by and for citizen investigative journalists

The Battle of al-Bukamal: Here’s What Really Happened

July 31, 2016

By Rao Komar

Translations: Русский

On June 28th the New Syrian Army (NSyA) along with the Forces of the Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo  launched an attack on the ISIS held city of al-Bukamal on the Iraq-Syria border. Despite the support of the US led CJTF-OIR coalition, anti-ISIS sleeper cells and Iraqi tribal forces, the operation failed and by the second day ISIS had pushed the NSyA back into the desert.

The reason for this defeat is unclear, some have suggested that the US pulled air support from the NSyA to attack. This claim is contested by the NSyA itself with multiple members stating that the loss shouldn’t be blamed on the pulling of air support. Others point to the failure of Iraqi tribal elements to advance against ISIS in al-Qaim. The actual reason that battle of al-Bukamal failed is not entirely clear and for the most part is muddled between competing media narratives.

Rather than attempting to discern the reason why this battle failed from this complex mess of narratives and disinformation, we will use open source information to determine what the battle’s results were.


Casualties:

After ISIS drove the New Syrian Army out of the abandoned Hamadan air base in Northern Al-Bukamal, they claimed to have captured 15 New Syrian Army fighters and killed 40. This is unlikely for a variety of reason, first the New Syrian Army was not the only group to take part in al-Bukamal operation. Secondly, ISIS has not released photos or videos substantiating their claims about NSyA casualties. ISIS’s video about the battle of al-Bukamal only shows 2 dead fighters from the New Syrian Army. This matches the claim that 2 New Syrian Army fighters died in the battle of al-Bukamal. In addition to this, 3 fighters from the Martyrs of Ahmad al-Abdo died during the retreat from al-Bukamal to al-Tanf due to an ISIS ambush. This brings up the total dead from the FSA to 5 which is corroborated by the statement released by the New Syrian Army after the battle.

day of wrath

The New Syrian Army “Day of Wrath” announcement that claims 20 ISIS casualties and 5 New Syrian Army casualties.

 

Thus, ISIS’s claim of 40 NSyA casualties is not supported by the currently available open-source evidence; however, it is possible that may change in the future. The New Syrian Army claimed that 20 ISIS were killed in the battle. This number is hard to verify due to the lack of photos of ISIS casualties; however around 13 airstrikes coalition airstrikes hit al-Bukamal and al-Qaim during the operation, so 20 seems like a fairly realistic number. Furthermore, at least 3 ISIS fighters died in a car bomb planted by a New Syrian Army affiliated sleeper cell group.


Ghanima (War Spoils) From Al-Bukamal

As the New Syrian Army and their allies retreated after the al-Bukamal operation, ISIS captured a significant number of weapons, ammunition and vehicles. We will go through and total the numbers of weapons that ISIS captured in the operation using images released by ISIS. Note that this is a rough estimate and the actual total may be somewhat lower or higher than the listed amount.

Starting with ammunition ISIS captured a significant amount of small arms ammunition. ISIS roughly captured around 12,000 rounds of linked 5.56x45mm NATO, 62,160 rounds of un-linked 5.56x45mm NATO, 210 M67 grenades and around 8,800 rounds of linked 7.62x51mm NATO ammunition.

5.56

Boxes of unlinked 5.56x45MM cartridges captured by ISIS from the NSyA.

 

7.62 and .50 Cal Ammo

Boxes of linked 7.62×51 NATO and boxes of linked .50cal BMG captured by ISIS from the NSyA

 

Linked 5.56

Some of the linked 5.56×40 NATO captured by ISIS from the NSyA in al-Bukamal

 

m67 grenades

Boxes of M67 grenades, linked .50 cal BMG, and linked 5.56x45mm NATO captured in al-Bukamal

 

ISIS also captured some mortar ammunition at the Hamadan airbase taking approximately 399 81mm mortar rounds, 220 120mm mortar rounds, and 144 60mm mortar rounds. This count is likely understated as the footage of the mortar rounds suggested more mortar rounds were present off camera.

 

Boxes of 120mm mortar rounds captured by ISIS

 

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More Boxes of 120mm mortars captured by ISIS

 

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120mm and 60mm mortar rounds captured by ISIS in al-Bukamal

 

81mm mortar

81mm mortars captured by ISIS in al-Bukamal

 

In addition to this 6 rounds of PG-9 ammunition for the SPG-9 recoilless gun were captured along with 38 boxes of unidentified small arms ammunition. Some other PG-9 rounds may have been off camera as the footage suggests not all PG-9 rounds were photographed.

 

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PG-9 rounds captured in al-Bukamal

 

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Unidentified boxes of ammunition

 

Moving on to mortars and light weapons, ISIS captured 2-3 SPG-9 recoilless guns, 2 120mm M120 mortars, 2 60mm M224 mortars, and 4 81mm M252 mortars.

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Several M252 mortars and a M120 Mortar

 

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A SPG-9 being taken off a captured NSyA truck

 

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A M224 Mortar captured by ISIS

 

ISIS also captured approximately 9 unmounted M2HB machine guns as well as 5 M240B machine guns. ISIS also showed photos of nearly 100 captured Chinese Type-56 rifles. These may have been captured from other rebel groups that participated in the battle of al-Bukamal, but they weren’t captured from the NSyA. ISIS also showed dozens of M16A2 rifles, these rifles were likely not captured from the NSyA as they are extremely old and rusted. NSyA has only been documented using coalition supplied M16A2s that are in good condition. This suggests that the M16A2s were just included in the video as propaganda and were sourced from elsewhere.

 

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M2HB machine guns captured by ISIS

 

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M240B machine guns captured by ISIS from the NSyA

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 11.35.41 PM

Chinese Type-56 rifles probably captured from other FSA groups that participated in the al-Bukamal offensive

 

Moving on to vehicles, ISIS captured 4 trucks that carried ammunition or equipment for the NSyA. In addition to this, they also captured one unarmed Hilux pickup truck. ISIS also captured 6 technicals that were equipped with M2HB machine guns along with a “battle wagon” that consisted of a truck with 6 M2HB machine guns mounted on it. ISIS also captured 2 M1100 Mortar trailers (only one had a M120 mortar). In addition to this, ISIS destroyed 1 technical and M1100 mortar trailer.

 

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A M1100 mortar trailer captured by ISIS

 

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A captured truck carrying 120mm mortar rounds

 

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A captured truck carrying ammo and 120mm mortar rounds.

 

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The captured NSyA “battle wagon”

 

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A captured New Syrian Army technical mounted with a M2HB machine gun

 

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A destroyed NSyA pickup truck and M1100 mortar trailer

 

ISIS also captured comms equipment and computers including 2 Panasonic Toughbooks, 2 regular laptops and 2-3 tablets. The videos of the NSyA being trained in Jordan shown earlier in the ISIS release are likely taken off of these computers or tablets. 10 Thuraya satellite communication devices were spotted in the ISIS ghanima video as well. For more about these Thuraya devices read this article. In addition to this, they captured various radios and surveillance cameras and 3 DJI drones.

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 11.34.02 PM

Thuraya IP+ devices, radios and security cameras

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 11.34.11 PM

3 DJI drones captured by ISIS from the NSyA

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 11.37.10 PM

Tablets and a Panasonic Toughbook

 

Overall the amount of ghanima ISIS seized from the New Syrian Army is significant. While some of the pictured ghanima was destroyed in later coalition airstrikes, ISIS made away with a large amount of ammunition and vehicles. The loss of equipment, vehicles and weapons is certainly very damaging for the NSyA, but it is not the end of the group. The New Syrian Army should be able to recover from this loss and continue operations, however; this seizure of ghanima casts the effectiveness of the US T&E program in to doubt.

Special shout out to @NoorNahas1 for helping with this article!

Rao Komar

Rao Komar is an analyst focusing on the Middle East and the Former Soviet Union at the SecDev Group. Rao has written for World Politics Review, NOW Lebanon, Bellingcat and War on the Rocks. His analysis has been refered to by the Associated Press, Reuters, Foreign Policy Magazine's Daily SitRep, Il Foglio and the Atlantic Council. @RaoKomar747 on Twitter

3 Comments

  1. Docduracoat

    As an American citizen I am upset at my tax dollars being spent on training and equipping these ineffective forces
    The Iraqi army dropped literally billions in equipment when they fled Isis and this Army and the last ” moderate rebels” lost their gear to Isis and Al Nusra
    Why do we not just arm the Syrian Kurds with some artillery and a few turbo prop ground attack planes?
    They are the only ones to stand up to Isis

    Reply
  2. Antonio Luis

    Don’t read nothing in this post about the union of terrorist group Al-Nusra and these terrorist beheaders pseudo-rebels, what is that part!?!?!?

    Reply
  3. Zj

    Good stuff man. Too bad the actual cause of the failure is still unclear. There were reports that aircraft were diverted to attack the Daesh convoy fleeing Ramadi, but coalition spokesmen also said that it maintained air cover over Abu kamal. Either way, losses in manpower from your analysis don’t seem so significant but what do you think about lost prestige or fallout among potential tribal allies in the area?

    Reply

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