BAGHDAD: Looking at ISIS’ string of military conquests in northern Iraq over the past week, one could think the jihadists outnumber their opponents 10 to 1.
After routing government forces in an onslaught launched on June 9, it has managed to hold Iraq’s second city Mosul and gone on the offensive again last week, forcing the Kurdish peshmerga to retreat on several fronts and seizing the country’s largest dam.
But the jihadist group remains a relatively small force and its strength lies not in numbers. U.S. airstrikes, which targeted ISIS positions near Irbil Friday, might stop the rot but the Al-Qaeda splinter group remains a powerful foe.
Here are five reasons identified by military experts for the jihadists’ military successes:
Newly acquired weapons ISIS has made use of the military equipment it seized from its defeated enemies, including tanks, Humvees, missiles and other heavy weaponry.
The amount of hardware, often U.S.-made, the Iraqi army left behind in its spectacular retreat when the jihadists launched their offensive two months ago has transformed ISIS’ capabilities.
“And they keep taking it, they made significant gains of the kind of equipment they needed the most,” said Anthony Cordesman, from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
U.S. fighter jets would probably to a better job of destroying that equipment than the Iraqi air force’s ageing Sukhois.
Syria experience ISIS has long had a foothold in Iraq – even where the group’s first incarnation was born in 2004 – but it became what it is today by fighting in neighboring Syria.
“Three years of fighting in Syria has provided unparalleled training and learning opportunities for ISIS,” the U.S.-based intelligence consultancy Soufan Group said in a recent brief.
Aggressive tactics by fearless fighters who have amassed huge experience during months fighting the Syrian regime and rival rebels: “That’s a kind of fighting people in Iraq weren’t used to,” Cordesman said.
Well-chosen battles ISIS has picked its battles with great acumen, focusing on Sunni areas where support can be found, key infrastructure or poorly defended sites and by avoiding unnecessary losses to maintain momentum and internal unity.
“They’ve moved a considerable distance in the past few days but these were very sparsely populated areas and there was very little in the way of defense forces,” said John Drake of the AKE Group security company.
“When an opponent is already waning, [ ISIS is] very good at letting people run away, but against those who really dig their heels in, they haven’t cracked many nuts,” said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Retired Iraqi Gen. Ahmad Abdullah Juburi said U.S. air support “could provide some encouragement for Sunni groups and tribes to turn against ISIS” by boosting morale.
Effective propaganda ISIS has used the fear factor to conquer entire towns unopposed. It has posted online grisly pictures of beheadings and mutilated bodies, to recruit radicalized youths but also to scare its opponents.
The jihadists project “an illusion of almost superhuman villainy,” said the Soufan Group’s Patrick Skinner. Civilians fled the northern town of Sinjar in panic last week when ISIS warned it was an hour away from entering.
“PR and intimidation is an important tactic for [ISIS],” said Drake. “Whether or not they can use all the weapons they seize, they’re going to take pictures and use them for propaganda.”
Drake argued it was unlikely limited U.S. strikes would “galvanize any jihad. That sort of radicalization has already occurred.”
Iraqi air raids have already caused numerous civilian casualties, and Drake argued that more accurate bombing by the U.S. air force would be an improvement.
Weak opponents Possibly the single biggest factor making the jihadists look strong is the weakness of its opponents.
“The peshmerga are relatively good by Iraqi standards but they are really light infantry fighters. Those who had experience fighting Saddam Hussein are gone and have been replaced by younger men,” Cordesman said.
“[ISIS] has revealed depressing insufficiencies in its opponents, starting with the truly awful performance of the well-equipped Iraqi Army,” the Soufan Group brief said.
While training and equipment are needed in the long term, U.S. strikes could temporarily correct that skill imbalance.
Drake said strikes could “soften up some of the ISIS positions and make it easier for counter-offensives” by the peshmerga. They could also eliminate command centers and harm the group’s effectiveness.