August 10, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Year Two of Airstrikes Against the Islamic State

• The U.S. has moved six F-16 fighters to Turkey to begin attacks against the Islamic State in Syria, as the U.S.-led air campaign enters its second year

• The almost 6,000 coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State helped to blunt the group’s 2014 momentum, but did not fundamentally alter its viability in Syria and Iraq—a task beyond the scope of airstrikes

• The more optimistic assessments by U.S. military planners maintain that the effort will take several more years; anything more than tactical success will be dependent on fundamental changes in conflict resolution, governance, and societal trends.


One year ago the United States began airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq; a month later, the U.S. began strikes in Syria. The coalition air campaign, led by the U.S. with several other contributing nations, has managed both failures and successes. During his August 7, 2014 speech announcing the commencement of airstrikes in northern Iraq, President Obama stated that the goals for the limited airstrikes were the protection of U.S. personnel in the threatened city of Irbil as well as in Baghdad, and to help address the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the mountains near Sinjar, where thousands of ethnic Yazidi were trapped by advancing Islamic State fighters. In terms of protecting Irbil and U.S. personnel, the airstrikes were successful; the Yazidi of Sinjar were rescued from immediate catastrophe but have by-and-large fared poorly in the following year.

As with every air campaign that seeks to resolve deep-seated problems—such as abysmal governance, corruption, and societal divisions—the anti-Islamic State air campaign has inexorably expanded in both scope and scale; over 6,000 airstrikes were launched in Iraq and Syria in the past year. It quickly became apparent that the rot at the heart of the Iraqi military, government, and society had hollowed out the country’s ability to resist a foe as determined and endemic as the Islamic State. Moving beyond the protection of U.S. personnel, the besieged Yazidi, and key infrastructure, the airstrikes formed a breakwater against which the explosive momentum of the Islamic State crested for the moment, particularly in northern Syria and northern Iraq. This is a notable achievement, and has bought time for Iraqi security forces to regroup and reorganize following their abysmal performance last summer.

The issue is that the on-the-ground changes—for which the airstrikes were intended to buy time—are coming along far more slowly than many assessed when the strikes began. The Iraqi military, despite the tens of billions of dollars spent retraining and reequipping over the last decade, is still far from a functioning national force, and is too dependent on Shi’a militias to retake areas now held by the Islamic State. In Syria, the U.S. effort to train and deploy relatively moderate rebel units has been disastrous; last year saw little progress in the program for which the air campaign was buying time.

As the pace of ground reform and ground forces became frustratingly slow, the ‘buying time’ airstrikes became the primary tool with which the U.S. and other coalition members hoped to ‘degrade and destroy’ the Islamic State. It is in this sense—the degrading and destroying of the Islamic State—that the results of the air campaign have failed to match their expanded aim. The group is on the defensive in parts of Iraq and Syria, but it is not going anywhere anytime soon, since the conditions that it exploited to explode across two countries have not materially improved.

Indeed, in the last year of airstrikes, the group has escaped beyond the contested borders of Iraq and Syria to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and Pakistan. There is not a smart bomb smart enough to destroy the viral ideology of the Islamic State and like-minded groups. The terrorist organization has found an audience and a wide pool of supporters willing to fight for it in more countries now than in 2014.

The last year of airstrikes—which cost the U.S alone more than $3.5 billion—has succeeded in preventing a larger failure in both Iraq and Syria. So deeply engrained are the sectarian, societal, political, and economic tensions that the most accurate assessment of the past year is that it could have been much worse. The second year of coalition airstrikes will need to be matched with far more robust ground improvements in Iraq and Syria to avoid repeating such a heavily qualified success.


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