In fact, there was never any plan. Like so much of candidate Trump’s platform, there was a lot of bravado mixed with the intention to act once in office. Mr. Trump has never had a reputation for being a meticulous planner or detail-oriented, which is why he went from having an incredible, secret plan before the inauguration to ordering the Department of Defense to come up with an incredible, secret plan after the inauguration.
This is reinforced by the available data on Coalition airstrikes. I have been tracking a weekly compilation of the daily strike count published by Central Command since December 2014 and analysis of these trends has always proven useful as an indicator of major efforts and priorities for US forces and our allies.
The full two-year data set is confusing, but it is easier to understand from looking at the trend lines. In 2015, the Obama Administration shifted away from Syria and towards Iraq, as shown by the blue and red dotted lines. The troughs in the weekly strike count coincided with key events affecting the Syria battle space: the deal with Turkey to join Inherent Resolve and use Incirlik Airbase on 23 July 2015; the commencement of Russian air operations on 30 September 2015. These events greatly added to the complexity of the situation: Turkish demands hampered US efforts to support the most effective allied ground force in Syria, the Kurds; while the Russian intervention raised the possibility of a great power conflict occurring by accident or design – as the Turkish shoot down of the Russian Su-24 demonstrated. President Obama opted for prudence and focused on gains that could be made in Iraq, which included the Second Battle of Ramadi, from November 2015 to February 2016.
In 2016, the opposite trend imposed itself. The Battles of Ramadi and Fallujah died down, and the situation in Syria was “normalized” (i.e. rules were worked out to share the airspace over Syria to minimize accidents and incidents). Additionally, a tenuous understanding was worked out with the Turks regarding US support for Kurdish fighters operating in Syria against ISIS, roughly corresponding with a boundary at the Euphrates River. This allowed a substantial increase in the Coalition efforts focused on Syria, culminating in the Raqqah-Manbji Offensive of May to August 2016.
Towards the end of the year, in both Iraq and Syria, local forces were able to launch the long awaited assaults to take Mosul and Raqqah respectively. Starting within a week of each other, the two offensives drove Coalition air operations and nearly matched previous peaks of intensity. It is true that the new peak in Coalition air strikes has coincided with President Trump’s Administration, but all of the operations began well before the inauguration and were previously planned and approved by the Obama Administration.
A more detailed look at the ongoing Raqqah campaign helps to illustrate how the cadence of air operations depends on the rhythm of the ground campaign.
- Kurdish forces begin the advance from their forward lines in front of Ain Issa, down Route 6 to fix ISIS defenders in front of Raqqah;
- Flanking attacks toward Madan reach the Euphrates and threaten the supply route from Deir ez Zur to Raqqah;
- Kurdish SDF and American Special Forces were recently airlifted over Lake Assad to cut Route 4 into Raqqah from the west to isolate the ISIS capital prior to a final assault;
- Throughout the campaign, Coalition air forces have performed interdiction missions around Deir ez Zour to inhibit the movement of suppliers and reinforcements to Raqqah’s defenders.
The Mosul and Raqqah campaigns are little influenced by who is in the White House. Winston Churchill once quipped famously that the only thing worse than fighting a war with allies is fighting one without them. He was referring to the difficulty inherent in dealing with alliance partners, aligning strategic goals and coordinating operations. President Trump will find, just like President Obama did, that the United States cannot dictate to its other partners in Inherent Resolve: the Iraqis and Kurds have more skin in the game. The pace of operations depends their willingness and ability to do the actual fighting. Coalition air operations can only operate in support and to prepare the battlefield, but they cannot take and hold ground.
President Trump has indicated that he is indeed considering putting more US skin in the game in the form of an additional 1,000 ground troops in Syria and Iraq. These would not be front-line troops, but they would still be in harm’s way and could easily lead to an escalation of US involvement. This would not be a radical departure from President Obama’s strategy: the previous Administration had already authorized the insertion of Special Forces into both Syria and Iraq in 2016. The drive on Raqqah is being supported by Special Forces as well as a 400-man artillery detachment from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. This provides a significant upgrade in precision firepower to support the Kurdish Self-Defense Forces, but it risks dragging the US back into a ground war in the Middle East.
It is clear that there is no “secret” strategy to defeat ISIS, but this is not a bad thing. The long, slow war may not be what Americans want: but short of a large commitment of American troops, this is the only game in town. Even if President Trump remains clueless regarding the realities on the ground in Syria and Iraq, he has a highly competent Secretary of Defense and the people running Centcom are professionals who can carry forward the strategy. The incremental approach has put ISIS on the ropes. The fall of Mosul and Raqqah will not be the end of the Islamic State, but it will be the beginning of the end. Let’s hope Secretary Mattis can successfully steer the ship through the stormy waters of an inexperienced and headstrong Administration.
 The greatest intensity of bombardment since I have been tabulating records came in the week of 11 to 17 July 2015. At that time, there were 5 simultaneous offensives being waged against the Islamic State: the Battle of Tal Abyad, the Battle of Sarrin, the Battle of Al Hasakah, Phase 2 of the Bayi Offensive and Phase 2 of the Ramadi Offensive.