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International Politics

Evaluation of US Operations in Syria and Iraq

A great deal of ink has been shed in the short period of time since the commencement of Russian air operations in Syria. The Russian press is naturally effusive in its praise of Vladimir Putin, the Great Leader, his boldness and decisiveness: they would be out of business otherwise. Strangely enough, the Western media is not far behind its Russian counterpart in praising Putin and damning the perceived ineptness or lethargy on the part of Western leaders, especially President Obama. The amount of venom in any given article depends on the political ideology of the author and the vehicle: but it is not just the Heritage Foundation that is roasting Obama over a slow fire, even more progressive papers are questioning the strategy employed or whether there is any strategy at all.

Is this justified by the empirical evidence? I’ve been plotting the evolution of Operation Inherent Resolve’s military operations in the Syrian and Iraqi battlefield since June, using daily strike data released by the Combined Joint Task Force and US Central Command. This has the obvious handicap of relying on a single source; additionally, strike assessment from air and satellite sources is always a dicey affair, since something that looks ruined at 10,000 feet or 150 miles may still be serviceable when viewed at ground level. But if we look only at strike missions involving a weapons release, a reasonable evaluation of the tempo and focus of operations can be developed.


An overview of the total number of strike missions shows an upwards trend from late June to early August, then a noticeable decline thereafter. The polynomial trend line shows this most clearly: there is a peak in Coalition strikes between the week of the 17th of July through the week of the 7th of August and then a decrease in the tempo of operations. There are still peaks within the trend as ground operations are undertaken, but the July-August period represents the maximum: Coalition forces have yet to return to these levels.

The number of operations across the entire Syrian and Iraqi battle space is informative, but it is worth remembering that this is an area larger than Germany and Austria. Is the reduction in tempo of affecting all areas of operation or are the effects unevenly distributed? It turns out that the decline in strikes is not evenly distributed at all. I divide the battlespace into four geographic areas:

  • Syria: which really means northern and western Syria, as the Coalition does not bomb south or east of Palmyra;
  • Northern Iraq: which roughly corresponds to areas of Kurdish influence;
  • Central Iraq: the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys north of Baghdad and south of Makhmur;
  • Southern Iraq: which is the Sunni Corridor of Al Anbar.


Syria could also be divided into Western and Eastern Syria, with the western portion corresponding to the Kurdish areas from Kobane to Tall Hamees, but the analysis does not require it at this point. If we look at the total weekly strike count and superimpose a curve that equates to the percentage of those missions taking place in Syria, we see that the reduction there is far steeper than the overall decline:


Why have the number of coalition air missions in Syria fallen so precipitously? There are three interlinked reasons:

  1. The only serious US ally in Syria is the Kurdish YPG. With the success of the Tell Abyad and Al Hasakah offensives, the YPG expelled the Islamic State and created a continuous front along the Turkish border from Kobane all the way to Iraq. Any movement beyond this point becomes increasingly difficult as YPG forces would have been leaving the mountainous Kurdish areas and advancing on to the Arab-majority plans and river valleys flowing down from Raqqah towards Deir ez Zour – hence operations reached a natural pause after the fall of Al Hasakah;
  2. On the 23rd of July, Turkey agreed to allow US air operations out of Incirlik airbase in Southern Anatolia and to begin operations against the Islamic State. Although the use of Incirlik should have increased the scope and tempo of operations in Northern Syria due to the reduced flight times and higher sortie rate. Instead, Turkish concerns over a contiguous Kurdish proto-state[1] and domestic political instability[2] led to an eruption of violence between the Turks and Kurds on both sides of the border. This led in turn to a constraint on US actions: when two key allies are fighting each other, it is hard to take sides and plans for an advance on the Islamic State capital of Ar Raqqah had to be put off;
  3. The Russian air campaign beginning on the 30th of September has also undoubtedly had an impact on US operations in Syria, raising the risk of aerial accidents and incidents as well as the possibility of bombing opposite sides in a fight that could lead to unpleasant consequences. However, the Russian presence seems to have accelerated an existing trend rather than being the prime motivator of it.

The reduced coalition role in Syria has less to do with Russian boldness than with Turkish intransigence. The percentage of operations in Syria fell from approximately 42% to an average of 18% before the first Russian bomb fell. If we consider operations in Syria and Iraq separately, this conclusion is reinforced. The number of strikes in latter country has remained relatively constant over the past 19 weeks.

syria v iraq

While the overall trend in Iraq is flat, the regional distribution reveals significant variations. Southern Iraq shows the most consistent level of coalition activity along with the Kurdish majority areas of Northern Iraq. Central Iraq, after the recapture of Tikrit, fell to a low level of activity and then surged again over August and September. These variations in tempo respond to the changing requirements of ground operations: the major offensives against Tikrit, Bayji and Ramadi all required peak levels of air support. Overall, there is no indication that coalition activities in Iraq have, at this time, been affected or conditioned by the Russian intervention in Syria.


In spite of the current reduction in the number of air operations in Syria, Inherent Resolve has demonstrated itself to be entirely successful at executing its role: an adjunct to ground operations. That is the fundamental consideration. Although most media and even some pundits talk as if the goal of the mission is to destroy the Islamic State, this is false. The true objective is to support the Iraqi government, as well as the Kurdish Peshmerga, in destroying the Islamic State in Iraq. In this task, the Coalition has been as successful as the capabilities of our allies has permitted. It is vital to remember that large segments of the Iraqi Army melted away in 2014 under the initial assault of ISIL and that the Kurdish forces lacked a wide variety of military equipment and heavy weapons that would make them capable of standing up to the Islamist forces. Both forces therefore needed to be thoroughly reequipped, familiarized with the weaponry and in the case of the Iraqi units, trained and inspired. This does not happen overnight; and the degree of success of Iraqi and Kurdish arms has therefore been limited by a relatively narrow advantage in men and material over their opponents.

The situation is less clear-cut in Syria. Unlike Iraq, the Coalition’s intervention in Syria is not in support of the officially recognized government of Bashar al Assad. Although US-led forces are not openly bombing the Syrian Army – and we have tacitly helped them on occasion, such as in the Battle of Al Hasakah – our situation remains ambiguous. Inherent Resolve has focused on the pragmatic policy of helping anyone fighting the Islamic State and the forces engaged in this effort have been just as successful in Syria as in Iraq. This has largely been confined to supporting the Kurdish offensives in the north. Unfortunately, facing far greater limitations to influence the course of the war on the ground, the Coalition has been unable to press any advantage it has gained over Al Baghdadi’s troopers.

These conclusions can be demonstrated by going into a deeper analysis and considering the frequency of air missions at the city level, rather than at a regional one as previous. Bear in mind that all reports from Central Command give only general location: a strike is conducted “in the vicinity of Ramadi” or the “near Al Hasakah”. How wide this circumference of error may be is unknown, but a radius of 20 kilometers is entirely possible. Nevertheless, the designation should still prove entirely useable since a modern battlefield can cover hundreds of square kilometers and bombs dropped on rear areas and supply chains can be just as useful as those dropped on foxholes in the frontlines.

Consider five recent offensives in Syria and Iraq to contrast levels of US and Coalition support for the combatants and the different outcomes. The first example, the Tal Abyad Offensive, saw clear and unambiguous Coalition support for Kurdish Peshmerga in their advance against Islamic State forces north of Ar Raqqah. Besides supporting front-line forces in their clearing of towns and villages, air missions included interdiction of supplies and reinforcements originating from Raqqah and Deir ez Zour. The results was a decisive Kurdish victory, the denial of most of the Turkish border to ISIS and the isolation of Al Hasakah.


The parallel Battle of Al Hasakah saw a joint effort by Kurdish YPG and Syrian Army forces to expel the Islamic State forces from this critical city in Northern Syria. The Coalition air contribution again proved decisive, isolating the battlefield and denying reinforcements and supplies to the jihadist defenders.


The Iraqi government wished to capitalize on the momentum of the recapture of Tikrit by pushing north into Bayji and recapturing the critical – albeit ruined – oil refinery north of the city. Early advances met with initial success (Phases 1 and 2), but ISIS counterattacks pushed back government troops, wiping out most of the gains. The decision to supplement the Iraqi Army with Shiite militias, as well as a new plan involving heavy use of Coalition airpower and a diversionary attacks by Kurdish Peshmerga against Tuz and Al Huwayjah proved decisive. In subsequent phases, the loyalist troops recaptured Bayji and the refinery and have cleared numerous villages in the surrounding area.


The recapture of Ramadi has been among the highest priorities of the Iraqi government, but operations have been hampered by a much denser population in the Sunni corridor and greater numbers of Islamic State forces. High levels of Coalition air support have been made available at all times, with an average of 21 strikes per week around Ramadi itself. The pace has been kept deliberately slow and methodical to minimize friendly casualties and to avoid straining the morale of newly reformed Iraqi Army units.


An example where Coalition air power has not been used decisively is the ISIS offensive into the Aleppo Governate towards Mare’a. In an effort to expand their critical border with Turkey, the Islamic State began attacking rebel-held towns and villages north of Aleppo. These rebel factions include many groups that the US deems to be terrorist organizations, which has complicated coordination of and desire to provide air strikes. Without a clear objective and ground component, the air strikes can be deemed to have failed to deter the Islamic State advance.


Far from being a failure, Operation Inherent Resolve has been a great success within its scope and capabilities. It has played a decisive part in maintaining and then exploiting Kurdish and Iraqi offensives when a sufficiently well-organized and led ground force component has been present. Iraqi attacks without Coalition airpower have not proven decisive in the face of tenacious ISIL resistance, as the stalemate in the early phases of the Bayji campaign demonstrated. Turkish opposition and Kurdish limitations have resulted in the appearance of indecisiveness and failure in Syria; but this is due to the absence of a local ally capable of advancing into the Arab majority areas in Central Syria, not to failures in strategy much less operations.

Russia benefits from a far less complex strategic problem in Syria than the United States[3]. They have one ally: Bashar al Assad. They have one objective: prevent his downfall. There is greater nuance than this of course, and it will become evident as soon as Russia attempts to extricate itself or finds its own interests in conflict with those of its Syrian and Iranian allies. For example, accepting the resignation and exile of Assad himself (though not necessarily the Baath party) as part of a negotiated settlement would meet furious resistance from both Damascus and Tehran…but that is grist for the future. Russian objectives in Syria are far more direct than the American position:

  • The Turks and Kurds have restarted their civil war in Anatolia; we are allied with the Iraqi government, who are supporting Shiite Hashed militias, who are in turn supported by Iran, who is the mortal enemy of our principal Sunni ally, Saudi Arabia;
  • We appear to be committed to the downfall of al Assad (though we’re not really doing anything to speed it along), but we can’t possibly accept the two most powerful groups who would be likely to succeed him, ISIL and Al Nusra. There are no Sunni Arabs in Syria we can honestly support except perhaps the Free Syrian Army, and they’re no longer in the major leagues;
  • We are committed to destroying the Islamic State, but can’t be seen as anti-Sunni or anti-Arab, even though most of our allies are Turks, Kurds and Shiites;
  • And even though we are allied with Turks, Kurds and Shiites in our efforts against the Islamic State, we can’t actually help them finish the job. If the Kurds grew too strong, the Turks and Iraqis would object; if the Shia grew too strong, the Turks and Saudis would object; if the Turks grew too strong, everyone else would object.

US operations thus face much more severe political constraints than Russian operations do, which leads to the perception of hesitation, indecisiveness and even willful negligence on the part of the Coalition. Russian propaganda has made the most of it; but Russia too faces the challenge of a wasting asset: the Syrian Army has launched a large scale offensive in Northern Syria around Aleppo and towards Idlib under the cover of the Russian air umbrella. But unless decisive gains are made – enough to convince Syrian rebels to negotiate a deal that keeps Assad in power – then this might just be the last major offensive the Syrian Army is capable of. Russia would then have to decide whether to inject ground troops to bolster the regime in Damascus[4] and the coastal plains, or cut its losses. In either scenario, the Russians would pay a steep price in blood and/or prestige. Like Hitler just before the Battle of Kursk, Putin and Assad are betting the farm on this offensive.


Meanwhile, the United States and allies will continue to build up the strength of the Iraqi military and play off the competing demands of the major stakeholders in the Iraqi conflict: the government, the Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Saudis and Persians. This will necessarily slow down the speed with which the Islamic State will be defeated, but without the ambiguities of Syria, the Coalition air forces will continue to grind down ISIS forces, pin them in place, deny them movement and allow the ground forces of the Iraqi Army, Hashed militias and Kurdish Peshmerga to grind them down. While the introduction of US ground troops could prove decisive, it would be at an enormous political cost to the President, and ultimately unnecessary[5]. Inherent Resolve is working as planned; the United States should not change a functioning strategy based on Russian propaganda and opportunism.

Sources and Notes

[1] Fernando Betancor, “The Turkish Loadstone in the War Against ISIL,” Common Sense, 07 September 2015

[2] Fernando Betancor, “Turkey is Falling Apart,” Common Sense, 17 September 2015

[3] Fernando Betancor, “Assessment of Russian Capabilities and Strategy in Syria,” Common Sense, 23 October 2015

[4] Fernando Betancor, “Outside the Box: Can the Islamic State Actually Win?” Common Sense, 11 June 2015

[5] Unnecessary in Iraq, but should the Assad regime collapse and the Islamic State appear poised to take Damascus, the strategic situation would have radically changed and a major reevaluation would then be in order


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