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ISIS/Daesh: the military response in Iraq and Syria

Published Tuesday, May 24, 2016

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. How is the campaign progressing?

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A coalition of over 60 countries are engaged in international efforts to counter ISIS (also known as Daesh, ISIL or 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, intended to counter their ideology.

In terms of the military campaign (Operation Inherent Resolve), which is the focus of this paper, the United States has led airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 8 August 2014 and end of September 2014 respectively. With a view to building the capacity of local forces on the ground, offensive military action has so far been restricted to air operations in support of local forces, providing reconnaissance, surveillance and attack capabilities. Training is also being provided by a number of coalition countries to the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in order to bolster their ground capabilities and allow them to take the fight to ISIS. Targeted Special Forces operations have also provided support to Iraqi and local fighters on the ground.

The US had also been leading a programme of training for moderate opposition forces in Syria. However, that programme has been beset with difficulties and on 9 October 2015 the US announced that it would pursue a new strategy with respect to supporting opposition forces in Syria.

In mid-May 2016 the Pentagon suggested that ISIS had lost 45% of the territory it once controlled in Iraq, and about 20% in Syria. It also noted that “while ISIL can still put together some complex attacks, they have not been able to take hold of any key terrain for almost a year now”.

Who is in the military coalition?


The countries currently conducting air strikes in both Iraq and Syria are:

  • United States
  • France
  • Australia
  • Jordan
  • United Kingdom
  • The Netherlands
  • Denmark
  • Belgium

The countries also conducting operations solely in Syria are:

  • Turkey
  • Saudi Arabia
  • United Arab Emirates

Following the recent decision of the Netherlands to expand its air operations into Syria, and the decisions by the Belgian and Danish governments to re-deploy their combat aircraft, and expand their operations to Syria, there are currently no coalition partners that are operating solely in Iraq.

Canada withdrew its combat aircraft from operations in Iraq and Syria on 15 February 2016. Canada has, however, retained its air-to-air refuelling and surveillance and reconnaissance assets in theatre in support of coalition air operations. In December 2015 Germany also approved plans to deploy Tornado reconnaissance aircraft, refuelling aircraft and a 1,200 strong force to the region, although those forces will not engage in offensive operations.

As of 10 May 2016 Coalition aircraft had flown an estimated 91,821 sorties in support of operations in Iraq and Syria. Of those, 12,199 were airstrikes (Iraq – 8,322 and Syria – 3,877). Approximately 68% of airstrikes in Iraq and 94% of airstrikes in Syria have been conducted by US aircraft.

Training and Assistance

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.

The United States, the UK and a number of other coalition countries have deployed military personnel on the ground in Iraq to train Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. These are not combat troops and are not deployed in an offensive role.

To date, over 31,000 Iraqi personnel have been trained, including Iraqi troops, Peshmerga, police and border forces and other tribal fighters. A further 3,800 Iraqi soldiers are currently in training, along with 1,100 Peshmerga.

In addition to training, the US is also leading efforts to advise and assist the Iraqi Security Forces and Peshmerga at the command level.

The US has also deployed Special Forces personnel in northern Syria and in Iraq in order to provide logistical and planning assistance to Iraqi, Kurdish and other local forces in the fight against ISIS, including by launching raids against ISIS targets in Syria, gathering intelligence, rescuing hostages and capturing high-value ISIS leaders.

Until recently the US had a programme of training in place for moderate opposition forces in Syria. However, that programme has been beset with difficulties and on 9 October the US announced that it would pursue a new strategy with respect to supporting opposition forces in Syria.

Duration of the mission

It is widely acknowledged that the campaign against ISIS will be longstanding. During the Commons debate in September 2014 David Cameron warned Members of Parliament that “we should not expect this to happen quickly. The hallmarks of this campaign will be patience and persistence, not shock and awe.” In October 2015 the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, suggested that a three-year timeframe was the current expectation of military commanders.

Legal basis

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.

The reluctance of many coalition partners to intervene in Syria had partly been because of concerns over the legality of such military action, given that it is not at the request of the Assad government, and is being conducted in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution specifically authorising such action.

The Government’s November 2015 response to the Foreign Affairs Committee report on extending British military action to Syria states that the main legal basis for UK military action in Syria is collective self-defence of Iraq, with the individual self-defence of the UK and collective self-defence of other states (but not Security Council authorisation) as additional legal bases.

The UK’s contribution

Parliamentary Approval

In September 2014 Parliament voted to support offensive military action in Iraq. However, that vote did not extend to offensive operations in Syria. In July 2015 the Secretary of State for Defence indicated that the Government could seek further approval from Parliament to extend air strikes into Syria provided that “there is a sufficient consensus behind it”. A debate, and vote, on extending offensive military action against ISIS in Syria was subsequently held on 2 December 2015. Parliament voted in support of military action exclusively against ISIS in Syria by 397 to 223 votes.

Assets and personnel

The RAF is the primary service in this operation and has deployed a mixture of combat, surveillance, reconnaissance, and refuelling/transport aircraft. Aircraft currently deployed include:

  • 10 Tornado GR4 fast jet aircraft (including 2 additional aircraft deployed from 2 December 2015)
  • 6 Typhoon combat aircraft (from 2 December 2015)
  • Reaper Remotely Piloted Air Systems
  • Airseeker surveillance aircraft
  • Voyager air-to-air refuelling aircraft
  • 2 C130 transport aircraft.
  • E3-D sentry aircraft
  • Sentinel surveillance aircraft.

Approximately 1,000 UK personnel are supporting Operation Shader in Iraq and across the surrounding region. Approximately 300 of those personnel are on the ground in Iraq providing training and military advice; while the remainder are supporting the air campaign. Those personnel on the ground are not combat troops.

Sortie rates

The UK has been the second largest contributor to the air campaign in Iraq. In November 2015 the government suggested that the UK had carried out 8% of coalition air strikes in Iraq; while British Tornado aircraft had provided nearly 60% of the intelligence effort. Reaper and Airseeker aircraft, which have been authorised to fly surveillance missions over Syria since October 2014, have also been providing up to 30% of the intelligence effort in Syria.

As of 12 March 2016 the UK had conducted approximately 2,200 sorties, including 640 airstrikes against ISIS targets in both Iraq and more recently Syria.

Civilian casualties

The Government has consistently maintained that no civilian casualties in Iraq or Syria, to date, have resulted from UK air strikes.


Since October 2014 the UK has been providing training to Kurdish Peshmerga forces and military advice to the Iraqi security forces. Specifically, the UK is co-ordinating the coalition’s counter-IED training programme.

Following a meeting of counterparts in the Global Coalition against Daesh at the beginning of May 2016, the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon confirmed that the UK is currently considering a further training and advisory package to assist Iraqi security forces.

To date the UK has trained over 13,000 personnel (both Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga) in Iraq.

The UK has also supplied over 50 tonnes of non-lethal support, 40 heavy machine guns, nearly half a million rounds of ammunition and £600,000 worth of military equipment to the Kurdish Peshmerga. In May 2016 the Defence Secretary announced that a further £1 million of ammunition would be gifted.


In March 2015 the MOD confirmed that the net additional costs of the military air operation would be met from the Treasury Special Reserve; while the costs of training and equipping the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, and the provision of key enablers, would be met from the MOD’s Deployed Military Activity Pool (DMAP).

In March 2016 the MOD set the costs of the operation thus far at £280 million.

Russian actions in Syria

In September 2015 Russia began forward-deploying troops and other military assets to Humaymim air base in Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast. Estimates of the number of deployed Russian military capabilities varied but what was generally accepted was that Russia had established a powerful strike group in Syria consisting of fast jet combat aircraft, utility and attack helicopters and a small number of T-90 tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery units and howitzers. By November 2015 the Russian air force was estimated to have around 50 combat aircraft deployed at Latakia, including the Su-34 which made its combat debut.

On 30 September 2015 Russia launched its first airstrikes in Syria, the first time that Russian forces had undertaken a military operation beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War. Russia presented the campaign as a counter-terrorist action to protect religious minorities and to protect the secular government. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that it was targeting ISIS “and other terrorist groups” in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate Syrian government.

Throughout its entire campaign Russia has been continually criticised for targeting opposition groups, as opposed to ISIS, including moderate opposition forces supported by the US. Russian airstrikes are also estimated to have caused significant civilian casualties. It has also been alleged that Russia has been responsible for the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure such as hospitals.

In mid-February 2016 the International Syria Support Group reached agreement on a ceasefire that would apply to all parties engaged in hostilities against another party, aside from those directed at ISIS or the al-Nusra front. The cessation of hostilities came into force on 27 February 2016, at which point the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that Russian “combat aviation”, including long-range flights from Russian territory, had ceased flights over Syria, and that it would “fully implement its ceasefire obligations”.

Just over two weeks later, and after a five-month air campaign, President Putin announced a somewhat surprise drawdown of “the main part” of Russian combat forces in Syria, stating that the Russian campaign “had been completed”.

However, two months on it is widely acknowledged that Russia has retained a significant military presence in Syria, including combat aircraft, attack helicopters and air defence systems. It has also recently established a forward operating base in Palmyra, following its recapture from ISIS forces in March 2016. Russian military forces have continued their campaign of airstrikes in support of Syrian government forces. However, the focus of their activity since the ceasefire agreement was reached, appears to have been on ISIS and other groups such as the al-Nusra Front.

The general consensus is that it is too early to say what long-term military presence Russia may retain in Syria. Opinions are divided on whether the initial drawdown was a genuine move to support the ceasefire and the ongoing peace talks or whether this is a tactical move by Russia intent on establishing a permanent military presence in Latakia province and at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast.

Boots on the ground?

Combat troops have been explicitly ruled out by the UK and other countries involved in the coalition, amid debate about the reliance on air power alone. However, the prolonged nature of this campaign has led many to reignite the debate about whether the Coalition is doing enough and whether ‘boots on the ground’ is the next logical step. The US’ move to deploy Special Forces’ personnel to Iraq and northern Syria in support of local forces has been regarded by many as a slow move in this direction.


Commons Briefing papers SN06995

Authors: Claire Mills; Ben Smith; Louisa Brooke-Holland

Topics: Armed forces, Defence policy, International law, Iraq, Middle East, Military operations, Terrorism

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