ISIS parades captured Iraqi Army vehicles in its Syrian capital of Raqqa
Six months ago, as it swept into the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq, ISIS was looking a lot less triumphant in Syria. Faced with a coordinated attack by a coalition of Syrian rebel groups, it was fighting for its survival on that front. Since then, ISIS has rampaged even further into Iraq. This is going to enable them to turn their attention back to Syria, but this time armed with a load of new pillaged weapons, making them a scarier prospect for their enemies.
According to Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute and specialist on ISF and the insurgency, roughly a quarter of the Iraqi Security Forces' (ISF) combat units collapsed within the first few days of fighting. ISIS has captured hundreds of US supplied upgraded Humvees, pickup trucks, tanks and armored vehicles, artillery pieces, and even reportedly a number of helicopters, not to mention huge stocks of ammunition and artillery shells. From the sheer quantity of captured equipment, Knights noted "ISIS has probably three sets of captured M16 rifles and body armor for every one of its fighters."
An ISIS convoy with captured Humvees enters Bayji
Although much of the captured hardware was in poor quality, and it is still unclear whether ISIS has the capability to use it, pictures of captured US supplied Humvees roaring down the streets of northern Iraq flying the group's distinctive black banner were obviously a bit of a propaganda coup. In a jab at their hated American enemies, ISIS's huge and vocal online fan base advertized the group's capture of US-supplied vehicles by mocking Michelle Obama's role in the #bringbackourgirls Twitter campaign, launching the hashtag #bringbackourhumvee.
Charles Lister, a fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told me that, "ISIS's newly acquire fleets of Humvees, transport vehicles, and other APCs should prove valuable for the group, at least in the medium term. Of course, as time goes by, ISIS will need to maintain and repair the vehicles, which may raise some issues. But in terms of live capacity and coordination, ISIS can certainly make use of such an expanded vehicle fleet and potentially even exploit the more sophisticated radio equipment installed in Humvees.”
An ISIS social media image shows its fighters with a captured Humvee
While everyone’s been gawping at ISIS’s Iraqi rampage, the knock on effects in Syria may be equally significant. A few hours after controlling Mosul, ISIS overran several places on the border between Syria and Iraq. At two of them, Rabiyah, they bulldozed the earth mound dividing the two countries and started transferring captured vehicles and equipment to Syria. ISIS even released a slick video entitled "The Breaking of Borders" featuring ISIS' firebrand spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani and top military commander Omar al-Shishani symbolically driving a bulldozer over the Iraq-Syria border and proclaiming the “end of Sykes-Picot”—an agreement made by the UK and France in 1916 about their spheres of influence in the region.
An ISIS bulldozer drives over the barrier separating Iraq and Syria
The vehicles and equipment seized in Iraq are already playing a role in the Syrian battlefield. Several days ago, the al-Nusra faction in the border town of Abu Kamal pledged allegiance to ISIS, which then moved in with its superior firepower and seized control of the town. ISIS' victory in Abu Kamal led to a complete collapse of the rebels across the province. As groups recognized the new reality, they either pledged allegiance to the new Islamic State, or quit the fight and ran away.
Within a week, ISIS has gained control of another entire province—Dayr az-Zawr—with the exception of the remaining rebels and the besieged Syrian army in the provincial capital. After taking Dayr az-Zawr, according to Charles Lister, "ISIS will seek to consolidate as many of its recent gains in Iraq and possible and to further bolster its control of territory and resources in northern and eastern Syria, so as to present itself as much as possible, as a cohesive ‘state.’ Only then will ISIS be in a position to attempt to push back further into western Syria—Idlib, western Aleppo, Latakia, and Hama. This will almost certainly be attempted, the question is simply when it will come."
ISIS propaganda video "The end of Sykes-Picot"
The ISIS proto state is at its most established in Raqqa city, the group's main Syrian stronghold. This has earned the town the moniker of "Syria's Kandahar"—Kandahar being the birthplace of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The presence of ISIS there is all-pervasive. "They hold an iron grip over all life's aspects,” a local told me. “Wherever you walk on any of the city's streets you'd encounter at least two ISIS fighters walking, driving, sitting, or passing by… ISIS fighters have a strong presence in the city. They control everything. They run most of the former regime service departments, from granaries and bakers, power and transformation stations, water pump stations… They formed an 'Islamic court,' 'Muslim's services office,' an 'Islamic' traffic police department and other posts."
Raqqa is also likely to be the operations in Syria. As my Raqqa contact told me, "The organization depends on a rotation system where a fighter might be sent to several provinces in a relatively short time. Also Raqqa is the safe haven for wounded fighters where many come from different ‘Wilayas’ [ISIS' term for its zones of combat] to settle temporarily in new recovery HQs."
ISIS now operates with complete freedom on both sides of the old Syria-Iraq border, and can transfer its forces between theaters at will. The future for the new jihadist caliphate in the heart of the Middle East has never looked brighter.
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