Written by Dmitri Semyonov; Originally appeared at Red Star, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
The equipment that Russian specialists refurbished during the fighting in Syria would be enough for a whole division
The chief of the armoured service, Captain Ilnar Safiullin, of the Guards Regiment of the Kantemirov Tank Division was among the specialists. He was sent to the Syrian Arab Republic twice. The first time Ilnar flew there at the end of December 2015. He had to celebrate the New Year holidays far from home as well as the Defender of the Fatherland Day and even March 8 [translator’s note: International Women’s Day] he had to congratulate his wife and daughter remotely. A year later, he was on the military air transport again landing on the familiar tarmac of the Khmeimim air base. And again, the “visit” was not short: the tasks that had to be solved were enough for several months…
Guys Tough as Nails
At the end of 2015 the Russian Aerospace Forces continued to strike terrorist targets. The intensity of the combat work was at a peak: for the designated targets, the front-line and long-range aircraft worked with the intensity of an air carousel, cruise missiles launches were carried out from surface and submarine ships of the Navy.
Thanks to such strong support, the Syrian Army gained a significant advantage in the forces, and was able to launch an offensive even in the areas that were previously under the absolute control of the militants. Of course the territory literally was won step by step. And finally the government troops had hope that the situation will turn in their favour.
It is clear that all this was done with great difficulty, with heavy losses. They did not lose only people. In these fierce fights, the first casualty is inevitably the equipment. Russian experts were tasked to assist the Syrian army in the restoration of combat vehicles. Among the techies sent to the war was Captain Safiullin. He and a group of other advisors were sent to help the units of the 4th Assault Corps, which at that time operated in the north-east of the country.
Today, many of the events that were experienced while the country was engulfed in the war, are perceived differently. As they say, time heals all wounds, events and feelings are erased from memory and the sharpness of the experience gradually goes away. There, of course, everything appeared more dramatic.
… Ilnar and his comrades realised as soon as they received weapons and ammunition, uniforms corresponding to the nature of the region and the area, that it was not going to be a walk in the park. The volume of work did not leave any time for procrastination: the cars were badly battered through fighting and the difficult Syrian roads.
In the 4th Assault Corps, Captain Safiullin was the only officer of the technical service. There was no one familiar with our formations and military units of technical commanders, no supervisor of the armoured vehicle and car services. Therefore, the first thing that had to be taken care of was updating the inventory: what equipment is available, how many cars are on the road, how much needs to be repaired and what kind. The work was complicated by the fact that the documents were in Arabic; they had to be translated and duplicated. Admittedly, the officers of the Syrian Army that have passed training in their time in the Soviet military colleges and mastered relatively well the Russian language willingly performed the translations.
When the inventory was done, the repair work was taken up. Here, new problems were revealed: the shortage of specialists and the scarcity of production facilities. The plant in Homs, where the machines with the most pressing “sores” were transported, barely coped with the repairs. There was only one option, to roll up your sleeves and take up wrenches, screwdrivers and other tools, to organise the temporary workshops on site.
More than a hundred units of equipment, that is T-55, T-62, T-72 tanks, BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles, were restored by Captain Safiullin’s team during the time he was attached to the 4th corps. They got by as best they could. For example, if there were not enough spare parts, and this happened often, they were removed from machines already written off as scrap. In general, they did everything possible to make ready all the equipment scheduled to go into battle by the appointed time. In this, our experts have never failed the Syrian military.
What was the most memorable for Ilnar on his missions? According to him, it was the determination of the soldiers and officers of the Syrian Army, their mindset to win. Also, the friendly, kind attitude towards the Russians. Indeed, this was also evident not only from people in uniform. People of all ages, social groups, residents of different provinces sincerely welcomed our compatriots.
“When we carried out our tasks in the 4th corps, we were housed in an unfinished kindergarten building”, recalls Safuillin; “there was an operating school beside it. So, students, going to classes, welcomed us, smiled, waved their hands. Later, they learned Russian words, greeted and said goodbye in Russian…”
By the way, the presence of the school did not bother the ISIS terrorists when they struck in the area with volleys of rocket fire. The school, fortunately, did not get hit, but one shell flew in into a nearby store. Innocent civilians, including a child, were killed.
The Syrian military answered this raid quickly, finding and destroying the firing position of the militants. However, as Ilnar recalls, periodically spending the night in the shelter for our specialists in the area was usual.
Car Service at the Front
Ilnar’s second tour to Syria began unexpectedly: the officer assigned to the mission suddenly fell ill. Safiullin was asked whether he was ready to perform this task. He did not hesitate for a second, what objections can there be! Do not give up the service, do not refuse the service, this old army principle is applicable and required at all times.
In Khmeimim, Captain Safiullin took over the position of Deputy Commander of the maintenance company. A few days later, a group of repairmen under his command were transferred to the town of Tifor, which is near Palmyra. The tasks were the same as in the first mission, to assist the Syrian troops in the restoration of the affected equipment in battle, bringing it into a combat ready state, organise quality service.
Ilnar’s group turned out to be true saviours for the Syrian military. Especially since they brought a regular workshop for maintenance and repair of weapons and military equipment. It can be said that it was car service on wheels. The workshop included all the necessary tools, welding machine, truck-mounted crane …
In addition, an armoured hauler was prudently included in the unit, indispensable in the case of evacuation of tracked vehicles, as well as armoured personnel carriers with a hoist. The repairmen did as best they could. The shelter was an aircraft hangar on the territory of the former military airfield.
Faulty equipment was, as we say, a truckload. Starting from automobiles (cars and trucks) and ending with tanks. Where work could be done on the spot, they did it with their own strength, where it required very serious repairs, it was sent to the service and repair centre in Khmeimim. So how they were sent, they got there by themselves. Machines that needed repairs were dragged under their own power: secured on a hitch and transported to the base. The road was long, 350 kilometres, the trip took all day, and stops were arranged only on rare halts. The fact that it was not a tourist road, but the movement of a military column, reminded the indispensable combat protection, as well as the mandatory wearing of body armour. The machine gun, next on the seat.
Ilnar made at least ten such trips during the performance of his duties in the area. If we count the distance back and forth, it turns out that the captain covered seven thousand kilometres on the Syrian roads. And it is only for the evacuation of the equipment, and how many trips for other tasks were there. Sometimes, it was necessary to work in close proximity to a front line, to restore equipment which had to go into the fight right on the spot.
Basically these were technical malfunctions. But it happened that the machines had to be repaired after the detonation of mines. The main types of work were assigned to our specialists according to their capabilities. Even the engines, if necessary, could be changed, because the workshop allowed the possibility of such operations in the field because of the truck-mounted crane. And they transformed an ordinary UAZ into a mobile firing device. This is done when the awning is removed from a conventional machine and a large-calibre machine gun is installed on the mount. In a real fight this cart came out as quite a serious instrument of fire support.
In total, Captain Safiullin’s team returned 176 pieces of equipment to the ranks, and they were on their own, not counting the machines that were sent to the stationary refurbishment. In fact, they really launched a kind of car service on the front line. The Syrians, of course, provided all possible assistance: the same repair plant in Homs allocated its staff to strengthen our team. But the capacities of our colleagues were limited.
Russian technicians patiently shared their experience with the Syrians and suggested technical solutions in difficult situations. And there were plenty of those: the equipment broke down not only in combat but also in daily use.
Rapid Response Team
A curious sample fell into the hands of our experts, a repair machine, which was in the ranks of the militants. The truck Praga V3S, released back in socialist Czechoslovakia in 1965. It served a gang that operated near the city of Tal al-Shih. Now this machine is at the trophy weapons exhibit in the Moscow “Patriot” Park.
But this is exotic. Basically one had to work with the machinery, having passed brutal battle trials: traces of splinters, holes from shells …
A frequent type of repair was the replacement of tracks and rollers damaged by mine explosions. Some cars had to be pulled directly from minefields. That is what happened with one of the BMP victims. To get closer to it, the area had to be cleared of explosive surprises. Syrian sappers carefully examined the perimeter of the place where the car was, and cleared it. The BMP was pulled out with the help of a tractor; the tracks were replaced, taken from another machine that was beyond repair.
There, near Palmyra, Ilnar had to pull out a tank from the battlefield, in which there was a wounded driver, a soldier of the Syrian Army. At first, such a task was not expected: the repair team arrived in the area where the Syrian unit operated, for their usual work, the restoration of equipment. And suddenly – newsflash! Just where the troops passed, wrecked combat vehicles were left. The command with hope appealed to the Russians: help. Of course, we will help, what conversation!
On the spot, it turned out that the task was not so simple: the field was packed with mines, and the driver of one of the tanks could not get out of the hatch. There was no time left, and after the sappers checked the site, the tractor took the tank that blew up on a mine on a hitch. In a safe place the injured driver was evacuated from the car and transferred into the hands of physicians.
Yes, in a combat situation, our soldiers often acted, as they say, hand in hand with the Syrians. This battle test was the best test for this military brotherhood. That is why the attitude to our military was the most welcoming, friendly.
In some situations, the appearance of the Russians became almost a holiday for the Syrians. And this happened often. Not being able to repair or evacuate the hit equipment, they were often forced to leave it right on the battlefield. They set security and waited for help. And when our experts arrived, they were met with delight, because they not only quickly and efficiently solved the problem, but also brought rations and water.
“Everywhere it was clear that the Syrians were very grateful to our country for help, for what we came to their rescue at a difficult time” as Captain Safiullin shared his observations and feelings. “They live kind of poor, but people are hospitable, always inviting to their homes, where at least they will drinking green tea. In any shop the Russian military would be immediately asked “What would you like, dear guest?” In general, the region is fertile, the land is very fertile; the harvest is gathered two or three times a year. Orange groves stand right along the road. We were surprised at first.”
Service Experience into the Bank
Our officers in Syria did not fold, were not lost in the most difficult situations. And the narrative is not only about their behaviour in combat. For example, once Captain Safiullin had to organise a real rescue operation at the place where they loaded equipment. It so happened that it was necessary to save the Syrian driver of the infantry-fighting vehicle that got into trouble.
Upon the arrival at the trawl the machine suddenly fell from the ramp and turned over onto the tower. The mechanic who was behind the steering wheel of the BMP, didn’t manage to jump out of the hatch and when the car made a somersault, he was clamped between the armour and the asphalt.
“Well, it was good that he was not crushed with all the weight of the BMP, a tiny free space was still left. But then as luck would have it, a downpour started, and around the machine a puddle began to form. The driver could easily have drowned.”
So the situation proceeded this way. Captain Safiullin assessed the situation sensibly: the tow will not help here, and there is no powerful crane. They would have to act with the means at hand. They stopped a passing car on the road, asked the driver for a jack. He not only did not refuse, but also volunteered to help. Under the leadership of the Russian officer, with this not-the-most-adapted-for-servicing-a-multi-ton-combat-vehicle device, began to slowly, centimetre by centimetre, lift the BMP by laying stones under the body during the process. When the driver was finally able to get out of the hatch, his joy, as well as all the participants of the operation, knew no limits.
By the way, when Captain Safiullin, three weeks later, encountered the driver at the location of the unit, the latter rushed to his saviour with hugs, “Thank you, friend!”
… Listening to the deliberate narrative of the interlocutor, I thought, “From where this basically young man has such thoroughness, confidence and even solidity in his actions?” It turns out that it was quite simple. Ilnar comes from a small village in the Kurgan region, from a peasant family. From a young age, he learned hard work on the ground, mastered the basics of working on agricultural machinery. When the time came to decide the course of life after school, he chose a military university.
The senior Safiullin, father and brothers without exception, went through army or naval service. Ilnar entered the Chelyabinsk Tank Institute, and after graduation in 2005 (already in the status of higher military command school) was sent to the Kantemirov Tank Division, where he serves to this day. Starting, as expected, as platoon leader, he reached the rank of Chief of the Armoured Service Regiment. He hopes to serve further, to get an academic education.
Well, let’s wish our hero success and hope that the combat experience gained on Syrian soil will be of good help for Captain Safiullin in the service.