A New Varangian Guard?

Brad Patty

6 months ago

March 14, 2019

Qatar has reportedly ordered 100 Turkish-made main battle tanks.  This follows earlier Qatari purchases of armor from Germany. The German tanks were of a model optimized for urban warfare, which makes sense given Qatar’s exposure to a serious peril of domestic insurgency. SSG analyzed this earlier situation as follows:

Qatar faces an ongoing and immediate threat of destruction by revolution [by] its population of foreign workers.  Qatari citizens make up only 12% of the actual population of Qatar. 88% of the populace are imported labor, and Qatar treats them horribly. It is a case that the UK Independent rightly describes as “modern slavery,” and there are far more slaves being abused than there are citizens abusing them.

For every Qatari citizen — male, female, adult, child, elderly — there are seven working age foreigners walking around who have legitimate reasons to hate them…. [this] explains Qatar’s sudden decision to purchase many new tanks and mobile artillery, allegedly to prepare itself against soccer riots in the 2022 World Cup. You don’t need tanks to stop a soccer riot. However, the Leopard tank variation they are purchasing is optimized for urban warfare; and the mobile artillery can be used to fire canister, while providing the gunners with cover from improvised weapons like Molotov Cocktails, or rifles seized from the police.

This new purchase appears to share that purpose. To understand what is going on, one must realize that the armor requires practice to be effective.  A tank requires a crew. More than that, the crew needs to train for the mission it is going to be employed to perform. If you are going to field tanks as mobile weapons platforms in urban warfare, the tank crew needs to train only with the infantry units that are going to serve as its screen.  This is something Qatar’s military can do in tiny Qatar.

To train for traditional tank warfare, in which units of tanks operate together as heavy cavalry, you need a lot more space than Qatar has to offer.  For example, the United States’ Fort Benning recently announced that it needed more space to effectively train American tank crews. This kind of training requires a lot of dedicated space for practicing maneuvers, so that the tank crews can learn to work together as a unit.

Qatar could in principle devote some of its desert to such facilities, but to date it has mostly staffed its armor units with Pakistanis led by Qatari officers.  Qatar has not until now really fielded a sizable armor force anyway:  only a single battalion.  These new purchases, if fully staffed, could raise that to a regiment.  They are going to need a lot of trained personnel that they do not currently have, however.  They also do not have the facilities to produce such trained troops internally.

That suggests increased hires of foreign mercenaries, ideally veterans of other nations’ armor forces. Given the heavy purchase of Turkish tanks, veterans of Turkey’s armed forces would make the most sense.  Active Turkish military units have been sought by the Qataris to protect the regime in its ongoing conflict with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), so the Qataris are already comfortable having Turkish forces on their territory. The developing axis between Turkey, Iran, and Qatar reinforces the logic of seeking a Turkish armor component.

There are also substantial historical precedents for seeking a foreign mercenary component to serve as the elite guard for a regime. In a nation like the United States, it would seem very strange to use foreigners for this purpose. A President who surrounded himself with, say, Russian guards instead of United States Marines or Secret Service personnel would be deeply distrusted. In embattled monarchies, however, it has often been thought desirable by the regime’s leaders. One’s countrymen may turn out to be aligned with other factions within one’s own country that might seek to overthrow and replace you. Foreign mercenaries come from outside the networks of tribal ties that could be used by other claimants to your country’s throne.

For that reason, the French monarch in 1418 stood up a unit of Scottish mercenaries to be his personal bodyguard. This unit, the Garde Écossaise, or Garde du Corps du Roi, were among those who fought against the English for the Dauphin in the time of Joan of Arc. Likewise, both the French kings and the Papacy developed units of Swiss Guards to serve an elite palace guard or bodyguard role. The Swiss and the Scots alike were from remote regions, isolated by harsh terrain. This meant they could be trusted as mercenaries, as the only interest they would have at court was with the hand that paid them.

In addition to the bodyguard role, however, the history of the region suggests that there may also be a power projection role for this force. Before Turkey was Turkey, when Istanbul was Constantinople, the lords of the Byzantine Empire hired Northmen — Russians and Scandinavians — to serve in a similar bodyguard role. This unit, the Varangian Guard, went beyond bodyguard service to serve as an expeditionary force across the region. They fought in conflicts of interest to the Byzantine Emperors including the conquest of Sicily. (Their commander at that time, Harald Hardrada, went on to become king of Norway and almost king of England, which is a story in itself.)

Qatar has recently shown signs of interest in using armor to influence outcomes in foreign conflicts. It donated 24 armored personnel carriers to the embattled government in Mali, for example. If it  had a sizable force it could deploy as reinforcements to favored combatants in regional civil wars, Qatar could potentially become an important kingmaker in the region. Just as it has used Al Jazeera to influence outcomes with a relatively light touch, the deployment of a single regiment of armor to tip the scales in some of these conflicts could allow Qatar to punch above its weight.

What this force does not do is give Qatar the ability to pose a significant threat to Saudi Arabia. The Armed Forces of Saudi Arabia includes three armored brigades.  The Qataris apparently intend to increase their armor from a battalion to a regiment.  A brigade is to a regiment as a regiment is to a battalion, or about three times as strong on average; and the Saudis have three of these brigades, or roughly nine times the strength in armor that Qatar aspires to have. Even if they were Americans, those would be significant odds.

Nevertheless this move could, if fully realized, give Qatar another significant advantage. As with its investment in influence operations, it is a wise investment that could be used to obtain disproportionate advantages at a relatively low cost.  For that reason, it bears watching.

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade's involvements in America's wars. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia, as well as a Master's in history from Armstrong in Savannah.