When the shock troops of the Islamic State set out to conquer a city in Syria or Iraq, their first move has been to avoid a battle by spreading terror – using videos that show them savaging civilians and beheading captured soldiers.
If psychological warfare fails, the self-styled “Army of the Caliphate” has developed its own form of maneuver warfare, using the fleet of four-wheel drive American Humvees seized from Iraqi army bases to outflank their foes and throw them into confusion.
The highly mobile force has embraced technology and public relations, but it’s also is skilled at data base management. It use satellite uplinks to communicate from the field, and members say its forces have deployed reconnaissance drones.
It’s been 12 weeks since the Islamic State stunned the world by seizing vast territories in Iraq to add to the territory it already controlled in Syria. The western-backed Free Syrian Army was not surprised, however.
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Some outsiders have written them off as weak, uncoordinated and deeply factionalized, but the rebels have experience fighting the Islamic State since they ousted them from large parts of northern Syria early this year. What that experience has shown the rebels is that Islamic State fighters are fierce and unafraid of death and a difficult match for an ill-equipped, disorganized rebel force.
In the past two months, moderate rebels have lost more ground to the Islamic State, particularly in eastern Syria. But rebel officers, most of them defectors from the Syrian army, say the Islamic extremists can be defeated with more international support and better internal organization.
At the same time, they warn that U.S. air strikes, without ground spotters – a task they would like to fulfill – will prove counterproductive and controversial, because the Islamic State, with no permanent bases, uses civilians as human shields.
Just 10 days ago, the Syrian regime, which for nearly a year had allowed the Islamic State to crate a safe haven on Syrian soil, sent its Air Force to bomb Raqqa, the jihadists’ stronghold. But in 50 air strikes, they killed only about 10 Islamic State members and around 200 civilians, said Mutasem al Jisri, the media liaison to the rebels’ Supreme Military Staff.
And they say it would be a mistake to underestimate the determination of the Islamic State fighters, most of them non-Syrians, who don suicide belts as they go into battle. A commander, who faced them in a losing battle in eastern Syria, noted that medical units are not sent to attend to wounded Islamic State fighters, who are seeking martyrdom. “They are ready to die, willingly. They are not afraid of anything,” said Capt. Iyad Shamsi, who witnessed the Islamists’ walkover in June in Abu Kamal, Euphrates river town on Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.
“They brought their (black) flags, they distributed their videos,” he told McClatchy. “Everyone was afraid. Some (rebel) fighters just dropped their weapons. Abu Kamal fell after a very short battle, and it caused a Dominoes effect in the nearby town of Shahfah, Sh-hail and to the west.” The Free Syrian army, by contrast, had done no “hearts and minds” work to reassure the population and didn’t even have a flag to plant.
The fall of Deir El Zour, the second biggest city in eastern Syria, was an even bigger calamity.
In January, as Free Syrian Army volunteers attacked and expelled extremists from northeastern Syria, rebels also expelled the radicals from Deir El Zour. “We kept them out for four months,” Abu Mousab, a home heating contractor-turned-rebel commander, told McClatchy.
But in June, even before the fall of Mosul, Iraq, they started to penetrate again. Then in July, strengthened with fresh weapons, ammunition and vehicles after capturing army bases in northern Iraq, a force of some 2,000, calling itself the “Army of the Caliphate,” returned with a vengeance. Forces came from Raqqa, a city in northeast Syria where the Syrian government allowed the Islamic State to establish its capital, and from Iraq.
To soften up resistance, they broadcast terror videos, “showing how they slaughter and kill,” recalled Abu Mousab, who asked to be called “Mousab’s father” to protect family members still living in the region. Their next step was to use their supporters in the town, a sort of fifth column, to discourage other locals, either with bribes or warnings, from putting up a fight.
The “spies,” as he called them, also advised Islamic State commanders where were the weakest points in the defense of the town, he said. That done, the “Army of the Caliphate” launched its invasion. Almost all were foreigners – from Kazakhstan, China, France, Morocco and other countries – and the commander of one wing was by Omar al Shishani, a Chechen. “No one speaks Arabic. The only words they know are Bismullah (In the name of God) and Hamdiallah (Thank God),” he said.
This column advanced moved along two fronts _ from the west with tanks, armored vehicles, heavy artillery and heavy machine guns usable as anti-aircraft weapons – and from the east, this one a sort of 21st Century cavalry of captured Humvees. Islamic State commanders not only had tactical intelligence, but also powerful means of communications, with antennae and receivers in each vehicle, Abu Mousab said.
In two weeks of fighting, the armored units forced the defenders onto the main intersection in Deir El Zour, the Al Halabia traffic circle.They found themselves battling not only the Islamic State, but also the Assad regime, which took advantage of the situation and bombed the rebel forces. The final blow was the unexpected arrival of some 1,000 Islamic State troops, coming in from the rear, which threw threw the rebels into disarray. And that was the end of Deir El Zour.
But the city needn’t have fallen. According to Abu Mousab, rebel forces altogether had some 10,000 fighters, not to mention a reserve of fighters who belong to the tribes that control the region and are eager to carry on the battle.
Their readiness to resist was a tragic coda to the battle. After seizing Deir El Zour, the Islamic State enraged locals by staging public crucifixions of local on the pretext of various crimes. The apparent aim was intimidation. “Killing them in this way sends a message of terror,” Abu Mousab said. Adding to the outrage, the Islamic State keeps its victims on its crosses for three days, and then doesn’t allow families to fetch the corpse of their relative.
The outrages multiplied, and one tribe, the Al Shuaitat, staged a rebellion in early August, only to be it crushed by the Islamic State, which announced it had executed 700 tribesmen.
Abu Mousab, who himself seemed shell-shocked during a two hour interview, said locals in Deir El Zour and elsewhere in Syria are willing to risk their lives to fight the Islamic State and could take back their country, but they need backing. “This is our land. These are our people,” he said. “If we had outside support, they would not be able to advance,” he said. But the support is not only in arms and ammunition, for fighters need salaries so they can feed their families as well as a promise of benefits for families if they die in battle.
He cited four lessons from the fall of the city. “We need officers with a military mind” to plot strategy and tactics, an “operational headquarters that is responsible for all of Syria,” not just one region or sub-region, more military training, and access to weapons, in particular anti-tank weapons.
“We had only RPGs, but they were not sufficient,” he said.
Deir El Zour could “very easily” be recaptured “if it was a surprise attack and we had support from the air,” he said.