Tuesday, June 24, 2014

ISIS Military Capabilities in Iraq: An Analysis

Over the course of the past month, social media coverage on the events in Iraq have increased significantly.  Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become abundant with primary source material as both sides of the conflict post videos, pictures, and eyewitness testimonies.  This media has been a critical source for mass media coverage across the globe.  For governments and military forces, social media aids open source intelligence efforts (OSINT) in collecting significant information such as geography and cultural perspectives.

ISIS has made substantial territorial gains in Iraq while maintaining a heavy presence on social media websites.  With every proclaimed victory over a particular city or region, new images and videos from people involved in the conflict flood the internet.  Sites such as Twitter and Facebook have been saturated with images of militants showing off equipment and vehicles captured from the Iraqi Army.  Most recently in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, ISIS showcased a military review.  

Captured Iraqi BTR-80 armored personnel carrier (APC)

Former US M198 Howitzer being towed by ISIS 
These images (posted today on Twitter), along with many others, give insight as to ISIS's potential military capabilities.  In addition to APCs and artillery pieces, ISIS has boasted the capturing of Iraqi T-55 tanks as seen in a video less than 2 weeks ago.  However, various news sources have reported that ISIS is moving much of the captured equipment back to Syria.  

There are two potential reasons for this.

First, the ISIS main headquarters and training camps are located in Syria, where ISIS has gained most of it's fighting experience.  Though there are thousands of militants in Iraq, most have little to no training on such equipment.  ISIS fighters in Syria have been using captured tanks and artillery for quite some time and it's likely the equipment captured in Iraq will be used in Syria for both direct combat and training exercises.  Removing this equipment also prevents Iraqi forces from potentially recapturing them.

Secondly, ISIS strategy in Iraq has been effective without the use of heavy weapons.  With assistance from various Sunni tribal fighters and large convoys of cars and trucks, ISIS has the advantage of having an extremely large, yet mobile infantry.  This often results in ambushes from all sides for Iraqi security forces.  Such attacks have greatly damaged morale for the Iraqi forces.

The capturing of such equipment may seem disheartening, but reality sets in when looking at military records.  For example, the 2012 edition of The Military Balance by the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted that the Iraqi Army had only 120 pieces of M198 artillery.  ISIS does not have every artillery piece.  Furthermore, field artillery like the M198 is essentially obsolete in the age of air strikes and satellite coordinates.  ISIS would have to train teams of militants in the use of map coordinates and scouting to achieve even a small margin of accuracy with field artillery.  

As for the tanks and captured aircraft, the training required is even more substantial.  However, it is possible that trained reinforcements from Syria, equipped with tanks and artillery, could move into Iraq to support fellow insurgents since the Iraq/Syria border is largely unprotected.

Again, this analysis is based purely on information gathered from open sources.  With US military advisers now in Iraq, social media may reveal developments regarding the effectiveness of US strategy for Iraqi security forces.

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