How Islamic State became a military threat in Iraq and Syria

How Islamic State became a military threat in Iraq and Syria
In-depth: While the Islamic State group’s reign of terror in Iraq and Syria is virtually over, multiple reports throughout its existence show irresponsible arms transfers, reports Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
5 min read
16 December, 2017
IS has lost swathes of land in Iraq and Syria in recent years [Getty]
While the Islamic State group's reign of terror in Iraq and Syria is virtually over, multiple reports throughout its existence show irresponsible arms transfers – especially from the West and its allies, empowering the self-proclaimed caliphate.

This highlights an existing danger that won't necessarily go away with IS: as long as such weapons transactions into war-zones occur, similar factions could emerge in the future.

The latest study was an extensive research operation from July 2014 to November 2017 by Conflict Armament Research (CAR), released on Thursday, who examined 1,832 weapons and 40,984 units of ammunition obtained from IS across Iraq and Syria.
Both the European Union and German Federal Foreign Office financed this investigation. CAR also acknowledged support from Iraqi security forces, Peshmerga troops in Iraqi Kurdistan and Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in enabling the weapons to be recovered.
CAR's report revealed that around 90 percent of IS-deployed weapons are all Warsaw Pact calibres - being manufactured in China, Russia and Eastern European arms producing states. 50 percent of IS' overall weapons supplies came from the same sources. 
However, most of these Warsaw Pact weapons actually ended up with IS due to unauthorised transfers to Syrian rebels from the United States and Saudi Arabia, which later fell into the extremist group's hands. Both states had previously purchased them from the European Union.
The weapons include anti-tank guided weapons (ATGW) and several varieties of rockets with tandem warheads. 
Such lax controls of transfers would have been detrimental to the efforts of Western-backed forces in Iraq and Syria, including the Iraqi army and Kurdish troops. "These systems continue to pose a significant threat to the coalition of troops arrayed against IS forces," the report stated.

CAR also documented cases of cross-conflict transfers of weapons to Iraq and Syria from countries like Libya, Somalia and South Sudan – many of which were supplied by the United States.

Damien Spleeters, CAR Head of Operations in Iraq and Syria and author of the report, told The New Arab that weapons irresponsibly transferred always risk ending up in the wrong hands, and that this recent study proves that.
"Any entity that feeds weapons to a region in conflict, with multiple parties and shifting allegiances and dynamics should know that these weapons are very unlikely to stay with their intended user, despite any vetting mechanism. That's inherent to any conflict," he said.
Sending millions of dollars' worth of arms into a black hole and hoping for the best is not a viable counter-terrorism strategy
While the report gave no clear explanation about how these weapons reached IS, Spleeters speculated many possibilities, including battlefield capture, or fighters receiving weapons then switching factions or having multiple allegiances. 
These recent revelations by CAR are one of many reports of irresponsible arms transfers to volatile regions strengthening IS and other extremists. 
US-armed rebels in the past have defected to Jahbat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, giving the group their weapons, reported The Telegraph
A declassified US Department of Defence (DoD) audit released in September 2016 revealed the US failed to keep tabs on over $1 billion worth of weapons transferred to Iraq and Kuwait. Amnesty International warned these supplies risked ending up in the hands of Islamic State. 

"Sending millions of dollars' worth of arms into a black hole and hoping for the best is not a viable counter-terrorism strategy," said Patrick Wilcken, Amnesty's Arms Control and Human Rights Researcher.
"[The audit] makes for especially sobering reading given the long history of leakage of US arms to multiple armed groups committing atrocities in Iraq, including the armed group calling itself the Islamic State."
In 2014, IS seized a US military bundle airdropped into Syria destined for the Kurds, reported The Guardian. US defence spokesman Steve Warren dismissed it as insignificant, however. 
An examination of IS weapons in December 2015 showed them originating from at least 25 different countries, including the US, the UK, Germany, France, Russia, China and several Eastern Europe countries. 
Most of these were originally intended for the Iraqi army, but seized by the jihadist group when it expanded in 2014 – further highlighting the danger of lax controls of arms transfers to the region. 
"The large-scale capture of weapons by IS forces from units of the Iraqi defence and security forces, notably in 2014, is well documented.

"However, the fact that the group has rapidly acquired (often within the space of months) weapons supplied by a range of extra-regional states is less well recognised," CAR's report stated, in relation to this.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said in response to claims of Western and Saudi arms transfers reaching IS and others: "The lifespan of a weapon is often longer than the political situation it is sold into. Weapons travel and we don't know where they might end up. Groups like ISIS have seized large quantities of Western arms."
He added: "Pouring weapons into war zones doesn't make any of us safer, and only makes it more likely these weapons will be used in abuses for years to come." 
Unless states complicit in such arms transfers vow to end these practices, it will leave open the possibility of other extremist factions emerging in the future. 

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist who has contributed to outlets such as The New Arab, Counterpunch, Middle East Eye and Tribune Magazine.

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