As ISIS comes under increasingly heavy military pressure by both the American and Iranian backed forces, there are more reports of defections of ISIS’ foreign fighters. Those who successfully defect have report of low morale and an adventure that didn’t pan out as advertised. Then again war never is whether with a militant group or a sovereign country fighting even for a just cause – like survival. And then there are reports that those who unsuccessfully defected and were summarily executed. Of course such punishment is quite harsh but most militaries have a stipulation that deserters can be executed.
Various western news services estimate that ISIS’ manpower consists of 20,000 Iraqi and Syrian fighters and 18,000 foreigners from 90 countries. Because of differing pay scales ($800/month for foreigners and $400/month for indigenous fighters) and other perks, the inevitable tensions and fissures have appeared. Additionally, there seems to be doubt as to the actual fighting performance of the foreigners.
Firstly, the indigenous fighters live in countries that have been in a state of unending war for decades thus their combat experience, whether in an army or non-sovereign group, have “been there, done that.” A breakdown of military experience amongst the foreign fighters is sketchy but certainly those from Chechnya are battle hardened. The initial land grabs by ISIS had minor skirmishes against poorly defended areas that gave the illusion that warfare wasn’t so terrible.
Nonetheless, as in any military force, it has never been psychologically or scientifically predicted which soldiers will perform well in combat or not. Some are paper tigers, others are ferocious felines. With respect to ISIS’ foreign fighters with little combat experience upon arrival, there are certainly a number that welcome this hardship and were under no illusions when signing up. And more often than not, non-indigenous soldiers can fight just as hard, even harder than their indigenous counterparts because they are genuine true believers and want to prove that they are worthy of respect.
The idea that ISIS could collapse with mass defections of disillusioned foreign fighters may be grossly overstated. Even those who are ambivalent about continuing the fight may continue to press on ferociously because their backs are against the wall – sometimes literally – facing a firing squad if their attempt to defect fails. For them there is no tomorrow which makes them very dangerous people. The worst that would happen should they succeed in defecting and attempting to return to their home countries is arrest and jail time. The ultimate test of ISIS’ foreign fighters will be revealed with the upcoming battle for Mosul.
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