Syrian jet

News file photo of a Syrian MiG at a Jordanian air base;
MiGs like this one may now be in the hands of ISIS;
image courtesy of Ammon News.

Does ISIS Have Air Power Ambitions?
| published October 17, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

ISIS forces on the ground may be in a general retreat from the area around Kobani, an embattled city in northern Syria near the border with Turkey, but ISIS has expansionist plans for the Middle East which include, as it turns out, the high-flying goal of developing its own air force.

According to some sources in the Middle East, several former Iraqi air force pilots—once loyal to Saddam Hussein and the ruling Baath Party of the previous era—are engaged in intensive training of ISIS militants. The goal: teach handpicked Islamic State militants how to pilot captured aircraft. In July and August, ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), seized control of several Syrian military bases, including air bases once under the command of officers loyal to Syria’s President, Bashir al Assad. ISIS has also captured several airplanes once part of the Iraqi Air Force.

The reports that ISIS intends to branch out into military aviation comes via the news agency Reuters, which has quoted independent groups on the ground monitoring the war in Syria and Iraq. One humanitarian group, the British-based Observatory for Human Rights, said it has observed ISIS pilots training on the use of at least three working fighter aircraft. If the reports are true, the development could alter the course of the fighting, and give ISIS a tool—albeit a modest one—in its quest to establish a radical Islamic caliphate.

For six weeks or more, the United States—along with a coalition of other Arab states, including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Qatar—have been attempting to dissuade ISIS forces from further advances on the ground in Iraq and Syria. ISIS now controls a vast swath of territory stretching from the border with Turkey, across Iraq, along the Jordanian border, and to within 25 miles of Baghdad. ISIS’s advance since early summer, which brought about the collapse of much of the Iraqi army—has been rapid. The swift enlargement of ISIS-controlled areas has threatened to destabilize Iraq and unravel the work of American forces in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The U.S.-led air strikes—now totaling more than 310 since the air campaign began—were meant as a blunt means to halt the advance of ISIS, and give the Iraqi army the chance to regroup for a direct fight with the extremist group.

Though some U.S. and British military analysts doubt that ISIS pilots would be a credible match for highly-trained American, British, or Saudi aviators, ISIS commanders could still wreak havoc in some areas with the use of even a single operational, armed fighter aircraft. Observers report that the ISIS pilots-in-training have already flown numerous practice missions, and the aircraft being used are Russian-made MiGs—two apparently captured in northern Syria, the third captured at a forward location inside northwestern Iraq.

Meanwhile, the coalition of nations—eight total—continue to target ISIS positions each day. After ten days of heavy combat in the area around Kobani, the U.S. began targeting ISIS forces along the Turkish border in an effort to thwart a possible ISIS victory in one of the last strongholds of Kurdish strength. For weeks, ISIS has been attempting to solidify and consolidate its gains in northern Syria. Kurdish fighters have battled with ISIS in scores of locations, but the fighting around Kobani has been extreme. Days ago it appeared that ISIS might overrun the city completely, but U.S.-led airpower unleashed heavy bombing on ISIS personnel, damaging or destroying tanks, SUVs, artillery pieces, and personnel carriers. Beginning Thursday, reports were emerging from Kobani that many ISIS units were in retreat from the key northern city.

For weeks, thousands of Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities had been crossing the border into Turkey to seek refuge from the carnage. ISIS militants were executing hundreds of civilians in their path, and forcing thousands of others to renounce their religious beliefs and embrace the ISIS doctrine of Islamic radicalism. Fear of ISIS violence and retribution caused a surge of people feeling towns and cities in northern Syria. Tens of thousands of Kurds, Yezidis and others have crowded into refugee camps inside Turkey. But on the Turkish side of the border, thousands of Kurdish men were seeking to enter Syria in order to join the fight, but for weeks Turkish security and Army troops have discouraged more people entering the battlefield.

The proximity of the fighting to the Turkish border (sometimes only a few hundred yards away) ultimately led Turkey—which had, because of internal political pressure, been undecided on whether to join the coalition fighting ISIS—to join with the United States, Britain, and other Arab nations.

At the Pentagon, top military spokesmen were bracing reporters and the American public for a long battle. General Lloyd Austin, commanding the campaign against ISIS from Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, suggested that the fight may last years, and that there would be no easy resolution. General Austin was optimistic, however, that the airstrikes will significantly degrade ISIS within the next 12 months. Austin was also hopeful that the combined infantry and mechanized forces of Syria, Jordan, Turkey (and a retrained Iraqi Army) may be more than enough to turn the corner on ISIS on the ground—though Austin conceded that it could take several years.

Despite the sense of optimism offered by Gen. Austin, many military analysts worry that the current air campaign will be insufficient to combat ISIS, and some critics of President Barack Obama’s cautious response are concerned that the air campaign—as intense as it sometimes appears—may have little long term effect on ISIS, a radical militant group which has so far been able to continue its territorial advances despite air bombardments. In predominantly Sunni areas, ISIS remains on the move—consolidating gains, subduing the populations, and seizing control of local political and police authorities.

The United States and United Kingdom began using air assets for humanitarian purposes months ago when ISIS militants were encircling the areas around Mount Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq. Tens of thousands of Yezidis—an ethnic and religious minority—were being forced to flee from their homes and towns as ISIS radicals moved through the area. Many hundreds of Yezidis were tortured or killed in the path of ISIS. The U.S. and Britain used air power to deliver water and food to the thousands trapped on Mount Sinjar. In August, President Obama signed-off on the use of fighter jets for targeting ISIS positions inside Iraq, and later in Syria—contingent upon the participation of several other Arab nations. Air power has been used against military targets, and also against specific targets of the Korasan Group, a terror cell based in Syria, and known to be made up of hardened fighters from a dozen countries.

U.S. air power has also been used to strike at a crucial source of ISIS finding and mobility—oil. This week, U.S. warplanes targeted ISIS-controlled oil facilities and oil storage tanks in locations in northern Syria. American warplanes also struck ISIS positions near Beiji, a town which has been the site of bitter fighting between Iraqi troops and ISIS militants. Beiji is of key strategic importance for its massive oil refinery and distribution operations, the largest such facility in Iraq and one of the biggest in the Middle East.

Related Thursday Review articles:

U.S. Military Strikes Inside Syria; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 23, 2014.

Turkey’s Growing Humanitarian Crisis; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 22, 2014.

You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Foreign Policy; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 27, 2014.