True Value of Airstrikes Over Iraq and Syria Questioned

 - May 26, 2016, 7:23 AM

Coalition air forces have helped Iraqi and Syrian opposition ground forces regain significant territory from ISIS in recent weeks, according to Pentagon media briefings. But following the virtual destruction of Ramadi during its recapture by Iraqi forces earlier this year, observers are questioning the value of intensive airstrikes in support of the current moves to evict ISIS from Mosul and Ramallah in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The composition and allegiances of the ground forces that are fighting ISIS in both countries remain complicated. 

Since the beginning of May, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) has conducted an average of five airstrikes daily on Syria and 15 on Iraq. Airstrikes might involve multiple aircraft attacking a single target. According to official statistics released by U.S. Central Command, more than 23,000 targets have now been damaged or destroyed during just over 12,500 airstrikes since OIR began in October 2014. Twelve other countries have contributed air forces to the U.S.-led operation. They have performed just under 25 percent of the airstrikes. The average daily cost of the operation to the U.S. alone is $11.8 million. 

Recent adjustments to OIR’s air forces have included the deployment of U.S. Air Force B-52s, and U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft. Six Belgian F-16s will replace a similar number from the Netherlands next month, and the country has agreed to their operation over Syria as well as Iraq. Denmark will send seven F-16s to join OIR later this year, having withdrawn six F-16s last fall. The U.S. now acknowledges that Army AH-64 Apache helicopters are based in Iraq and performing attack missions. It also admits that about 300 U.S. special forces troops are based in Syria and leading some ground actions there, with their air support apparently based in northern Iraq as well as at Incirlik airbase in Turkey. The 4,000 conventional U.S. troops in Iraq are still limited to training and support roles, according to the Pentagon. 

But former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now trying to be a peace envoy in the Middle East, said this week that “air strikes are not going to defeat ISIS” and called for a “proper ground war” involving troops from the Western coalition.

Meanwhile, Russian airpower is still actively deployed over Syria, despite Moscow’s claim last month to have partially withdrawn its forces. The U.S. intelligence company Stratfor said this week that four Russian Mi-24s had been destroyed in an ISIS attack on the T4 airbase near Palmyra in Syria.