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Trying To Explain The ISIS Winning Streak

June 24, 2014
Iraq ISIS fighters

Sneakers, AK’s, and Faith

To actually call the masked gunmen of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) an “army” isn’t very accurate.

But judging by the frenzied coverage of their exploits in Iraq, ISIS are acting like a conquering legion, even when it’s obvious their recent gains owe more to fortuitous circumstances rather than measurable superiority.

Because there is no category where the ISIS is superior. Not in numbers. Not in weapons. Not in training.

So why do they seem to be winning?

Blame the dismal state of the Iraqi Army, a.k.a the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), whose ham-fisted approach to quelling restive provinces like Anbar left a security vacuum that ISIS is now exploiting.

As a matter of fact, Mosul fell into ISIS’ hands two weeks ago because the commanders of the 30,000-strong army and police garrison decided to abandon the city.

The ongoing maelstrom sweeping Iraq is just the latest peak in a crisis dating to the original Arab Spring. Beginning in 2012, there was a popular clamor to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies that morphed into low level terrorism. Now Iraq is in the same situation as  Syria, bitterly divided and riven by various militias.

With ISIS fighters nearing the outskirts of Baghdad, is it possible for the group to topple the government? Not anymore, with US advisers now on the ground and Shia militias, Kurds, and Turkmen rallying, ISIS has a bigger and harder fight ahead of it.

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul

via Reuters

Blessed Machineguns

The reason why ISIS fighters are expanding quickly and move with ease in large areas of Iraq and Syria is their preferred mode of travel: the pickup truck. Numerous amateur videos published online offer helpful glimpses into the paramilitary arsenal ISIS have assembled around their favorite transport.

Technologically, in an age of armed drones and C4ISR, ISIS are deficient. Their reliance on pickup trucks and jeeps mean they are highly mobile, however.

Since ISIS fighters have no shortage of small arms common among rebel groups, it’s their various large caliber weapons that deserve scrutiny.

Based on the aforementioned videos, the most powerful anti-tank and anti-air weapon of ISIS is the antiquated Russian S-60 57mm gun, sold to Iraq during the Saddam era. The 57mm, along with the ZU-23 or the 14.5mm KPV, are ISIS’ favorite anti-aircraft weapons.

When it comes to close quarters urban combat it appears ISIS fighters rely on the ubiquitous 12.7mm DshK.

Even large numbers of captured equipment like the Humvee, much less abandoned tanks, are not in wide use by ISIS. Although anti-tank missiles have reportedly been fired at Iraqi armor, no visual proof exists showing ISIS fighters operating ATGM systems like the Russian Kornet, the AT-3 Sagger, or the equally popular French Milan, and the cumbersome American TOW, which has made its way to Syria.

In a nutshell, the ISIS arsenal consists of lightly armed fighters cruising in trucks.

via Associated Press

via Associated Press

Outnumbered Volunteers

With little to no helpful information about ISIS being shared by relevant intelligence agencies with the media or the public, determining how big a threat they pose is a real challenge.

The only scenario for a clear-cut ISIS triumph is the remote possibility Iraq’s armed forces and civil service collapse.

Based on details reported by journalists and researchers, ISIS is comprised of an estimated 6,000 fighters and many are still in Syria. How these paltry numbers can overcome the entire Iraqi army and sectarian enemies is impossible.

The hard core of ISIS are the non-Iraqi jihadis from Europe, North Africa, and elsewhere who originally traveled to Syria as volunteers.

There are only about several thousand foreign volunteers struggling against the Assad regime, a clear minority in the decentralized resistance movement.

The important lesson here is not a single country in the Middle East is allied with terrorists. Rather, the current generation of so-called jihadis are empowered by the chaos in Syria, where they learn how to fight, and by shadowy sponsors, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who use them as proxies.

Russian S-60 57mm AAA gun

57mm anti-aircraft gun. Soviet made.

Nobody Likes Them

Another factor that diminishes the public’s understanding of ISIS is their connection to Al Qaeda.

The problem is Al Qaeda as a functional organization doesn’t exist.

ISIS’ earliest incarnation (under a different label) as a resistance group fighting the US occupation of Iraq between 2005 and 2009 is the reason why it affiliated with Al Qaeda in name only; its Jordanian leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi briefly corresponded with bin Laden.

Aside from exultant Sunnis in Iraq, ISIS’ most ardent supporters are so scarce it’s difficult to make an educated guess who their financials patrons are. It’s just as hard discerning their motives, given their convoluted history, and since repeated claims of establishing a pan-Arab  caliphate is far-fetched, ISIS risk irrelevance and defeat if they suffer heavy losses.

The best part is, if ISIS isn’t crushed, the grandmasters of the region’s intrigues have only themselves to blame.


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