Sand in Assad's Eye: ISIS in the Desert
Since the greatly publicised downfall of the caliphate in Spring 2019 in Baghuz, Syria, the Islamic State has undergone a no less publicised shift to the "post-caliphate" stage- namely a wide ranging insurgency in its former areas, as well as a greater focus on exernal affiliates in both media and physical attacks. A facet of the this insurgency will be convered in this article- namely the continuing ISIS presence in Eastern Homs and Western Deir Ezzor, an area at least nominally controlled by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with a focus on their equipment & tactics. Usually represented by a small grey blob on battlefield maps of Syria, and ignored by many analysts, it is nontheless fascinating.
While the Islamic State has a scattered and dramatically smaller presence in Syria compared to the peak of the physical caliphate, activity in the Badia (Desert) between Deir Ezzor and Homs governorates- collequially known as the Homs desert- represent a picture of a group that rather than being harassed and underground, operates with relative impunity. The group is now driving convoys of heavy weapon-equipped pickups (which appear to be directly taken from Syrian regime forces) to ambush regime forces, as well as using IEDs against regime vehicles. IS forces have recorded multiple ATGMs used against regime armour, an occurrence that is almost unknown in Iraq, and last appeared in any large quantity of during the last phase of the caliphate in early 2019. Actions are taken not just against low-level National Defence Forces but Iranian-aligned militias, Syrian Army regulars and Russian troops.
Limited information has been released by ISIS through their media apparatus, and even less through SyAA-affiliated channels, official or not. Given that the Syrian Army and allies (in particular Russia) have shifted to a clear focus on operations to halt opposition raids and drone attacks from Idlib, as well as to take back large quantities of territory, a semi-offical decision has been made to merely "contain" the ISIS fighters through air power and local bases- although this decision may also indicate a lack of ability to stop experienced ISIS fighters' freedom of movement. Even in Iraq, a country backed by a coalition that boasts far superior signals intelligence and reconnaissance capability, as well as more effective armed forces, rooting out IS fighters from mountainous and desert areas has proven difficult. This is even greater of an issue when local IS commanders are familiar with the local area.
Regime media has also been quiet, although a few images of destroyed vehicles have been released (In one case, images of destroyed NDF pickup trucks were posted by pro-Regime pages on Facebook, claiming they were actually ISIS vehicles!) The capabilities and equipment of ISIS must be extrapolated from the limited information that is available.
One long form video from IS in the Homs desert entited "The Epic of Attrition 2" (a second in the series after a Wilayat al-Sham, al-Khayr video of August 2019) has been released on the 31st of March 2020, mainly covering attacks across 2019, but omits multiple large-scale attacks, such as those against the Hayl gas field in late December 2019- the almost 30 minutes of footage is more notable for events it does not cover than what it does. Regardless, it is a useful source of information as to weaponry and tactics.
Being essentially mobile attackers, ISIS in the area is restricted to arms that can be carried via pickup trucks (Technicals) or by hand, such as small arms, RPG, and to a limited extent ATGM, as well as IEDs.
ISIS fighters carry a variety of small arms for their attacks against the SyAA and associated militias, such as Liwa al-Quds. These are the typical Eastern Bloc weapons that almost every group carries across Syria, and are arms that are common to the area, used by local regime forces, and hence can be obtained via corruption or capture. Also used by the group are small quantities of NATO-origin arms, as used by Iraqi security forces and by various actors in Syria, including the nearby Maghawir al-Thawra outpost at Al Tanf.
As is usual, the "standard issue" rifle for ISIS fighters in the Homs desert is 7.62x39mm AKM/AKMS or the Chinese Type 56 AK variants. These are the most common by far in images/video released by ISIS.
IS fighters also carry AK-74, AKS-74U, AK-74M and AK-103- which are all used by Syrian regime forces, in particular the "Elite" Tiger forces and other militias close to senior figures. All, in particular the AK-74M and AK-100 series, which feature side rail mounts for optics and other improvements, are modern and effective small arms.
NATO-calibre arms seen carried by IS fighters include M4-type carbines, M16A2, M16A4 and M249. These would usually be status weapons, but the availability of picatinny rails on M16 & M4-platforms make these weapons valuable hosts for optics, such as the commonly seen Trijicon ACOG or much more expensive and valuable thermal optics. M16-type rifles have been typically used in conjunction with magnified or thermal optics in an improvised DMR/"sniper" role by ISIS fighters for years, and it is likely that the groups operating in the Badia are no exception.
Some groups of IS fighters- presumably veterans or "Elite" units- are particularly well equipped with numerous modern small arms, as seen in the images below, although they are not standardised.
Of particular note here is AK-103 with Fortuna One 3/6L thermal optic, and suppressed M16A4 with another thermal optic. These high-end civilian thermal optic are intended for hunting, but can also be used for rather more nefarious purposes. In the case of the Fortuna, the manufacturer claims that this optic is capable of detecting a human-size thermal object at distances up to 1800/2160 meters, with various optical and digital zoom levels.
Thermal optics can partially mitigate advantages that regime troops may have previously had in the area of night operations, although miltias operating in the desert, far away from the front lines of Idlib, do not appear to have received such an investment as the "Tiger Forces", who now are well equiped with hundreds of russian-made thermal optics. This would give IS squads a distinct advantage as compared to lightly-equipped regime forces.
Optics such as this give the user the ability to operate effectively in low or little light, in particular for raids, reconnaissance, and ambushes. The use of this optics and similar models is entirely sensible for a low-level insurgency, even though night attacks in the area have been shown only very rarely from IS media.
A craft produced suppressor attached to the M16A4 can be noted. Previous ISIS suppressors of a very similar pattern have appeared to been manufactured to a high standard, being precisely manufactured to a standardised design. Whilst ISIS may no longer have the territorial control and personnel it once did, it retains expertise and knowlege gained over time. This suppressor does likely work as intended, if not to the standard expected from factory-made military suppressors. This combination of thermal variable optic and effective suppressor gives the users to ability of mount convert attacks, including at night, minimising detection and resistance.
In these images, AK-74 (One with a PSO-1 optic attached), M16A4 and AKS-74U (At least two) are held by the fighters. The Bulgarian PG-7VT Tandem HEAT warhead can be seen. This potent warhead is common across Syria.
The AKS-74U is an icon across the Middle East for its use by various senior Jihadist figures (As well as Hezbollah and other Shiiite movements), and is hence a very popular choice to signify status by leadership figures. IS is no exception to this.
As can be expected, the standard machine gun for IS appears to be the PK/PKM series. This extremely reliable and effective machine gun is very common across Syria.
A particularly notable aspect of IS operations in the Homs desert is the use of heavier weapons, such as technical, ATGM, and HMG. Whilst HMGs are widely used by IS across Syria and Iraq, the use of Technicals and ATGM indicates both freedom of movement and technical expertise.
The typical choice for the Insurgents is the common Toyota truck armed with a dual barrel 23mm ZU-23-2 autocannon, with some employing 14.5mm KPV HMG, or 12.7mm DSHK-pattern HMG. However, the former appears the most common, and is a powerful and versatile weapon.
In comparable enviroments, such as the deserts of Iraq, IS fighters have not been able to employ ZU-23-2 equipped technicals, despite there being no lack of available materiel and experienced fighters. However, in these remote areas, the Regime lacks precise airpower and also suffers from extreme corruption.
This rather permissive enviroment allows for small IS convoys to traverse the desert in comparative safety, and to avoid destruction whilst able to inflict high casualties on regime forces. Whilst the precise origin of these technicals is difficult to determine, a number of units have been captured from regime forces. It is also entirely possible that widespread corruption and poverty have enabled IS to purchase ZU-23-2 and pickup trucks. These trucks have appeared in areas hundreds of kilometers appart, showing the freedom of IS to move vehicles in areas with a measure of local support.
IS ATGM use has been limited, composing of less than 5 launches captured on camera. However, it is likely than much greater numbers have actually occured, as IS media has been extremely sparse.
ATGM are an extremely valuable battlefield tool, able to hit targets at range, whether they be armour or softer targets. They can also be comparatively easily transported by men on foot or pickup trucks, and also stored easily. This means they are an ideal weapon for experienced insurgents- it is no surprise that ISIS forces will use ATGM if they are available. The 9K111 and 9M113 have been supplied to regime forces in massive quantities by Russia, and are the most common ATGM in the conflict.
Regime armour appears to have been destroyed multiple times in recent IS media, although precisely how is unclear, either via ATGM, RPG, or IED.
IS uses a large range of small arms and other weapons, although none are untypical or particularly rare, especially given the reported ability of IS fighters to cross to Iraq and vice versa. NATO standard weapons are easily obtained in Iraq, and Eastern Bloc weapons are also extremely common in both areas.
Tactics, Strategy & Conclusions
There is no other area in Syria where complex attacks involving ATGM, Technicals and other assets are possible for IS. The inability of regime forces to deal with IS in these rugged areas allows operational space for the group to restage, recruit, and extend its "shadow control" over remote areas. Whilst the remote and de-populated desert does impede the militant's ability to recruit and carry out attacks, IS attacks have shown a clear intent to strike important economic/energy infrastructure centres (Such as Gas facilities), impede regime transport links, and to generally enable further operational space. At the time of writing, IS forces have not yet grouped in large numbers to attack urban spaces, despite local rumours of imminent attacks against populated areas in the east Salamiyah countryside. IS has continued to execute civilians, such as 4 gas workers shown in their most recent video release. Locals have also complained of the abduction and murder of shepherds, and the stealing of their livestock.
Fake checkpoints are also used. This technique has always been popular with IS fighters, with disguised militants waving down traffic and killing soldiers or regime figures. This technique does not always succeed, with one example in IS Media clearly showing the driver accelerating away from the fighters, which spray the vehicle with small arms fire regardless.
Simple ambushes, taking advantage of little to no security and local sympathisers, seem to be mainstay of IS attacks, along with IED use. This is common to most areas that IS is present in Syria and Iraq, but it appears that militants are less confined to the night than in Iraq, where the great bulk of roadside attacks are in low light.
Despite some large scale attacks occuring, most IS attacks continue to be ambushes in the desert that remain limited in size. However, these can cause high regime casualties, and lead to the capture of multiple arms and ammunition with which to supply the insurgency. Some of these have been foiled by regime forces, with a few IS fighters killed.
Whilst it is possible that ISIS has a large stock of footage (of varying quality) of their attacks in Homs/Deir Ezzor, very little media has been released either through official video releases or in videos from Amaq.
IS Media has also completely omitted any "daily life" coverage or captures, focussing only on combat and executions. Explanations for this are multiple- IS does not appear to have established a dedicated media team with the required equipment until late January 2020. Hence, most footage is shot on cheap camera phones. However, recent images (See above) from Amaq Agency have demonstrated a clear uptick in quality, suggesting forthcoming media releases may cover additional subjects and larger attacks in much higher quality. An extremely weak internet connection locally is also likely to be a contributing factor. IS media strategy has been inconsistent, with many smaller attacks (Such as IEDs) lying entirely unreported except through local social media, which makes estimating their strength difficult.
IS is aware of its weakness locally should regime forces gain information regarding their armed strength and location. IS would clearly seek to avoid revealing to many details regarding the typical pattern of life for the insurgents, which are still vulnerable to air power and local sweeping patrols, and hence will only release very limited information. Patrols are typically ineffective however, with some areas of the desert never having been cleared of IS presence after they were retaken by regime forces- IS forces can simply withdraw into particularly remote spaces before returning.
While ISIS attacks have been continuing through into 2020, it is important to note that their presence does not yet pose a sizable threat to important regime possessions such as the ancient city of Palmyra. The quantity of active ISIS fighters in the badia can be estimated (depending on sources) as in the high hundreds. This is nothing like the considerable forces that ISIS could wield just in 2016, when they retook Palmyra, embarassing the regime and Russian allies with footage of Russian soldiers' left-behind credit cards and tonnes of loot. It doesn't appear that such an occurance is likely, yet the increasing attacks, facilitated by corruption and a measure of local tribal support, are certainly a topic of interest.
ISIS forces appear to practice periods of increased action for 4-8 weeks, prior to withdrawing to little or no action for a similar period of time. However, recent IS ambushes have shown a gradual yet noticeable increase in scale as 2020 continues, and have also taken place across a wide area, from the highway near Resafa (South of Raqqa city), to western Deir Ezzor. Attempted territory seizures are possible to occur later through 2020.
IS activity in the southern countryside of Raqqa has necessitated NDF reinforcements in efforts to sweep the area. Regime forces facing IS are typically reconciled rebels, militias and not the regime's most able or supported troops, enabling greater operational space- although Republican Guard units have encountered IS in Deir Ezzor. A measure of local support (Some local tribes regard IS as a preferable ruler compared to the corruption of loyalist militias) has enabled some recruitment and a permissive enviroment, which depend on further ineffective governance or power struggles to expand. These fighters are generally lightly armed, as shown in the images above, but do retain some advanced equipment such as thermal optics, anti-materiel rifles, ATGM and more.
These IS fighters must be viewed in their particular circumstances- dangerous, well kitted, and tactically able, but limited by geography and the practical power inbalance should regime (And in particular Russian) forces decide to take the costly step of attempting to remove their threat entirely. This appears unlikely at present, as well as difficult, leading the author to conclude that a gradual increase in attacks, deaths and general activity is likely to continue until an unacceptable level is reached.
It remains to be seen if IS activity in the Desert will move from a mere annoyance to a much larger malady for the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
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