KFAR NBOUDA, Syria -- Ankir Ankir normally drives a wheat harvester, but a battle in December found him piloting a tank, a skill he had learned 17 years ago as an 18-year-old conscript in the Syrian army.
"If the government knew we would use these against them one day, they never would have trained us," said Ankir, who used a Russian-made T-72 tank captured from government forces to help drive Syrian soldiers from this north-central Syrian town of 25,000.
"We used the tank to destroy another tank, a truck with an anti-aircraft gun and to attack a building the army was using," Ankir said.
The rebel use of captured tanks and armored personnel carriers was first noticed last summer, though the engagements then were often short. One battle that this reporter witnessed in June outside the city of Talbiseh south of Kfar Nbouda ended quickly when government helicopters destroyed two armored personnel carriers the rebels had captured and turned on government soldiers.
Since then, however, rebels have captured dozens, if not hundreds, of tanks and armored vehicles and have become adept at using them to attack Syrian government positions. The prevalence of rebel armor -- in rebel-held areas it's now common to see tanks and other armored vehicles parked in alleyways and orchards or covered with foliage to camouflage them from airstrikes -- belies the common image of the rebels as vastly outgunned by a superior government force.
Just as the rebels have shown themselves able to use what military tacticians call indirect fire -- artillery and mortar barrages -- to soften up government bases for days or weeks before an assault, they've also learned how to deploy tanks and other armored vehicles in their battle against troops loyal to the government of President Bashar Assad.
"They are getting better at basic infantry tactics," said Jeff White, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "I've seen videos of tank training, maintenance and tank-to-tank engagements, including one where rebels took out a government tank from about 1,000 meters" -- about six-tenths of a mile.
Ankir said he performs routine maintenance on his tank, just as he does on the combines used at harvest time. On Wednesday, he checked the oil and adjusted tank treads with a hammer, and said he expected to drive the tank again when rebels executed an attack they have been planning on a nearby military position.
Jamal Marouf, the leader of the Syrian Martyr's Brigade, an independent rebel group that has several battalions of fighters spanning provinces in northern and central Syria, said that they were employing captured tanks in multiple ongoing engagements as they focus on taking over parts of the country's main north-south highway.
Tanks have been seen in assaults on bases in Deir el Zour province in the country's east and at Ras al-Ayn in Hasaka province, on the border with Turkey. In those two cases, the tanks were under the control of the Nusra Front, a key rebel unit that the United States accuses of being affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq.