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International Politics

Evolution of US Operations in the War Against ISIS

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The war against the Islamic State has accelerated and it appears that 2017 will be the end of the self-proclaimed Caliphate: at least in terms of a proto-state exerting control over a defined territory. While the group will certainly continue as a murderous terrorist ban even after the last bastion in Iraq and Syria has fallen, the geo-strategic threat posed by ISIS will have been vanquished. Not only has ISIS lost a vast amount of territory, it is now losing it at an accelerated pace. Whereas in early 2016 it required months to prepare to retake a city, the forces arrayed against ISIS are now able to launch simultaneous offensives. In Iraq, Mosul has fallen, Tal Afar is on the verge of liberation and Daesh-held territory is limited to a few remaining pockets of resistance. In Syria, the self-styled Caliphate’s capital is surrounded and under siege, while both Syrian Arab Army and Kurdish SDF forces prepare to move on the last great ISIS city, Deir ez Zour.

The imminent defeat of the Islamic State is attributable to a number of causes:

  1. The intervention of Russian and Iranian forces in support of the Syrian government;
  2. The increase in experience, training and organization of the Iraqi Army and the People’s Militia Units;
  3. The increased commitment of US and Coalition forces in support of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. In particular, the commitment of US Marine artillery to forward units of the SDF fighting in Raqqah has been an important combat multiplier for these troops.

Although all of these factors are important and it could be argued that the first point has proven to be the decisive one in Syria, the purpose of this article is to focus on the third element and analyze how US operations have evolved during Operation Inherent Resolve and how they have contributed to the defeat of ISIS.

At its height, the Islamic State controlled an area of approximately 100,000 square miles – roughly comparable to the United Kingdom – with 11 million inhabitants. They controlled all the border crossings between Iraq and Syria, as well as frontiers with Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Through these porous borders flowed men and munitions into the self-appointed Caliphate, while petroleum, cash and other goods flowed out in a vast and lucrative black market operation. They controlled a long stretch of the highly fertile Euphrates River Valley, and had pockets of control along the Lebanese border and near Damascus. At one point, there was a serious risk of the Islamic State exploiting the weakness of the crumbling Assad regime to seize Damascus – with unknown geopolitical repercussions if they had.

Operation Inherent Resolve, the multi-national, American-led operation to combat ISIS expansion, kicked off modestly on 15 July 2014. It was a response to the shockingly rapid advance of Daesh fighters into the Sunni heartland of Iraq. In quick succession, Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah fell; the Yazidi were facing the possibility of genocide on Sinjar Mountain, and the Syrian Kurds were preparing to make a last stand in Kobani. The complete failure of the Iraqi Army to stand and fight, and the grinding attrition suffered by the Syrian Arab Army and its rebel opponents portended a lack of organized resistance to continued ISIS expansion. Inherent Resolve was planned to partially redress this imbalance: it would provide training, equipment and tactical air support to allied forces resisting ISIS, while leaving the burden of ground fighting on locals. President Obama was determined that the “boots on the ground” must be those of the people who had most at stake, rather than Americans[1].

The strategy was successful, but it was a strategy designed for a long war of attrition rather than a quick war of overwhelming victory. Given the complete rout and disorganization of the Coalition’s allies, it would take at least a year to return the Iraqi Army to anything resembling a professional fighting force. The various Kurdish forces on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border also needed to be organized, trained for urban warfare, and re-equipped with heavier weapons to deal with Daesh-captured armor. Until these forces were fully prepared to go back on the offensive, the most air power could do was prevent ISIS from massing troops to make further gains. In this, the Coalition succeeded.

The next three years saw many ups-and-downs, unexpected game-changing interventions and surprising changes of fortune. These events, the “fortunes of war”, can be tracked by the swinging tempo of Coalition air operations in Syria and Iraq. I began tracking the daily strike log published by Central Command (CENTCOM) in December 2014. The breakdown and analysis of the strike patterns has always provided a useful “temperature gauge” of the tempo of military operations and the conflicting political pressures that constrained launching decisive operations against ISIS. Winston Churchill was reported to have said that “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them”. Operation Inherent Resolve has proven no different.

When Turkey agreed to join the anti-ISIS coalition in July 2015, the Obama Administration considered it a major victory: the ability to use Turkish airspace and the airbase at Incirlik would greatly facilitate the number, duration and intensity of allied air operations over northern Syria. The United States had been equipping and training the Kurdish YPG forces around Kobani for a major operation and wanted to have access to Incirlik to better support them. What we actually see is that the strike count in Syria dropped precipitously as a consequence of Turkey’s entry into the operation. The principle reason for this was the natural Turkish aversion to masses of heavily armed Kurdish fighters controlling significant territory along the Turkish border. The threat of an independent Kurdistan has been a Turkish nightmare since the founding of the Republic and here was the United States providing military equipment and support to those self-same Kurds, some of whom were supporting their Kurdish cousins in the PKK perpetrate terrorist attacks in Turkey. Another reason was the fear that action against the Islamic State would lead to terrorist attacks in Turkey – which did happen, though to no greater extent than in France or Belgium or the United Kingdom[2]. Finally, there were more shadowy reasons as well: there was a substantial amount of money being made in the black market “no man’s land” between Turkey and the Caliphate and some of those who made huge profits in this illicit trade were reputed to be Erdogan insiders.

The massive Russian intervention, launched by President Vladimir Putin in September 2015, also had an impact on Coalition operations in Syria. Responding to the imminent collapse of the Syrian Arab Army and the fall of the Assad regime, the Russians deployed a substantial number of strike aircraft as well as a few thousand ground forces[3] to bolster their allies. This was the critical turning point in the war: along with the tens of thousands of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters now supplementing the depleted ranks of Syrian soldiers, the Russians proved brutally effective at bombing the Syrian rebels wherever they were. The Russians proved to be less concerned with minimizing civilian casualties and regularly bombed urban centers if they contained rebel concentrations. Although most of the Russian airstrikes were focused on rebel forces in Aleppo and Homs, there were some attacks against particularly dangerous Islamic State moves towards Syrian government forces. As a consequence of this, the Syrian Arab Army was able to regain the initiative and push back against Islamic State encroachment: there was no longer a vacuum into which they could expand. This new, more complicated and more congested situation brought Coalition air efforts in Syria to their lowest point since the start of the campaign: but proved to have no impact on the tempo of operations in Iraq, where the offensive to liberate Ramadi had just begun.

The Ramadi Operation in its multiple phases proved to be the model of cooperation after which the follow-on campaigns would be modelled. A portion of the Iraqi Army had by now been reconstituted and was ready to begin to roll-back the black tide of Daesh expansion. Wary of using up this new and still fragile force in urban attrition battles, the Iraqis and Americans maximized their leverage: using air power to isolate the chosen battlefield, heavy use of interdiction strikes to neighboring ISIS garrisons to prevent the movement of supplies and reinforcements, precision strikes against outlying Daesh strongpoints, and then a slow, methodical crawl forward to clear out ISIS suicide fighters and IED booby traps with the aim to minimizing Iraqi casualties. The actual liberation of Ramadi (phase 4) took two and a half months and left 80% of the city in ruins, but the preceding phases to isolate the city and allow this set-piece battle to occur took over four months of preparation. Throughout this period, Coalition forces delivered over 600 strikes in support of the successful campaign.

This model proved highly successful and allowed the Iraqis to regain control of the “Sunni Corridor”  from Fallujah to Haditha; in the Battle of Bayji in Central Iraq; it was applied to the successful liberation of Mosul and northern Iraq; and it was used by the Kurds in their break-out campaign from Kobani, the link-up with Al Hasakah-Tal Abyad, and the assault on Manbij. Meanwhile, with Russian and Iranian support, the Syrian Arab Army recaptured Palmyra and Al Salamiyah, while also eliminating Daesh pockets near Damascus.

A new phase in the US role against Daesh was inaugurated with the Raqqah Offensive launched by our Syrian Democratic Force allies in October 2016. President Obama authorized US Special Forces to play a much larger role in this first phase, both as “peacekeepers” between Turkish and Kurdish forces near Manbij, but also directly supporting the assaulting SDF troops. This culminated in an air assault operation across Lake Assad utilizing US helicopter assets. The Coalition forces moved quickly on Tabqah on the south bank of the lake to flank ISIS defensive positions and to cut off the supply line up Route 4. This had the secondary effect of preventing Syrian Arab Army units from advancing up the same highway and “interfering” in the battle.

Phase 1 of the Raqqah Offensive was accompanied by heavy, but not unprecedented, levels of air bombardment. During the most intensive part of this phase, Raqqah was receiving an average of 10.7 strikes per day, while Deir ez Zour was being struck on average 2.6 times per day as interdiction efforts to prevent the flow of men and supplies into Raqqah.

The American role expanded again as artillerymen of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed to Northern Syria in March in preparation for the second phase of the battle. The rapid fire capability, transportability and permanent presence of the M777 howitzers brought a quantifiable increase in firepower to the SDF. Although CENTCOM does not differentiate between strikes delivered by aircraft and those delivered from tube- and rocket-artillery, the surge in strikes after the deployment of the Marines, compared to battles where there is no US artillery, is notable.

As a consequence of these set-backs, the Islamic State is today a fraction of its former size and menace. It controls only the Euphrates River Valley from Madan to Al Qa’im, which is also the last border crossing it controls. It no longer has an external frontier: the pipeline of resources that sustained it has dried up. The decline in the capability of ISIS is made clear by the fact that the SDF is already planning an operation to liberate Deir ez Zour while still besieging Raqqah, perhaps racing the Syrian Arab Army to that location. Previous operations required full concentration and months of planning; the waning of Daesh resistance is enabling timetables in weeks rather than months. Yet is an encircled beast: still dangerous even in its death throes. Last week, ISIS forces mounted a counterattack against SAA troops north of Madan, killing 30 Syrian troopers and retaking a number of key villages.

The self-proclaimed Caliphate is on its last legs; the Islamic State will soon revert to a shadowy terrorist organization rather than a state-level promoter of revolutionary change in the Middle East. US-led efforts will have succeeded in eradicating this scourge from Iraq and Northern Syria, while the Syrian government will finish mopping up Daesh-held centers in Eastern Syria. But the American endgame remains unclear in both Iraq and Syria. The Trump Administration will need to win a peace which is every bit as complicated and dangerous as the current instability and conflict. A self-divided and inconsistent White House will need to manage the conflicting interest of our Kurdish, Iraqi and Turkish allies; prevent fighting between the victorious Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds; prevent sectarian and/or ethnic violence in a post-war Iraq; and manage waxing Iranian influence throughout the region. And that is the short list of tasks.

The Islamic State is clearly losing the war, but it is hard to say when the United States will be able to declare victory.


Sources and Notes

[1] That said, the President continuously reinforced the US ground presence in order to provide facilities security for airfields, training personnel and forward observers to coordinate airstrikes. At any point in time, there were approximately 13,000 Americans in Iraq and Syria, with approximately 5,000 of them being uniformed military personnel.

[2] The majority of those incidents labeled as “terrorist attacks” in Turkey have been the result of the renewed fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdish separatist groups, rather than linked to ISIS.

[3] Like the Americans, Russian ground forces were mainly there to provide security to those facilities where Russian aircraft were operating, but they also showed a greater willingness to embed with SAA forces and provide both fire control as well as tactical ground support.

[4] Visit here for the complete weekly update on the war against the Islamic State.

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