After airstrikes, ISIL’s military prowess showing its limits
NEW YORK // Before airstrikes were launched on ISIL militants in Iraq, a variety of forces, from the Iraqi military to Shiite militias and Kurdish peshmerga, repeatedly failed to blunt their advance.
Now, the airstrikes, carried out by the United States and France, along with the threat of similar action in Syria, have disrupted the battlefield tactics that delivered a string of victories to ISIL earlier this year.
Observers are waiting to see how the group’s military planners adapt but, at least for the moment, ISIL’s ability to strike outside its territory appears increasingly limited.
Intelligence failures have made obtaining a clear picture of the group’s capabilities difficult. Recent estimates more than tripled previous assessments of its manpower, with the CIA claiming ISIL has between 20,000 and 31,000 fighters.
The CIA did not release its methodology for the estimate and the count could be inflated, if it included allied but less ideologically hardline groups in Iraq.
Jeffrey White, a former US Defense Intelligence Agency official, said 31,000, rather than 30,000 or 35,000, “is a peculiar number”.
“It reflects a lot of uncertainty about what the actual number is and may reflect arguments within the intelligence community about the numbers,” said Mr White, who is now with the Washington Institute think tank.
An Iraqi intelligence official said there were more than 27,000 militants in Iraq alone. But how ISIL fighters are split between Iraq and Syria is difficult to estimate because they are able to move quickly between the two countries.
Christopher Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, which closely follows battlefield developments in Iraq and Syria, said ISIL fights like a small army but, unlike a traditional military, it has higher numbers of front-line fighters, even if its logistics and intelligence demands are significant.
“ISIS has a very capable intelligence network, but it is a human intelligence network, which is basically ISIS sympathisers ... passing information back to ISIS headquarters,” he said, using another acronym for the group.
While ISIL has captured sophisticated weapons systems from the Syrian and Iraqi militaries, Mr Harmer said the extremist group relied on light weapons such as AK-47s and rocket launchers that are cheap and readily available, adding that the suicide attacks and car bombs that they deploy are also relatively inexpensive.
Another key to the group’s early gains in Iraq was their agility and speed.
“Their way of war stresses mobility and striking power,” said Mr White. “We don’t see elaborate logistics structures or command structures that would absorb a lot of fighters, it’s all company-sized units with a couple of vehicles and 100 or 200 personnel, mostly fighters.”
ISIL’s commanders, mostly former Iraqi military officers, can amass fighters for a bigger assault where they face more resistance and then quickly redistribute their forces, using captured military vehicles or civilian buses and lorries, Mr Harmer said.
For example, when the Shaitat tribe in Deir Ezzour, in eastern Syria, rebelled against ISIL rule, the group was able to quickly bring together a large force and firepower to brutally put down the uprising.
In some places, after capturing an area, ISIL has handed over control to local militants it has allied with, which frees up its fighters for combat elsewhere.
Through slick propaganda, ISIL has attracted thousands of foreign fighters from around the world. What these recruits lack in military training they make up for in zeal, and ISIL commanders have exploited this enthusiasm, as seen when they overran Syria’s Tabqa airbase and Iraqi military bases.
Foreign fighters spearheaded the attack as suicide bombers, said Robert McFadden, a senior vice president at the Soufan Group, a private intelligence firm. They were followed by battle-hardened militants firing lorry-mounted machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
For all of their battlefield success, however, ISIL has only fought where it could easily win, such as in Syria where rival rebels had their hands full fighting the Assad regime, or areas of Iraq where discontent with Baghdad was already high.
“ISIS has not shown any indication to go after hard areas or areas where it would expect to have big fight,” Mr McFadden said.
In Iraq, it has more or less reached the geographic limits of its ability to capture territory, he said, with areas outside of its reach having a more mixed or Shiite-dominated demographic.
As US airstrikes continue, the new air threat has already made ISIL less effective on the battlefield, according to Mr White.
“There was at least one report that they’ve essentially abandoned their offensive against the regime airfield in Deir Ezzour because they’re afraid of being struck,” he said. The threat of air power makes it more risky for ISIL to concentrate forces for a major, sustained attack, Mr White said.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press
Published: September 20, 2014 04:00 AM