Early this year, Islamic State forces showed a powerful new side to their murderous military operation by knocking out five of the Iraq Army’s M1A1 Abrams tanks with anti-tank guided missiles and shooting down six of the army’s helicopters with a light anti-aircraft gun and rocket launchers while damaging 60 others.
The New York Times quoted a U.S. official in June as saying that, in all, 28 Iraqi Army Abrams tanks had been damaged in fighting with the militants, including the five that suffered “ full armor penetration” when struck by the anti-tank missiles. As for the helicopters either destroyed or heavily damaged between January and May, they constituted “a significant proportion of the Iraqi Army Aviation Command’s assets.”
President Obama this week renewed his pledge to “degrade and ultimately” destroy the fast growing and powerful militant jihadists who have swarmed across Syria and Iraq killing, enslaving or displacing hundreds of thousands of people and threatening to topple the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Yet, U.S. led air strikes – and the hoped for assistance from moderate Syrian rebels being trained by American advisers -- may not be nearly enough to thwart the heavily armed ISIS forces, according to some experts.
With hundreds of millions of dollars that they stole from banks and businesses, and profits from the black market sale of oil, ISIS has amassed a huge arsenal of weaponry, including heavy armored vehicles and artillery during their 18-month offensive in Syria and Iraq. According to the International Business Times, the armaments “are predominantly a mix of veteran Soviet tanks, large, advanced U.S. made systems, and black market arms.”
James Carafano, vice president for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, said in an interview Wednesday that ISIS has assembled an extraordinarily formidable fighting force in the Middle East that will be difficult to take down.
“If you have money and you can get to a border, you can be in the arms business, and right now ISIS has a lot of both,” he said. “The problem [for the U.S. and its allies] is that ISIS is armed as well if not better than the other people they are fighting right now.”
Carafano, an expert on the Middle East conflict, said that until recently, ISIS had no problem purchasing or confiscating assault rifles, light armored vehicles and trucks, grenade launchers and all the ammunition they needed. However, “the game changer” for ISIS came when they began to seize armored vehicles and heavy weapons like tanks and artillery pieces – mostly from the bedraggled Iraqi army, which frequently has been routed by the terrorists.
“The big stuff that really makes a pretty dramatic difference is the heavy weapons they obtained from the Iraqi military,” Carafano said. “The reason why those are a game changer is that they are big, powerful weapons and yet still relatively easy to operate and maintain. It’s not like a helicopter, where if you don’t have a trained pilot,” there’s not much you can do with it, he added.
While ISIS seems to be having no trouble acquiring the big guns needed to bludgeon Iraqi and Syrian fighters and civilians, the flip side is that those weapons make good targets for U.S. and allied jet fighters and drones.
According to IBT, ISIS has acquired tanks from Syrian rebels, such as the T-72, a relatively modern Russian design, and the T-55, an obsolete model that dates back to World War II. “The group also has captured Chinese copies of Soviet field and anti-aircraft guns from the Iraqi and Syrian armies,” the publication reported.
The authoritative Brown Moses, a British blog covering the Syrian civil war, has reported that beginning in early 2013, Saudi Arabia “began smuggling weapons it had purchased from the Croatian government through Jordan to the south of Syria,” including RBG-6 grenade launchers, M60 recoilless guns, RPG-22 rocket launchers and M79 Osa rocket launchers. Those smuggled weapons ended up in ISIS hands.
The New York Times reported earlier this month that ISIS forces have been using ammunition manufactured in the United States, China and other countries that have been supporting the regional security forces fighting the jihadists. The report was based on new field data gathered by Conflict Armament Research, which tracks weapons used by the Islamic State.
The data suggested, among other things, that ammunition that was sent to Syria and Iraq to help stabilize governments “has instead passed from the governments to the jihadists, helping to fuel the Islamic State’s rise and persistent combat power.”
Carafano said that there is no way to prevent weapons and ammunition from falling into the wrong hands in the Middle East. And international efforts to try to choke off the flow of weapons to radical groups in the end are largely futile.
“For people who are determined to traffic in arms in the Middle East, it’s almost impossible to stop them,” he said. “So when you look at – as a strategy – choking off the arms, that is probably the most difficult thing to implement. That’s because there are so many different parties in these conflicts with different agendas. The odds are that there is always somebody who wants to sell weapons to somebody.”
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