US-led air strikes against ISIS continue in Iraq and Syria, alongside a training programme to build the capacity of Iraqi security forces and local fighters. The UK has been conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq since September 2014 and has been providing training assistance to Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga. Following a vote in Parliament in December 2015 the UK expanded its air campaign into Syria. The campaign to liberate Mosul in northern Iraq has begun and attention is increasingly focused on the eventual liberation of Raqqa in Syria.
A coalition of 67 countries are engaged in international efforts to counter ISIS (also known as Daesh, ISIL or so-called Islamic State). The military campaign in Iraq and Syria is just one aspect of that broader strategy which also includes measures to restrict the flow of foreign fighters, stop foreign financing, provide humanitarian assistance to Iraq and Syria and strategic communications (propaganda, public diplomacy and psychological operations) intended to counter ISIS’ ideology.
It is the military campaign against ISIS which is the focus of this paper. It does not examine the ongoing civil war in Syria or the role of third parties in that conflict.
The military campaign
The United States has led airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq since 8 August 2014. Operations were extended into Syria toward the end of September 2014.
With a view to building the capacity of local forces on the ground, offensive military action in Iraq and Syria has focused largely on air operations in support of those local forces, providing intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and attack capabilities.
The other element of the campaign is the training of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces as a means of enabling them to take responsibility for operations against ISIS on the ground. Targeted Special Forces operations are providing advisory assistance to Iraqi and local forces on the ground. A US-led programme of support is also being provided to opposition forces in Syria.
Military action in Iraq is being conducted at the request of the Iraqi government, which coalition partners consider provides a firm legal basis for operations. Military operations in Syria are not at the request of the Assad government, and are being conducted in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution specifically authorising such action. However, coalition nations have expressed the view that such operations are legally justified on the basis of the collective self-defence of Iraq, and the individual self-defence of participating nations.
In recent months, the dynamics of the campaign have begun to shift as ISIS has increasingly lost territory, operations to re-take Mosul (the last urban stronghold of ISIS in Iraq) have begun, and regional players such as Turkey have made moves to secure their spheres of influence. The lines between the campaign to defeat ISIS and the Syrian civil conflict are also becoming increasingly blurred with Russia’s support for the Assad regime complicating the strategic picture in Syria.
As of 25 October 2016, Coalition aircraft have conducted a total of 15,861 airstrikes (Emphasis added—Ed.) against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria (Iraq – 10,245 and Syria – 5,616). Approximately 68% of airstrikes in Iraq and 95% of airstrikes in Syria have been conducted by US aircraft.
The Pentagon estimates that ISIS has lost 50% of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and now occupies less than 10% of Iraqi territory in total.
After months of preparation the operation to liberate Mosul began on 17 October 2016. A coalition of 35,000 Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni Arab tribesmen and Shia paramilitary forces are participating in the operation, supported by Coalition intelligence and surveillance, airstrikes, and 100 US Special Operations personnel advising on the ground. Turkey has been pushing for a role in the campaign, a proposal which the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, has firmly rejected.
The operation is expected to take several weeks, if not months. In response to concerns over the involvement of Shia militiamen in the campaign, the Iraqi Prime Minister has stated the need for a multi-sectarian approach, but confirmed that only Iraqi security forces will be allowed to enter Mosul when the campaign reaches that point.
The Pentagon has estimated that ISIS has lost approximately 20% of the territory it once held in Syria.
Over the summer operations by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of opposition and local forces including the Syrian Arab Coalition and Kurdish forces in Syria, focused on liberating the town of Manbij, on Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Assisted by Coalition forces Manbij was liberated in mid-August 2016 after two months of fighting.
Efforts to secure the region along Turkey’s border have advanced significantly over the last few months after an offensive led by an alliance of Syrian rebel groups, and supported by Turkey, was launched in late August (Operation Euphrates Shield). Key towns have been liberated from ISIS including al-Rai and Jarabulus. Turkish involvement in the campaign to take Jarabulus represented Turkey’s first full-scale incursion into Syria since the civil conflict began. While striking a blow against ISIS, Turkey’s actions have also been motivated by a desire to secure its regional sphere of influence and stop the Kurds from advancing into areas in north eastern Syria, thereby unifying the eastern and western areas that they currently hold along the Turkish border.
With the Mosul offensive now underway attention has increasingly turned to the campaign to liberate Raqqa. On 6 November 2016, the SDF announced that the campaign to “isolate”, and eventually liberate, Raqqa had begun. The SDF will be supported by coalition airstrikes. Russia is not currently involved in the plans to liberate Raqqa.
Who is in the military coalition?
Although there are 67 coalition countries engaged in international efforts to counter ISIS, only a handful of nations are directly involved in offensive air combat operations. The number of countries involved in the train and assist programme is more substantial, although still only represents less than half of the Coalition’s members. (end of excerpt)
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