In our article ‘Iraq – The nail in the coffin of the Syrian Revolution’, we discussed some of the general repercussions of ISIS’s adventures in Iraq. Here, we discuss the repercussions on the military situation on the ground.
Following the disastrous performance of the Iraqi army in Mosul, the overwhelming majority of which was Sunni, the government in Baghdad realized that under the current status quo, it cannot rely on Sunni men to fight for its cause. Instead, it needs to mobilize heavily indoctrinated Shi’ite militias, eager to fight ISIS, unafraid of death. However, building up effective militias is not a task that is feasible overnight – it takes months of selecting, arming, and training. Iran, being an expert in such operations, knows this; as such, there can be no immediate successful counter attack against ISIS. Even if the militias were ready, regaining a city from an insurgent force is a far cry from losing it. Just ask Assad – it took him three months to dislodge a well-trained insurgent force from an area in which the odds were heavily stacked against them. Further, Assad already had the passionate, trained, and experienced fighters at his disposal. Maliki should take stock of this and beware that hot headed attempts to quickly reverse the ISIS gains could prove disastrous.
The strategy that Iraq will more than likely engage in is to contain the ISIS advance with forces they already have, making small selective advances, while fortifying strategic positions (such as the capital), gathering intelligence, and plotting the wider war. Do not be fooled, this will be a long war – the ISIS gains cannot and will not be reversed in a month or two. Rather, this war may last for years. We must not forget that it took the American Army many years to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq – an organization that was smaller, less ambitious, and ultimately a far less powerful organization than ISIS. Hence, in the context of a wider, large scale sectarian mobilization, we estimate that there could be at least a hundred thousand Shi’ite militia men, armed to the tooth, and, by the end of the war, experienced, and battle hardened.
It is no secret that Assad has been relying on Iraqi militiamen to do some of the dirty hard work. While their official purpose is to protect Shi’ite shrines, they have been used in offensive operations as well. Reports suggests that Iran plays a large role in recruiting the militias that fight in Syria, offering guarantees of jobs when they complete their tours, helping to pay handsome salaries, and securing their families’ future should they be ‘martyred’ in combat. Thus far, the regime has employed them rather sparsely, due their limited numbers, rumoured at around 5000. Their purpose is to augment the Syrian army with highly sectarian, indoctrinated fighters that are ready to carry out difficult operations and die for the cause, reducing casualties amongst Syrian forces in order to keep the home front under control. One cannot begin to imagine what these enlarged, upgraded, experienced, and battle hardened militias can do to help Assad’s cause in Syria. Hence, once the Iraq war is over, Assad may well have a substantial pool of willing recruits, all of whom share a special hatred of Sunni militants, and especially ISIS. To add a sweetener, there is no doubt that they will be more than eager to open a long awaited front against ISIS in Syria. As a matter of fact, it won’t be an option for them – it will be essential to destroy ISIS in Syria in order for them to secure Iraq.
Suddenly, we are facing a potential joint Iraqi/Syrian operation against ISIS; this co-operation will have far reaching consequences that highly favours Assad. Indeed, he didn’t waste any time in volunteering his air force’s services, and began bombing ISIS targets in both Syria and Iraq before Obama sent his first drone. Further, reports suggest that the Syrian Air Force employed its most advanced jets, the MRCA (multi-role combat aircraft) Mig-29, together with guided missiles which have been another rarity in the conflict. Assad had a pre-war stockpile of 40 of these planes, and they have been largely intact as they are not used in day to day operations; instead, they are the ‘reserve’ aircraft used for emergencies, such as when rebels were overrunning Damascus back in 2012. In less than a week, the Syrian air force bombed more ISIS positions than it had done over the entire Syrian war thus far. The purpose is clear – Assad wants to buy legitimacy as a threat to ISIS. It is a win-win situation as ISIS doesn’t have the capacity to retaliate and take on the Syrian regime, while Maliki would surely be more than happy to foot the bill of the costs involved.
While the Syrian Air Force is one of the biggest in the region, it lacks modern bombers capable of attacking ground targets with precision. The regime has made good use of the stockpile it has, and adapted some of its fighter jets for ground operations, even resorting to Mig-21s in desperate situations. The trick is to identify the purpose of each jet and assign missions accordingly – this wasn’t easy at the onset of the war as the air force had never before fought insurgents. For example, defending besieged bases doesn’t require top of the line ground bombers; instead you need jets that can terrorize your enemy and push them back. In the beginning, when the pilots lacked experience, there were often friendly fire incidents, but they have largely subsided as the pilots gained more experience. Another example for their use is terrorizing the civilian population living in rebel areas or in areas about to be stormed by the army. The only real use for top end bombers is breaking stubborn defensive lines, such as those in Eastern Ghouta, providing close air support for your ground troops. For this, Assad needs guided missiles from Mig-29s (expensive) or more modern bombers that are less worn out – from a pre-war population of 70 specialised Su-24 and Su-22 bombers, the regime probably lost half due to heavy use, and naïve, suicidal missions at the beginning of the war. The air force definitely needs new bombers. Indeed, the regime has been endlessly trying to acquire Sukhoi-25s for quite some time but Russia hasn’t been able to supply them. However, the question is, can Assad buy enough legitimacy to be able to receive shipments of Sukhoi-25s he desperately needs? A dozen or two of these can become real game changers in the Syrian conflict.
Growing impatient with the conditions Obama is attaching to serious military assistance, Maliki turned to Russia to prop up his air force. Less than two weeks after the capture of Mosul, he received a shipment of 5 Sukhoi 25’s, with more coming on the way. These are the very same jets that Assad badly needs. It’s quite astonishing just how quickly Maliki turned to Putin – as if to corner Obama, threatening him with a Russian ‘hegemony’ invasion of Iraq if he refuses to promptly help. Iraq can be a very lucrative customer for the right seller, after all. Putin obliged, delivering the jets in double quick time, very unusual of air force transactions. Incidentally, while Iraq received the jets, they don’t have anyone to fly them. Indeed, the Iraqi Air Force doesn’t have any fighter jets after giving 130 of them to Iran, fearing they would be destroyed by coalition bombing during the Saddam era. It will be interesting to solve the missing pilots puzzle – will it be Iranian pilots, will it be former Iraqi pilots brought back from retirement – or – will Syrian pilots be utilized? We may never find out.
It is a well-known fact that Iran has been using Iraqi airspace to maintain a supply line for Assad’s forces. There was a time when Maliki was under heavy pressure to stop allowing Iranian cargo jets through Iraqi air space. In fact, Iraq had to pretend they were carrying out ‘random searches’ on cargo jets bound for Damascus carrying ‘humanitarian aid’. This is a thing of the past. Thanks to ISIS, Iran can keep Assad’s killing machine operating on full throttle. Even better, they may be able to ‘merge’ these fronts and allow more advanced arms (and plane) shipments to Assad. Once again, the gods have blessed the dictator of Damascus with good fortune.
@EJMalrai Elijah J Magnier contributed to this report.