On Wednesday, Dec. 2, Russia started transferring dozens of advanced T-90 tanks to Syria, debkafile’s military and intelligence sources report. They were moved immediately to two Syrian army fronts fighting rebel forces at the two most important cities, Aleppo and Damascus, and are expected to be sent to beef up the combined Syria, Iranian, Hizballah army poised to recover Palmyra from the Islamic State.
The shipment to the capital was delivered into the hands of the 4th armored division, Syria’s republican guard commanded by Gen. Ali Maher Assad, the younger brother of President Bashar Assad.
The attack on Palmyra in country infested by ISIS forces was scheduled to have begun two weeks ago but was delayed for the arrival of the heavy Russian tanks, among other reasons.
The T-90 weighs 46.5 tons and has a range of 375 kilometers, with an average speed of 45 km per hour under battle conditions or 65 km per hour on roads. It has three layers of defensive systems: composite armor plates on the turret; Kontact-5 third-generation explosive reactive armor on its front, sides, and turret that reduces penetration by kinetic energy bombs; and the “Shtora,” or curtain, an electro-optical active protection system that enables the tank to jam the systems of antitank missiles.
The T-90 also has 12 smoke mortars, a 125 mm cannon and AT-11 Sniper guided antitank missiles. The tank has proven itself in battle in recent years in Russia’s wars in Georgia and Chechnya against forces not unlike the Syrian rebels.
Until last week, Russia kept only a few T-90 tanks in Syria, mainly to protect its military bases around Latakia.
The new shipment, say Western military sources which are monitoring Russian movements, will eventually replace a large part of the Syrian army’s fleet of around 500 operational tanks, mostly T-72s – at least half of which are positioned to defend the capital.
But the pace of delivery will be dictated above all by the time needed for Russian instructors to retrain Syrian tank crews from scratch in the use of T-90s in battle conditions.
It should be noted meanwhile that, while the Syrian rebels have antitank missiles able to take out the T-72, they do not have advanced missiles capable of stopping the much heavier, reactively armed T-90. But the Islamic State does, having captured US-made antitank missiles from the Iraqi armored divisions put to flight in June 2014. Some of those advanced missiles may be presumed to have been passed to ISIS forces in Syria.
For now, the Russian general staff shows no sign of preparing for a wide-scale operation against ISIS in Syria, so the newly-delivered T-90s are not immediately threatened from that quarter.
As far as Israel is concerned, the main worry is that Russian instructors will also be assigned to train Iranian and Hizballah tank crews in the use of the advanced T-90. Once they get hold of these tanks, they will be able to attain their objective of beefing up the Iranian-Hizballah front against Israeli defenses from southern Syria and the Syrian Golan.
Israeli finds cause for concern in the constant expansion of the Russian military presence and involvement in Syria. Preparations for a very long stay are signified by new developments every few days. A permanent Russian military presence in Syria would give Iran and Hizballah cover for a standing military buildup in Syria. This would confront Israel’s vital strategic interests with a major challenge.