Russia’s military showed off what it claims is a captured ISIS “tank factory,” taking international media — including a crew from CBC News — deep into Syria’s desert to the town of Okeirbat.
The community, in Syria’s Hama province, used to be home to 10,000 people. It is now deserted, with most of its buildings demolished by the aerial bombardment that preceded its re-capture by Syrian government forces on Sept. 2.
“We are standing at the site of an ISIS tank factory,” said Gen. Alexander Lapin, the head of Russian forces in Syria, during a briefing with reporters.
“All the conditions are set to complete this stage of the annihilation of ISIS on the eastern and western regional fronts of Syria,” said Lapin, emphasizing how important he thinks the find is.
The warehouse structure visited by reporters contained between six and 12 tanks, most of them badly damaged.
The tanks, Lapin said, were either stolen or captured from the Syrian government by ISIS forces and appeared to be old Russian or Soviet-made armoured vehicles.
They showed signs of heavy improvisation and modification, including extra armour and sandbags packed around the outside. There was also a separate area of the facility to repair tank tracks.
Several of the vehicles had their turrets removed.
The so-called “suicide tanks” could be packed with explosives and detonated by the driver when close to their intended target.
The blast radius would be between two and three hundred metres, enough to cause considerable damage, said Lapin.
Its unclear how often “suicide tanks” were used in battle. However, a different group of foreign media visiting the recently liberated city of Deir ez Zor claimed they were told such tanks had been used by ISIS as part of the campaign for that city.
Lapin said Syrian forces also discovered hundreds of metres of underground tunnels in Okeirbat, connecting strategically sensitive areas, but he said they were too dangerous to visit because most were still heavily mined.
Fighting ‘day and night’
Russia, which is heavily supporting the government forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad through airstrikes and advisers on the ground, claims up to 35 ISIS militants worked at the Okeirbat facility.
In total, up to 1,200 ISIS fighters may have been based in the community. Russia claims it has destroyed 49 ISIS tanks and 157 armed pickup trucks.
Russian officials say capturing Okeirbat was key because it opened the path to relieving the ISIS siege of the eastern city of Deir ez Zor.
“Destroying the enemy went on day and night without interruption,” Lapin said, adding the militants had to practically be driven out of every house.
At least one other ISIS “tank factory” was discovered — in Iraq — but Russia clearly felt the one in Okeirbat was something worth showing off.
They flew foreign media to a site outside Aleppo and then drove for five hours through the desert in a heavily guarded armoured convoy to reach the location.
Though Okeirbat is empty of residents and in Syrian government hands, the battle clearly was still being waged nearby.
Thuds of incoming mortar fire shook the ground as journalists were hurriedly taken around the town.
Russian officials also showed off what they claim was a courthouse in Okeirbatwhere ISIS enforced strict sharia law.
CBC News saw a room full of burned documents which the Russians say ISIS tried to destroy as they left.
They also said executions were held on the site although it was unclear how many.
Russia’s military invited selected foreign media to see their operations in Syria and for the past week, have led them on a gruelling tour of the country, which also included a trip in the Mediterranean Sea to witness the launch of cruise missiles from a Russian submarine.
The tour is meant to highlight both the military and humanitarian aspects of Russia’s involvement in Syria — and to contrast it with what Russia says is the West’s indifference.
Human rights groups maintain Russia’s bombing campaign against ISIS has also killed many civilians — a suggestion that has been either dismissed or simply not addressed by Russian officials on the media tour.