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Striking from the desert: Arms expert on how the Islamic State, in retreat, fuels its war effort

The Islamic State is now scattered across the deserts of […]

12 August 2018

The Islamic State is now scattered across the deserts of Syria and Iraq. Driven back on all fronts, almost all of the territories the hardline group controlled at its height in 2014—along with vast stockpiles of weapons—have been lost.

But the Islamic State (IS) has not surrendered or disbanded—far from it. In recent weeks, a series of deadly attacks stemming from the desert Badia region of Syria has left hundreds of civilians dead and dozens of others kidnapped.

The Syrian army has responded by launching a major aerial and ground assault against IS positions in the Badia. The battle against IS fighters there is ongoing.

So how can these IS fighters in the Syrian desert—now cut off from the rest of what was once their self-proclaimed caliphate—continue their attacks without outside support, contiguous territory or supply lines?

Although IS has lost the ability to resupply and store armaments in the way it could previously, the group has adapted to realities on the ground, says Nic Jenzen-Jones, a weapons expert and director of Armament Research Services (ARES).

“We are seeing more hit-and-run attacks, assassinations, small unit operations and limited, targeted attacks,” Jenzen-Jones tells Syria Direct’s Justin Clark.

Largely beaten on all fronts and routed from the urban centers it once controlled, the heavier armaments—tanks, armored vehicles, artillery—were largely either abandoned or destroyed by airstrikes. 

Now, the group is forced to fight with what is available, including small arms, improvised explosives and light weapons, he adds.

“There has been an operational shift,” says Jenzen-Jones. “When you’re picking and choosing what you can move and fight with, certain weapons systems are just not conducive to guerrilla warfare.”

Q: The Islamic State is now a shadow of the organization that, in 2014, controlled vast swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq. It has retreated back into the desert, using guerrilla-style tactics and launching hit-and-run attacks and assassinations in government-held, as well as Kurdish-administered, areas.

Initially, IS built its large stockpiles of weapons, munitions and armored vehicles from whatever it could steal—either from US-backed forces in Iraq, or the Assad government and rebels in Syria. But, obviously, it didn’t take this entire stockpile into the desert. So what happened to all of the weapons it used to possess?

We should start by giving a bit of background. The Islamic State drew its weapons from a range of sources. A great many of their initial supplies came from existing illicit stockpiles within Iraq and Syria, then, later, from government forces and government stockpiles, and finally from other non-state actors they had defeated in early battles.

As a result, the range of weapons available to the Islamic State has been fairly diverse. Everything from small arms and light weapons of varying quality, MANPADS and other anti-aircraft weapons, anti-tank weapons including guided missiles, medium-caliber weapons, large-caliber weapons, armored vehicles and so on. The Islamic State has supplemented these illicitly acquired supplies with a range of different weapons and ammunition of their own devising.

A lot of the larger equipment has…been lost, or [has] lost its utility in recent months—in many cases necessitated by the Islamic State’s battlefield losses. Some of this equipment, including weapons, has been abandoned. When you’re picking and choosing what you can move and fight with, certain weapons systems are just not conducive to guerrilla warfare.

IS operations are now markedly different [from] the complex operations they were able to conduct at the zenith of their power. Such operations were supported by a logistics base that was highly complex for a non-state actor. There has been an operational shift that has necessitated a corresponding shift in the arms and munitions that they are employing.

In terms of the ultimate fate of some of those weapons which have been abandoned or lost, many of the larger ones have been destroyed, either by [International Coalition] airstrikes or subsequent to their capture by ground forces. A substantial number of weapons that have been captured have been repurposed, either by Iraqi government forces or by their allied militias and Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs).

[Ed.: PMUs are Iraqi militias—comprised largely of Shia Muslims—that fight alongside Iraqi armed forces in the majority of battles against IS.]

Other actors have also seized weapons formerly held by IS and incorporated them into their own formations.

Q: The Islamic State has gone back into the desert—in a way, it’s gone full circle, returning to its insurgent, guerrilla roots. They’re not really maintaining territory or controlling highways in the eastern Syrian desert, as they once did.

So how are IS fighters in these areas, such as the Syrian Badia and Iraqi desert, able to resupply? How do they get the ammunition and munitions they require to carry out operations?

Something I think people have perhaps misunderstood about the Islamic State, or their access to arms and munitions broadly, is that they have held, in the past, massive stockpiles of weaponry. As a result, there is a very substantial arsenal of arms and munitions that has been in the possession of IS for some time. A large part of this, incidentally, was acquired as a result of successful actions against military units and military bases in Iraq and Syria.

In any case, IS retains access to a substantial arsenal, albeit dramatically reduced and now deficient in some of the larger and more advanced weapons.

Q: We’ve already begun to see this, right? Recently, IS attacked an airbase in Suwayda province along with another military target.

Military targets, targets for potential resupply, or targets that may incidentally provide resupply have been primary goals for IS operations for years. So it has been well understood that there is value in both striking a decisive blow against the enemy and in making sure you can top up your capabilities along the way. Of course, it is very hard to say how much of that is incidental and how much of that is targeted and deliberate. But certainly, there is the appearance from the outside working in that these actions form part of a deliberate strategy.

Q: Is it reasonable to assume that IS will have taken some of those massive stockpiles of weapons with them into the Syrian desert?

Absolutely. They don’t have access to the massive stockpiles they did, but we have seen withdrawing IS forces taking quantities of weapons with them, so we know that they are taking out materiel to continue the fight—that’s very clear.

Nonetheless, their battlefield losses have resulted in a degradation of many of those capabilities that we spoke about, so fewer large artillery pieces and other not-so-mobile armaments, for example. It’s not that these systems were ever in large supply, but those that were under IS control have now been greatly reduced. Most of these larger items have proven very popular targets for Coalition airstrikes. A lot of armored vehicles, along with a lot of artillery pieces and mortars, have been lost or destroyed.

Similarly—and I think this is important to understand—as IS’ hold shrank and became more centralized around large urban areas they controlled, they ramped up domestic, in-house protection. In some of the later battles in Mosul, for example, a lot of locally produced, shoulder-fired rocket launchers and recoilless weapons were employed.

As a result of their recent losses, a lot of the capabilities to produce these weapons have been lost, or— if not lost—then severely degraded. Certainly not the knowledge, but the materials, space, time, the freedom to operate uncosted—that’s really gone away.

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) removes an Islamic State flag in Tabqa in April 2017. Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP. 

Q: Down the road, it looks as if IS capabilities are going to be diminished—they just won’t have the same presence that they have now. But there’s still going to be a surplus of small arms and explosives left over. What might happen with these armaments once IS ostensibly disappears from the map?

[The Middle East] is a region where, already, there is a surplus of arms and munitions. We know there’s no shortage of small arms, some calibers of small arms ammunition, and even—in several places—access to various types of ordnance which can be repurposed into IEDs.

We have already seen a substantial shift in the tactics the Islamic State has employed. They have gone from employing some reasonably advanced multi-domain efforts, wherein you see armored vehicles and technicals and infantry, operating more or less as a combined force, to a concept of operations that has clearly been degraded quite substantially.

Now, we are seeing more hit-and-run attacks, assassinations, small unit operations and limited targeted attacks. Of course, over time it’s likely that some of those tactics will change to reflect access to the arms and ammunition available. So that means perhaps more remote-detonated IEDs, more targeted rather than battlefield VBIED [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device] attacks, more hit-and-run tactics, more assassinations.

And those sorts of tactics—sort of more traditional terrorist group tactics, if you like—are enabled by only minimal access to small arms and light weapons and to other non-specific ordnance types, so I think it’s reasonable to expect that the tactics will increasingly be constrained by the availability of the material. And of course, more broadly, if the group is diminished in size to the point where they have access to a surplus of small arms and light weapons, for argument’s sake, then those excess small arms and light weapons will in all likelihood be traded elsewhere by the groups within the region.

We have observed this phenomenon in Libya, and we have seen similar drivers in Iraq and Syria: where groups have access to a notable surplus of small arms and weapons, or any other weapon they can countenance others possessing, they tend to sell those and use them in trade or as leverage to access other weapons they might want. In the case of the Islamic State, that might be ordnance items or advanced light weapons and so on.

Q: For those watching IS movements in Syria and beyond, what should we be keeping an eye on as the reality on the ground changes?

It’s going to be interesting to see how much of the Islamic State’s production capability has been lost. Do they still have the capability to develop, for example, advanced, armored SVBIEDs [suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices]? Can they still develop locally made ammunition, have they retained that knowledge and that production capability? Can they still produce shoulder-fired recoilless weapons? How about producing air-delivered munitions for use on small UAVs?

I think it’s too early to say, honestly. But my guess is that those capabilities have been very severely degraded. [And] while the industrial base and the production process may not allow for massive production [anymore], the knowledge has likely already been disseminated beyond the frontlines.

This interview is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of former Islamic State-held territories in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

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