International Coalition by air, Russians and Iranians by land… Whose strategy is most effective in fighting IS groups?

A soldier from the International Coalition Forces (ICF) standing on an armored vehicle with the American flag behind him - 24 November 2020 (International Coalition)

A soldier from the International Coalition Forces (ICF) standing on an armored vehicle with the American flag behind him - 24 November 2020 (International Coalition)


Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

Russians and Iranians in Syria use the classic war method against the so-called Islamic State (IS) forces’ enclaves in the Syrian desert, while the International Coalition Forces (ICF) adopts the tactic of surveillance and aerial bombardment of specific targets.

Through their militias or regular military formations, Russia and Iran launched several operations against the IS cells deployed in the Syrian desert since their eviction from the al-Baghouz village, IS’s last stronghold on Syrian territory, on 23 March 2019.

All Iranian and Russian military campaigns failed to eliminate the IS groups. Convoys passing from the Syrian desert, especially those affiliated with Iranian militias, were attacked, leading to casualties and equipment loss.

On the other hand, the ICF’s tactic has minimized its losses and that of its ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), except for losses suffered by local forces in security operations targeting the IS cells.

Over the past days, reinforcements from the Russian-formed “Fifth Corps” of the Syrian regime forces, and troops from “25th Division” led by Suhail al-Hassan, have arrived at the outskirts of the Syrian desert to launch military operations against the IS.

According to a research study by the “Jusoor for Studies” center, the previous reinforcements were followed by Russia’s launch of the third stage of the “White Desert” battle that it started late last August, to pursue the IS cells in the Syrian desert region between the city of al-Bukamal on the Syrian-Iraqi borders and the city of al-Mayadeen, southeast of Deir Ezzor and al-Sukhnah, east of Homs.

In a previous talk to Enab Baladi, the Information Unit Manager at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Nawar Shaban, questioned these forces’ ability to counter the IS attacks or eliminate its cells successfully. 

Shaban wondered about these forces’ readiness to fight the IS and their training and armament levels, and whether they are infantry or special forces.

According to Shaban, it became clear that troops trained by Russia lack adequate training and military experience; therefore, they recently intensified the training of Russian private military companies (PMC) such as Vega, Patriot, and Moran.

Shaban added, “it is hard to confirm the training, or to get access to documentation reports saying that the training is actually happening under the supervision of these Russian companies.”

He said, “We only have access to the news that these companies publish.”

The fighting is different nowadays

Military analyst Colonel Ahmed Hammadi said to Enab Baladi that the fighting against the IS today is different from before. He added, when IS controlled geographical areas and held the land, there were battles between it and the SDF supported by the ICF in a classical war method, an army against an army, control, retreat, and an invasion, and other methods of combat depending on the geographic nature of the battlefield.

This type of fighting is used in the eastern camp of (Russia, Iran, and others), and the western camp (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), according to colonel Hammadi.

After losing its control areas in Syria and Iraq, the IS forces relied on the guerrilla warfare style. The IS became free of geographical restrictions, and its cells moved between one area and another in the Syrian desert.

The Syrian desert extends from the eastern countryside of Hama and Homs to the Iraqi borders, and Deir Ezzor countryside and al-Raqqa in northern Syria to the Jordanian Syrian borders. It spreads on an area of more than 75 thousand square kilometers of Syria’s 185,000 square kilometers.

“The IS organization knows the Syrian desert well and is experienced in it,” said Colonel Hammadi. This helped it launch attacks through its small, dispersed groups carrying out reconnaissance missions and attacks on the regime’s columns, checkpoints, or fixed points. 

“The IS succeeds in taking down the columns sent by Russia or the regime, as it gathers its fighters and attacks a specific point to gain positions for a day or two, then takes captives, weapons, and documents, and withdraws”, according to Hammadi.

The Syrian desert area cannot be covered or maintained by the regime, Russia or Iran against the IS groups, Hammadi said.

Therefore, the primary reliance in this type of war is on intelligence work, targeting areas by airstrikes, depending on the region’s field and tactical situation.

The IS builds a special force to carry out raids and ambushes on the enemy’s roads and axes, and consequently targets all those who pass through the region, depending on surveillance and a popular base of experience in the region’s topography, according to Hammadi.

No coordination exists between Russians and Iranians

The lack of coordination between Russians and Iranians, and the absence of a military-strategic cooperation mechanism between the two sides in the military operations against the IS forces, according to Shaban, has led to their failure, pointing out that cooperation between Iranian militias and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia is more than its cooperation with Russia.

This was evident by conducting joint patrols on the Syrian-Iraqi borders between the Iranian “Force 313” and “Zenbion” militia with the PMF after it was usual for the PMF to conduct patrols with the “Hajjana unit” or with Russian-backed regime forces. This was the first time in which the PMF performs joint patrols with Iranian militias.

Iran’s militias are trying to control the entire river crossings between the regime-controlled areas and the SDF areas, while Russia conducted a single border patrol in the al-Bukamal city last September.

According to Shaban, it is difficult to uncover the IS cells due to their guerrilla warfare style of fighting, and their monitoring requires extensive military logistics and operations; therefore, Russians and Iranians resort to combing each area and sector at a time.

Despite following this method, the two sides’ forces are always ambushed, and by expanding the operation more, the losses will be greater, for the most difficult military thing is to hit a target of an unknown location, Shaban said.

Russia started the third stage of the “White Desert” operation, launched after General Vyacheslav Gladich was killed in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack on 18 of last August. 

The “White Desert” operation includes part of the Deir Ezzor countryside desert, located west of the Euphrates River, while its first and second stages included the al-Sukhnah desert, east of Homs.

The “Fifth Corps” and the Palestinian-led Jerusalem Brigade (Liwaa al-Quds) are taking part in the military campaign, led directly by Russian army officers and two Russian troop formations, one with 75 Russian special forces, and another with 120 “Wagner” mercenaries, according to a research paper by the “Jusoor for Studies” center.

Shaban told Enab Baladi that Russia’s recent military operations were not completion but part of a single Russian battle.

According to Shaban, the Russian battle is aimed at several objectives, including a media one, to eliminate the so-called IS cells in the region and establish control limits between Russia and Iran, to draw the control map of the region.

The Russians need this battle because losing the roads in the Syrian desert is a major strategic loss, while Iran has influence in the desert east of Homs and Deir Ezzor and can close it but with difficulty.

In addition to securing control lines and securing the deployment forces of pro-Russian forces, a policy that Russia started in Deir Ezzor and some regions in the countryside of Homs and the southern countryside of al-Raqqa, which were attacked by the IS groups.

Iranian militias are deployed in the Syrian desert region from the “Imam Ali” base in al-Bukamal to Homs, to secure the so-called “axis of Iran,” which extends from Iran to Iraq and the Syrian desert to Lebanon, and thus know the geography of the region.

If there were coordination between the Russians and Iranian militias, the Iranians would have secured Russian militias’ entry into the region, but the Russians were left to enter alone and were ambushed by the IS.

A number of Russian-backed “Jerusalem Brigade” troops were killed in the Syrian desert by IS-led attacks, in battles, or while entering a minefield since 2019, according to what Enab Baladi has monitored.

The Russians are not activating their full military capabilities

The Syrian regime forces or pro-Russia and pro-Iranian militias come from different Syrian regions during their military operations against IS in the Syrian desert.

As these forces enter the area, they become exposed, especially if there are reconnaissance teams for the IS groups.

The entering columns are not groups that rely on only five four-wheel-drive vehicles, as IS does in its moves, according to what was monitored by Enab Baladi of several publications and images of the IS.

The military convoys coming from remote areas, debilitating in the desert, has no defense. Russia can protect these convoys if it wants to, by planes and reconnaissance teams, and targeting IS groups that set ambushes even if they are small. However, so far, there has been no effective coordination between Russian air forces and reconnaissance and field troops, said Colonel Hammadi.

Hammadi indicated that the United States (US) is exploring and spying on some of the IS’s leaders and groups, and launching sudden raids, thus achieving some success, unlike the Russians. 

The Russians are destroying hospitals, schools, and markets, for they rely on excessive force rather than a clean-war tactic, said Hammadi.

Russia has all the military and technological capacity to monitor the IS groups in the Syrian desert, and possibly to inflict significant losses despite IS’s ability to disguise and move in this hard-to-control region, but, according to Hammadi, the Russians want to achieve two points:

In the first place, the Russians want to maintain the IS’s existence to use it in the terrorism fighting propaganda, arguing that IS still exists and that Russian forces, the regime, and its militias are fighting it.

Secondly, the Russians want to show the failure of Iranian convoys moving toward Deir Ezzor and al-Bukamal, which occasionally disappears due to the ambushes of the IS in these regions.

Russia and Iran are among the most advanced countries in the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), also known as “drones” industry, as Iran is ranked fifth in the world after the United States, China, Israel, and Pakistan.


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