Choosy rebels choose Toyota

 

ISIS likes its Toyotas shiny. And matching.
ISIS likes its Toyotas shiny. And matching.

A little quick hit from this morning’s news: US anti-terrorism officials want to know how ISIS managed to get its hands on so many Toyota pickup trucks, and they’ve asked the automaker to help them figure it out.

Toyota Hilux pickups, an overseas model similar to the Toyota Tacoma, and Toyota Land Cruisers have become fixtures in videos of the ISIS campaign in Iraq, Syria and Libya, with their truck beds loaded with heavy weapons and cabs jammed with terrorists. The Iraqi Ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, told ABC News that in addition to re-purposing older trucks, his government believes ISIS has acquired “hundreds” of “brand new” Toyotas in recent years.

“This is a question we’ve been asking our neighbors,” Faily said. “How could these brand new trucks… these four wheel drives, hundreds of them — where are they coming from?”

Honestly, US officials seems a little late to game on this one. Analysts, reporters, bloggers, seemingly anyone who has bothered to look has long noticed just how common ISIS-branded Toyotas have become. Even Saturday Night Live is on top of the news. In fact the tough little pickups are so ubiquitous in ISIS photos and videos that one online wit has suggested leveraging its popularity for an ad campaign, which might look something like this:

Toyota-5 isis ad

The Islamic State’s preference for Toyota products really shouldn’t surprise anyone. They have been the vehicle of choice for rebel groups worldwide for decades now. Check out some pictures below. They were so prominent on the battlefield that the last phase of the Chad-Libya conflict of the 1980s is commonly referred to as the Toyota War.

Charging across the desert near the Chad-Libya border
Fighting the Toyota War

From Latin America to Africa to the Middle East, these little trucks have been in nearly every conceivable warzone loaded with every manner of weaponry. Someone even welded a tank turret to one in the recent Libyan civil war.

Rebel groups love these things because they are virtually indestructible. The BBC show Top Gear tried mightily to kill one and failed spectacularly. (You can watch the video here.) You can find Toyota war wagons featured on Pinterest boards and in Reddit threads.

In the Afghan war, the trucks became so coveted that enterprising entrepreneurs flooded the market with counterfeits.  Security analyst and former US Army Ranger Andrew Exum summarized the appeal for Newsweek back in 2010:

The Toyota Hilux is everywhere. It’s the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47. It’s ubiquitous to insurgent warfare. And actually, recently, also counterinsurgent warfare. It kicks the hell out of the Humvee.

While questions about ISIS use of Toyota trucks have circulated for years, Toyota executives say that they have procedures in place to ensure that their vehicles are not “diverted to unauthorized military use.” In a statement to ABC News, Toyota said it was not aware of any dealership selling to the terror group but “would immediately” take action if it did, including termination of the distribution agreement.

**Can’t you just imagine ISIS buyers strolling into their local dealership for Toyotathon’s rock-bottom prices and the best trade-in values in town? Yeah. Me neither. **

While Toyota may not know how all those trucks ended up stuffed with ISIS fighters, an Australian newspaper may have figured it out. The Daily Telegraph back in August reported that more than 800 Toyota Hilux pickups have gone missing in Sydney between 2014 and 2015, with terrorism experts there speculating that they were exported to ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq. Meanwhile, with the Iraqi-Syria border out of their control, there’s little Iraqi security forces can do to stop it.

Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua
Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua

 

Militias ride in style in Mogadishu
Militias ride in style in Mogadishu

 

Serious firepower in the Libyan civil war
Serious firepower in the Libyan civil war

For Syria insurgents Russia is the hammer, ISIS the anvil

At The Atlantic this afternoon, the headline asks: “Just Who is Russia Targeting in Syria?”

After two days of airstrikes, I think the answer is pretty clear. Russia is clearing the field of “moderate” rebels, setting the civil war up as a showdown between the Assad regime and ISIS.

The map below, from the Institute of the Study of War, shows the locations of Russia’s first-day airstrikes, all well away from areas under ISIS control. Today’s strikes were apparently more of the same, though Russia contended that they had in fact hit ISIS targets in other parts of the country (but this was disputed by pro-Damascus media).

Institute for the Study of War
Institute for the Study of War

Assuming it works, this presents the rest of the world, and the United States in particular, with the uncomfortable choice of backing Russia’s longtime ally or seeing the country fall to the Islamic State. As the New York Times notes, this puts the US in a bind:

But the United States has long held that Mr. Assad must step down before a stable peace can be achieved. Lately, President Obama has added some nuance, saying that Mr. Assad could be part of a “managed transition” to a new government.

For their part, the Russians echo the Syrian government line that there is no distinction between the various groups at war with Assad:

In response to a question about which organizations in the region Russia considers to be fair targets, [Russian foreign minister Sergey] Lavrov was equally vague, saying: “If it looks like a terrorist, walks like a terrorist, acts like a terrorist, fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?”

That answer is a little too convenient for Russian interests to be taken at face value. The insurgent groups that Putin’s warplanes have hit over the last two days include the Army of Conquest, a coalition of Islamist groups, as well as the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. Despite their ideological differences, what these groups have in common is that they are waging a two-front battle against both the regime and ISIS.

At a press conference on Wednesday, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter argued that in “seemingly taking on everybody fighting Assad,” the Russian effort is doomed to failure. But the pattern of Russian airstrikes suggests they’re specifically not taking on everybody. At least not with equal vigor.

If the other Syrian insurgent groups are smashed between a Russian hammer and the ISIS anvil, then the failure of Putin’s strategy will mean victory for ISIS. And that’s a result that everyone else with interests in the outcome of the Syrian civil war will be loathe to accept.

If the choice is between Assad and ISIS, then Obama’s “managed transition” is much more likely to turn into a full on regime restoration. Just what Putin wants.

Let them fight

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing coming from pundits and US policy makers past and present surrounding the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to ISIS and the marshalling of Iranian-backed Shiite militias to try to take back the town.  A lot of the usual sorts of suspects have been once again making the case that: 1) Letting the Shiite militias do the fighting will both empower Iran and likely worsen already bad sectarian tensions; and therefore 2) The only alternative is for the US to once again wade into the fray, even if that means reintroducing American combat troops on the ground. The discussion on this morning’s Diane Rehm Show is a good example of what’s passing for debate on the subject.

Of course there is another way of looking at this, and it is one that the US is pretty familiar with, especially in this part of the world. Follow the advice of Ken Watanabe in the latest reboot of Godzilla and “let them fight.”

The Godzilla-vs.-the Mutos analogy is not a bad one when thinking about the struggle for regional dominance that has been playing out for decades between the US, Iran, and Iraq. This is basically the strategy we pursued during the brutal Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, letting the two beasts (one of which we marginally preferred over the other) savage each other for as long as they possibly could, with a little help to both sides from us, expecting that at the end of the fight the winner would be far too weak and damaged to pose any real challenge to American preeminence for years to come.

So thinking about Iran, Iraq, and ISIS today, would it be so terrible for US interests to just let them fight? Let Iran invest more time, energy, resources, manpower, etc. propping up an ineffectual Shiite-dominated Iraqi state. Continue providing just enough combat air support so that we stay in the good graces of the Iraqi regime but not so much that we pave the way for an easy victory for Iran’s proxies.  Let them savage each other.

Is this a cold-blooded strategy? Sure. But would it be out of character for the US, especially in that part of the world? Hardly.