Monday, 28 March 2016

Tadmur recaptured, Islamic State forces on the run



By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

After having been captured by the Islamic State just short of a year ago, the city of Tadmur is now back in the hands of the regime after a large offensive conducted by units of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA), Hizbullah, Shiite militias and the Russian Armed Forces cleared the town city and its surroundings from the presence of the Islamic State. While the recapture of the ancient town of Palmyra, home to many well-preserved ruins and archeologica artifacts, will surely make the headlines all over the world, wrestling control over the city of Tadmur itself from the Islamic State is of a much larger significance to the future course of the Syrian War.

Its significance arises not only from the gasfield-rich terrain in which it lies, a factor which is sure to aid future regime operations, but also from the strategic location of Tadmur within Syria. Holding the key to the highway connecting Deir ez-Zor to the West of Syria, the only thing laying in the way of breaking the siege of this heavily embattled city is al-Sukhna, held firmly in Islamic State control since May 2015. However, with the fighters of the Islamic State on the run and little reinforcements present in the area, a regime offensive to quickly retake al-Sukhna before the Islamic State has had the chance to regroup seems likely.

The siege of Deir ez-Zor, in place since the capture of al-Sukha by the Islamic State on the 13th of May 2015, prevents any aid from being brought in by trucks, forcing the remaining citizens of the city to rely on an airbridge conducted by the Syrian Arab Air Force's (SyAAF) Il-76 fleet. Maintaining the airbridge is an expensive affair, not to mention the fact that it prevents the precious Il-76 fleet from being used for other critical tasks. To quickly continue the offensive in the direction of al-Sukhna is critical in order to deny the fighters of the Islamic State the opportunity to dig in and create defensive line here. The fact that Tadmur airbase has been captured intact will greatly benefit the SyAA in future operations in Central to Eastern Syria. The long runway will allow cargo aircraft to bring in supplies and additional troops and could be used for the forward deployment of attack helicopters, as was already witnessed the day after the capture.

While the capture of Tadmur will surely be celebrated as a heroic feat by the Syrian Arab Army, one must not forget it was the same SyAA that gave up the town without any serious opposition one year ago. Indeed, what was intended to be a lightning attack on the town of al-Sukhna in a way so often seen conducted by the fighters of the Islamic State ultimately ended up as the surprise capture of Tadmur. Instead of putting up a serious fight to defend the town, the garrison of al-Sukhna quickly fled for the desert after two of its tanks were destroyed by ATGMs, only to be chased and hunted down by the fighters of the Islamic State. Encountering nothing but desert after al-Sukhna, the Islamic State waged its chances and quickly continued its offensive deeper into Central Syria. When arriving at the next (heavily defended) regime bases; T3 pumping station, Arak, and Hulayhilah, the defenders not only failed to point their artillery and tanks in the right direction, but in fact didn't manage to deploy them in the first place. It seems plausible that the defenders were completely unaware of the impending danger, which is all the more strange as Hulayhilah served as a communication hub to coordinate regime operations in Central Syria. Unfortunately, the defenders that did manage to escape the massacre that followed at Hulayhilah were also hunted down after fleeing into the desert.

Boosted by these successes, the fighters of the Islamic State then set their eyes on the town of Tadmur. Although by now fully aware of the impending danger, regime forces present in Tadmur proved to be completely incapable of properly anticipating the impending assault and setting up defensive positions. Not even the local airbase, guarding the entrance of the town and without a doubt the best defensive position a commander could wish for was employed in the defence of the town. While the regime saved no effort to show off artillery and aircraft striking positions of the Islamic State east of Tadmur for the international press, it then quickly fled the town, leaving not only the civilian population behind, but also many soldiers incapable of fleeing and left to fend for themselves. A small Islamic State force originally tasked with capturing al-Sukhna thus suddenly found itself amidst the ruins of Palmyra just a week later; it had advanced quicker than the Syrian Arab Army could retreat on several occasions, only being 'beaten' by the rapid retreat of the troops tasked with defending Tadmur.

The Islamic State quickly rounded up the remaining regime forces, some of which were directly executed in front of the local population but most locked up in the infamous prison of Tadmur, sight of the 1980 massacre. After featuring the captured soldiers in various propaganda videos, during which some were executed in front of the prison but mainly in the ancient town of Palmyra (most notoriously in the Roman Theatre), the prison was blown up, in addition to various well-preserved temples in the ancient city. The fighters of the Islamic State were meanwhile busy fighting their way farther into the Homs governorate, capturing T4 pumping station and clashing with the defenders of T4 airbase. Being the SyAAF's largest and most important airbase, it can truly be called a fortress. The fighters of the Islamic State found itself incapable of capturing the airbase (which would have required an offensive on a scale not yet seen before) and were forced to work around the airbase in order to continue its advance. It then focused on the towns of al-Qaryatayn and Mahin and by advancing into the Damascus and Homs countryside, it even successfully cut of T4 airbase for a short time. Although capturing large swaths of territory, the fighters of the Islamic State soon found themselves unable to push deeper into the Homs and Damascus governorates. While it captured, lost, and then recaptured al-Qaryatayn and Mahin, further Islamic State's advances were effectively blocked here. Although in no way short on ammunition due to the huge amounts of weaponry found at al-Qaryatayn earlier (including ten tanks), the town is now fully under siege by the regime. Back to Tadmur, where the first serious reports about regime forces aiming to recapture the town started to surface in July. From this point on, three different offensives were launched at the town.


The defence of Tadmur was in the hands of a small Islamic State garrison, which due to the now worsening shortages in manpower was unable to defend such a large area. Although the Islamic State hugely expanded its territories by the capture of much of Central Syria, it simply lacked the troops to properly defend it. The small garrison present therefore chose to focuss its firepower at the mountainous terrain west of the city. Serving as a natural barrier, these mountains proved ideal for fighting off the first offensive conducted by the regime. This first offensive consisted of poorly trained NDF and militia members supported by T-55s and T-62s and the SyAAF flying Su-22M4s and Su-24MK2s from T4. Several attempts were made to advance on Tadmur and although terrain was captured, heavy losseswere also incurred due to the use of ATGMs by the Islamic State. Several follow-up attempts yielded the same result, and regime forces were ultimately broken up and routed each time. The second offensive was launched after Russian-supplied T-72Bs, BMP-2s, BMP-1s, BTR-80s and Russian-manned 152mm 2A65 Msta-B howitzers and 122mm BM-21-1 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) arrived on the scene, further supported by the Russian Air Force (RuAF) flying Mi-8s, Mi-24Ps and Mi-35Ms from T4 and Sh'eirat and Su-24s and Su-25s from Hmeemeem/Bassel al-Assad IAP. This offensive, now jointly conducted with the Russians, again advanced closer to Tadmur but failed to break through to the town. The Islamic State frequently counterattacked with its fighters and tanks, but also with BMP-1 based vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). The short range of the BMP-1's 73mm 2A28 Grom cannon made this vehicle practically useless for the Islamic State in its intended role, and the large numbers captured allowed the Islamic State to effectively employ them as VBIEDs. Such attacks were usually preceded by a defensive position drawing attention from the opposing regime forces, allowing the BMP-1 VBIEDs to speed towards the distracted regime forces unnoticed, detonating their deadly payload when close by.


The sheer size and firepower of the units in the third offensive is what ultimately caused the fighters of the Islamic State to break. The offensive, preparations for which were already underway for a month, involved the best Russia and the regime had to offer. The armoured forces were expanded by the addition of more T-72Bs, and T-72B Obr. 1989s and T-90s while the artillery was strenghtened by the addition of 220mm BM-27s, 300mm BM-30s and 220mm TOS-1As. The Russian Air Force intensified its operations over Tadmur, even bringing in recently arrived Mi-28N attack helicopters. The regime brought in a large contingent of the elite Suqour al-Sahraa' (Desert Falcons) troops, Navy Seals, commandos and Shiite militias, even including an Afghan battalion with its own tanks, once again highlighting the shortage of regular manpower. The deployment of such a large force, part of which led by Suheil 'The Tiger' al-Hassan, was made possible after the successes around Aleppo and Lattakia, allowing for the redistribition of troops elsewhere. The SyAAF's SA-342 'Gazelles' also saw heavy action over the skies of Tadmur, each helicopter deploying 4 HOT ATGMs.

Aided by the deployment of Russian Special Forces, mainly tasked with calling in fire and air support, this force gradually fought its way closer to the city. Completely outmatched by the vast amount of firepower this offensive brought with it, the fighters of the Islamic State gradually retreated closer to the town, holding up in the ancient castle west of the city until it was overrun as well. The huge weapon depots north of the city also quickly came under the control of the attacking forces. Although large numbers of weaponry and ammunition were expected to have been present here before being captured by fighters of the Islamic State, only one image was ever published after the capture of the depots, leaving the amount of ghaneema (spoils of war) unknown.

While it was expected the remaining Islamic State fighters would turn the town into a fortress, forcing the attacking forces to fight for every building like in Ramadi, they gave up large parts of the town without putting up much resistance, instead retreating to al-Sukhna. The regime had prepared its forces for the possibility of house-to-house fighting, even bringing in T-72s upgraded with slat and spaced armour to better counter the threat posed by RPGs in urban areas. Large numbers of IEDs were reportedly left behind, which are certain to claim additional lives as efforts are undertaken to remove them. It is unknown what happened to the mainly Sunni civilian population, thousands of which still believed to have been in the city shortly before being recaptured by the regime. While pro-regime sources claimed they had all escaped safely into regime territory, the Islamic State asked civilians to leave the town and head towards al-Sukhna a short while later. Supposedly, the Russian Army is to deploy advanced equipment and sappers to aid in the removal of the many IEDs left behind in the area.


Tadmur airbase was captured almost entirely intact, which will prove of great value for future offensives conducted in the region, and also help resolidify the regime's grasp on the large swaths of desert that make up most of Central Syria. The Hardened Aircaft Shelters (HAS) revealed that most of the Kh-28 anti-radiation missiles and R-40 air-to-air missiles left behind by the SyAAF remained untouched by the fighters of the Islamic State. Surprisingly however, at least one R-40TD infrared-guided missile was turned into a makeshift surface-to-air missile. The HASes also functioned as improvised weapon and IED factories under Islamic State control. It is unknown if any of the six radars previously captured by the Islamic State suffered any kind of damage, although it certain the regime is hoping the modern JY-27 radar located here survived, as it was one of the most valuable systems present. Without these radars, most of Central Syria is essentially fair game for any air force to invade completely unnoticed. Of course, as sovereignty of Syrian air space is a term of very little significance in the present one can wonder whether preservation of such systems has any real meaning however.







Now that Tadmur has been retaken and a swift advance on al-Sukhna appears to be likely, the future of the city of Deir ez-Zor is suddenly full of possibilities again. A logical course of actions for the Assad regime would to restore a ground supply line to the city as fast as possible and then attempt take as much territory from the Islamic State as possible in this area before the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sweep in from the North. Should the siege of Deir ez-Zor indeed be lifted and the surrounding areas taken, the Islamic State would no longer have any roads connecting the capital of Raqqa with Mosul and Iraq in general, which would certainly hasten its demise.

The regime upmarch contrasts sharply with gains made by the Islamic State in the previous few years, and sheds light on just how much the odds have shifted in favour of President Assad since those times. As regime-held territory continues to expand and viable alternatives are outcompeted by more radicalised factions, Assad holds an increasingly favourable position in the Geneva peace talks, and is unlikely to resign or be forced to step down in the foreseeable future. In the meanwhile the Islamic State, though threatened on almost every front, is still far from defeated and as is witnessed by the recent flurry of attacks across the world, has suffered little in its capacity to conduct operations abroad. Nonetheless, considering the amount of foes it faces and territories it has lost in both Syria and Iraq in recent months, it is certain that the Islamic State will never be able to regain control over an area as large as it had the summer of last year.

Images by TASS Russian News Agency

Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Islamic State going DIY, R-40 air-to-air missiles used as SAMs?



By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Starting in June 2014, Coalition airstrikes conducted on positions, vehicles and high-ranking members of the Islamic State have taken a heavy toll on the group. These airstrikes combined with increased bombardements conducted by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) and the Russian Air Force (RuAF) have made a significant difference during several battles already, most notably in Kobanî. The Islamic State has so far been unable to come up with an answer against the many air forces now threatening them in both Syria and Iraq. Although it has tried to better camouflage its forces in order to prevent them from being spotted and hit, it has so far failed to directly hit any of the aircraft conducting these strikes.

Although the Islamic State has no lack of surface-to-air missiles nor associated launchers, it lacks the expertise to turn these often derelict systems into operational systems capable of hitting any foe in the air. Indeed, the limited amount of MANPADS in the hands of the Islamic State (even including North Korean examples) have so far only managed to damage or down Iraqi Air Force helicopters. The capture of a fully operational S-125 battery in between Hama and Aleppo did not help the Islamic State in any way, as it was not only incapable of operating these sophisticated systems, but unable to transport these systems to Raqqa in the first place. Using the S-75 missiles captured back in 2014 was complicated by the fact that none of the systems captured were operational or in a state that could easily be made operational, not to mention the fact that they lack the expertise to use them. The usage of one 2P25 launch system, part of the 2K12 Kub SAM complex, captured in Deir ez-Zor was foiled by the lack of any missiles and significant damage on the launcher itself. The capture of a 2K12 Kub battery in Deir ez-Zor in January 2016 did provide the Islamic State with an operational SURN 1S19 radar system and intact launchers, but in such a sorry state that bringing these systems back to operational condition would have been nigh impossible, not to mention the bad condition of the associated missiles. Although not confirmed through video footage, the whole site was said to have been bombed by the RuAF shortly after its capture.

The capture of Tabqa airbase on the 24th of August 2014 did provide the Islamic State with at least ten R-3S and four R-13M air-to-air missiles originally intended to be used on the resident 12th squadron and another unknown squadron flying MiG-21bis and MiG-21MFs. The Islamic State subsequently moved these missiles to Raqqa, where it tried to convert them to the surface-to-air role. This progress was filmed by one of the project leaders, which was subsequently arrested at a rebel checkpoint. The footage was then given to SkyNews, which first reported on the conversion of R-13Ms to the surface-to-air role in the 6th of January 2016.

Tadmur, captured on the 20th of May 2015 and the third airbase to fall in the hands of the Islamic State in Syria, also provided the Islamic State with large numbers of air-to-air missiles and even anti-radiation missiles. Tadmur was previously home to a squadron flying the MiG-25PD(S) interceptor and the MiG-25PU two-seat trainer, but as these aircraft were gradually withdrawn from service, the three remaining MiG-25PD(S) and one MiG-25PU left for T4 in late 2013. Their associated missiles remained stored in two of Tadmur's sixteen Hardened Aircraft Shelters however. When the fighters of the Islamic State overran the airbase, it not only encountered dozens of R-40 air-to-air missiles but also large numbers of Kh-28 anti-radiation missiles, likely intended to be used on Su-22s and Su-24s stationed at T4 but never transported to this airbase.








While it was extremely unlikely that the Islamic State could turn the Kh-28s and its 140kg heavy warhead, intended to be launched against radar systems of SAM sites, into anything useful other than an IED or DIY surface-to-surface rocket, it did find a role for the R-40 missiles also found at the airbase. Two variants of the R-40 were captured: The semi-active radar homing guided R-40RD and the infrared-guided R-40TD. As the R-40RD requires an onboard radar to lock on to the targeted aircraft, it was useless for the Islamic State in its intended role. The R-40TD on the other hand is guided by its infrared warhead, and does not require guidance by an onboard radar. Several similar surface-to-air modifications of the of the R-3S, the R-13M, the R-60 and the R-73 were seen in Yugoslavia in an attempt to counter the Coalition airpower here. All were mounted on trucks, none ever scored a hit. The SyAAF took it one step further and experimented with launching R-40TDs at ground targets several years back, unsurprisingly to no avail.

When regime forces entered one of the recently captured Hardened Aircraft Shelters at Tadmur, they encountered a dump truck armed with no less than an R-40TD! The missile, installed on a newly raised platform, can be aimed by using the dump truck's tipper mechanism. As the R-40 was designed to hit large and fast flying targets, it comes with a 70kg heavy warhead, enabling the missile to destroy most targets by only exploding in the vicinity of the targeted aircraft. The heavy warhead also makes using the R-40 as a DIY surface-to-surface rocket an attractive option. Although such a conversion will be in no way accurate, neither are the hundreds of much lighter DIY rockets still assembled and used by the fighters of the Islamic State each day. While the R-40TD looks to be mounted the wrong way around, the attachment points that connects the missile with the MiG-25's pylons are located on the top of the missile, creating the false impression that the missile sits inverted.


As no aircraft or helicopters were reported to have been shot down over Tadmur, and no one witnessed the impact of an R-40, it will probably always remain unknown what the intended role of this contraption was, or if it was ever used in the first place. It does however once again prove that whatever falls in the hands of the Islamic State, you're always sure they come up with an inventive way to put it to use.




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Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Islamic State going DIY, the birth of the battle monstrosity



By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The establishment of the Islamic State has led to a myriad of DIY projects as the group attempts to equip its fighters with a semblance of armour and heavy firepower. The latest homebred gem was spotted during a recent offensive in Derna, Libya, where it is used to combat the Haftar-aligned Libyan National Army and the Shura Council. The fighters of the Islamic State in Derna are completely cut off from other Islamic State held territory in Libya and thus have to do with what they currently got.

The sighting of this vehicle comes a month after the 'unveiling' on Ansar al-Sharia's take on the BMP-1. This behemoth comes with an armoured 14.5mm ZPU-4 platform over the main gun in addition to bow armour. Deployed in Benghazi, it did not have a long career, being knocked out in early March by the Libyan National Army.

The new contraption, based on a 6x6 truck, features a variety of metal plating and slat armour and is equipped with not just a BMP-1 turret, but actually incorporates a complete BMP-1 hull instead! The 73mm 2A28 Grom main gun and coaxial 7.62mm PKT machine gun have been removed however, and an armoured platform housing a single 106mm M40 recoilless rifle (RCL) has been installed over the turret. Although swinging the 106mm M40 around demands an operator in the turret itself, the elevated position of the RCL offers a clear advantage in the close quarter combat currently seen in Derna's city centre.


The armour of this battle monstrosity is special to say the least. The armour protection of the side of the BMP-1's hull has been strengthened by the addition of slat armour, which also found its way to the front of the vehicle. The space in between the BMP-1's hull and slat armour has further been strengthened by sandbags. Metal plating of different strenghts covers the rest of the vehicle. Most special is undoubtedly the fact that the BMP-1's tracks have been reused to provide protection to the otherwise exposed wheels of the truck.

Armament consists of the 106mm M40 RCL, a very popular weapon in Libya, in addition to rifles and light-machine guns fired out of the BMP-1's eight (or when counting the firing port in the back nine) firing ports. It is not entirely clear why the 73mm main gun has been removed, but it could have been damaged or previously removed for installment on a technical.

As indicated by the image above, the role of this vehicle is similar to that of an APC or IFV, although getting in and out of the vehicle has been made significantly more difficult. It is worth noting that the driver of this battle monstrosity must have extreme difficulties steering this vehicle through the narrow streets of Derna, not to mention backing up after missing the intended location because of the small viewport to look through. The driver can be seen 'aiming' his 7.62mm AK-103 out of the window, likely just done just for the camera.


Libya, the birthplace of over the top DIY projects, is sure to produce plenty more of conversions aimed at giving each faction an edge over its opponents to secure the victory in a long conflict that just doesn't seem to end. Although only few countries are willing to stick to the arms embargo placed on Libya, the lack of (working) heavy weaponry being supplied to the various factions means there will continue to be a necessity to continue such DIY projects, whether they are actually useful or not.



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Thursday, 17 March 2016

Islamic State captures Ayyash weapons depots in largest arms haul of Syrian Civil War


By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The Syrian Civil War has seen a range of major arms hauls by various parties as weapons depots get overrun, captured and in many cases simply abandoned by retreating forces. The capture of Regiment 121, Brigade 93 and the Mahin arms depot have until now topped the list in terms of ghaneema (spoils of war). Regiment 121 provided the Islamic State with large numbers of field-guns and MRLs while Brigade 93 saw the capture of at least thirty tanks and around a dozen howitzers. Mahin became notorious for providing its capturers (Jaish al-Islam and the Free Syrian Army) with hundreds of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). For this reason, Mahin was seen as the largest and most important haul of arms during the now five-year long Civil War.

But that reputation appears to have been surpassed now that footage (WARNING: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC. Advised to only watch from 12:55 onwards) showing the capture of the Ayyash weapons depot by fighters of the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor has been released. The video, the fourth in the series 'Support from God, and imminent victory' (Quran verse 61:13) is the fourth to have been released showing the Islamic State's operations in and around Deir ez-Zor. The contents of the weapon depot, captured on the 20th of January, were supposedly removed before the Islamic State took over according to pro-regime sources. Now that the war reached its fifth year, this appears to be some language code for 'The weapon depots were completely overstocked, brace yourselves on every front'. And thus, no less than 2 million rounds of (small) arms ammunition, 9000 grenades and a hundred ATGMs were among the spoils of Ayyash, making the capture of this weapon depot the largest ever in Syria. A detailed list of captured ammunition, weaponry and vehicles can be seen below.

This is an approximate guess of the captured weapons and ammunition featured in the video of the Ayyash weapon depot, the real figures are believed to be much higher. The content of at least 2600 crates could not be identified.

Ammunition:

- 1,348,300 to 1,791,960 rounds of 7.62x39 and 7.62x54R ammunition.
- 17,140 rounds of 12.7mm ammunition.
- 158,996 rounds of 14.5mm ammunition.
- 119,768 rounds of 20mm ammunition.
- 450 rounds of 23mm ammunition.
- 223 rounds of 73mm ammunition.
- 72 rounds of 82mm ammunition.
- 2000 rounds of 85mm ammunition.
- 6 rounds of 107mm ammunition.
- 4 rounds of 120mm ammunition.
- 165 rounds of 120mm RAP ammunition.
- 576 rounds of 122mm ammunition.
- 1120 fuses for 122mm artillery rounds.
- 7 PG-2 rocket-propelled grenades.
- 10 PG-7 rocket-propelled grenades.
- 1 PG-7VL rocket-propelled grenade.
- 1 TBG-7V rocket-propelled grenade.
- 1 OG-7V rocket-propelled grenade.
- 2 PG-29V rocket-propelled grenades.
- 2 M-57 rocket-propelled grenades.
- 9025 grenades.
- 36 rifle grenades.
- 98 9M14M Malyutka ATGMs.
- 1 9M113M Konkurs ATGMs.
- 7 3M9 surface-to-air missiles.

Weaponry:

- 84 7.62mm AK(M)-47s.
- 5 7.62mm PKMs.
- 1 7.62mm RPD.
- 1 7.62mm SGM.
- 3 12.7mm DShK(M)s.
- 11 14.5mm KPVs.
- 2 23mm ZU-23s.
- 1 RPG-2.
- 13 RPG-7s.
- 1 73mm 2A28 Grom.
- 1 M40 106mm RCL.
- 122 bayonets.
- 1 pistol.
- 1 flintlock.

Vehicles (derelict trucks not included):

- 1 T-55(A)MV.
- 2 T-55As.
- 5 BMP-1s.
- 1 23mm ZSU-23.
- 1 BRDM-2.
- 1 BTR-152.
- 2 BREM-2 ARVs.
- 3 2P25 TELs.
- 1 SURN 1S19 radar.
- 6 ZiL-131s.
- 2 GAZ-3308s.
- 2 GAZ-66s.
- 2 Ural-375Ds.
- 1 KamAZ-53212.
- 1 MAZ-5336
- 1 Tatra 815.
- 1 GAZ Sobol.
- 1 UAZ-469.
- 2 excavators.
- 1 Land Rover Defender.
- 2 technicals.
- 3 trucks.
- 4 cars.

Figures made available by the Islamic State:

- 400 killed or injured.
- 100 [pro-regime militants] captured.
- 4 tanks captured.
- 10 BMPs captured.
- 3 guns captured.
- 350 tank shells captured.
- 7,000 shells and rockets captured.
- 30 rocket launchers captured.
- 100 anti-armor rockets captured.
- 410 anti-armor shells captured.
- 1,000s of hand grenades captured.
- Tons of various ammo captured.

Having so much ammunition and weaponry stationed so close to a fragile frontline that is incapable of dealing with large Islamic State attacks is a sign of extremely incompetent military planning. This is especially true when considering the immensely large 137th Brigade's base located nearby has plenty of space to house tenfold the contents of Ayyash. This base is located much closer to the airbase and Deir ez-Zor's city centre and thus better capable of dividing the munitions between the defenders of Deir ez-Zor. To lose the largest weapon arsenal ever to have been captured in the war due to nothing other than poor planning and above all laziness raises the issue of whether the current organisation in charge of regime operations is capable of dealing with the situation it faces. Instead, units such as the ones commanded by Suheil 'The Tiger' al-Hassan and Issam 'The Lion' Zahreddine are constantly being relocated to positions that had previously been abandoned by other regime forces. One such example is Tadmur, where the Syrian Arab Army only barely fled away faster than the Islamic State could push forward. As a result, a small force which had the goal of capturing the town of al-Sukhna suddenly found itself amidst the ruins of Palmyra (Tadmur). The international outcry resulting from Islamic State released productions showing the partial destruction of the ancient town could perhaps have been partially diverted at the regime for making no serious effort to defend it, which surprisingly received no media attention at all. Of course, military priorities are unlikely to lie with the protection of cultural heritage during a war of this intensity, but the sheer fact that the entire population of Tadmur as well as its archaeological sites were left behind without conquest purely due to the employment of poor military strategy signifies a recurring problem within the Syrian Arab Army.

Back to Ayyash, located a mere ten kilometers north-west from Deir ez-Zor's city centre, which was the scene of heavy fighting as fighters of the Islamic State pushed their way into the town and surrounding sites. As the regime has to defend Deir ez-Zor with only a limited amount of personnel, it has been forced to spread its troops thinly along the perimeter, with the main bulk stationed near Deir ez-Zor's airbase, the city centre and surrounding hills. The Islamic State has focused its attacks mainly on the airbase and the town, which has seen bitter fighting ever since the start of the Civil War, but especially since the Islamic State took over from the Free Syrian Army in July 2014.

Ayyash, defended by a mix of NDF troops, SyAA personnel from the 137th Brigade and detachments of the Republican Guard's 104th Brigade, sees a perimeter that was less well defended by troops not matching the performance of the soldiers stationed elsewhere in Deir ez-Zor. Indeed, some of the soldiers stationed here were formely tasked with manning the nearby surface-to-air missile site, but were then armed and tasked with defending Ayyash itself. While this careful balancing of troops in Ayyash appears quite logical, it becomes less so when considering the fact that Ayyash is home to a weapons depot once built as a strategic reserve for a possible confrontation with Ba'athist Iraq, then the fourth largest army in the world. While the contents of the depot had partially been depleted in the defence of Deir ez-Zor, it was still massively overstocked with arms and ammunition.

The fact that the contents of the weapons depot were left wholely intact both prior to and after the takeover (contents which could either have been destroyed beforehand or with artillery and airstrikes afterwards) indicates that the Syrian Arab Army is still incapable of dealing with such situations. The 2K12 surface-to-air missile systems captured were said to have been destroyed by the Russian Air Force after their capture. These systems were slowly abandoned over the past few years, with only the associated SURN 1S19 radar remaining operational. Bringing these systems back to operational condition would have been nigh impossible, not in the least because the missiles were in even worse shape than the launchers. Not targeting millions of small arms rounds and a hundred ATGMs and instead striking inoperable 2K12 SAMs remains a curious decision to say the least.

The captured ammunition, quickly taken away by trucks, will likely be distributed between the various fronts the Islamic State is fighting at. A part might also be held back for the upcoming battle for Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. While one would expect trucks loaded with ammunition have no chance of driving through half of Syria towards their designation, such transports can still freely drive to any Islamic State held territory, as witnessed by the presence of a 2S1 Gvozdika in Deir ez-Zor that was originally captured at Shaer back in 2014. This self-propelled howitzer passed through four governorates before arriving in Deir ez-Zor unharmed by Coalition airstrikes back in early to mid-2015.

























The largest stash of 9M14M Malyutkas at the Ayyash weapon depot, at least 90 of which are piled up here. A single 9M113M Konkurs missile can also be seen below.


The 2K12 surface-to-air missile battery, supposedly bombed by the Russian Air Force after having been captured. The capture of this battery marks the second 2K12 site to have fallen in the hands of the Islamic State.







Heavy equipment now in the hands of the Islamic State: The T-55(A)MV is the second example to have been captured by fighters of the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor. A limited number of T-55(A)MVs were believed to have been brought to Deir ez-Zor along with T-72 'Urals', T-72M1s and T-72AVs before the supply route was closed by the capture of al-Sukhna on the 13th of May 2015. The two other T-55s were among the examples upgraded by North Korea in the late 70s and early 80s and can be seen with two different types of laser-range finders 'Made in DPRK'. Interestingly, one T-55 still operates the 14.5mm KPV instead of the regular 12.7mm DShK. Most formerly 14.5mm KPV-equipped T-55s lost theirs, which was usually deemed to be of more use on technicals.

One of the BMP-1s sports Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour (ERA) alongside its turret in a bid to enhance the poor armour of the vehicle. It is expected that vehicles such as the BRDM-2, BTR-152 and the two BREM-2s will be used as VBIEDs, the Islamic State having no use for them in their originally intended role.














Article written in collaboration with MENA_Conflict from Type 63: A collection of Musings on Middle East Conflict.

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