Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Iranian delivered North Korean Type-73 machine guns joining the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Iraq's war on the Islamic State has seen a myriad of both light and heavy weaponry from all sources around the world in use with the numerous groups pitting it out against the Islamic State for control over Iraq. From Iranian multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) to World War II howitzers, the war in Iraq has so far provided it all.

As the war is now about to enter it's second year, the need for more weapons has everything but diminished, and all involved parties continue to scrounge the list of regional and international supporters that will fuel the war for years to come. Weaponry once presumed to have found its final resting place is dug up, dusted off and once more put to use.

One of these weapons is the North Korean Type-73 light machine gun (LMG), an extremely rare piece of equipment never thought to have been produced for export in any significant quantities. While North Korean designed and produced weaponry had a great impact on Iran's wars in the past and present, these machine guns were not thought to have survived the turbulent 80s. Numerous examples now showing up with Shiite militias operating under the Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella organisation is thus highly suprising.

Indeed, North Korean influence on the equipment of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army has in the past been substantial, but had yet to make a significant appearance in the Iraqi theatre, especially when put into perspective with the masses of other foreign equipment that roam the Iraqi battlegrounds.

The early 80s saw the height of military cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran. During this time, the DPRK delivered anything from ballistic missiles and artillery to small arms and even aircraft to aid Iran in its fight against neighbouring Iraq. Cooperation in later years mainly focused on the transfer of technology from the DPRK to Iran, enabling Iran to produce various types of ballistic missiles, missile boats and submarines originally of North Korean design.

However, numerous North Korean Bulsae-2 anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) have recently popped up in the Gaza Strip with the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas and the al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades. The Bulsae-2, an indigenous variant of the 9K111 Fagot, is believed to have been delivered to the Gaza Strip by Iran through an elaborate network of smugglers and backdoor channels ranging from Sudan to the Gaza Strip. More on the presence of North Korean Bulsae-2 ATGMs with Hamas can be read here.

The Type-73, seen with Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq war in the image above, is largely based on the Soviet PK ligh machine gun, but has been fitted with a very different feeding system capable of accepting both box and stick magazines, chambered for the 7.62x54R cartridge. While a large number were produced for the Korean People's Army, where it still sees use today, the machine gun's only documented export success is Iran.

With North Korean designed weaponry continuing to appear in various conflicts throughout the world, it is clear that even in its extremely isolated state of today the DPRK's ability exert influence on conflicts abroad is substantial.

Special thanks to Green lemon.

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Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Islamic State's spring offensive: al-Sukhna

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Al-Sukhna, a small yet vital town in the middle of the vast Syrian desert, was captured by the fighters of the Islamic State in a swift, unexpected one-day long offensive on the 13th of May 2015. While the fighters of the Free Syrian Army, Jaish al-Islam, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (still called ISIS at the time) had already captured the strategically located village back in October 2013, they never succeeded in holding it for long, and al-Sukhna was back under regime-control after just one week.

While the largely Sunni town of al-Sukhna itself isn't home to any important military sites, and military presence had previously only been negligible, the town is located next to the highly important M20 highway, making it a crucial link in the road running all the way from Damascus to Tadmur (Palmyra) and ultimately Deir ez-Zor. This highway is absolutely vital for the Assad regime as it allows for resupplying its troops in Deir ez-Zor, and without control of the road, the regime won't be able to continue its struggle to keep it out of IS's hands, making the fall of the city a very plausible reality.

The town, much like Tadmur, also serves as an important link in the production and distribution of a large portion of Syria's gas supplies. As the Islamic State is now occupying both Tadmur and al-Sukhna, it has easy access to and thus control over the numerous gas fields and pipelines running through the area, denying the Assad-regime much-needed resources.

While the regime quickly recaptured al-Sukhna back in October 2013, it remains to be seen if the National Defence Force (NDF) and Suqour al-Sahraa' (Desert Falcons) have the will, manpower, resources and equipment to establish a new line of defence and hold off the Islamic State's advance in Central Syria after the fall of Tadmur, let alone to once again retake the area. The victory at al-Sukhna and Tadmur will likely decide the ultimate fate not only of Central and Eastern Syria, but also might have far-reaching consequences on the regime's grip on Homs and Damascus.

Tadmur (Palmyra) and al-Sukhna are both claimed by the Islamic State as part of the Wilayat al-Badiya province, but after the Islamic State withdrew most of its troops from the region in the summer of 2014, their (at the time still limited) reign in the region largely ended, and Wilayat al-Badiya was unofficially incorporated in the Wilayat Homs province.

Wilayat al-Badiya de-facto thus ceased to exist, and the Islamic State ceased its offensive in the region to focus on other, then more important, frontiers. The months that followed did see a series of renewed fierce clashes between the fighters of the Islamic State, the NDF and Suqour al-Sahraa' throughout Central Syria. Heavily supported by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), the NDF and Suqour al-Sahraa' managed to push the fighters of the Islamic State away from the outskirts of Syria's most important airbase: T.4, home of the SyAAF's dreaded Su-24M2s.

These clashes symbolise the situation in Central Syria, where regime-controlled towns, gasfields and military bases were only defended by small numbers of NDF and SyAA soldiers, the latter manning the heavy weaponry attached to the NDF. The fact that it is nigh on impossible to completely control the vast Syrian desert, combined with the dire lack of soldiers, means the regime is forced to rely on very light mobile units to stop the fighters of the Islamic State before they reach the often ill-defended but strategically important towns and gasfields.

Patrols conducted by Suqour al-Sahraa' and the SyAAF's SA-342 'Gazelles' were the regime's first line of defence in Central Syria. Tasked with finding the Islamic State's convoys travelling through the vast Syrian desert, reinforcements were called in when such a convoy was spotted. More Suqour al-Sahraa' fighters, fighter-bombers, helicopters were sent in to destroy the convoys. This tactic had so far paid off, but should just one IS convoy make it through undetected, the result can be devastating: al-Sukhna being a case in point.

The failed offensive on T.4 had somewhat calmed the situation in Central Syria, meaning the Islamic State's recent offensive caught the regime's troops in Central Syria completely off-guard. As there were no reinforcements available anywhere close, they simply collapsed under this unexpected pressure. It seems likely that even the fighters of the Islamic State didn't expect to push through the regime's defences in Central Syria so easily. Especially when considering the fact that IS is still publishing media in the area through the Wilayat Homs outlet, indicating that the Islamic State had not even planned a new administration for Wilayat al-Badiya. Of course, with the recents gains in Central Syria, it will now indubitably reappear as an independent province.

Tasked with the defence of al-Sukha was the NDF, mostly consisting of Alawites from Homs, and a limited number of fighters from Suqour al-Sahraa', further strenghtened by a detachment of handful T-72M1s from the 18th Tank Batallion of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA), originally stationed in Tadmur. The various checkpoints littered around the town were manned by the NDF while the higher ground was held by a contingent from Suqour al-Sahraa'. Contrary to what has often been observed during the conflict, the T-72M1s were not used as static pillboxes, but rather utilised as a quick-reaction force deployed in between the defender's positions.

Fire support for the fighters of the Islamic State consisted of three tanks (one T-55, one T-62 and one T-72M1), a number of technicals, one 122mm D-30, various 122mm DIY MRLs, a number of mortars and ATGMs. Most of the heavy weaponry was brought in on tank trailers and unloaded just outside the town before the assault begun. A video covering the assault can be seen here (WARNING: GRAPHIC).

The amount of IS fighters involved in the offensive is not believed to have been higher than a few hundred, and were seperated into two groups, one tasked with storming the checkpoints, while the other group was to provide fire-support for the former. In an effort to help the latter group distinguish the assaulting IS fighters from regime forces, the first group wore blue head bands.

As is nowadays often the case during the Islamic State's offensives, its fighters made clever use of UAVs to scout the positions of the defenders before initiating the assault. These positions were subsequently targeted with tank, artillery, rocket, mortar and heavy-machine gun fire, keeping the regime forces pinned down and unable to return fire. As an unsurprising result of this heavy supressive fire most of the around forty casualties on the side of the Islamic State were suffered as a direct result of the close quarters combat that followed the storming.

The first defensive position that was overrun was that of Suqour al-Sahraa'. The majority of the soldiers stationed here fled to the remaining checkpoints, and in usual disorderly SyAA fashion, left the heavy weaponry looking out over the town intact. Now aimed at their former operators, the captured 107mm MRL and 122mm D-30 were immediately put to use and hit the remaining regime positions shortly thereafter. The situation brings to light once again the shrining problem of incompetence in its ranks that has cost the regime battles on more than one occasion.

The detachment of T-72M1s, now fully aware of the assault, rushed to the remaining regime-held ground to aid in the defence of the checkpoints. Aware of the presence of several tanks, the fighters of the Islamic State set up positions on the high ground overlooking the checkpoints, and subsequently ambushed and destroyed the two T-72M1s present with 9M113 Konkurs and MILAN F2 ATGMs. The impact of the 9M113 was strong enough to cause the main gun of the T-72M1 to fire, while the MILAN hit completely destroyed the other T-72, causing the turret to fly off.

This sight must have demoralised the remaining regime forces to such an extent that they abandoned their positions and ran away on foot. Unfortunately for these fleeing regime forces, the fighters of the Islamic State already took position next to their escape route, resulting in a turkey shoot with many casualties under the defendless regime forces.

In this manner the offensive, lasting not more than a few hours, ended the regime's presence in al-Sukhna. In hindsight, it is obvious that the defenders never had any real, sound plan to keep the town from falling, and were definitely not prepared to fight until the end for it. The fact that al-Sukhna was of very high strategic importance makes this knowledge all the more astounding.

The first effects of the fall of al-Sukhna will indubitably be felt in Deir ez-Zor, where regime forces continue to battle the fighters of the Islamic State for control of the largest city in Eastern Syria. The situation for the NDF, the SyAA and the 104th Airborne Brigade of the Republican Guard, which, despite rumours to the contrary, is still present in Deir ez-Zor, has suddenly turned for the worse now that the vitally important M20 highway has been lost to the Islamic State. Together with a limited airbridge, the road was the regime's only way of resupplying its forces in Deir ez-Zor.

Indeed, as the SyAAF's transport aircraft are unable to transport any kind of heavy weaponry , the regime-forces in Deir ez-Zor now have no means to replace any damaged or destroyed tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery or MRLs, which were previously all brought in via the M20 highway.

Even though the contingent defending al-Sukhna only had access to a limited number of heavy weapons, the capture of the town also proved to be quite profitable in terms of Ghaneema (spoils of war). Although underwelming compared to some of the Islamic State's previous scores, the captured weaponry will certainly aid the Islamic State in any future offensives in Central and Eastern Syria. As is often seen, the amount of weaponry that was available to the defenders far surpassed their needs and capabilities.

The Ghaneema mainly included small arms and ammunitions, but also a few technicals, anti-aircraft guns, artillery and multiple rocket launchers (MRLs).

The fighters of the Islamic State involved in the capture of al-Sukhna later participated in the Tadmur offensive, and if the current upmarch (that has also seen the fall of Tadmur, T.3 pumping station, al-Tanf border post, al-Hail gas field and Iraqi Ramadi in recent days) continues in the same pace, they will indubitably soon be fighting at T.4 airbase.

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Thursday, 21 May 2015

World War II era German howitzers continue to see use in the Syrian Civil War

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The Syrian Civil War has presented itself as a perfect opportunity for nations to test their newest weaponry in an unforgiving combat environment, and this large influence of modern weaponry has seen everything from assault rifles to laser-guided bombs and drones undergoing their combat debut. Nonetheless, it has also seen the return of weapons once presumed to have found their final resting place, but which are now brought out to fight once more.

One of these weapons is the German 10.5 cm leFH 18M light field howitzer, which already made a brief appearance earlier in the conflict, but is now seen again in use with Ahrar al-Sham targeting regime-held positions near Ariha, South of Idlib. This ancient piece of weaponry, an improvement of the earlier 10.5 cm leFH 18, mostly saw use on the Eastern Front during the Second World War but was also exported to Syria by Czechoslovakia after the war had ended. Other German weaponry that also reached Syria included the 7.5 cm PaK 40 anti-tank gun, StuG III and Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers, the 15cm Hummel self-propelled howitzer, the Panzer IV and even large numbers of StG-44 assault rifles.

Indeed, the 10.5 cm artillery piece is not the first weapon originally produced in Nazi Germany to see action in the Syrian Civil War. In Aleppo, August 2012, a batch of some 5000 StG-44 assault rifles and associated ammunition was captured by Liwa al-Tawhid, which went on to use them in limited quantities, even hooking one up to a remote controlled weapon station.[1]

The extremely wide range of weaponry originating from a plethora of sources and dates currently in use in Syria and Iraq make the international conflict one of the most diverse ever, with factions simultaneously using post-2000s and World War II vintage weaponry. A prime example of the fact that when times are dire and munition is rare, every bullet counts.

Special thanks to PFC_Joker.

Islamic State captures Tadmur (Palmyra) in new sudden streak of offensives

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

In a surprising new streak of offensives launched at targets in both Iraq in Syria, the Islamic State has managed to capture the ancient city of Palmyra, known today as Tadmur. With the strategically important town of al-Sukhna falling just over a week before, and the Iraqi city of Ramadi just days before Tadmur, it appears the Islamic State is far from being under control, and possibly attempting to revive the seemingly unstoppable upmarch of last summer.

Tadmur, which is also home to Tadmur airbase, is of high strategic importance due to its position at the base of the vital M20 highway, which leads through the recently fallen al-Sukhna to the regime's last holdout in the East of the country: Deir ez-Zor. Without access to this highway and with little prospect of retaking both of the Islamic State's newest gains, the Assad-regime will face extreme difficulty in keeping its troops in Deir ez-Zor supplied, and the fall of the city and associated airbase might soon become inevitable.

The town of Tadmur is best known for the ancient Roman monuments and ruins, which, given the Islamic State's history with the destruction of historical sites, is now feared to be a target for vandalism. Although this aspect will likely incite a lot of coverage from Western media, it should not be forgotten that there are also thousands of lives at stake, with hundreds of casualties reported so far and many dead, despite earlier reporting from Syrian State Media that citizens were being evacuated. Of course, with mainstream media eager to find new stories that might interest a diverse public, events such as renewed poison gas attacks and the current offensive are less likely to be covered than a story on ancient Roman ruins in danger of destruction.

Also of great importance are the massive weapon depots located in Tadmur, one of the largest in Syria. While the exact contents of the depots remain unknown, there are reports of ballistic missiles being stored here. Should this be the case, it is likely images of such missiles in Islamic State's hands will surface again soon, even though it is unlikely that they will get any to work. Perhaps more of interest is the fact that many other types of weaponry captured by the fighters of Islamic State as Ghaneema (spoils of war) will provide the means for future offensives, allowing the Islamic State to exert pressure on fronts throughout the region.

Hundreds of ammunition boxes captured during the early phase of the Islamic State's offensive on the town just a few days ago give a clear indication of the amount of weaponry that is still likely to be present in the many storage bunkers littered around Tadmur.

Tadmur also serves as an important link in the production and distribution of a large portion of Syria's gas supplies. Whoever is in control of Tadmur has easy access to the numerous gas fields and pipelines running through the area, all of which now also under control of the Islamic State. And without access to gas fields, the Assad-led regime could face a huge problem in keeping Damascus, Lattakia and Tartus supplied with enough gas.

The ease with which the Islamic State managed to capture Tadmur is a clear sign of the increasingly worn military force that has been spread thin over regime-controlled Syria, and is now slowly running out of men willing to give their lives for the regime. While the situation for the regime has been already been dire before, Iran's and Hizbullah's involvement in the Syrian Civil War managed to stall the Free Syrian Army's advance throughout Syria, and eventually stabilised the situation for the regime early in the Civil War. However, this source of manpower is still finite, and Iran and the regime are increasingly forced to rely on other foreign fighters for their offensives, often Iranian jailed Afghan criminals and refugees, to carry the burden.

The offensive at Tadmur came as a surprise to many, and the quick victory must even have surprised the fighters of the Islamic State, which were until thus far unsuccessful in capturing any major towns, installations or army bases in Central and Eastern Syria since the fall of Tabqa in August 2014.

Tadmur was defended by the 18th Tank Batallion of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA), the National Defence Force (NDF) and troops of Suqour al-Sahraa' (The Desert Falcons). No attack on the town or the region was expected, and as a result, the regime's miltary presence in Tadmur was minimal. With no reserves or reinforcements available, the regime's troops in Central Syria simply collapsed. Caught completely off-guard, the regime never had any real chance to hold the town against the fighters of the Islamic State, and Tadmur was thus lost as soon as the Islamic State attacked it.

Although the fighters of the Islamic State reportedly freed the remaining prisoners in Tadmur's prison, made infamous by the 1980 Massacre and after its reactivation in 2011 again one of the most notorious in Syria, it remains unknown how many of the prisoners actually survived. Executing any remaining prisoners before retreating has become a common practice for the regime, and Tadmur's prison is unlikely to be different.

Tadmur airbase, strategically located in Central Syria, has traditionally been home to an unknown squadron operating the iconic MiG-25PD(S) interceptor and MiG-25PU two-seat trainer. The airbase lost much of its value after the gradual retirement of the Syrian Arab Air Force's (SyAAF) MiG-25 fleet however, partially made-up by an increasing number of civilian flights. Nevertheless, the unknown squadron based at Tadmur was one of the last to continue flying the mighty MiG-25 'Foxbat'. A video released by the Free Syrian Army on the 8th of August 2012 confirmed some MiG-25s might still have been operational at Tadmur until 2013, or perhaps later. It is likely that the surviving aircraft remain stored in the sixteen Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) found at the airbase.

The airbase also served as an important link in the transfer of arms and munitions to Deir ez-Zor. This role will now have to be taken over by T.4 airbase, located West of Tadmur and likely the next target of the advancing fighters of the Islamic State. Three radar systems, a JY-27, a P-14 and a P-12/18, located at the airbase were responsible for guarding the airspace above Central Syria, a capability that is now lost. This means the SyAAF won't be able to detect any aircraft in Central and Eastern Syria, a serious blow to the already crippled air defences.

The central location of Tadmur makes the town an important link in Syria's road network, and the capture of the town opens the gates for the Islamic State to expand their base of operations deeper into Syria. The next targets for the Islamic State will undoubtedly be T.4 airbase and/or Deir ez-Zor. Although it is also possible that the fighters of the Islamic State will march in the direction of Homs, or even Damascus, capturing Syria's most important airbase or consolidating its grip on Deir ez-Zor would make more sense.

The fall of Tadmur paints a dire picture for the regime's grip on the Eastern half of the country, and should their last base in this area (Deir ez-Zor) also succumb to the increased pressure stemming from a lack of supplies and constant attacks from fighters of the Islamic State, the image of the regime's firm grip on the largest part of the country will be destroyed. Due to the strategical position of Tadmur the fall of the city also means the Islamic State now has direct road access to many of Syria's largest provinces, including the city of Homs and the capital of Damascus.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Are Yemen's Houthis still capable of launching ballistic missiles?

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Recent footage coming out of Yemen's 'Amran Governorate indicate that despite the heavy bombing of Yemen's ballistic missile depots by the Saudi-led Coalition, the Houthis might still have the means to launch ballistic missiles at their disposal. The site housing the Group of Missile Forces of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Yemen was heavily hit as part of Operation Decisive Storm, and the resulting explosions were thought to have resulted in the destruction of all of Yemen's ballistic missiles and associated launchers.

In fact, the Saudi Defense Ministry went as far to claim that it had ''successfully eliminated the threat to the security of Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries'', and was thus ending Operation Decisive Storm, replacing it by the more humanitarian-oriented Operation Restoring Hope.[1]

But now it appears that the threat, while however greatly diminished, is not yet completely eliminated. A video, depicting one of Yemen's Transporter Erector Launchers used for launching R-17 Elbrus (Scud-B) or Hwasŏng-5/6 ballistic missiles on a tank trailer underway in the 'Amran Governorate, North of Sana'a, during the Saudi-declared humanitarian truce leaves little doubt on that some launch systems have survived the Saudi-led bombing campaign, possibly while stored in residential areas if rumours prove to be true.

Jordanian security officials, one of the best, if not the best informed on security matters in the Middle East, recently claimed that Iran succeeded in supplying Yemen's Houthi rebels with ballistic missiles, reportedly of the Scud-B and Scud-C type.[2] This possible Iranian delivery in combination with the North Korean delivery of Hwasŏng-5 or Hwasŏng-6 missiles and launchers in the early 2000s means that the amount of ballistic missiles present in Yemen thus might have been much larger than originally thought, increasing the chances that at least some of the systems and missiles have indeed survived the bombing campaign, and may still be in operational condition.

Strangely enough, the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) seen in the video is missing two of its four wheels on the right sight of the MAZ-543, which would greatly hinder or even prevent the launch of a ballistic missile.

Getting a missile to the TEL undetected will surerly also pose a great challenge for the Houthis, and increased monitoring of Yemen's major roads might prevent transport in broad daylight. Alternatively, the TEL might actually be underway to a location holding one or more missiles, instead of the other way around.

Although it remains to be seen if the Houthis are indeed capable of transporting and mating a missile to the handicaped TEL, and have the technical personnel or Iranian 'advisors' to get it all to work, the sudden appearance of the TEL in broad daylight makes one wonder what other equipment still survives, and serves as an indication that this war is still far from over.

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Thursday, 14 May 2015

From Russia with Love, Syria's MTs-116Ms

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

No less than six different types of Russian marksman rifles, sniper rifles and anti-materiel rifles have reached the shores of Syria since the start of the Civil War, of which the MTs-116M is one. Due to the fact that the MTs-116M is poorly known throughout the world, the sniper rifle's combat debut in Syria has only received little attention.

The presence of the MTs-116M in Syria became publicly known after it was shown in use with a women battalion of the Republican Guard deployed to Jobar for propaganda purposes. Although the video shows the women engaged in an exchange of fire with rebels located just metres away from the frontline, the battalion does not participate in the Republican Guard's incursions into Jobar, and is instead used to guard a calm part of the Jobar front. As a result, the battalion suffered its first and only KIA in Darayya in mid-April 2015.

The first MTs-116M delivery to Syria occurred just months before it was first spotted, and was subsequently used to fill the gap between marksman rifles such as the SVD and G3, and anti-materiel rifles such as the 6S8, OSV-96 and AM-50. A steady supply of the sniper rifle has ensured a solid presence in the embattled nation, and it is mostly seen in use with high-tier units.

Unsurprisingly, the MTs-116M sniper rifle bears close resemblance to the design of its older brother on which it is based; the MTs-116. The inception of the MTs-116M came to be after the MTs-116's accuracy was deemed to be satisfactory to such a degree that a military version optimised for law-enforcement agencies for use during counter-terrorism operations was developed.

Chambered in 7.62x54, the MTs-116M accepts both a five-round magazine and a ten-round magazine (as opposed to the single-shot function of the MTs-116), the latter of which also used by the SVD 'Dragunov'.

The MTs-116M accepts a wide range of Russian optical sights, including night vision sights. When equipped with such sights, the rifle has an effective range of up to 800 metres. While this doesn't offer much improvement over the SVD, the MTs-116M's shots are much more likely to hit their intended targets.

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Saturday, 9 May 2015

Battlefront Syria: Kweres airbase

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Kweres airbase, also known as Rasm al-Abboud, Quweires and a host of other names, has reportedly been under heavy pressure by the fighters of the Islamic State since early May 2015, which seek to capture the airbase. A social media censorship imposed by the Islamic State have caused its fighters to refrain from posting any images or information on the offensive, making it difficult to understand what is actually going on at Kweres. The censorship was a result of the painful lesson learned from the assault on Tabqa airbase, during which the defenders could pinpoint the location of the fighters of the Islamic State by the information they posted online, and is nowadays enforced during every major offensive undertaken by the Islamic State.

Kweres airbase is one of the seventeen airbases that remain active while under the control of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) and Syrian Arab Army (SyAA). Kweres has little value as an airbase however and has already been under constant siege since December 2012. But against all odds, the airbase remains operational. While originally completely surrounded by the Free Syrian Army, the siege was taken over by fighters of the Islamic State after their rapid expansion in Eastern Syria just shy of a year ago. The fighters of the Islamic State have stormed the base on a number of occasions, but these attacks were likely focused at probing the airbase's defences rather than capturing the base. Nonetheless, the SyAAF has flown plenty of sorties to protect the airbase and at least one Fateh 110 'Tishreen' surface-to-surface missile has been fired at the airbase's belligerants in order to boost morale.[1]

Despite the fact that the airbase remains fully operational, its military value is currently the lowest of the SyAAF's airbases. This and the fact that Kweres comes close to being an impenetrable fortress was apparently also understood by the Islamic State, which never made any serious attempt to capture the airbase even though they surround it completely. Although sporadic artillery, mortar and rocket fire frequently hit the base, this is not known to have caused any serious losses. Surprisingly, fighters of the Islamic State also utilise UAVs to spot targets for the U.S. made 155mm M198 howitzers captured in Iraq, which are being now used to shell the base and its surroundings.[2] The Islamic State's tactics for dealing with Kweres has until thus far largely been the same as those of the Free Syrian Army, which lacked the manpower to storm the base. A SANA TV crew was the last to have visited the airbase in February 2014, a video and images of which can be seen here, here and here. No TV crew has been sent to document the current offensive, as the last time SANA did such a thing, the airbase in question (Tabqa) fell just one day after it was proudly stated that the fighters of the Islamic State were held off.

Exactly why the Islamic State is now making a move on the airbase can be explained by the fact that IS is frantically looking for large propaganda stunts to retain the detterence it once boasted, and capturing an airbase provides exactly that. The Islamic State's offenses in Syria are currently not achieving their intended goals as the fighters of the Islamic State have so far proven unable to capture Deir ez-Zor and T.4 airbase, which are even more fortified than Kweres airbase. The summer of 2014 saw Division 17, Regiment 121, Brigade 93, Tabqa airbase and the Shaer gas field all falling for the then seemingly invincible fighters of the Islamic State, but apart from Shaer, all were already surrounded for a long time with the soldiers trapped inside waiting for the imminent final assault. Deir ez-Zor and T.4 are a whole different story, and their capture, if at all possible, would require such a large amount of manpower that it would present nothing more than a pyrrhic victory for the Islamic State.

Kweres, the entry sign of which can be seen above, was originally constructed by Poles in the early sixties to serve as the SyAAF's main training base. It officially remains home to the Aviation Academy of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), comprised of the Basic Flying School, using the MBB-SIAT 223K1 Flamingo and the PAC MFI-17 Mushshak, and the Advanced Flying School, using the L-39ZO and the L-39ZA. Most SyAAF pilots once got their wings here, which makes the airbase of high symbolic value.

The Basic Flying School quickly wound down operations after the start of the Civil War however, and its aircraft remain stored in various parts of the airbase. The SyAAF has thus been unable to train new pilots in Syria itself, further increasing the burden on the already tired and often depressed pilots, most of which are fully aware that more often than not civilians are on the receiving end of the rockets and (barrel) bombs. Another training facility; Mennegh, once home to the Helicopter Flying School, was already overrun on the 5th of August 2013. A limited form of advanced training was continued on L-39s and helicopters present elsewhere in Syria.

Kweres's resident L-39s had the dubious honour of being the first aircraft to become actively involved in suppressing the rebellion in the end of July 2012, when the Advanced Flying School deployed its L-39ZOs and L-39ZAs on bombing runs over Aleppo and its suburbs. These sorties resulted mostly in civilian targets such as hospitals and schools being hit, and unsurprisingly led to numerous civilian casualties. The number of L-39 sorties over Aleppo gradually decreased over time however, and completely came to a halt in May 2013.

As the number of L-39 sorties gradually decreased in number, so did the L-39 fleet in size, which suffered a heavy blow when Kshesh, nowadays known for being the site of Syria's first rebel air force, was captured on the 12th of February 2013. The surviving L-39s were then distributed between Hama, Tabqa and Aleppo International Airport/Neyrab, where some were overhauled and modified to carry 80mm B-8 rocket pods. The fleet of L-39s based at Kweres, originally numbered at around forty, remained mostly intact in terms of numbers, but was heavily affected by a lack of spare parts and mortar fire from both the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic State over the years, resulting in just over a dozen examples remaining operational in 2013.

However, when examining Kweres using satellite imagery taken on the 26th of May 2013 one can spot no less than 89 aircraft and 12 helicopters. If the base were captured, the endless rows of aircraft and helicopters will therefore still surely provide the propaganda pictures the Islamic State is craving. The condition of the impressive number of aircraft varies from operational to derelict, and the just over a dozen British-built Meteors also present at the base were abandoned here more than half a century ago. One of two MiG-23 fighters present at Kweres, both once used as instructional airframes, can be seen below.

Enough of Kweres' L-39s remained operational to aid in the defence of the airbase however, reportedly sometimes flying up to twenty sorties a day to strike Islamic State positions around the airbase. The town of Ayn al-Jamajimah, an Islamic State strongpoint, was heavily hit in particular. One L-39 crashed during one of these sorties on the 20th of April 2015.[3]

The defence of Kweres is in hands of an unknown number of SyAA, NDF and SyAAF soldiers, airmen and mechanics, most of which present at the airbase since the start of the revolution. It is believed that the garrison was reinforced in the summer of 2014 after the Free Syrian Army was forced to abandon its positions around the airbase in light of the Islamic State's advance.

An S-125 surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery located closely to Kweres evacuated all its equipment and personnel to Kweres to prevent being overrun by the Free Syrian Army somewhere in the 2012-2013 timeframe. Although the SAM battery was subsequently re-activated at Kweres and remained operational as of 2013, it is deemed unlikely that the battery currently remains active. No threat from the air is present and the personnel manning the battery would likely be of more value defending the airbase from ground attacks.

As Kweres is completely surrounded by the Islamic State, the only lifeline between the airbase and the rest of regime-controlled Syria is the SyAAF's helicopter fleet, which continuously supplies the airbase with anything ranging from food to weaponry and their munitions. One squadron of Mi-8s was permanently detached to Kweres in part to aid in this task.

The defenders of Kweres almost solely rely on light weapons in the defence of the airbase. The state of the SyAAF and the fact that large cargo planes present perfect targets for the fighters of the Islamic State surrounding the base has meant that no heavy weaponry could be flown in: The weapons that are available to the defenders were flown in by helicopter. This weaponry included SVD 'Dragunov' marksman rifles, Iranian 12.7mm AM.50 anti-materiel sniper rifles, (heavy) machine-guns, RPG-7s, ATGMs and a number of Russian night sights intended for the AKM to enable the defenders to better fight at night.

The twenty-six anti-aircraft guns present at the airbase (two from the nearby S-125 SAM site) provide the heavy firepower as no tanks or artillery are stationed at the airbase. This meant the defenders had to be creative, and the 14.5mm ZPU-4s, 23mm ZU-23s and 57mm AZP S-60s taken from four anti-aircraft emplacements were strategically placed throughout the airbase to attain the maximum amount of tactical value, sometimes even on top of Kweres' eleven Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS). It is interesting to note that most of the ZPU-4s had two of their four barrels taken away, which were then put on DIY mounts so as to increase the amount of ground covered by heavy weaponry.

The flat terrain surrounding the airbase is greatly in favour of the defenders, a tactical advantage which forces the fighters of the Islamic State to run through empty fields without much cover in order to reach the airbase. This advantage is especially apparent in the North, East and South. Surprisingly, attacking the North-Eastern corner was exactly what the fighters of the Islamic State did. The fighters even succeeded in capturing two of the Hardened Aircraft Shelters, but were quickly driven out again. The photos of three 57mm AZP S-60 gun emplacements below give an idea of the flat terrain, and clearly show that any attempt to cross the vast empty fields would result in heavy losses.

To further strengthen the perimeter, the defenders have made great use of the eleven Hardened Aircraft Shelters located at the Northern and Eastern part of the airbase. These Hardened Aircraft Shelters have literally been turned into fortresses, and most have either one anti-aircraft gun or heavy machine-gun installed on top. They have also been designed to withstand large bombs dropped by aircraft, so the Islamic State has no chance to destroy them for instance by using artillery. Trenches on and surrounding the HAS provide cover for the garrisons of soldiers tasked with the protection of their assigned corridor. Plenty of ammunition present inside the Aircraft Shelters guarantee trying to capture one would prove to be an extremely arduous task. In addition, huge sand barricades erected throughout the base cover any movement by the defenders, which makes it easier to resupply each garrison. The defenders also operate a number of technicals armed with ZU-23s and heavy machine-guns, which are utilised as a quick-reaction force and can be deployed at any part of the base should the need arise.

It should not be forgotten that the airbase is already completely surrounded since two-and-a-half years, which gave the defenders plenty of time to perfect their defences. Numerous small attacks mostly carried out by the Islamic State will thus only have helped the defenders in learning to properly keep the airbase secured.

Heavy fighting has also been going on in the Military Housing Block, located West of the airbase and seen in the sattelite imagery below. Heavy artillery shelling by the Islamic State has destroyed much of the complex, and the remaining structures and trenches are subject to intense house-to-house fighting. As the Complex (pictured below) is an important key in the defence of the Western side of the airbase, the defenders will have to continue to allocate resources in order to hold the Housing Complex, or otherwise risk endangering the entire base.

If the Military Housing Block proves unable to hold, the second (and also last) defensive line will have to stop the fighters of the Islamic State to prevent the fighters from flooding into the airbase. This last line, satellite imagery of which can be seen below, too consists of heavily fortified buildings, trenches, anti-aircraft guns and heavy machine guns.

Although Kweres is completely surrounded, SyAA and NDF troops stationed on the Eastern side of Aleppo could theoretically mount an offensive in an effort to prevent the airbase being overrun. However, it is extremely unlikely that such an offensive would ever be carried out by the already overstretched troops based in Aleppo as Kweres simply doesn't have enough strategic value to justify the waste of precious manpower and resources.

It is more likely that if the situation at the airbase becomes too critical, the defenders will attempt to fight their way out in the direction of Aleppo, perhaps aided by the SyAAF's fighter-bombers and helicopters.

In an effort to convince the defenders of Kweres that they were indeed going to be overrun, the Islamic State made pamflets offering the defenders a chance to repent and thus supposedly escape the fate of mass execution. 

''Allah ruled that you must be killed by the sword. We swear that we will have no mercy for anyone of you, so repent and break with this infidel regime. We accept your repentance if you surrender before we come over to you, by then the tyrant (Assad) will not be able to help you. Keep in mind the fate your comrades in Tabqa Airbase met.

Contact the Islamic State's men on the following telephone numbers:
WhatsApp: 00905378489193''

It is highly unlikely that any of the defenders will seriously consider defecting to the Islamic State. The morale in the airbase remains high and the men, most of which have already living together for more than four years, will probably rather die than surrender to the Islamic State.

A photo collage of some of the fallen defenders was published on the 7th of May 2015 by one of the defenders, commemorating eleven KIAs so far, including the commander of Kweres: General al-Muhanna.

Of course, the Syrian Civil War has in its four years of fighting shown many a time how erroneous certain predictions about which party is going to win which battle can turn out to be. However, considering the extensive defences and other aspects in favour of the base's current occupants outlined in this article, it can be expected that Kweres airbase will not fall into the Islamic State's hands any time soon.

In conclusion, any move on Kweres by the Islamic State comes more out of the need for a symbolic victory than from military strategy. If the Islamic State's offensive on Kweres proves to be as large as is claimed by some sources, and should its fighters succeed in capturing the airbase, it will very likely provide the Islamic State with what they're looking for.

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