ISIL remains the largest and best financed Islamic terrorist group in the region and that is causing a lot of problems for the Islamic terrorists. ISIL has over 20,000 armed men in Syria and Iraq, but a growing portion of them are tied down occupying and trying to administer conquered territory. These new subjects tend to be obedient, but not enthusiastic about their new rulers, nor very loyal. In many ways ISIL is going through the same cycle its predecessor (the pro-Saddam Islamic terrorists of 2003-8) followed on the way to defeat. That is, resistance from Sunni Arabs, especially in Anbar (western Iraq) eventually leads to brutal repression by Islamic terrorists which in turn enrages more Sunni Arabs and turns them violently against the Islamic terrorists. That, in turn, causes more desertions in the Islamic terrorist groups as new recruits (and even some veteran fighters) desert because killing fellow Sunni Arabs, especially women, was not what they signed up for. This is a common pattern with Islamic terrorist groups as the savage reality collides with the idealistic rhetoric of the preachers and propagandists. It’s one thing to slaughter women and children who are not Sunni Moslems, but killing your own is bad for morale and cripples recruiting. Unlike 2007, there are a lot more cell phones around now and more potential recruits have Internet access. So the pictures of Holy Warriors murdering fellow Sunni Moslems, especially women, spreads fast and the impact is quickly felt by the terrorist leaders. It’s not just one incident either, but several massacres of Sunni Arab tribesmen in eastern Syria and western Iraq over the past few months. To the young Moslem men who provide most of the support (and manpower) for ISIL, such misbehavior can no longer be dismissed as a rare event or staged Western propaganda. While the air attacks have made it more difficult for large convoys of ISIL gunmen to attack and conquer new territory, an even larger problem is the need for using these gunmen to deal with rebellious Sunni Arabs. This has led to counterattacks by some tribal militias, especially in western Iraq and ISIL losing control of towns and villages. The terrorists are being terrorized.
Another reason for the growing unrest in the ISIL “Islamic State” is the incompetence of the Islamic terrorists leaders at running an economy. ISIL wants everything done in conformance of their vision of what Islamic law demands. This means no modern currency or banking practices. This makes it difficult for the economy to function and the ISIL subjects are suffering from high unemployment and growing shortages. ISIL now proposes to mint its own gold and silver coins and make that the only legal currency in their territory. Implementing this will cause more economic disruption and more unhappy residents of the Islamic State.
Meanwhile the new Iraqi government is helping itself by improving relations with their Kurdish allies and the Sunni Arab minority. The Shia dominated government had, for several years, been feuding with the Kurds over how much oil money the Kurds should get. The government has loosened up in that department and transferred $500 million to the Kurds. The Shia government has also released weapons meant for the Kurds but held up because of various disputes (and the fact that the Kurdish “army” was already more than the Iraqi Army could handle in any armed showdown). The government is also being more generous with Sunni Arabs, especially those who are rebelling against ISIL. This has made it easier to recruit current and former ISIL men as informants or, it is suspected, spies. While ISIL is normally very careful with their communications (the most critical stuff is delivered by courier) ISIL men still have cell phones. Those taken off dead ISIL fighters often provides a wealth of intel data (pictures, phone numbers, email addresses and such) but the cell phones in the hands of ISIL government informants provides up to date information on where key ISIL targets are. This is believed to have played a part in recent attacks on ISIL leadership meetings. Despite the growing anti-ISIL attitudes among Sunni Arabs, many Iraqi Shia still oppose any cooperation with the Sunni Arabs. These Shia remember that many Sunni Arabs still agree among themselves that eventually the Sunni Arab minority will be running Iraq again. Shia know that means another brutal Sunni Arab dictatorship and only misery for the Shia. Resolving this problem is another long term project not a lot of Iraqis are signing up for.
Another ISIL problem is the growing effectiveness of Iraqi troops. The new Iraqi government is listening to the American advisors, and many Iraqis, and dismissing or forcing into retirement many senior officers the Americans have identified as inept, corrupt and only in the job because of political connections. The senior leadership largely accepts the fact that to defeat you need troops who are led by competent officers. As the old saying goes, donkeys led by lions will defeat lions led by donkeys. At the moment too many ISIL leaders are behaving like donkeys, but so are a lot of Iraqi unit commanders.
The U.S. believes that most of the troops they trained before they left in 2011 have left the military and many there now have been poorly trained (and even more poorly led) by corrupt Iraqi officers appointed by the recently replaced Maliki government. The U.S. believes that Iraq needs at least 80,000 trained and well led troops to deal with ISIL. This 80,000 will either be newly trained recruits or veterans who have received refresher training and passed qualification tests. Some Iraqi units maintained their skills and good leadership after 2011 but there were fewer and fewer of them. American military evaluation teams were sent to Iraq last August to find out how much of the Iraqi Army was salvageable. It was discovered that only 52 percent of the 50 Iraqi combat brigades were worth training and supporting in the short run. The other 24 brigades had been rendered ineffective by Shia politics and officers who were too poorly trained, experienced or dedicated to hold these units together in heavy combat. The basic problem was bad officers, in particular officers more interested in politics and getting rich (via corrupt practices) than running an efficient army. This is not a new or unique problem in the Iraqi Army. Since 2011 the Shia politicians running the government chose politically reliable Shia officers over those who were merely competent at their jobs. That led to the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of a mid-2014 ISIL offensive. That should not have happened, but it did and will again unless the Iraqis put more emphasis on competence than political loyalty when selecting military officers. There was a similar pattern in the police, where some SWAT units and paramilitary police units (mainly counter-terror units) maintained their edge, but most were ruined by corrupt leadership.
The battles with ISIL have reduced Iraqi Army strength from 205,000 in January to about half that now. Several thousand deserters and former officers (especially those who quit in disgust at the growing corruption) are being enticed to return and help with the training and rebuilding of the army and police. Some training is also being provided for the 100,000 or so Shia (for the most part) militias that became active in the last five months. Iran is also, quietly, providing training, and some leadership for some of these militias.
ISIL still attracts a lot of recruits because of its propaganda (massacres of enemies and female sex slaves is a big draw with young Moslem men) and the fact that ISIL pays new recruits up to $500 a month, and even more if they survive long enough to get promoted. The Iraqi Sunnis who form the core of ISIL leadership contain a lot of former Saddam supporters and bureaucrats who have years of practical experience running a country as a bloody dictatorship. So if ISIL’s “Islamic State” seems vaguely similar to Saddam’s “Republic of Fear” it’s no accident. Saddam knew how to use cash, sex, the promise of power and freedom to terrorize to attract and retain skilled supporters. This has become the ISIL playbook and it works, even if done with a thin veneer of religious fanaticism (something Saddam actually adopted during his last decade in power). But as with Saddam, ISIL finds itself under siege and declared an enemy to just about everyone. That matters little when you are on a mission from God. One advantage Saddam had over ISIL was that he was not a slave to ancient practices that were theologically correct but economic suicide today. Many terroristic government practices never get old, but economics has changed quite a bit over the last thousand years.
Air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq are increasing. There have been over 900 so far (since August 8th). These attacks have killed nearly 900 people, apparently about 95 percent have been ISIL and the rest civilians. The material damage (equipment and supplies) has been much greater because ISIL vehicles and warehouses have most frequently been the target. Attacks and Kurdish and Iraqi Army advances have also revealed the growing ISIL use of underground tunnels. These are sometimes spotted from the air when bombs or shells cause one to cave in and produce a large crater.
The air attack have caused a growing number of shortages for the ISIL forces. American air strikes have also gone after artillery and armored vehicles (captured from the Iraqi or Syrian forces) and destroyed those as well. ISIL supplies and facilities are attacked once they are known and with the growing rebellion inside ISIL territory, a lot more of these targets are being identified. Also being hit is ISIL construction equipment, which is being used to build fortifications, obstacles and bunkers. As more Western warplanes arrive, more strike missions are being flown and more of them are against targets in Iraq. This is largely responsible for recent advances by Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq. In addition to air strikes there have been even more recon and surveillance missions flown, taking video, photos and monitoring wireless communications. This provides information on targets and on what ISIL is up to. ISIL veterans of the 2004-2008 campaign have distributed advice on how to avoid being spotted from the air, but as American intel veterans of that period return they bring with them experience in seeing through the ISIL deceptions.
ISIL commanders keep coming up with new ways to get around the limitations imposed by air power. The most obvious one is to move fighters and supplies in vehicles that appear to be carrying civilians. Anything obviously terrorist related is likely to get hit. The use of human shields is increasing and most of them appear to be involuntary. This has prevented some air attacks, but some of the nations providing air power allow their aircraft to attack critical targets even if it appears human shields are involved. This has caused some losses in the ISIL leadership. To make attacks the fighters have to be brought in gradually and massed in a built up area. That means attacks on isolated towns or facilities are much less likely. And if ISIL does attack, victory must come quick. If fighting lines form in a town the air attacks have targets and as ISIL learned (and is still learning) at Kobane in Syria, this turns into a slaughter for ISIL men. Thousands have been killed or wounded in Kobane in the last month and ISIL insists it will keep fighting until the Kurdish defenders are destroyed or pushed out of the town. ISIL has long had a major grudge against the Kurds who, while they are Sunni Moslems, are very anti-Islamic terrorist and very pro-American. The Kurds are also hated because they are the most skilled and determined fighters ISIL has to face in the region. But Kobane is turning into a major embarrassment for ISIL and the source of growing morale problems, increased desertions and shrinking numbers of new recruits. To admit defeat in Kobane would be painful for ISIL leadership, but that’s something they will probably for forced to do eventually and a growing number of ISIL leaders are admitting that, at least in private.
The increased air strikes have also caused ISIL to concentrate more on terror bombings. There have been more of these in Baghdad, and wherever there are Iraqi or Kurdish troops the ISIL terrorists can reach. More than 14,000 have died so far this year from terrorist related violence in Iraq. For all that the deaths in Syria have been much higher (over 50,000 so far this year) than in Iraq. There are also a lot fewer refugees in Iraq (at least three million) compared to Syria (more than ten million). The international community provides the cash and aid to keep these refugees alive. The U.S. has been the largest donor, providing $1.3 billion to UN aid efforts in the last year alone.
Iran continues to be an unofficial member of the anti-ISIL coalition. The Iranians appear to believe that the U.S. air strikes and all the military aid (from Iran, the U.S. and other NATO nations) going to the Iraqi Kurds, plus a new government in Iraq, will be able to deal with ISIL. Iran continues to blame the West for “creating” ISIL thus ignoring the fact that the growing Sunni/Shia conflict that Iran sponsors heavily has more to do with ISIL than anything the West does.
What is most disturbing to Iraqi and American officials is the fact that most of the thousand or so Iranian advisors and training specialists
in Iraq and Syria
are from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them). It was Quds that helped form Hezbollah in the 1980s and built that Shia militia into a major force within Lebanon. Iraqis fear Quds will try and do the same thing in Iraq and even many Iraqi Shia don’t want that. At the moment Iraq needs all the help it can get and Quds officers and trainers have been very useful. But Quds comes in with an agenda, and an implied promise of freedom for Quds to do its own thing, which includes making Iraq a vassal state of Iran. This is not easy to do and despite a quarter century of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran still has limited influence there. That influence is being weakened as Lebanese see Hezbollah operations inside Syria (at the behest of Iran) causing morale problems within Hezbollah. Worse, more of the Syrian violence is spilling over into Lebanon. This is exactly what most Iraqi Shia have long feared would happen if Iran became too powerful inside Iraq.
At least two Iranian UAVs have crashed in ISIL territory in the last month. This was confirmed by cell phone photos posted online by ISIL members and local civilians. The two downed UAVs were near the Iranian border, where Iran has been keeping an eye on ISIL fighters to make sure they do not stray into Iran. ISIL claims to have shot down these UAVs, but one appears to have crash landed and the other may have been hit by ground fire.
November 19, 2014: In the north Kurdish and Iraqi Army troops began a new offensive around Kirkuk. Using air support, Iraqi armor and artillery the Kurdish/Iraqi forces are pushing ISIL out of towns and villages in the area. The combination of air reconnaissance, air strikes and better equipped (the Kurds) and led (the Iraqis) fighters have been more than many ISIL groups can handle. There have been more ISIL surrenders and apparently a lot more ISIL men are deserting. This is what captured ISIL men are reporting, as well as foreign volunteers who return home and are identified by local police and questioned.
In the Kurdish capital (Erbil) up north a female suicide car bomber attacked outside the provincial governors’ office, killing five and wounding 29. Such terror attacks are rare in the Kurdish north because of more efficient security up there. This year, because of the ISIL threat, Kurdish border security became even tighter. Kurds and Christians, or Arab Moslems with a sponsor in the Kurdish area passed border control quickly. But non-Christian Arabs, especially Sunnis and Turkomen (Turkic Moslems) men, have to wait a lot longer. After a while the Kurds set up temporary transit camps on the Iraqi side of the border because so many people were trying to get in that the screeners could not keep up. Arabs and some refugee NGOs complained but anyone who has paid attention over the last decade knows that what the Kurds are doing works, even if it takes longer. Sunni Islamic terrorists are not happy with this tight security because it has made the Kurdish areas largely free of Islamic terrorist attacks. ISIL was particularly determined to attack the Kurds where they lived and Kurdish security officials believed ISIL would try to slip terrorists in with the flood of refugees. That has not happened so far. Sunni Arab Islamic terrorists have used female suicide bombers in the past, but not frequently because women are much more difficult to recruit for this sort of thing. Now border security will be stricter for non-Kurdish women as well as the men. It is a matter of life and death in the usually terrorism free Kurdish north.
November 16, 2014:
ISIL posted (on the Internet) a video of them beheading a captured American aid worker. ISIL had beheaded a British aid worker on October 3rd. ISIL is believed to have at least fourteen captured Westerners, most of them aid workers grabbed in Syria. Three of those videoed beheadings have been of captured Arabs while one was a French tourist kidnapped by an ISIL affiliate in Algeria. Two of those already beheaded were American aid workers. ISIL says it will keep killing Western captives until Western nations halt their air attacks on ISIL. The latest beheading video also featured the mass beheading of 18 captured Syrian officers.
November 14, 2014: In the north (on the Tigris River between Baghdad and Mosul) Iraqi troops finally broke the ISIL siege of the oil refinery at Baiji. For over a month ISIL men had tried to capture the refinery but the Iraqi security force (soldiers, police and civilians) held out, receiving supplies via air drops and some air support. The Benji refinery can process 320,000 barrels of oil a day and that represents a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. Clearing ISIL out of this area also isolated the ISIL held town of Tikrit, which is due north of Baghdad and is full of Sunni Arabs and Saddam admirers who have had enough ISIL. The Iraqi Army is already preparing to march on Tikrit.
November 13, 2014: The government and their Kurdish counterparts up north signed an agreement settling a number of long standing disputes over how much oil money the Kurdish north should get. This agreement also guaranteed the continued use (for a fee) of the pipeline through Turkey which carries Iraqi oil to a Turkish port for export.
November 12, 2014: Responding to American (and many Iraqi) requests the new government ordered the firing of 26 senior army officers and the forced retirement of ten more. There are to be more removals like this, although probably not as many as the Americans want. There are still a lot of well protected (by Shia politicians) but incompetent officers in uniform.
November 8, 2014: In western Iraq an air attack hit a meeting of ISIL leaders. It was though that supreme leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi was killed in this attack, but as an audio released on the Internet three days later made clear, Baghdadi was, at worst, wounded. This attack did kill ten senior ISIL commanders and wounded 40 other ISIL members. This apparently included the British ISIL man identified as “Jihadi John”, who was believed responsible (via videos released on the Internet) for the beheading of several Western hostages.
November 7, 2014: The U.S. is sending another 1,500 troops to Iraq, increasing the American force there to 3,100 (plus several thousand contractor personnel who carry out technical and security tasks as well as helping to train Iraqi troops). Many of the contractor personnel are former military (both American and from other nations). American troops not only provide training for Iraqi troops but also twelve man advisor teams for Iraqi brigades and ground controller teams to call in air strikes.