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The Battle for Al-Bab: Verifying Euphrates Shield Vehicle Losses

February 12, 2017

By Christiaan Triebert

Translations: Русский

The Turkish military operation dubbed ‘Euphrates Shield’ (ES) began on August 24, 2016, aiming to clear an area of 5,000 square kilometres of Syrian territory, and is conducted jointly with Syrian rebel factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Within four months, over 2,000 square kilometres were captured from so-called Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish factions, and the forces are entering the city of al-Bab at the time of writing.

But the operation comes at a cost, especially since Turkey started an offensive on the same city of al-Bab, around 40 kilometres east of Aleppo. A sheet listing Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) vehicles which are damaged, hit, or of which the status is unknown, near al-Bab started making rounds on news websites and social media on December 23, 2016.

No less than eleven tanks, three infantry (mobility) fighting vehicles, and an armoured personnel carrier are on the list. The sheet includes columns for the number plate, the military unit, a rough location, and a comments section, mostly referring what part of the vehicle was damaged by what kind of weapon.

This investigation aims to authenticate the claims on the sheet, and does so by using open sources: openly available sources to anyone with an Internet connection, as well as satellite imagery obtained via DigitalGlobe.

The original photo of a sheet, which lists Turkey’s alleged military vehicle losses in Syria, that started making rounds in December 2016. The source of the photo is unknown, and it is not clear whether it is authentic.

An English translation of the alleged leaked sheet of Turkish military vehicle losses in Syria.

Plates and Unit

The sheet lists the plate numbers of the vehicles. Turkish vehicle registration plates for military vehicles have a distinct appearance, unlike other number plates: six black numerals on a white rectangular plate. The first digit of those military plates are reserved for the part of the military, such as the Navy or the Gendarmerie. The sheet only lists plates starting with either ‘1’ or ‘2’, referring to the Turkish Land Forces’ First and Second Army. The following two digits then refer to the military unit within that army.

The ‘unit’ column should thus correspond to the number plate. Listed are the 2nd Armoured Brigade (First Army), the 16th Mechanised Brigade (Second Army) in Diyarbakır, the 5th Armoured Brigade (First Army) based in Gaziantep, the 39th Mechanised Brigade (Second Army) in İskenderun, and the 20th Armoured Brigade (Second Army) in Şanlıurfa. A Reddit-user suggested (archived) the numbers prior to the ordinal number refers to the Battalion or even Company level.

The numbers correspond to information circulating on the Internet, primarily with regards to the Second Army (published by Haberturk (archived) in 2012, though may be outdated) and the First Army (Wikipedia, no sources listed, thus questionable). Besides, military vehicles of the 2nd Armoured Brigade were also spotted during the July 15th coup attempt in Turkey, using the number plate starting with ‘196’. On the list, the 2nd Armoured Brigade appears to have ‘195’.

Units of the 5th Armoured Brigade and the 20th Armoured Brigade were dispatched to the Turkish border back in the early days of the Syrian uprising, Hurriyet Daily News (archived) reported in August 2012.

However, it is important to note that the number plate of the 16th Mechanised Brigade refers to the First Army, while the 16th is part of the Second Army. It may well be that vehicles have been transferred to other military units, or that the online open source information is outdated.

Location and situation

The location of al-Bab in Syria. Credit: World Atlas.

All locations mentioned on the sheet include either al-Bab’s hospital area or the area west of the city. IS gained presence in al-Bab around the summer of 2013 and got full control of the city after infighting between rebel groups in January and February 2014. As the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were reportedly aiming to attack the town after the capture of nearby Manbij, FSA rebels and Turkish forces made a joint push towards al-Bab. In December 2016, Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies renewed the offensive with dozens of airstrikes and heavy military equipment on the ground: a bloody battle as AP’s Sarah el-Deeb wrote:

Nearly two months into the assault, Turkey has become bogged down in an unexpectedly bloody fight to retake the Islamic State group’s last stronghold in northern Syria. It has been forced to pour in troops, take the lead in the battle from its Syrian allies and reach out to Russia for aerial support.

Over 60 Turkish soldiers have been killed in Syria, most of them during the al-Bab offensive, and IS has often been fast to publish footage of the dead soldiers, alongside the seized weapons and vehicles. The latter will be analysed in the context of the alleged leaked document. The inflicted loses of IS are unknown, but as of writing their defence of the city is breaking.

Fast forward to February 2017, the Ahrar al-Sham opposition group announced on Twitter that its forces had taken strategic sites in al-Bab’s southern districts. The Turkish-backed opposition forces are racing to seize the city before Syrian government troops arrive, only about 1.5 kilometres away from the city. Russia is said to have intervened to halt a clash between the Syrian government forces and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition groups.

Al-Bab: Western Area

The western area of al-Bab is in hands of the Euphrates Shield forces, and it is clear that the sheet refers to that area west of the town. The map below, showing territorial control in northern Syria as of December 21, 2016, displays how the FSA and Turkish forces are west of al-Bab.

Territorial control of al-Bab and the surrounding Aleppo Governorate. The western area of al-Bab is in hands of the Euphrates Shield forces. Credit: Cristian Ionita/edmaps.com.

Al Bab: Hospital Area

As there is only one hospital in the area where the fighting took place, it is clear that the ‘hospital area’ refers to the surrounding of the al-Bab or Sheikh al-Aqil hospital, named after the mountain it located west from. The two maps below give an impression of the hospital’s location with regards to the town. Heavy fighting between ES forces and IS has indeed been reported west of al-Bab and, more specifically, the hospital area.

The location of the al-Bab hospital and its immediate surrounding. The red circle indicates a roughly 600 meter radius around the hospital, showing what may be meant with the ‘hospital area’.

Territorial control around al-Bab as of December 21, 2016. The number ‘1’ marks the Sheikh al-Akil hill. The hospital is located directly west from that hill. Black represents IS, green represents FSA and Turkey, and yellow represent SDF. Credit: Qasioun News Agency.

Overview map

An interactive map with all the geolocated Turkish military vehicles in and around western al-Bab.

  • Blue dot: Leopard 2A4 (8x)
  • Green dot: Sabra M60T (1x)
  • Yellow dot: Otokar Kobra (various types; 3x)
  • Purple dot: armed personnel carrier (APC) / infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) (2x)
  • Black dot: other (e.g. technical, bulldozer; 2x)

Listed vehicles and tanks

1. Leopard 2A4 (195 528)

Plate: 195 528 [correct]
Unit: 1st / 2nd Armoured Brigade [unknown]
Location: Al Bab / hospital area [correct]
Comments: Rocket/mortar attack [unknown]

On December 22, 2016, IS-linked A’maq News Agency published a video showing what it claimed was military equipment of Turkish special forces seized by IS fighters west of al-Bab. Two Leopard 2A4s, a German-made tank, can be seen, including clear a view of number plate: 195 528 — the same as mentioned on the list.

On December 22, 2016, IS-linked A’maq News Agency published a video showing what it claimed was military equipment of Turkish special forces seized by IS fighters west of al-Bab. Two Leopard 2A4s, a German-made tank, can be seen, including clear a view of number plate: 195 528.

The Leopard 2A4 can be geolocated to the premises of the al-Bab hospital. The tank is visible in the exact same position on satellite imagery acquired by DigitalGlobe on February 7, 2017.

The Leopard 2A4 can be geolocated to the premises of the al-Bab hospital. The tank is visible in the exact same position on satellite imagery acquired by DigitalGlobe on February 7, 2017.

2. Leopard 2A4 (195 532)

Plate: 195 532 [partly correct]
Unit: 1st / 2nd Armoured Brigade [unknown]
Location: Al Bab / hospital area [correct]
Comments: Tank’s palette dismantled [unknown]

A second Leopard 2A4 is also shown in the same Dec. 22 A’maq video, and though broken, the last three digits of its number plate are 532. It is likely to assume this is the tank mentioned in the sheet.

A second Leopard 2A4 is also shown in the same Dec. 22 A’maq video, and though broken, the last three digits of its number plate are 532. It is likely to assume this is the tank mentioned in the sheet.

The Leopard 2A4 can be geolocated to the outer premises of the al-Bab hospital. The tank and the bulldozer next to it are visible in the exact same position on satellite imagery acquired by DigitalGlobe on February 7, 2017.

The Leopard 2A4 can be geolocated to the outer premises of the al-Bab hospital. The tank and the bulldozer next to it are visible in the exact same position on satellite imagery acquired by DigitalGlobe on February 7, 2017.

In a video published by IS on January 20, the same tank is filmed by a drone from a different angle.  The damage appears to have been caused by a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED).

In a video published by IS on January 20, the same tank is filmed by a drone from a different angle. The image has been digitally altered with regards to the brightness and shadows, to make the tank more visible.

3. Leopard 2A4 (195 541)

No information.

4. Leopard 2A4 (195 535)

No information.

5. Leopard 2A4 (195 526)

Plate: 195 526 [partly correct]
Unit: 1/2nd Armoured Brigade [unknown]
Location: Al Bab / hospital area [correct]
Comments: EID/mine-attack

The Leopard 2A4 tank with number plate 195 526 is visible in the January 20 IS video, as the last three digits of the plate are visible. The tank is located next to another disabled Leopard 2A4 tank and an older version of a Kobra/Akrep armoured personnel carrier (ZPT, zırhlı personel taşıyıcı). The tank is visible on February 7, 2017, satellite imagery on the exact same location (see below to see that satellite imagery).

The Leopard 2A4 tank with number plate 195 526 appears to have been featured in the January 20 IS video, as the last three digits of the plate are visible.

6. Leopard 2A4 (195 536)

No information.

7. Leopard 2A4 (195 537)

No information.

8. Leopard 2A4 (195 586)

No information.

9. Leopard 2A4 (195 591)

No information.

10. Leopard 2A4 (195 556)

No information.

11. M60T (264 944)

Plate: 264 944 [correct]
Unit: 16th Mechanised Brigade
Location: Al Bab / hospital area [correct]
Comments: Hit by ATGM [correct]

On Dec. 16, 2016, A’maq published a video showing an ATGM strike on a M60T tank “west of the city”. The video can indeed be geolocated to a spot around 400 meters west of the al-Bab hospital. There have been reports that the tank was abandoned as the driver had light injuries (concussion and hearing loss).

In its propaganda efforts, IS has showed this Sabra M60T several times in photo and video reports. In a video release from January 20, 2017, the licence plate can be seen: 264 944, the same as the one one the list.

IS militants can be seen taking out shells and ammunition of the tank in the same 27-minute video. Earlier, drone shots of the tank were published by IS’s Aleppo media wing.

A 120mm ammunition of the Turkish Sabra M60T tank, as shown in an IS propaganda video. The tank was hit by an anti-tank guided missile on December 16, 2016, and has been standing at the same location until at least February 8, 2017.

Some have claimed that the Sabra could not be used for IS propaganda efforts for too long, as it was retaken by Turkish-backed forces in the night of December 17 or 18. This may be true, as there was ongoing fighting and some advances by the groups fighting IS.

Others claimed that the tank was repaired and operational again, as it was seen in a video published by the FSA in January 2017.

However, satellite imagery from February 7 disproves this claim: the Sabra tank is still in the exact same position as on the day it was hit, as of February 7, 2017. Besides, a video published on February 8 showed the Sabra also in the same position.

12. ZMA (172 463)

No information.

13. ZMA (196 094)

Plate: 196 094 [partly correct]
Unit: 1/2/5th Armoured Brigade
Location: Al Bab / hospital area [unknown]
Comments: There is no information about this tank [well, it’s not tank but this may be meaning “it was captured”]

In the Dec. 22 A’maq video which features two Leopards, a ZMA with a broken vehicle plate is also shown. The last three numerals are visible: 094, while it is not 100% sure, it is likely to assume this is the ZMA mentioned in the sheet.

Another ZMA was featured in a video of the Sultan Murad opposition group, with number plate 196 149.

14. GZPT (238 060)

No information could be found about this vehicle. According to the sheet the vehicle is part of the 39th Brigade, which indeed is part of the Second Army as the number plate suggests.

15. Otokar Kobra (259 447)

Plate: 259 447 [correct]
Unit:
Location: Al Bab / hospital area [correct]
Comments: Hit by ATGM [correct]

An Otokar Kobra has been targeted by an ATGM and was published by A’maq in the same video as the Dec. 16 M60T Sabra ATGM strike, at the same location west of the al-Bab hospital. Several individuals jump out of the car several seconds after the ATGM hit the vehicle.

In a January 20 release, IS shows how the Kobra is being towed away and later put on display as ghanima to civilians and fellow fighters. As there are several close ups of the vehicle, the number plate can be clearly read: 259 44[7].

Unlisted but Geolocated Military Vehicles

Media wings of IS have published a large amount of photos and videos purportedly showing targeted, damaged and sometimes abandoned Turkish military vehicles in and around al-Bab. DigitalGlobe satellite imagery of the al-Bab area obtained by Bellingcat shows that on February 7 six tanks were still in the exact same locations where they were seen in the footage published by IS.

1 x Leopard 2A4 tanks, 1 x Kobra/Akrep ZPT

The first location shows two completely destroyed Leopard 2A4 tanks and an older version of a Kobra/Akrep armoured personnel carrier (ZPT, zırhlı personel taşıyıcı), directly west of the al-Aqil hill. One of the Leopards has been identified as the the one lsited with number plate 195 526.

Drone footage of the destroyed equipment is shown in a 27-minute video released by IS on January 20, 2017. The tank hull of the tank in the foreground has been disintegrated, suggesting it was an internal explosion. The Leopard 2A4 has an ammunition rack at the left side of the driver, where the hull is destroyed in this photo. This can be either due to an ATGM or due to a Turkish airstrike on the tank to destroy abandoned equipment.

Two destroyed Leopard 2A4 tanks and a ZPT west of al-Bab, Syria. The tank hull of the tank in the foreground has been disintegrated, suggesting it was an internal explosion. The Leopard 2A4 has an ammunition rack at the left side of the driver, where the hull is destroyed in this photo. This can be either due to an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) or due to a Turkish airstrike on the tank to destroy abandoned equipment. (Photo by IS media wing).

1x Leopard 2A4 tank, 1x ACV-15 IFV

The second location shows one Leopard 2A4 tank, and one ACV-15 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). Both were pictured by an IS drone in December, and are still at the same location as of February 7, the satellite imagery shows. These two vehicles may well have been targeted by Turkish airstrikes to destroy abandoned equipment.

1 x Kobra ZPT

A destroyed Kobra Otokar ZPT, shown in the January 20 IS video, was stripped by IS militants of its ammunition. The Otokar is located next to the iron factory northwest of al-Bab, but appears to have been removed as of February 7, satellite imagery suggests.

2 x Leopard 2A4 tanks

A fourth location, west of al-Bab, shows two damaged Leopard 2A4 tanks. Satellite imagery of February 7 shows that the tanks have since been removed by that location, most likely by TAF and allies.

1 x Leopard 2A4, 1 x ACV-15 IFV, 1 x technical, 1 x bulldozer

Just outside the premises of the al-Bab hospital, where already two leopards and the bulldozer were identified, another Leopard 2A4 tank, as well as a technical and an ACV-15 infantry fighting vehicle can be seen on both IS drone footage and February 7, 2017, satellite imagery.

Just outside the premises of the al-Bab hospital, where already two leopards and the bulldozer were identified, another Leopard 2A4 tank, as well as a technical and an ACV-15 infantry fighting vehicle can be seen on both IS drone footage and February 7, 2017, satellite imagery.

The damage appears to have been caused by a SVBIED.

ATGM strikes locations

Besides the military vehicles that have been under control of IS, there have been plenty of ATGM strike videos. Those targeted tanks can also be found on the satellite imagery, though it is possible to establish whether they were lightly or severely damaged by the strike. An example is an ATGM hit, reportedly on November 16, 2016, northwest of al-Bab.

Conclusion and Discussion

By cross-referencing open source photos and videos with satellite imagery, it possible to conclude that:

  • At least eight Leopard 2A4 tanks, a single Sabra M60T tank, two Otokar Kobra vehicles, and two armed personnel carriers, were damaged or destroyed during the western al-Bab offensive by Euphrates Shield Forces;
  • Ten of these tanks and vehicles have been in the exact same position since they were put on propaganda display by Islamic State.

Six mentioned military vehicles on the allegedly leaked sheet can be confirmed. The other tanks cannot be confirmed, though the high number of Leopard 2A4 tanks is consistent with the geolocated tanks on satellite imagery. However, these tanks and vehicles could not be identified using their number plate. One could argue that anyone with access to the Internet – and thus the above listed sources – could make such a list. This is true for a part of the list, but still raises the question about the other number plates. Either way, it is clear that the Battle for Al-Bab has been a tough one.


The author would like to thank fellow Bellingcat contributor Oryx and Twitter user @QalaatAlMudiq for their additional information.

Update Feb. 12: Title changed from “The Battle for Al-Bab: Verifying Turkish Military Vehicle Losses” to “The Battle for Al-Bab: Verifying Euphrates Shield Vehicle Losses”, thanks to a tweet by Twitter user @yaya__1 who rightly noted that some armoured personnel carriers have been given to Free Syrian Army groups. The word ‘Turkish’ could thus be misleading as if it referred to Turkish Armed Forces only.

Update Feb. 12: A previous version of this article mentioned that over 50 Turkish soldiers have been killed in Syria. As of writing, that number is 60, not 50, and has thus been changed.

Update Feb. 12: A previous version of this article made no distinction between the APC-15 and the APC-19. Thanks to Twitter users @TarMilus and @novumiles, it has been possible to determine the two vehicles are APC-15 vehicles.

Update Feb. 13: A previous version of this article mentioned that IS gained full control of al-Bab by mid-November  2013. That is not correct: IS gained full control of al-Bab after infighting between opposition groups in January and February 2014. Thanks Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi for noting that.

Update Feb. 13The Leopard 2A4 with number plate 195 526 has been identified by Twitter user @obretix in the Jan. 20 IS video, and has been added to the article.

Christiaan Triebert

Christiaan Triebert is an all-source conflict analyst with an interest in conflict and development. He has conducted fieldwork in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, among other countries. King's College London and University of Groningen graduate. Contact via Twitter: @trbrtc

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13 Comments

  1. Mad Dog

    Interesting article, seems there are quite a few ATGM’s in the hands of IS. Were these captured from Iraqi or Syrian forces….i.e. do we have any idea of what type of ATGM they are.

    Reply
  2. julian dark

    Controlling Syria’s 8th biggest and isis’s 2nd largest city with that limited loss is a huge success. Remember al bab population is larger than 110.00 .

    Reply
  3. Daniel Bourne

    Last two years IS has been preparing for this street fight. But Since the operation began, more than 2,750 IS militants have been eliminated by Turkish Forces. At the same time the Free Syrian Army has not been affective or willing to tackle IS. Turkish Special Forces are slowly but surely advancing. I think this is a very big achievement by Turkish Forces with a small number.

    Reply
  4. Selim Atalay

    @mad dog;
    Is has got captured atgm’s from syrian and ıraqi forces.Also they have got atgm’s from another rebel factions and YPG.There is some reports that they have got limited westerner atgm’s. (like milan and tow) but main atgm arsenal is belongs to russia and former soviet republic.Nowadays finding atgm is easy…Fagot and konkurs is most common atgm but also they have got metis and kornet.

    Reply
  5. Feanor

    This is definitely not an impressive accomplishment. That having been said, it’s their unwillingness to commit their own infantry units to the fight is costing them. Their “rebel” allies are less then reliable when it comes to holding ground or properly working with the Turkish armor they’re provided. I strongly suspect that if the line infantry units the fight were also Turkish, the losses would be far smaller.

    Reply
  6. Oguz Sarp

    Great article since we had not seen any statement from the Turkish government about equipment losses during the offensive to Al Bab. We know that the military losses are around 60, and some of them are tank personnel so your numbers are most likely correct. One thing that we know, is that most personnel came out alive from these vehicles after being hit. As you know the Turkish military forces losses are around one to fifty compared to IS. Currently the Turkish government is saying Al Bab operation is about to end, the next will be towards Manbij to enlargen the safe heaven to around 5000 square kilometersnear the Turkish border

    Reply
    • Stan maragos

      Very strong Turkish army ? With tanks artillery air support they can’t take a small city ? What issis has ? Antitank launchers shame on Turkish tank crews ,don’t park them on open ground in ditches as we did when I was in the tank units ,tanks parks are an easy target a blind issis man can blow them away .turkish arm is big but not train properly.

      Reply
      • Tom Kurt

        Come on mister ,,you are non senser or I do believe that your are not a professional soldier .. We all know the brave Turks and their fierce soldiers how good they are since Gallipoli and Arabian Deserts in WWI later -Korea * as we all American baby boomer radio listeners remembered how they great fighters and specially saving the US 8 th army from total destruction in Kunu-ri * , much lately once again in 1974 Cyprus invasion specially first two day and night their Paratrooper Commandos how they fought and break the efforts against the Greek army elite troops and local EOKA guerilla fighters amazingly in almost one to three ratio !! , …. for me the Turk GI still the best in the Nato`s allied contingents

        FYI until now only the Al Bab is great success of the Syrian theatre, **ever confirmed greatest Isil & Daesh loses over 2000 SOB .. Turks they do have balls and knows how to fight and die .. period

        Reply
        • Nick Pantazis

          History, in which you are so keen, indicates that the Turkish soldiers are brave only when they are to confront civilians and especially women and children. When it comes to regular army or the Kurd freedom fighters are… well, they just aren’t soldiers.

          The genocides the Turkish army committed against the Armenians (1,500,000), the Greek (800,000), the Kurds (600,000) and other civilizations, now extincted, are the best example of the “bravery” your soldiers exhibit.

          In the invasion in Cyprus, Turkish Army didn’t confront elite Greek army troops, simply because there weren’t any. Local guerilla EOKA fighters were dismantled after the death of their leader Grivas, well before the invasion. The Greek regiment stationed in Nicosia, was lightly armed with M1 rifles BREN 0.303″ light machineguns, some 60mm mortars and a few very old 57mm recoilless rifles. Greek and Cypriot troops had no Main Battle Tanks, no air support and no artillery (Turkish Army had M47s and M48s MBT, M113 APC, F4 aircraft, Self propelled and towed 155mm howitzers, 81 and 4.2″ mortars and many others).

          Greek reinforcements were not allowed to reach Cyprus being stopped by the British Navy.

          With all this army superiority, the “mighty” Turkish army, managed to get the one third of the island. Bravo! You are indeed the “best” army in the world.

          Reply
          • DPI

            Turkish army has been fighting PKK terrorists (Per US, EU definition designated as a terror organization) since 1984 right? They say there are 20m Kurds living in Turkey. So how come these coward, gutless Turkish GIs did not loose a single inch of Turkish land in 40 years if they are that incompetent and lack military discipline?
            By the way Al Bab has fallen to Turkish hands no? Turkish losses 74- ISIS 2635 (bodies found and posted to hell).
            Any one who has a serious interest about Turkish military’s code and history can read about Kunuri battle during Korean war (1950-51) or 1915 Gallipoli defense, 1920-22 Turkish independence war against British financed Greek invasion of Turkey.
            Final word: Sun Tzu says “Know your enemy” – so provide facts please not Turkish, Kurdish and Greek propaganda!

          • Cemy

            Yes .. Great attitude. Go against thousand year old teachings of Sun Tzu telling you to ‘know’ your adversary and believe in propaganda and rhetoric… if indeed you ‘meet’ the Turks in field of Battle it will be a rude awakening for you in such a case..
            BTW Turks took only 1/3 of Cyprus because their objective was to get dominantly Turkish populated areas… not the whole island..Also remember they managed to evade the US fleet in doing so until the actual landing……

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