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ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate is all but defeated, but it would be a grave mistake to assume the threat the group poses is over.
Its current form in Iraq and Syria has virtually dissolved. Yet the careless arms transactions to the region, which indirectly helped arm ISIS, have not been appropriately addressed or tapered back by the states responsible for supplying the group.
As this was a big factor in ISIS’ growth, it shows how other groups could emerge in a similar fashion, if these reckless weapons transfers continue in the region and elsewhere.
There is hope that this will be taken seriously by the international community however. A three-year investigation into ISIS’ weapons and their origins, undertaken by the London-based NGO Conflict Armament Research (CAR) was published last week. It was funded by the EU and Germany, allegedly to prevent such mishaps from occurring in the future.
Over a thousand IS weapons and over 10,000 ammunitions were examined by CAR’s investigative team. It concluded that the United States and Saudi Arabia had purchased Russian, Chinese and Eastern European ‘Warsaw Pact’ manufactured arms from the European Union, only to illegally transfer them to a number of Syrian rebels.
CAR concluded that these weapons had later fallen into IS’ hands. Around half of their weapons were revealed to be these Warsaw Pact calibre. This could be through rebels having allegiance to IS too, switching sides after being armed, or being defeated by IS on the battlefield.
That an official study like this proves the role of the United States and its allies in arming the group shows that it should be a legitimate concern for policy makers. Any supposed well-meaning attempts by the US-coalition forces to defeat IS and stabilize the region would have been hindered by this reality, causing unnecessary loss of civilian and military personnel life.
Amnesty International has joined in with these accusations too, recognising that irresponsible arms transactions have empowered ISIS. Many of Amnesty’s studies show that weapons transferred to the Iraqi government and other forces on the ground, to bolster the country’s security, have later just been seized by IS.
Islamic State has not been the only benefactor of such careless blunders by the United States and its allies. The UK-based news outlet the Daily Telegraph reported that US-backed ‘Division 30’ rebels had crossed the border from Turkey into Syria, only to immediately defect to the Syrian al-Qaeda branch Jahbat al-Nusra, giving the group their weapons.
It is logical that weapons poured into a war-zone could easily end up in the wrong hands. Especially if the intended recipients are mercenaries who are offered better conditions, or if more moderate forces are armed but overrun by more powerful extremists like ISIS. Both of these examples have happened. So why do states do this?
Even within the recently ‘liberated’ Raqqa, people on the ground feel that a new threat could easily emerge from the destruction left behind by the coalition forces. Others, like Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warn groups like IS could ‘erupt again somewhere else’. There concerns are reasonable, given the recent history of groups consecutively emerging after one another since Iraq fell into chaos after the US-led invasion of 2003.
The flight of foreign IS fighters from Iraq and Syria, either to their countries of origin or other conflict zones, has raised concerns. Along with fears that terror attacks could continue in a different location, the fighters could join IS branches elsewhere or other groups like the Nigerian IS-affiliate Boko Haram – transferring their weapons too.
After all, as CAR and other studies have documented, cross-conflict weapons transfers from one militia group to another have taken place. Weapons from Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and others – mostly supplied by the US, have reached IS. It could easily happen again.
Despite President Donald Trump’s pledges to withdraw military support to the Syrian rebels fighting against Assad, the policy has not officially ended, and the US still intervenes in the region. Plus, there is no guarantee the US and others will scale back their military transactions elsewhere.
While this reality has fuelled many theories about the West’s role in helping IS, it is beyond doubt that it has helped the group.
This should be a wake-up call to states responsible for arming ISIS. While much of the damage has been done, further chaos in other places can be prevented in the future, by scaling back this badly thought-out strategy of arming questionable militias into war-zones, and aimlessly pouring weapons into volatile areas.