ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) remains the largest and best financed Islamic terrorist group in the region. 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 their 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 is 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 via smart phones. 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 a growing number of massacres of Sunni Arab tribesmen (and women) 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 islosing control of towns and villages because of this rebellion.
ISIL leadership contains hundreds of veterans from the 2004-8 terror campaign in Iraq and many of these men also served Saddam for many years. These guys know how to organize and run a police state and effectively use terror to keep allies and enemies in line. Thus ISIL will generally leave alone populations that are compliant (and at least appear to go along with the strict lifestyle rules) and is ruthless with those who resist (like the Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria). Even with these experienced administrators ISIL is running into more basic problems. Western financial experts calculate that, even by keeping costs down, ISIL will soon collapse because they don’t have a functioning economy and insufficient cash on hand, and future revenue, to govern the areas they control. They can plunder the civilians they control, which they have already done to a certain extent, but this just causes active resistance and rebellion, which is already happening. Wherever ISIL is they find that they have fewer local supporters the longer ISIL is in control.
Then there are the recruiting problems. Back in 2009 the men now running ISIL were then presiding over their defeat as Islamic terrorist groups in Iraq were crushed by Shia soldiers and police aided by rebellious Sunni tribesmen. During this period they had a recruiting problem and they solved it by forcing/persuading/enticing teenage boys to join. Now ISIL is doing this. ISIL has not been getting as many foreign volunteers as it once did. The popularity of ISIL in the Moslem world has sharply declined over the last few months, and with that it is no longer fashionable for young men to join ISIL and die as suicide bombers or fanatical untrained gunmen. Iraqi men are not too keen on self-destructive attacks either, so the ISIL has been getting teenagers (as young as 14), as well as those with mental problems (that make them easy to manipulate). These kids are armed and generally used for guard duty and to augment older ISIL men who man checkpoints. When the kids are deemed reliable and motivated enough, they are sent off to more strenuous (and dangerous) work. The mentally ill are used as suicide bombers.
Air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq are increasing. There have been over 1,200 so far (since August 8th). These attacks have killed over a thousand 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. Most (about two-thirds) of the air strikes continue to be in Iraq. These air attacks are believed to have crippled ISIL ability to move supplies or fighters and continue attacking. The frequency and effectiveness of ISIL attacks has steadily diminished as the air attacks increased since August. The U.S. accounts for 85 percent of the air attacks against ISIL. Warplanes from Saudi Arabia, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Jordan and Bahrain also hit targets in Syria while Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France and the Netherlands warplanes hit targets only in Iraq. Most of the flights these nations make over Syria and Iraq are for reconnaissance and surveillance to gather information on what ISIL is up to and what the most likely targets are. The air attack have caused a growing number of supply and cash 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 via tips from locals. Also being hit is ISIL construction equipment, which is being used to build fortifications, obstacles and bunkers.
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 a growing number of losses in the ISIL leadership. To make attacks the ISIL 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 but will still occur if the target is considered important enough. 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 since October.
The increased air strikes have also caused ISIL to concentrate more on terror bombings. There have been more of these in Iraq (especially Baghdad), and wherever there are Iraqi or Kurdish troops the ISIL terrorists can reach. More than 14,000 Iraqis have died so far this year from terrorist related violence. For all that the deaths in Syria have been much higher (over 50,000 so far this year and more than 200,000 since 2011) than in Iraq. There are also a lot fewer refugees in Iraq (at least three million) compared to Syria (more than ten million). About half the Iraqi refugees fled for the safer Kurdish north. This has become a major security problem for the Kurds because most of the refugees are Arabs, not Kurds and have to be screened carefully and then policed regularly to ensure than none decide to go on jihad and become Islamic terrorists.
Then there is Turkey. Because of the initial Turkish reluctance to allow Kurds to reinforce and supply Kobane via Turkey the Kurds in Syria are now convinced that Turkey is playing a double-game here and is secretly in touch with and cooperating with ISIL. While some members of the Islamic government of Turkey feel that Turkey could cope with an ISIL victory in Syria and Iraq, most Turks disagree and see ISIL has a threat to all Moslems. The Kurds have been double-crossed and screwed by the Turks often enough to believe anything about Turkish foreign policy. While the Turks may be less trusting when it comes to the Syrian Kurds, they are on much better terms with the more numerous Iraqi Kurds. The Turks even have troops in Kurdish northern Iraq helping to train Kurds who want to fight against ISIL. Despite occasional pro-Islamic terrorist rhetoric the senior leaders of Turkey openly proclaim their opposition to ISIL and that is encouraged by the majority of Turks who, as opinion polls show, are very anti-ISIL. Despite that about 600 Turkish men have joined ISIL in Syria and about 16 percent have been killed so far.
In the last few days ISIL arrested and executed several of their top officials including their senior leader in Mosul. All these men were accused of spying for the enemy (the U.S., Iraq, Iran or whatever as details are murky). At the same time ten lower ranking ISIL men were executed, for fleeing during combat. There have apparently been a hundred or more such deserter executions in the last month. ISIL is having growing morale problems and is increasingly catching and executing deserters, especially the foreign volunteers (who stand out and are easier to catch if they try to leave). There are so many deserters that ISIL has set up reeducation camps to try and rehabilitate deserters. Those who do not rehabilitate are executed. ISIL used to just let deserters go, but with the increased combat over the last six months and the growing effectiveness of the enemy, ISIL needs all the fighters it can get. So the “new ISIL” is less forgiving and that has hurt morale. More ISIL volunteers are viewing their leaders as a bunch of paranoid homicidal maniacs which is one area of agreement ISIL men have with their enemies.
December 10, 2014: ISIL made a move to cut off army troops north of Baghdad at Samara. This is the site of a major Shia shrine and a large number of Iranian pilgrims just arrived in Iraq and some planned to visit Samara. That has to wait a few days as troops and Shia militia drive ISIL gunmen away from the roads to Samara. ISIL can no longer go where it wants and just take towns or cities. ISIL now runs into more resistance and, more frequently, prompt and effective counterattacks. Part of the failed ISIL offensive included an attack on a checkpoint, using suicide bombers and a fuel tanker that left over a dozen dead.
Further north in the autonomous Kurdish territory officials revealed that about 700 of their militia (Peshmerga) had died fighting ISIL since June, along with over 3,500 wounded.
December 9, 2014: Iraq asked the visiting American Secretary of Defense for more U.S. warplanes. The U.S. policy is to keep the number of warplanes where it is for the moment until the Iraqi army is ready to launch a major offensive. Then the U.S. airplane strength would be increased. American commanders handling retraining of Iraqi troops said that offensive won’t take place until early 2015. Most of the 4,600 American troops in Iraq are there to train Iraqis ore guard the embassy and the Baghdad airport.
December 7, 2014: Iran admitted that its warplanes had hit ISIL targets near the Iranian border and had done so without consulting the Americans, but at the request of the Iraqi government. The U.S. and Iran do have some “understandings” one of them being that the U.S. will not automatically attack Iranian military aircraft that enter Iraq. The U.S. also stays away from areas near the Iranian border (eastern Diyala province northeast of Baghdad as well as border areas south of Baghdad) where Iranian trainers and advisors are working with Iraqi troops (some soldiers and a lot of Shia militias). These Iranian supported (and often led) troops have played a major role in halting continued ISIL moves to get into Baghdad. The fighting is bitter and prisoners taken by both sides are often executed. The Sunni Islamic terrorists have killed thousands of Shia women and children in the last decade and Shia militiamen are not in a merciful mood. But then ISIL also continues to kill Shia, armed or unarmed. The Iranian led forces in Diyala have been successful in taking back areas ISIL has held for months.
December 2, 2014: ISIL attacked a border post in the far west (near where the Syrian and Jordanian borders meet) and killed sixteen border guards. The attack was repulsed.
The government and the autonomous Kurdish north reached a formal agreement on how to handle the sale of oil produced (often by new Kurdish built wells) in the Kurdish north. The Iraqi state oil company will handle the sales and, for now, the Kurds will receive 17 percent of Iraqi oil income.
December 1, 2014: The government fired the Interior Minister as part of an investigation into corruption (as a cause of the June collapse of the army and police in and around Mosul). One recent admission was that an audit found at least 50,000 “ghost” soldiers on the payroll. These ghost soldiers do not exist (although some are men who were killed or deserted) and are an ancient scam in this part of the world where senior officers or government officials pocket the money these ghosts are paid every month. Many police (controlled by the Interior Ministry) were also ghosts but the exact number was not revealed.
There were about 1,200 Iraqi terrorism related deaths in November, which was down about 8 percent from the 1,300 in October. About two-thirds of the dead are civilians. Data on terror related deaths since June have been missing some data from ISIL controlled areas, where the Islamic terrorists have barred journalists and free circulation of information in general. Thus actual death figures since June are probably 20-50 percent higher than reported and the real numbers may not be known for some time, if ever. For example it was recently revealed that back in June ISIL executed at least 600 prisoners in found in Mosul area jails. This action received no publicity from ISIL.
Without adjustments there were 1,200 deaths in September, 1,500 in August, 1,737 in July and over 2,400 in June. This is all a big jump from the 934 in May (which was a slight decrease from April). In April there were 1,009 deaths (87 percent civilians, including terrorists and the other 13 percent security forces). A spike in terror related deaths in April was largely to do with terrorist efforts to disrupt the April 30 national elections. This effort failed but hundreds of people died in the process. In March at least 592 Iraqis died from Islamic terrorist violence. Soldiers and police were 18 percent of that and most of the rest were civilians. It’s believed at least 200 Islamic terrorists died. The March death rate was down from February, when there were about a thousand deaths. In 2013 the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians.
November 28, 2014: ISIL claims to have captured an Iranian Mohajer 4 UAV near the Iranian border. ISIL also claims to have shot down several Iranian UAVs but the one they claim to have captured looks like it crash landed (because of mechanical or electronic problems) and does not show any gunfire damage. In any event capturing a UAV or seizing one that crash landed largely intact does not mean you have an operational UAV. To operate it you need a ground control station, which ISIL apparently does not have (as these tend to stay in Iran) and reverse engineering a control station from a captured UAV is a time consuming and very technical task. Not the sort of thing ISIL is well equipped to do. Iran, on the other hand, has been developing, building and using its own UAVs for several decades.
Iranian major general Qassem Suleimani was recently identified as the Iranian architect and commander of the Iraqi counterattack against ISIL in Iraq. This was recently described in detail by an article on a Hezbollah website. Suleimani was described as arriving in Iraq on June 10th and then bringing in thousands of Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) advisers, experts and combat commanders to organize an effective response to the ISIL offensive. He has done this by weeding out the most incompetent Iraqi officers, training some replacements and quickly creating reliable Iraqi army units. In addition he organized, armed and trained effective Shia volunteer militias. Suleimani then decided where these new forces should fight and in loose cooperation with the Kurds and (since August 8th) foreign (largely U.S.) air power stopped the ISIL advance and is now pushing the Sunni Islamic terrorists back. Suleimani belongs to IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) and commands 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 now 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.
November 27, 2014: Desperate to halt the growing number of accurate air attacks against their leaders ISIL shut down cell phone service in Mosul and apparently plans to do the same in other areas it controls. The Iraqi government and the U.S. admit that they have received many (over 20,000) phone and email tips from people in ISIL controlled areas providing information on what ISIL is doing. American and Iraqi intelligence use this information to plan deployments and air strikes. Even the Sunnis in ISIL controlled territory are providing tips, mainly because of brutal (mass executions plus kidnapping and torture) ISIL retaliation against Sunni tribes that refuse to conform to strict ISIL lifestyle rules. Many of the Sunni tribes in the west (Anbar province) are buying more weapons with their own money and are asking for more arms from the government and the Americans. U.S. advisors report that all this tribal anti-ISIL activity is very real, if only because ISIL has killed hundreds of tribe members for not submitting to ISIL rule. The U.S. has authorized the arming of Sunni tribes but the tribesmen have not seen the weapons yet. Meanwhile they are constantly threatened or attacked by ISIL.
November 26, 2014: In the north (on the Tigris River between Baghdad and Mosul) Iraqi troops continue fighting ISIL near an oil refinery. Two weeks ago 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 21, 2014: ISIL launched another attack to take Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in the west. In October ISIL seized one of the few large military bases in the vicinity of Ramadi. Anbar officials believe ISIL controls 80 percent of the province and that the government has been slow, or ineffective, to resist ISIL advances. Some Anbar officials are calling for foreign intervention to prevent the entire province from coming under ISIL control. The local Sunni tribes say that with more weapons and some American air support they can push ISIL back.