Feature Blog

Video: Syria conflict: Data-driven analysis

Data and photographic analysis can reveal the Islamic State's equipment, tactics, and deployment locations—as well as resistance faced from rival Sunni groups.

Columb Strack

Interview Transcript

How can data show Islamic State's key military objective?

We can use the same data in different ways. So on the micro level, we can look at individual images and videos that the Islamic State posts to get an insight into the equipment they use, their tactics, and also how they redeploy particular weapon systems. So, for example, we looked at the M198 artillery pieces that the Islamic State seized from the Iraqi army, and these were moved back into Syria within a matter of a few days. So what that indicates to us is that their operational priorities, or their main efforts are actually in Syria, not in Iraq. It also shows us that they can quite easily redeploy resources between Iraq and Syria, and that the border is completely irrelevant. On the macro level, we can do a statistical analysis of the aggregated data. So one of the things we looked at was Islamic State's activity by province over time. And what we saw was that activity has been heavily concentrated in Aleppo province since the start of the year, with the exception of April and May, where the activity shifted toward the Iraqi border just prior to their offensive into Iraq. But by the end of June that activity was again focused in Aleppo province. What that tells us is that the group's key military objective has been to deny access to the Turkish border for other Sunni groups, and also the Kurds, and to isolate Aleppo City.

The next most active areas have been in the Euphrates Valley, so Ar Raqqah and Dayr Az Zawr provinces. So this is where the Islamic State has been consolidating its control and establishing the caliphate.

What does the data tell us about Islamic State opposition?

One of the most significant developments we picked up from the data was that Islamic State activity against other rival Sunni groups declined from about 80 percent in January of this year to just 15 percent in September. So what that shows us is that there is really very little resistance from other Sunni groups to the Islamic state in the core areas they control. We also saw that, you know, many of these Sunni factions that had previously been fighting against the Islamic State suddenly pledged allegiance to them after they declared their caliphate in June. So that shows just how fragmented the Sunni opposition is.

On the other hand, we saw that activity against the Syrian army had increased from an average of 13 percent for the first five months of the year, to 32 percent in September, and that reflects the Islamic states increased efforts to mop up these Syrian army garrisons in the Eastern provinces.

What is the Islamic State's likely next area of concentration?

Despite the coalition air strikes, the Islamic state has to hold on to Ar Raqqah and other urbann centers in the Euphrates Valley in order to maintain the credibility of their caliphate. So the center of gravity for their operations is likely to remain in the eastern provinces of Syria. We think their next major offensive is going to be in Aleppo City. Now they've already taken several small villages and towns to the north of Aleppo City along the Turkish border and they are currently moving on the town of Azaz and Bab al-Salam border crossing. If they manage to take control of these areas that would cut off major supply routes for the other Sunni factions who are currently fighting against the government forces in Aleppo City. And if the Islamic State then moves into Aleppo City, we think that many of these other factions would start fighting alongside the Islamic state against the government forces.

Columb Strack Analyst, Middle East & North Africa, IHS Country Risk