American-led airstrikes over Iraq and Syria will likely continue for many months, and cannot alone fix the long-term problem of eliminating Islamic State (IS) insurgents, the Pentagon press spokesman admitted yesterday. U.S. Defense Department spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said that there is no “willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria,” and the same is essentially true in northern Iraq, outside Kurdish-controlled areas, after the collapse of the Iraqi army there. Kirby called for “strategic patience,” claiming that the Iraqi security forces are “developing plans” to retake lost territory.
The air campaign has struck both fixed and mobile targets. Mission planners have to identify legitimate targets within what is essentially a transborder civil war. The fixed targets are easier to identify, especially those previously occupied by regular Iraqi and Syrian military forces, and IS-controlled oil refineries. But the extent to which military compounds—such as the one struck by F-22s two weeks ago—are still occupied by IS forces is uncertain, despite imagery and signals intelligence. As a result, the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar that is directing the operation is mounting less than a dozen strikes daily.
Also unclear is the amount of cooperation that IS is enjoying from former Iraqi and Syrian military personnel, in the operation of the large amounts of military equipment that they have captured. Airstrikes have repeatedly targeted individual tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces that IS has been able to operate in maneuver, and also to disperse. Such was the threat to Bagdhad on October 5-6, that the U.S. Army deployed AH-64 Apache attack helicopters temporarily based there, to blunt the IS advance on Iraq’s capital city from Fallujah. The air defense threat to attacking aircraft over Iraq appears to be minimal, although anti-aircraft guns have been identified under IS control. For this reason, perhaps, a significant proportion of missions are being flown at night. Over Syria, an “implicit bargain” may have been struck with the Assad regime to stand down its air defenses, according to Shashank Joshi, a fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British defense think tank.
Three more air forces have deployed to join the coalition. Belgium and the Netherlands deployed six and eight F-16s, respectively, to Afraq airbase in Jordan. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) deployed six F/A-18F Super Hornets plus an E-7A Wedgetail AEW aircraft and a KC-30A (A330MRTT) tanker to an undisclosed base. The UK Royal Air Force gained parliamentary permission to drop weapons from its Tornado GR.4 strike aircraft that were already flying reconnaissance missions from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus. Canada yesterday agreed to commit six F/A-18C/D Hornets to the operation. France has boosted its Rafale fighter deployment to nine aircraft and provided a KC-135 for refueling and an Atlantic ATL2 for ISR missions. But none of these countries is flying over Syria, because no international legal mandate to do so exists, they claim. Only the U.S., Saudi Arabian and U.A.E air arms are known to be flying strike missions over Syria.
The U.S. has deployed 12 military teams to work with Iraqi formations at the command level. It remains unclear to what extent special forces from the U.S. and other allied nations have deployed in small numbers to assist in the targeting of airstrikes. Kirby said that the earlier airstrikes that helped oust IS fighters from Mosul Dam did not benefit from such help. The U.S. and most western allies have ruled out the deployment of ground troops, although Australia has sent a special operations task group to the Gulf. Another analyst at RUSI has suggested that the allies deploy airmobile forces to create safe havens on the ground that friendly local forces can exploit.