The West Sold Tanks to the Middle East, And Now It’s Frustrated
Western capitals are signaling their displeasure with Turkey and Iraq
Ten years ago, the United States approved an arms deal supplying 140 M-1A1 main battle tanks to Iraq. Turkey, another Middle East user of Western armor, relies heavily on German-made Leopard tanks.
But in recent weeks, both the United States and Germany have expressed growing wariness over how Iraq and Turkey are actually using those tanks in combat.
Both instances — unrelated to each other — have resulted in a reexamination in Western capitals about the wisdom of supporting these tank fleets.
Above — an Iraqi Abrams tank in action near Al Tarab, Iraq in March 2017. U.S. Army photo. At top — Iraqi Abrams tanks south of Mosul in February 2017. U.S. Marine Corps photo
At least nine of the Iraqi army’s 9th Armored Division’s 140 M-1 Abrams tanks have ended up in the hands of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of Shiite-majority paramilitary groups sanctioned by the Iraqi government.
While the PMF seized many of these tanks after they were initially captured by Islamic State, some PMF paramilitary groups are under the list of U.S.-designated terrorist organizations including the Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah, both of which receive support from Iran.
Several PMF groups also operate U.S.-made Humvees formerly in the Iraqi arsenal.
During fighting in October 2017 between Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Shiite paramilitaries along the provincial borders of Kirkuk and Erbil, the Peshmerga knocked a paramilitary M-1 tank out of action. The Kurdish fighters filmed its burnt wreckage to prove the PMF had used it against them.
Iraq’s Abrams tanks exist in a diplomatic gray zone. By contrast, one condition for the U.S. sale of F-16 fighter jets to Iraq is that they will not be used in combat missions in Iraqi cities and “without the participation of Kurdish pilots,” Kurdish MP Shakho Abdullah, a representative in Iraq’s parliament, told Rudaw, a news agency closely linked to Iraqi-Kurdistan’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party.
This condition was clearly a warning to Baghdad to not use these warplanes to suppress Sunni Arab protests or to attack the autonomous Kurdistan region — which former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki hinted he might do back in 2012. No such condition explicitly exists for the Abrams fleet.
Nevertheless, continued PMF possession of these tanks could seriously harm military relations between the Iraqi and American governments. Abrams manufacturer General Dynamics reportedly warned that it would make “a final withdrawal” from a maintenance program for the tanks in Iraq if Iran manages to acquire and reproduce any of them.
Similar concerns regarding the transfer of U.S.-made weapons to non-state actors emerged in 2016 when the Shiite Hezbollah militia paraded U.S.-made M-113 armored personnel carriers in the Syrian town of Qusair – the first town the group captured from the Syrian opposition shortly after intervening in the conflict back in 2013. This raised concerns that the Lebanese army was acting in connivance with the militia, and that U.S. support to Lebanon amounted to indirectly arming Hezbollah itself.
However, closer inspection determined that the M-113s are older models than the variants currently in Lebanese army service, and were most likely taken by Hezbollah from the South Lebanese Army, a proxy force armed by Israel during its 18-year military presence in South Lebanon. When the Israelis withdrew in May 2000, Hezbollah captured much of the SLA’s equipment as the group collapsed like a house of cards.
Washington has recently reaffirmed its support of the Lebanese army, clearly not persuaded by the Israeli government’s position that there is no fundamental difference between the army and Hezbollah. It remains to be seen whether Baghdad can successfully recover and verify all of its tanks, and place them back under the sole control of the regular army.
A disabled Turkish Leopard tank knocked out during clashes with Islamic State fighters. Screen capture via YouTube
Germany provided Turkey with a fleet of 354 Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks on the condition Turkey would not sell or transfer them. It is rumored that another unspoken agreement to the sale forbid use of these tanks inside Turkey’s frontiers to suppress the militant Kurdistan Workers Party.
Turkey has, apparently, obeyed the instructions. Turkey deployed its Leopards to its northern border and only its much older, and larger, fleet of American-made M-60 Pattons operated in the Kurdish southeast.
Even during the Euphrates Shield operation between August 2016 and March 2017 against Islamic State and Syrian-Kurdish fighters, Turkey relied heavily on its more fragile M-60 fleet, which proved extremely vulnerable to modern anti-tank missiles.
While Israel refurbished and upgraded some of Turkey’s M-60 fleet — the Sabra variant — most of the M-60s are old and outdated, necessitating the need for more modern armor. Incidentally, Israel’s own M-60s suffered heavy losses in the 1973 Yom Kippur to the newer Soviet anti-tank missiles of the day, proving far more vulnerable to such weapons than Israel’s British-made Centurion tanks.
Even when Turkey sent its Leopards onto the Syrian battlefield, particularly around the city of Al Bab later in Euphrates Shield, those tanks proved more vulnerable to modern anti-tank missiles than hitherto expected — at least partially due to Turkey’s own failure to sufficiently protect them with infantry.
Turkey has since sought upgrades to these tanks to make them less vulnerable to improvised explosive devices and other weapons. Germany, interested in a thaw with Turkey after years of deteriorating relations, was reportedly close to making a deal to provide such upgrades before Jan. 20, 2018, when Turkey launched its ongoing Olive Branch operation against Kurdish forces in the northwestern Syrian enclave of Afrin.
Berlin subsequently halted that deal.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim ridiculed the notion that Turkey should not use the tanks against its Syrian Kurdish adversaries.
“It is natural for us to use them,” he declared. “If we are not going to use these arms when there are constant attacks on our soil, when are we going to use them?”
Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has since spoken of a Turkish project to build unmanned tanks to bolster the armored forces.
It’s presently unclear if the respective American and German concerns will culminate in a halt to further arms sales and maintenance programs, leaving Iraq and Turkey searching for alternatives.
However, both countries are positioning to diversify their armored forces. Iraq ordered 73 T-90 main battle tanks from Russia last year and has taken delivery of the first batch of 36 in February 2018. It reportedly has plans to extensively upgrade its older fleet of T-55s.
Baghdad also has a T-72 fleet of comparable size to its Abrams one. The Iraqi army is more familiar with Russian hardware, given the country’s long history of using Soviet-made tanks and weapons. While it would prove wasteful to have Iraq’s Abrams fleet slowly degrade into unusability for lack of spare parts over the paramilitary issue, Iraq could nevertheless make do without the United States, if it chooses to, for its tanks.
Turkey’s Leopard fleet undoubtedly constitutes the most modern component of its armored forces at present, and will continue to do so until Turkey introduces its own domestically-built Altay main battle tanks, or purchases more modern tanks elsewhere.
Ankara is, under license, basing some of the Altay’s subsystems including its main gun on the South Korean K-2 Black Panther — which South Korea introduced to replace its own aged fleet of M-48 Pattons. Turkey plans to build 1,000 Altays in four batches of 250 for export and its own use.
Even though Turkey has already produced prototypes, it will likely take several years before they enter service. Nevertheless, the Altays will decrease Turkey’s reliance on Germany, or any other country, for both the supply and upkeep of its armored forces.