Shaer gas field, three words that must strike fear into the head of any National Defence Force (NDF) member without any active assignment in Syria. Being stationed at Shaer guarantees heavy action, frequent Islamic State attacks and unfortunately for many drafted recruits, death. The capture of Shaer by the Islamic State on the 5th of May 2016 is the third time that its fighters gained control of the gas field. Shaer and its surrounding checkpoints were under heavy attack since the first of May, and its defenders were ultimately defeated on the 5th of May. The ghaneema (spoils of war) is said to have amounted to no less than twenty T-55s and T-62s, nine howitzers and field guns, ATGMs and a large number of small arms and associated ammunition.
The capture of Shaer stands symbol for a situation that so often happens throughout regime-controlled Syria: Opposing forces overrun poorly trained conscripts defending a location which is massively overstocked with arms, forcing a well-trained and motivated Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) formation to abandon its current offensive in order to recapture the important location that has just been lost, resulting in another stalled offensive or even further terrain loss due to the mass departure of troops. This task is often given to Suheil ‘The Tiger’ al-Hassan along with his Tiger Force, which was behind the previous two offensives to retake Shaer gas field and will undoubtedly be tasked with recapturing it for a third time again.
While it is not uncommon for places to switch hands several times during the course of the war, losing such an important location three times in just over two years is shocking to say the least. The concentration of armour and artillery both in Shaer and the surrounding checkpoints have always been massive, and should in theory be more than capable of handling the infantry focused tactics empoyed by the Islamic State. A total of thirteen checkpoints were believed to have been set up around Shaer, most with its own armour support or even artillery support. While a suprise Islamic State attack on either one of these checkpoints is incredibly likely to succeed, this puts its fighters within firing range of tanks and artillery stationed at other checkpoints nearby. Indeed, artillery could play a decisive role in keeping fighters of the Islamic State at bay and denying large troop concentrations, especially when assisted by UAVs.
While the concentration of artillery this time around was inferior to the previous defenders, which could call on 122mm 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers and 122mm BM-21 Grad MRLs, it still boosted up to nine 122mm D-30 howitzers and 130mm M-46 field guns, two of which have been visually confirmed by footage of Shaer. While these howitzers and field guns thus could prove a valuable asset in the hands of the defenders, one of the two 122mm D-30 howitzers seen in Islamic State released footage was simply dumped into a corner of its base. In fact, both howitzers were in travel mode, and for one gun this likely indicates that is was left untouched after its arrival at Shaer. The same applied for the single 57mm AZP S-60, also in travel position with its associated ammuntion neatly packed behind the anti-aircraft gun.
While it only appears logical to blame the defenders for their failure to propely deploy the equipment assigned to them, the situation is slightly more complicated. While an inspection of the area and its terrain that is to be defended to see what weapon system is needed and where it needs to be placed sounds logical, the distribution of military hardware is often random and does not take into account the limits of the defenders. For example, artillery can be stationed at a location extremely close to the frontline, or worse, stationed at a location where none of the defenders are capable of operating artillery in the first place. This has led to situations were artillery and anti-aircraft guns were simply dumped into a corner or even outside the perimeter of the base due to a lack of manpower to operate them, the defending troops being incapable of operating sophisticating equipment or a lack of suitable terrain and space to deploy these systems.
While the situation is certainly better with self-propelled artillery and armoured fighting vehicles, as these always come with their own crew, these create another major problem however. As the SyAA was deprived of most of its combat power, its tanks stopped operating in pre-exisiting units (or what was left of them after years of fighting and defections) and were instead individually attached to various NDF units or worse, attached to defend locations such as Shaer. As a result, NDF detachments often consist of ‘a tank from this brigade, an artillery gun from this regiment, a conscript from Damascus, a conscript from Aleppo and so on’. This results in units which in fact consist of several individual components, which all received their training elsewhere, rather than a well-oiled machine. This is then further worsened by the composition of personnel in many of these units. While some NDF units consist of conscripts and volunteers from the same town or neighbourhood, most units are made up by personnel with other religions and personal motivations, resulting in distrust among its members. Personal motivations for joining the NDF can range to anything from defending one’s town to the need to earn money for one’s family to having been drafted after walking by a regime checkpoint at the wrong time, put onto a bus and sent to a military base nearby for training.
The fact that such poorly trained, yet overstocked with arms, units remain responsible for protecting highly important locations highlights the chronic shortage of (well trained and motivated) manpower on the side of the regime. A larger influx of Shiite fighters deployed by Iran can only partially solve this issue, which is unlikely to be ever completely resolved.
While the Islamic State was quick to claim that it had captured twenty T-55s and T-62s, nine howitzers and field guns, ATGMs and a large number of small arms and associated ammunition, images and footage of Shaer and its surrounding checkpoints have so far shown the capture of far less equipment. As the previous NDF detachments defending Shaer could also count on around twenty armoured fighting vehicles, the lack of footage could be due to the large amounts of checkpoints captured on the vast size of the terrain that is Shaer.
The heavy armament seen in footage and images included one T-62 Model 1972, two T-55As (one of whichupgraded with the addition of a North Korean laser rangefinder) and one BMP-1. All tanks were captured intact, with the image of the first T-55A indicating this tank took part in defending Shaer but was later abandoned by its operators.
Although claiming to have captured nine artillery pieces, the Islamic State only showed off two 122mm D-30 howitzers in its footage. The claim of capturing a single 57mm AZP S-60 was however, confirmed.
The amount of vehicles found left behind at Shaer was substantial, and included at least twelve technicals and four trucks. All 14.5mm KPV guns, at least six of which found, were removed from the technicals by the fighters of the Islamic State however, likely indicating that not all technicals are to be taken with them. The ZPU-4 armed Isuzu gun truck lost all of its 14.5mm barrels in a similar fashion.
Also captured was a single KamAZ 5350, a truck recently delivered to Syria by Russia. While the rebels and the Islamic State already destroyed several of those trucks, they never managed to capture any examples intact.
The defenders used several gun emplacements up-armoured with metal plating in a bid to protect the operator. Mounted on a truck to be taken away further into Islamic State held territory, this 23mm ZU-23 also lost both of its barrels.
While the Islamic State claimed to have captured both 9M133 Kornets and 9M113 Konkurs anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), a single 9M133 and one 9M14M Malyutka were the only captured ATGMs shown.
Footage of captured small arms was limited to seven AK(Ms) and two RPG-7s along with associated ammunition. The large but empty crate seen below is more interesting however, as this once used to hold Chinese 120mm rocket assisted projectiles (RAP). An impressive 165 of such rounds were previously capturedby fighters of the Islamic State at Ayyash on the 20th of January 2016.
One of the facilities at Shaer functioned as weapon depot, and the dozens of bullet holes indicate the history of the facility in the past two years. 242 crates containing a total of 484 cans for 12.7mm and 14.5mm ammunition, 41 crates of 120mm ammunition for a total of 82 120mm rounds, 18 crates of 7.62×39 and 7.62×54 ammunition, for a total of 1320 rounds per crate for x39, 880 for x54 and another 209 unidentied crates were among the spoils found at Shaer and surrounding checkpoints. Quickly loaded on trucks, these too are likely to have been moved further into Islamic State held territory for distribution to other fronts.
While Shaer will undoubtedly be recaptured in the coming months, it represents the current situation so often seen throughout Syria. With no offensive on Deir ez-Zor or Raqqa in sight, and with the Islamic State still in control of large swaths of lands, this situation will undoubtedly continue for the time being. With the gas production at Shaer for regime-held Syria likely to continue, the capture of this strategic gas field will prove to be more than a propaganda victory and major arms haul, yielding a significant financial benefit as well.
Article written in collaboration with MENA_Conflict from Type 63: A collection of Musings on Middle East Conflict.