beginning of “Euphrates Shield” may support his theory.
Stefan Doelling thinks that the Turks don´t have proper HE-FRAG ammunition for their Leopard 2s which is necessary to effectively combat against soft targets (as an illustration of the effect of HE-FRAG ammunition see the video below demonstrates). For the L7s on the M60, however, they have a broad range of different ammo choices. According to Doelling the Canadians used their Leopard 1s alongside the newer Leopard 2s in Afghanistan for that reason. Although this is an interesting explanation we neither can confirm nor disprove it.
Another interesting theory was added by Thomas Melber in the comment section below. He argues that Leopard 2s were not used in “Euphrates Shield” because “Germany may still have ‘a say‘ in the use of the [Turkish] Leopard“. We can’t completely rule that out. While we haven’t yet found anything concrete there may be some contractual restriction in the use of the Leopard 2, meaning the Turks are obliged to only use the tank in defense of their own territory.
When Germany delivered Turkey 300 BTR-60 from the former National People’s Army of the German Democratic Republic, the use of these armoured personnel carriers were limited for defence only (thanks to Marcus Seyfarth for this hint).