In Syria, the T-72 tank remains the most commonly encountered armored vehicles on both sides of the current Civil War. A captured T-72 is considered as a sort of treasure by the Islamist rebels and is often put to work against the army. There are enough rebels with military experience so that it does not take long to find a few former soldiers who served in T-72s. Around 300 T-72s are still believed to be in regular use mainly with the Syrian Army Republican Guard and the Syrian Arab Army’s elite 4th Armored Division.
Although it’s commonly believed Syria maintained a force of some 1,500 T-72s, the number that were operable when the civil war broke out in 2011 was much less. A lot of Syrian tanks, most of them older and just rusting away in military bases, were not 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-72M1s placed in Czechoslovakia was only partially completed when the country was separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. 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 T-72 ‘Ural’, was released for export in the late seventies, and apart from Syria, nations like Algeria, Iraq and Libya also received the type. Syria was eager to use the T-72 after the poor performance of the older T-62 during the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel. The majority of the T-72s were held back in Syria as a strategic reserve, and only a few T-72s engaged in combat with Israeli armor in the 1980s.
Syria received the first of a total of 300 much improved T-72As in 1982. Syria was the exception to the rule in 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 “T-72A” or “T-72AV” was never used to refer to this tank in Syria. The T-72A can be identified by the presence of anti-radiation lining over its turret which the T-72M1 lacks.
The 300 T-72As in Syria were divided between the Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division. The T-72s operated by the Republican Guard were always seen in a desert livery color, while the T-72s of the 4th Armored Division were usually a plain green color, which operated alongside a limited amount of ‘desert’ T-72s. Numerous BREM-1 armored recovery vehicles were also acquired mainly for the Republican Guard, and all remain in widespread use today. The BREM-1s is the only type of ARV (armor recovery vehicle) that is actually used as an ARV in Syria, with other ARVs either stored or used as gun-platforms. In addition to 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.
All of Syria’s T-72As were later upgraded to AV standard, aimed at increasing the T-72A’s protection against RPGs by the installment of Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armor blocks (ERA). Opposed to the T-55MV upgrade, which happened in the Ukraine, the upgrading of the T-72As took place in Syria. The Kontakt-1 ERA was bought from one of the former Soviet Republics (believed to have been Ukraine) and was supposedly installed by Armenian contractors. The upgrade to AV standard didn’t change anything to the designation of the T-82 however. Almost all of the tanks had their Kontakt-1 ERA installed the way it was intended but 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 addition to the Syrian tank fleet, and although inferior to the T-72AVs, they are Syria’s 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. To add to all the confusion, the T-72 ‘Ural’ is also sometimes referred to as the T-79.
Although all T-72M1s were believed to have been distributed to units within the Syrian Army, most can now be found under the command of the Republican Guard in an effort to replace the battered T-72AVs Syria lost in the early stages of the Syrian Civil War. 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 along with several other ambitious modernization programs for the Syrian military.