The benefits and disadvantages of air strikes against ISIS

The military benefits and implications of air strikes in the Levant.

by Radu Florescu

As to this day, there is no denying that air strikes in the Levant have had considerate short-term military benefits in the fight against ISIL(S) and other extremist militant groups. Since the start of U.S. lead airstrikes, it is believed that ISIL(S) has lost around 40% of its Iraqi territory to various governments, Kurdish and Shia forces (Rampton & Mason, 2015). Similarly, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), along with Hezbollah and other pro government militia groups have made impressive gains since Russian airstrikes were introduced on their front lines. Not only is this intervention a symbolic act of defiance in part of Russia and U.S. lead coalition members, but it has also provided their respective ground allies with a significant military advantage without the expensive risk of placing conventional boots on the ground.

All in all, the principal targets of airstrikes remain concentrated on military installations and positions. Although body counts have rarely served as an accurate indicator for success, ISIL(S)’s gradual encirclement – especially on its shrinking Turkish border – indicates a diminishing potential for foreign recruits. It is important to remember that for every battle-hardened Ba’thist or Chechen veteran killed, a local illiterate recruit will most likely serve as its replacement. The rise in Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) suicide attack shows that ISIL(S) is running out of capable fighters (Hunter, 2015). The same goes regarding their heavy equipment captured during their initial successes, as ISIL(S) does not possess the factories which it would need to replace every Humvee being destroyed. In fact, their number of offensive operations has been diminishing since last August, which indicates that Daesh’s likelihood to seize any further significant equipment has remained relatively low (Gartenstein-Ross, 2015).

Another strategic purpose for U.S. led raids has been to target ISIL(S)’s ability to sustain and resource themselves both as a functioning state and military force. This includes striking staging areas for amassing troops, training camps, weapon depots and various sources of revenues such as oil refineries and even cash. Moreover, another key strategic advantage of airstrikes within that domain is the severing of key ISIL(S) communication routes, primarily between its most populous industrial centre of Mosul in Northern Iraq and its de-facto capital of al-Raqqa along the Syrian Euphrates river. Not only has this hindered the extremist’ group’s ability to mobilize large numbers of reinforcements to its many fronts but has also managed to paralyze both traffic and its ability to properly govern the land it holds. Airstrikes further proved vital in supporting the Peshmerga’s seizure of a crucial road running through Iraq’s Sinjar province, which connects Mosul to crucially needed supplies routes coming from Syria and Turkey (Barbarani, 2015).

Some still wonder however, why U.S. airstrikes have had little effect on ISIL(S) capabilities in Syria. One theory indicates that it is due to the U.S. strategy of ‘funnelling’, which aims to discourage ISIL(S) attacks on vulnerable ‘friendly’ rebel forces through defensive bombing and instead reorient their offensive against Assad held territory (/u/thef1guy, 2015). Not only is this why Russia intervened on behalf of the cornered and overstretched SAA but also why relatively little damage has been inflicted upon ISIL(S) given America’s thousands of precision bombing operations. There is no doubt that if the U.S. and its allies were to bypass strategic specifications and seek an immediate material destruction of ISIL(S), it could have probably done so by now. Nevertheless, Russian strikes remain very efficient in terms of direct military support to the Syrian government forces despite being targeted against non-ISIL(S) militant groups. This can be seen with the direct correlation in relation to recent SAA successes, given that only months have passed since recovering from near exhaustion. Although these strikes remain largely indiscriminate against civilian population, the oppressive nature of the Assad regime means that any remaining discontent would easily be quelled once areas are captured.

Yes, airstrikes are surely not the long term answer in defeating ISIL(S), as this is essentially a war against an idea. Nevertheless, ISIL(S) will ultimately only be remembered within footnotes of future history books. Their sudden successes that initially took the world by surprise were a mere opportunistic attack on destabilized land. Now that they have lost the element of surprise in the face of the world’s most powerful weaponry, their days as a conventional fighting force are numbered.

(Disclaimer: This article simply gives an explanation of certain realities on the ground and does not narrate the author’s complete personal opinion on the matter.)

Airstrikes cannot defeat the Islamic State.

by Nicola Fedeli

In September 2014, the United States-led coalition including Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, launched “Operation Inherent Resolve” in order to stop the advance of the Islamic State in the Levant. Since then, other actors got involved in the air offense, bombing different areas of Iraq and Syria with various levels of coordination, intensity, and often pursuing different targets and contrasting policy objectives.

But are those strikes effective in the fight against Al-Baghdadi and his allies? The air campaign could be considered effective from a tactical point of view since, in the past year, ISIS lost 20% of its Syrian territories. However, many uncertainties have been raised pertaining to their strategic effectiveness in defeating the Islamic State in the long run. A wide range of issues raised scepticism about the strategic value of airstrikes. One effect of the air campaign in Syria is that it has diverted the attention from Bashar al Assad and widely weakened all of his adversaries, subsequently undermining any glimmer of political transition in the country. In this sense, the contrasting interests that drive the actors involved in the strikes are further hampering the overall attempt to de-escalate the conflict and promote a political solution. A third argument that challenges the presumed effectiveness of air strikes is the likelihood of backlash entailed by the high number of civilian casualties.

The rationale behind the strikes was quite simple: in order to get rid of ISIS it would be enough to kill all, or most of its members (Zenko,2016) while undermining their material and financial strength. In 2014 the CIA estimated that ISIS could mobilise between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in Syria and Iraq (Sciutto,Carter,Crawford,2014). According to official reports from the Pentagon, the coalition’s strikes have killed more than 20,000 militants; nevertheless the US Department of Defence stated in January that the size of al-Baghdadi’s forces is still estimated to be around 30,000 fighters (Warren,2016). As a consequence, we deduce that, while the airstrikes are definitely effective in killing thousands of militants, they are not addressing the conditions that sustain the group: its revenues and appeal to new local and international recruits.

While bombing the Islamic State’s positions plays a key role in backing the advance of the Kurds and the “moderate” Syrian rebels, contrasting political objectives of the actors involved in the strikes severely undermine the position of those groups on the ground. Ankara and Moscow started their air campaigns in Syria in 2015. Although Turkey’s official target is ISIS, it also began hitting the Syrian Kurds of YPG, the same forces that, backed by U.S. airstrikes, successfully led the fight against Daesh by defending the border town of Kobane and driving it away from many other cities in the North of the country. Turkish airstrikes might be weakening ISIS but, on the other hand, are simultaneously containing and obstructing one of its main opponents (DeYoung,Morello,2016). On the other side, Moscow’s fighter jets are mainly hitting militants in Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, Hama and Homs, supporting Assad’s army against his front-line opponents. The targets include jihadist groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and U.S. backed rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In other words, the main beneficiary of Russian air strikes is clearly Bashar al-Assad and his regime, while the Kremlin’s contribution in the fight against the Islamic State is pragmatically quite limited.

Although governments’ reports suggest a minimal impact on civilians (Zenko,2015), the reality is that hundreds have died since the beginning of the strikes. ISIS and the other militant groups already adjusted their tactics in order to compensate for the asymmetry in military means and minimise losses among their forces: living side by side with the population they prevent detection and inevitably make civilians a target of strikes.

Maximising the impact of the foreign intervention on the population is of utmost importance for ISIS: since every insurgency needs the support of local communities to be successful, the high civilian toll and destruction caused by the strikes are likely to increase people’s compliance towards the caliphate, facilitating the recruitment of new fighters while further tarnishing the reputation of the West and its allies. An escalation of violence in Syria and Iraq plays into the hands of the Islamic State, as every single civilian victim caused by foreign intervention bolsters its appeal, funnels consensus into its cause and strengthens its message worldwide, fuelling new hatred in the generations to come. The backlash caused by “collateral damage” must therefore be considered as a key factor likely to undermine, in the long term, any prospect for future political stability in the region and the fight against extremism worldwide.

Although airstrikes have proved effective to halt the alarming spread of Islamic State’s growing influence in Iraq and Syria, the reliance on air-based campaigns could turn out to be worthless, if not counter-productive, in the framework of a long-term strategy to wipe out the root causes of the caliphate and of Islamic terror on the whole.

 

Bibliography, “benefits”:

Barbarani S., ‘Kurdish Forces Seize Control of Sinjar from ISIS’, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11992817/Iraqi-Kurdish-forces-enter-Sinjar-to-retake-the-town-from-Isil.html, (accessed 25 January 2016).

Gartenstein-Ross D., ‘ISIS is Losing its Greatest Weapon: Momentum’, The Atlantic, January 6th 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/01/the-decline-of-isis-syria-iraq/384261/, (accessed 25 January 2016).

Hunter J., “2015: an Epidemic of Suicide Bombings’, Action on Armed Violence, 10 August 2015, https://aoav.org.uk/2015/2015-an-epidemic-of-suicide-bombs/, (accessed 25 January 2016).

Rampton R. & Mason J., ‘Obama: ISIS has Lost 40% of its Iraqi Territory’, Haaretz, December 14 2015, http://www.haaretz.com/world-news/1.691816 (accessed 25 January 2016).

/u/thef1guy, ‘Re: Russians offer ISIL targets with U.S.-led coalition gets no response’, reddit.com: /r/worldnews, October 17th 2015, https://www.reddit.com/r/worldnews/comments/3nvvz1/russian_offer_to_share_isil_targets_with_usled/, (accessed 25 January 2016).

 

Bibliography, “disadvantages”:

DeYoung Karen, Morello Carol, Turkey’s difficulties with Syrian Kurds complicate strategy against Islamic State, The Washington Post, January 23 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/syrian-kurds-are-snag-in-us-turkey-strategy-against-isis/2016/01/23/20eba1bc-c1e2-11e5-9443-7074c3645405_story.html.

Sciutto Jim, Crawford Jamie and Carter Chelsea J., ISIS can ‘muster’ between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters, CIA says,  CNN, September 12 2014, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/11/world/meast/isis-syria-iraq/.

Warren Steve, Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman Briefs Reporters, January 6 2016, http://www.defense.gov/Video?videoid=445185.

Zenko Micah, ‘Kill-Em-All With Airstrikes’ Is Not Working, Defense One, January 7 2016, http://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2016/01/kill-em-all-airstrikes-not-working/124946/.

Zenko Micah, The U.S. Air Campaign in Syria Is Suspiciously Impressive at Not Killing Civilians, Foreign Policy, November 25 2015 http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/11/25/the-u-s-air-campaign-in-syria-is-suspiciously-impressive-at-not-killing-civilians/.

 

Edited by Elias Langvad and Johana Franz Palacios

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