Here in Syria I have witnessed nearly every method used by ISIS and al Nusra. Their tactics are characteristic of forces which lack an industrial base and are forced to use someone else’s equipment. The militants are fighting against overwhelming air and artillery superiority. Plus the constant Russian Aerospace Forces pressure, through airstrikes and real-time reconnaissance.
It means it’s impossible for them to fight like regular armies. Nevertheless, the militants do have a centralized fuel, munitions, and medical deliveries, field hospitals, and evacuation of the wounded. I have seen well-equipped field hospitals in cities liberated by the Syrians, complete with refrigerators full of donated blood and operating rooms. They were usually established in captured hospitals.
Naturally, such hospitals are known to exist and as a rule ought to be targeted by airstrikes. But a hospital like that is often inside a city where civilians still live. Some can’t leave, others have nowhere to go. Where is the guarantee that the same place which is treating militants is also not delivering babies? That’s probably why I have never seen a bombed-out hospital.
In spite of Syrian air and artillery superiority, the militants have used an effective method against the Syrian Army’s offensive–suicide bombers. It might seem savage and irrational at first glance. However, one has to recognize the reality of local warfare.
But life goes on even during war. Not everyone wants to leave, or has a place to go. Many opt to stay in familiar places. Which means that people have to find a way to earn money, go to cities, bring daily necessities. Much of Syria lives off agriculture. Which means constant harvests (three times a year), and constant transport of fertilizer and seeds.
The checkpoint wants to establish where the vehicle is coming from. But it could be coming from any number of units, and it’s almost impossible to verify before it reaches the checkpoint, which then has the option of firing warning shots.
At that point the suicide driver usually accelerates, protected by metal armor up to 20mm thick. Wheels are similarly protected. It might not protect against a direct hit, but it will certainly against ricochets. And then it’s all a matter of chance, depending on from what distance the vehicle was spotted.
Sometimes the small pick-ups are not noticed at all, given that hundreds of such vehicles pass on these roads. The vehicle itself carries about 10 improvised bombs, 30-40cm in diameter and 50cm in length. There is centralized manufacture of these munitions, some of them are placed along roads, those most are issued to suicide drivers. It can be detonated by a bullet or by the blasting device held by the driver. Each vehicle has more personnel on board than just the driver, to ensure detonation in the event driver is incapacitated.
The militants know how to choose their attack times. Usually when the army has just liberated a town and is still in a state of post-battle disorganization and euphoria. Or in the evening, when the unit is preparing for the night. The militants use suicide vehicles with skill, which makes them an effective weapon with demoralizing influence on the troops.