The Islamic State (IS, referred to here therein by the Arabic acronym ‘Daesh’) group is reportedly attempting to fly some antiquated Syrian Air Force MiG’s it has under its control. It has also been said that it is trying to doing so with help from former pilots of the Iraqi Air Force.
During the Iraq War many were somewhat reluctant about pointing out that there was a collusion between the remnants of the Iraqi Baath, who had of course been toppled, and al-Qaeda and other such Islamist groups. When the U.S./U.K. and Iraqi military’s were engaged in those vicious firefights in the city of Fallujah in 2004 they were engaged against both the al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia group and Iraqi Baathist forces. Collusion between the two always seemed to be dictated more by expedience than ideology. Although it mustn’t be forgotten that later on in his rule Saddam Hussein had injected a lot of Islamism and jihadi rhetoric and slogans into his propaganda. The idea of him having been a purely secular leader to the end is unfounded.
Casting aside ideological sympathies collusion between at least some remnants of the former regime and the Islamists made a lot sense. For one thing the Islamists were proving to be a formidable foe to the success of the new Iraq from which the Baath were being cast aside. They terrorized, and continue to terrorize, the society and did their utmost to ensure that a post-Saddam Iraq would be an abysmal failure. Something which the Baath also wanted.
And early on in the Iraq War years when the country was, for a few months, administrated by outsiders there were more than enough skilled military men who were essentially told they would be denied employment. This was due to the controversial legacy of Paul Bremer’s decision to completely disband the Iraqi military and start anew. As a result of this policy around 400,000 men were essentially told that given their former membership of the Baath Party (which hundreds-of-thousands of citizens were members given the fact that party membership was the only real way an Iraqi could forge a life for themselves in the days of Saddam’s rule) they would not be allowed seek employment relative to the skills and experience which they verifiable possessed. Now retrospectively seen as a colossal error this served to fuel a considerable amount of the post-2003 chaos which plagued Iraq. Young and armed military professionals often forged common cause with the Baath due to their hatred of the new authorities. Indeed many disenfranchised Sunnis who had at least some sympathy with the al-Qaeda rhetoric which proclaimed the post-2003 ascendance of the hitherto trod-upon Shia majority parliamentary government to be nothing more than an encroaching Persian Shia ‘Safavid’ power.
And of course these former military and security personnel were well-skilled, knew the right targets to hit which would effectively hurt the Iraqi economy and terrorize the populace. Which they did for years. Many outsiders airily dismissed this collusion as little more than a wishful conspiracy concocted by those who in the run up to the war did their utmost to try and establish some kind of a connection between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the terrorists of al-Qaeda. Nevertheless the collusion has existed and this recent story about former Iraqi Air Force personnel helping Daesh fighters fly some captured Syrian MiGs provides an apt opportunity to reevaluate it in light of Daesh and its many exploits continuing to make headlines.
The military value of these three or so MiG-21 and MiG-23 Soviet-era jets is more likely than not quite trifle. It wouldn’t surprise me if they are reduced to ash heaps by U.S.-led coalition jets shortly after I finish writing these lines. Nevertheless the broader picture this episode brings to light is anything but trifle in its significance. It is another indication that quite formidable, and dare I say sophisticated, elements of the ancien régime in Iraq are continuing to sow discord in the region. They are very skilled at exploiting popular discontent among the Sunni minority in Iraq, Saddam’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri for example is believed to have successfully stirred up many of the protests which have taken place in Iraq against the exclusionary governance of former Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki since at least 2012, and of carrying out asymmetrical and guerrilla warfare against their many enemies. Daesh have after all have been very effective when it comes to attacking targets of military importance and then immediately melting away. But it is also good at occupying territory and stifling any attempts amongst local populaces to resist. They have after all since June held onto Iraq’s second city. Not because they were welcome but simply because they managed to efficiently exploit the sectarian fissures which saw the Shia-majority Iraqi Army feel uncomfortable, exposed and, to a large degree, unwelcome in that Sunni-majority city (as they are in many parts of Anbar where Daesh have also managed to exploit popular discontentment with the government in order to seize territory amidst the instability) in order to take control of, and retain hold over, that city.
Doubtlessly Daesh are at least in part able to do such things through the Baathists collusion with them. Which has given it a formidable edge which makes it an adversary one would be very foolish to underestimate.