Russia is doubling down in its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In an effort to prop up the Syrian government, and secure its own interests in the region, Russia is establishing its “most significant” military foothold in the region since the days of the Cold War.
As part of this push, Russia has taken over the main international airport in Damascus and is airlifting tons of supplies, soldiers, and armaments including tanks into the country.
At the same time, Russians are building another base in Latakia, the ancestreal heartland of Assad.
So far, Moscow has deployed around a half dozen T-90 battle tanks in Syria, The New York Times reports citing American military specialists. The tanks are currently being stationed at airfields throughout the country.
Reuters reports that Russia has placed seven T-90s by an airfield in Latakia. The tanks are currently defensively deployed, but that could change as Russia continues to fly more equipment and personnel into the country.
The T-90 tank is Russia’s second-most recent tank. It first entered service in the Russia military in 1992, and Russia began exporting the vehicle in 2004. As of 2007, Russia only had around 200 T-90 tanks within its armed forces. As such, the deployment of over a half dozen of the tanks to Syria is a fairly large move.
According to Army Technology, the T-90 is heavily armed with a wide variety of rounds. The tank comes with one main turret that can fire armor piercing rounds, high-explosive anti-tank rounds, and shrapnel projectiles. In addition, the vehicle has an anti-tank guided missile system and a mounted machine gun.
Defensively, the tank has both conventional and reactive armor shielding as well as various jamming tools that make it difficult to enemy’s to lock onto the tanks position.
Altogether, the T-90 is an extremely capable vehicle. Aside from Russia’sbrand new T-14 Armata tank, which has yet to enter mass procurement, it is Russia’s latest and most capable battle vehicle.
In addition to the T-90s, the Times reports that Russia has also moved in howitzers, armored personnel carriers, and artillery into Latakia.
The Syrian government has asked Iran to take over the supervision and payroll of thousands of Shi’ite militiamen fighting alongside Russian and Syrian troops in support of President Bashar al-Assad, according to a government source and a news report.
The pro-opposition Syrian news website Zaman Al Wasel reported that it obtained a Syrian defense ministry document saying the Assad regime has approved a plan to give Iran responsibility for paying foreign fighters – mostly Shi’ites of varying nationalities. Shi’ite fighters mostly are paid in cash from Iran, the Syrian government and coffers of the Lebanese-based, pro-Iranian Hezbollah, according to analysts.
Iran would foot the bill alone in the future, a Syrian official told VOA on the condition of anonymity, confirming the Al Wasel report.
“The number of Shia militia has increased dramatically during the last two months,” the official said. “While a big part of these militia were recruited by Iran, a relatively big part was recruited by the Syrian government directly. We are speaking about more than 50,000 militants from different nationalities. The Syrian government requested that Iran provide for all of the mentioned militias.”
The document from Al Wasel put the number of fighters to be paid at 88,733 — a figure analysts say is exaggerated. They estimate that about 10,000 Iranian combat troops are in Syria fighting alongside thousands of fighters from Lebanon’s Tehran-affiliated Shiite militia Hezbollah and assorted Shiite militia made up of renegade Pakistanis, central Asians and other nationalities. Since January 2013, more than 1,000 members of Iran’s elite Quds Force or other elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) units have been killed fighting in Syria.
Tehran says its forces are in Syria to protect the Zeinab Shrine in Damascus, a Shi’ite holy site. But since 2011, Iran has been a major backer of the Syrian regime in its war with rebel groups across the country, at first sending advisers, then forces from the IRGC and expanding far beyond the shrine area.
Iran has long expressed a desire to command a unified army in the region, particularly in Syria, and its growing power in Syria and Iraq is causing unease in Western capitals. In an interview with the Mashregh news agency last August, Mohammad Ali Falaki, an IRGC leader, announced formation of a unified army in Syria which appears to have come to loose fruition.
“It would hardly be abnormal for Iran’s IRGC to be controlling yet more Shia jihadists,” said Talha Abdulrazaq, a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute.
In the long run, the formation of a unified army in Syria under Tehran supervision appears very practical, analysts say.
“It seems plausible that the Syrian government shift the responsibility for management and organization of the militias, especially where financial burden is concerned,” said Rasool Nafisi, a Middle East affairs expert in Washington.
Asserting its military prowess would help Iran push its political agenda in the region, some analysts believe.
“The bigger and more advanced army you control, the stronger voice you have,” said Daryoush Babak, a Washington-based retired Iranian military adviser.
But unifying Assad supporters under Tehran’s umbrella could worsen sectarian conflict in the region between Shi’ites and Sunni, analysts say.
Iran is looking for any chance to increase its influence and gain an upper hand against Saudi Arabia, its strongest rival in the war of minds and hearts, analysts say. Saudi Arabia and Iran support rival groups in Syria’s civil war. And In a speech in Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump accused Tehran of contributing to instability in the region.
“Tehran and Riyadh … keep contradicting each other to prove whose ideology leads the region,” said Nafisi.
While Syria has relied on Iran militarily in the fight against rebels and Islamic State, it’s unlikely to grant Tehran a controlling foothold in the country, analysts say.
“In Syria, it is not likely to happen as long as the Assad regime harbors ambitions of regaining sovereignty rather than being reduced to an Iranian protectorate,” said Alfoneh.
Babasoloukian — aka “Babalou” — tells a story that illustrates how easy it is for trainees to fall into traps set by their drill sergeants…or just actually fall…even when they’re told specifically not to fall (common sense would suggest that you wouldn’t have to tell someone that but…boots amirite?)
A genius moment is when one of the enlistees doesn’t know the difference between an Armenian and a Kardashian.
Maybe genius isn’t the right word?
But hey, when it comes down to it, all military personnel are well aware that our great nation faces threats of all shapes and sizes, whether it’s ISIS, al Qaeda, or Kardashian.
It appears that the nation’s top military officer is not in sync with his commander-in-chief on the need to label America’s enemy in the conflicts that have persisted since the 9-11 terrorists’ attacks as “radical Islamic extremists.”
Throughout his campaign and since taking office, President Donald Trump has insisted on using the term radical or extremists “Islamic” terrorists to describe ISIS and the other groups spreading conflicts throughout the Middle East and Africa.
Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush and their administrations’ officials, including Pentagon leaders, deliberately avoided use of the “Islamic” label in an effort, they said, to avoid bolstering the terrorists’ propaganda that America was at war with all of Islam. But many Republicans in Congress protested that policy for denying the true nature of the threat.
During an appearance at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Feb. 23, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, repeatedly used the term “violent extremists” in talking about the “four plus one threat” the US military must face. That term refers to the possible future threats posed by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, plus the ongoing fights against extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and many parts of Africa.
Dunford also used that term in explaining the purpose of the review Trump ordered the Pentagon to conduct on ways to accelerate the fight to defeat ISIS and similar groups.
When challenged by a reporter on whether he does not feel the need to use the “Islamic” label used by Trump, Dunford carefully avoided the term.
“You ought not to read anything into my use of ‘violent extremism’ other than really trying to articulate exactly the point I’m trying to make now… It involves al Qaeda, it involves Hezbollah, it involves ISIS and other groups that present a trans-regional threat,” he said.
“If you ask about a specific group I could give you a more specific descriptor,” Dunford added. “I was using the term ‘violent extremism’ to refer to all of those groups,” that exist “as the result of individuals who take up arms to advance political and/or religious objectives through violence.”
In an earlier discussion about the complex situation the US is trying to deal with in Syria, Dunford noted there are issues with Sunni and Shia groups, the two main divisions of Islam, plus Kurds, Turks and others.
For nearly 100 years, U.S. Army soldiers have designed and worn unit patches. And for roughly same amount of time, soldiers have made fun of each other’s patches.
The tradition of Army patches dates back to 1918 when the 81st Infantry Division deployed to Europe wearing a shoulder insignia they had designed for training exercises in South Carolina. Other units complained about the unauthorized unit item to Gen. John Pershing who, rather than punishing the 81st, authorized the patch and recommended other units design their own.
Since then, units have designed and worn patches that motivated soldiers, honored the unit lineage, and encapsulated military history. This is a sampling of some of those patches, along with the alternate names that soldiers remember them by.
The arrow is supposed to symbolize the ability of the command to fulfill its mission quickly and effectively, but soldiers decided it looked like an outhouse dropped on a hill.
2. “Broken TV” — 3rd Infantry Division
The three lighter stripes symbolize the three major campaigns the division fought in during World War I while the darker stripes symbolize the loyalty of the soldiers who gave their lives. Once TVs were invented, the similarity between a broken set and the patch was undeniable.
4th Inf. Div. wants you to see their patch and relate the four ivy leaves to fidelity and tenacity. The Army sees it and just thinks about lieutenants getting lost on the land navigation course.
4. “Crushed Beer Can” — 7th Infantry Division
This is supposed to be an hourglass formed from two 7s, a normal one and an inverted one. Of course, it really does look more like a can someone crushed in their grip.
5. “Flaming Anus” — 9th Infantry Division
You see it. You know you do.
6. “Gaggin’ Dragon” — 18th Airborne Corps
Their mascot is a Sky Dragon so they went with a big scary dragon … that needs someone to administer the heimlich.
7. “Electric Strawberry” — 25th Infantry Division
Based out of Hawaii, 25th’s patch is a taro leaf, native to Hawaii, with a lightning bolt showing how fast the division completes its missions. Since no one knows what a taro leaf is, most soldiers call it the electric strawberry. They also sometimes get called “Hawaii Power and Light.”
8. “Days Inn” — 41st Infantry Division
Like 3rd Infantry Division’s, there was nothing odd about this patch when it was adopted in World War I. Still, if you’re only familiar with the hotel chain, this patch feels like copyright infringement. Some soldiers from this unit volunteered for service in Afghanistan in 2008, an experience chronicled in Shepherds of Helmand.
The 82nd Airborne Division was named the All-American Division after a contest held in Atlanta, Ga. The patch’s two A’s are meant to call to mind the “All-American” nickname, but many people are, of course, reminded of the alcoholic support group. This wasn’t helped by the division’s reputation for hard drinking.
10. “Choking Chicken” — 101st Airborne Division
The 101st was originally based out of Wisconsin and they based their unit patch off of “Old Abe,” a bald eagle carried into combat by the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. While Abe was a distinguished bald eagle, the unit patch could easily be seen instead as a chicken with corn stuck in its windpipe.
The Pentagon, on Aug. 30, sharply raised its estimate of the number of US troops currently in Afghanistan, ahead of a decision on adding thousands more under President Donald Trump’s new strategy for the war-wracked country.
Pentagon Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie said a comprehensive review showed that there were approximately 11,000 uniformed US servicemen and women in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has said previously that there were roughly 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan, under a cap set during former President Barack Obama’s administration.
Military officials have long quietly acknowledged there were far more forces in the country than the cap allowed, but commanders shuffled troops in and out, labeled many “temporary,” and used other personnel-accounting tactics to artificially keep the public count low.
“This is not a troop increase,” but rather an effort to be more transparent about the total size of the US force, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.
The new count, which includes temporary and covert units as well as regular forces, was made to establish the basis for an increase in troops — possibly by around 4,000 — under Trump’s revised strategy to better support Afghan troops in the fight against the Taliban.
That said, the Brits will find that the U.S. Marines will do things a bit differently than Her Majesty’s lads. Here are a few things the Brits will need to do to make life “Oorah!” for American Leathernecks.
1. Schedule regular beer runs
The Brits may need to borrow a Supply-class replenishment ship just to have enough beer on hand for the Marines. You see, no thanks to Josephus Daniels the U.S. Navy doesn’t allow alcohol on board its vessels.
Royal Navy ships, on the other hand, are “wet,” and with the heat on carrier decks, Marines will get thirsty. The Brits will need sufficient supplies of Coors Lite to keep the Marines happy.
Oh, yeah, and when it comes to the harder stuff – figure that it might not hurt to have extras on stock. But they can leave the brandy and sherry ashore.
2. Ditch the tea and pile up the energy drinks
Earl Gray is not what most Marines will drink around 5:00pm. Forget even offering it.
Energy drinks on the other hand, are popular amongst all American service members. To fully understand how popular they are, keep in mind that according to a 2016 DOD release, Monster was the most popular cold beverage sold in the exchanges. In 2009, one exchange store reported selling 1,000 cans a week, according to an Army release.
Come to think of it… you may need a second replenishment ship for all the Monster that will be consumed. We’re sure Military Sealift Command will give a discount for leasing two Supply-class ships.
3. Stock coffee … and lots of it
While we’re talking about pick-me-ups, it may not be a bad idea to remember that the Marines will also drink coffee — and lots of it.
Leroy Jethro Gibbs from “NCIS” is not an aberration. The grouchiness if he doesn’t have his coffee – that’s not an aberration, either.
And the Marines have to have it.
That photo above was taken during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Trust me, if Leathernecks had their coffee during Iwo Jima — and did what they did there — you don’t want to see what Marines do without their coffee.
That might take a third Supply-class replenishment ship, by the way. MSC has to have a discount for leasing three, wethinks.
4. Add a rifle range
The Marines’ motto is, “Every Marine a Rifleman.” Even the jet jockeys.
So, you’re gonna need a range so the Marines can qualify on the M16A4 rifle and the M9 pistol. That means you’ll need a good backstop, plenty of ammo, and plenty of spare magazines for both (luckily the British L85 rifle uses the same magazines as the M16).
5. Brush up on what real football is
Also, depending on the time of year, you will be in football season.
No, we’re not talking the game with the black-and-white round ball. That’s soccer.
We’re talking real football. Eleven on a team, yes, but beyond that, the Brits will need to know the intricacies of the 46 defense, what “Cover 2” means, and just who Tom Brady, DeMarcus Ware, and Ezekiel Elliot are — among others.
Also, don’t even think of mentioning Manchester United in the same breath as the Chicago Bears. Just don’t.
The first American service member to die while fighting ISIS “fearlessly exposed himself” to heavy small arms fire during a raid on a militant prison complex in October 2015, according to the citation for his Silver Star award.
The award for Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, a team leader with the Army’s elite Delta Force, was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Business Insider.
The Army released few details of the circumstances of Wheeler’s death in 2015, and the Pentagon’s website listing valor awards was quietly updated to reflect a Silver Star award, which he received posthumously the following month.
Wheeler, 39, was part of a raid at a prison in Hawijah, Iraq on Oct. 22, 2015 that was carried out by US-backed Kurdish forces. The mission saved roughly 70 prisoners the US feared would be executed the next day, according to The Washington Post.
Though the citation gives a broad overview of Wheeler’s heroism, it does not delve into specifics. Still, it said, “Wheeler fearlessly exposed himself to heavy small arms fire from barricaded enemy positions. His selfless actions were critical in achieving the initiative during the most dangerous portion of the raid.”
It also said that Wheeler’s actions saved the lives of the partner force, better known as the Kurdish Peshmerga. He was killed at some point during the raid by small arms fire. Three Kurdish soldiers were wounded.
“This is someone who saw the team that he was advising and assisting coming under attack,” then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters the day after his death. “And he rushed to … to help them and made it possible for them to be effective. And in doing that, lost his own life. That’s why I’m proud of him.”
Wheeler was the first US service member killed in action against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, challenging the narrative put forth by the Obama administration that American troops would not be put on the ground in Iraq or Syria.
The 20-year Army veteran had deployed a whopping 14 times over his career, first as a Ranger, then later as a Special Forces soldier assigned to US Special Operations Command. In addition to receiving the Silver Star and Purple Heart after his death, Wheeler was the recipient of 11 Bronze Star medals — four for valor in combat — the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Joint Service Commendation Medal (also for valor), and many others.
So far, there have been 10 US deaths attributed to hostile fire in the campaign against ISIS, known as Operation Inherent Resolve. Another 48 troops have been wounded in action.
The commanding general of III Marine Expeditionary Force has ordered a stop to all MV-22 Osprey flight operations in Japan until safety procedures can be reviewed after one of the tiltrotor aircraft was forced to make an emergency shallow-water landing off the coast of Okinawa on Tuesday.
In a press conference in Okinawa following the incident, Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson said the aircraft had been conducting aerial refueling operations over water when the rotor blades hit the refueling line, causing damage to the aircraft.
“After the aircraft was unhooking, it was shaking violently,” Nicholson said, according to a III MEF news release. “The pilot made a decision to not fly over Okinawan homes and families. He made a conscious decision to try to reach Camp Schwab … and land in the shallow water to protect his crew and the people of Okinawa.”
All five Marine crew members aboard the Osprey were rescued from the aircraft and taken to the naval hospital at Camp Foster for treatment following the crash. According to the release, three have been released, and two remain under observation. Their current condition was not described.
III MEF officials said a salvage survey is being conducted to determine how best to recover the damaged Osprey safely, while protecting the environment. An investigation into the incident is ongoing.
During the press conference, Nicholson thanked the Japan Coast Guard and the Okinawan police for their assistance in responding to the crash.
“I regret that this incident took place,” Nicholson said. “We are thankful for all the thoughts and prayers the people of Okinawa gave to our injured crew.”
The Marines’ use of the Osprey on Okinawa has long been a point of contention among residents, many of whom fear that the aircraft might be especially prone to crashes given its history of deadly incidents in its early days. When additional Ospreys arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in 2012, locals held protests to oppose the move.
This is the second time in four months that Nicholson has ordered an operational pause for aircraft in Japan. In September, he ordered AV-8B Harriers in the region to temporarily halt operations after one of the aircraft crashed off of Okinawa.
When the B-52 is over 60 years old, and a large number of F-15 Eagles are over 30, it seems surprising that the Air Force is looking to replace a plane that won’t even be in service for twenty years until later this year.
However, according to an Air Force News Service article, the Air Force is looking to replace the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, which didn’t achieve its initial operating capability until December 1997 according to an Air Force fact sheet. This plane is an all-seeing eye that looks for and tracks ground targets, using the AN/APY-7, a 24-foot long synthetic aperture radar, according to a Northrop Grumman data sheet.
So, why is this system, which isn’t even old enough to drink, suddenly planned for replacement? The answer is in the airframe.
The E-8, like the E-3 Sentry, is based on the Boeing 707, a jet that first flew just over 59 years ago. With the exception of Omega Aerial Refueling Services, nobody operates this aircraft commercially.
Furthermore, according to a 2015 FlightGlobal.com report, the E-8s were produced by acquiring second-hand 707s. A September 2016 Air Force report noted that those second-hand 707s had as many as 60,000 flight hours before they had been purchased for conversion.
One JSTARS that had to be written off was built in 1967, according to DefenseTech.org.
In other words, these are old airframes and they’ve had a lot of use – even before the Air Force gave the 16-plane fleet over 1 million flight hours collectively (as of this past September). That is an average of 62,500 flight hours per plane — meaning that some of the E-8 aircraft could have in excess of 120,000 total flight hours.
That’s the equivalent of 5,000 days in the air.
What is the Air Force looking towards in replacing the E-8C? The JSTARS recapitalization project is likely to involve a smaller jet. According to a 2014 report by Aviation Week and Space Technology, Northrop Grumman is testing a new JSTARS based off a Gulfstream V business jet.
Boeing’s web site is touting a version of the 737 jet as its entry, attempting to partially piggyback on experience with the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon.
Is Russia really flying combat missions from the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov? That is a question percolating as recent satellite photos caught some of the planes that are known to operate from the carrier at a land base, as opposed to operating directly from the carrier.
That airbase, located near the coastal city of Latakia, has become Russia’s main center of operations during its intervention in Syria. Russia also has a naval facility in Tartus, roughly 45 miles to the south of Latakia, that has been used since 1971 under an agreement by the Soviet Union with the regime of Hafez al-Assad.
While it is not uncommon for carrier-based planes to operate from land bases (the n Cactus Air Force at Guadalcanal, which featured planes from the air groups of damaged carriers, is perhaps the most famous instance), this is a sign that Russia’s carrier is less than it seems. In essence, while the Russians are claiming that the Kuznetsov is carrying out a combat deployment and launching sorties, this ship really was more of a glorified aircraft ferry. This is the purported flagship of the Russian Navy.
The Kuznetsov displaces 61,000 tons, and usually carries 15 Su-33 Flankers, but is also capable of carrying up to 20 MiG-29s. One of the MiG-29s crashed earlier this month due to issues with the carrier’s arresting gear combined with an engine failure on the modern multi-role fighter.
The pilot ejected and was recovered, a very unexpected hiccup in Russia’s efforts to showcase the carrier, which has had a reputation for breaking down while on deployment. Since the crash, the MiG-29s have apparently been grounded.
Russia has used the conflict in Syria to test out new weapon systems like the Su-35 “Flanker E” and the SS-N-27 Sizzler. Russia also has deployed the S-400 surface-to-air missile system to defend its bases in Syria.
In 2014 the ride service Uber launched “Uber Military,” a veteran hiring initiative designed to get transitioning service members interested in becoming a “partner,” as the company calls its drivers. Since that time Uber has signed up more than 50,000 veterans as drivers.
As a result of the milestone, Uber just announced that they are donating $1 million dollars to a host of veteran charities including the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and Homes for our Troops.
“Over the past 18 months, we’ve crisscrossed the country to hear the stories of servicemembers and veterans,” Uber’s Emil Michael wrote in a company blog post. “Everywhere we go, they tell us that they want opportunities to make money on their own terms and set their own schedules. We’re thrilled to be able to give more servicemembers and veterans the on-demand work opportunities they’ve been asking for.”
The charities were picked by the Uber Military Advisory Board, an impressive collection of veterans that includes former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen (who’s also on WATM’s Board of Directors).
There are other elements to the Uber Military initiative beyond a big donation to military charities. Uber has incentivized drivers to begin or end a ride on military installations by paying higher rates for those trips. The company has also partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to create awareness about the perils of driving while intoxicated, particularly in military communities that tend to be spread out and require the use of cars to get around.
The Uber Military promotional campaigns are currently centered around the big military populations in California, Texas, and Florida, but the company wants to encourage veterans nationwide to sign up to be drivers.
Kia Hamel is a Navy vet as well as a Navy spouse. Her husband is stationed in Hampton Roads as the executive officer of an amphibious ship, and she has remained in the DC Metro region to keep working as a paralegal while she pursues her master’s degree. Kia has a 4th-grader at home and a son nearby who’s attending college. She first heard about Uber through an email from a third-party employment company, and almost on a whim she clicked on the company’s site link.
“The first thing I noticed was that the drivers didn’t fit the classic cabbie profile,” Hamel says. “I filled out the forms and two weeks later I downloaded the partner app and I was an Uber driver.”
Before Hamel got her part-time job with the law firm, she was driving more than 40 hours a week. “You can make a living wage,” she says. Now she drives when her schedule allows — in the morning during rush hour or on weekends. “For me it’s all about the flexibility.”
Todd Bowers, Marine veteran and Uber’s director of military outreach, points out that Uber’s military vet drivers have driven in 175 cities in all 50 states and that their combined trip distance to date adds up to 78,309,082 miles.
As Bowers travels around the country trying to create awareness in military communities and with veterans everywhere, he’s always amazed at the wide range of profiles of those driving with Uber. “I went to an MBA program a couple of days ago and asked if any of them had driven for Uber, and five officers in the classroom raised their hands,” Bowers says.
“We understand our utility in the veteran employment timeline,” Bowers says. “We’re probably not anyone’s ‘forever’ job, but we’re a great way for vets to earn income when they’re in transition or in need of a part-time job that has max flexibility.”
Here’s some more at-a-glance data:
If you’re a military veteran or active duty servicemember who wants to know more about how to get started as an Uber driver go here.
When ISIS launched its attack on Mosul in 2014, they were outnumbered by opposition forces by almost 40 to one – yet they took the city. Now a group of scientists working on the frontline in Iraq have analysed what motivates such fighters in research they say could help combat extremists.
While predicting the will to fight has been described by the former US director of national intelligence James Clapper as “imponderable,” researchers say they have begun to unpick what leads members of groups, including ISIS, to be prepared to die, let their family suffer, or even commit torture, finding that the motivation lies in a very different area to traditional ideas of comradeship.
“We found that there were three factors behind whether people were willing to make these costly sacrifices,” said Scott Atran, co-author of the research from the University of Oxford and the research institution Artis International.
Those factors, he said, are the strength of commitment to a group and to sacred values, the willingness to choose those values over family or other kin, and the perceived strength of fighters’ convictions – so-called “spiritual strength” – over that of their foes.
The findings support the idea, put forward by previous research, that the will to fight lies not in rational action but in the idea of the “devoted actor” – individuals who consider themselves strongly connected to a group, fighting for values considered to be non-negotiable, or “sacred.”
Writing in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, Atran and an international team of colleagues describe how they came to their insights by travelling to the frontline in Iraq.
As well as speaking to captured ISIS fighters, the team carried out in-depth interviews with Arab Sunni combatants, as well as Kurdish fighters from the PKK, Peshmerga, and members of the Iraqi army. The frontline approach, the authors note, was crucial to capturing the sacrifices individuals actually make for their values, rather than merely what they claim they might do.
The results revealed that all followed the model of “devoted actors”, but that the level of commitment to making costly sacrifices, such as dying, undertaking suicide attacks, or committing torture varied between groups. With the sample size of fighters small, the team also quizzed more than 6,000 Spanish civilians through online surveys.
The results revealed that the majority of civilians placed their family above a value they considered sacred. However, in a finding that echoed evidence from the frontline, the team discovered that those who placed their sacred value above their group said they were more willing to make dramatic, costly sacrifices such as dying, going to prison or letting their children suffer.
Surveys of the Spanish population also revealed that they made links between spiritual – but not physical – strength and the willingness to make sacrifices.
But the team stress that decisions made by devoted actors on the frontline were not made without emotional turmoil.
“One particular Peshmerga fighter had to make a decision when the Islamic State guys decided to enter his village – he wasn’t in a position to take his family with him and escape and get in front of the ISIS fighters, and so what he did was he left his family behind,” said Richard Davis, co-author of the research from the University of Oxford and Artis International.
While being interviewed, the fighter received a phone call from his wife behind ISIS lines, knowing the penalty if caught would be death. “You could see the man getting emotional, and as he gets off the phone, he begins to lament the decision that he had to go through to leave his family behind, but he indicated that fighting for Kurdistan was more important, and that he hoped that God would save his family,” said Davis. “When you hear things like that and you see a broken man – then you recognise how difficult this was for people.”
The team note that understanding the willingness to fight and die among devoted actors could prove valuable in fostering forces against ISIS, including in exploring ways to elicit deeper commitment to, and willingness to sacrifice for, values such as democracy and liberty.
“Instead of just taking volunteers into an army, we might be able to screen who we put into the army based upon the types of values they commit to, and this would create an entirely different fighting force than the one that melted in Mosul in 2014, ” said Davis, adding that the study could also inform efforts attempting to prevent fighters from joining ISIS.
Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews welcomed the research, adding that it contributed to the understanding of terrorists as “engaged followers”. “The fundamental finding is that those prepared to kill – and die – for a cause are to be understood not in terms of a distinctive personality but in terms of their immersion in a collective cause and their commitment to the ideology of that cause,” he said.