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ISIS/Daesh: the military response in Iraq and Syria

Published Tuesday, November 8, 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. The campaign to liberate Mosul in northern Iraq has begun and attention is increasingly focused on the eventual liberation of Raqqa in Syria.

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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.

Situational report

As of 25 October 2016 Coalition aircraft have conducted a total of 15,861 airstrikes 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.


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

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

The countries conducting operations solely in Syria are:

  • Turkey
  • Saudi Arabia
  • United Arab Emirates

Participation by Saudi Arabia and UAE is, however, considered to have been minimal.

A number of other coalition countries, notably Canada, Germany and Poland, are providing force enabling capabilities such as air-to-air refuelling and surveillance and reconnaissance assets in support of coalition air operations. NATO is also providing direct AWACS support to the coalition, in order to increase situational awareness. That support began at the end of October 2016 with one E-3 aircraft currently based in Turkey. NATO Leaders have sought to highlight, however, that such assistance “does not make NATO a member of this coalition”.

Train, advise and assist mission

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 35,000 Iraqi personnel have been trained, including Iraqi troops, Peshmerga, police and border forces and other tribal fighters.

Several coalition countries have also been providing Iraqi and Kurdish forces with logistical assistance and resources, including the provision of arms, ammunition and other military equipment. Financial assistance for the payment of Peshmerga salaries has also been provided.

The US is also leading a programme of training for moderate opposition forces in Syria. The focus of that programme is on “equipping and enabling” selected groups of vetted leaders and their units so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL”. The US is providing equipment packages and weapons, and providing air support as and when necessary. The UK recently announced that it would resume its training of Syrian opposition forces, outside of Syria, following a request for support from the US.

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 at the command level.

Turkey is also providing support and assistance to local opposition forces in northern Syria.

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.

Offensive military action in Iraq and Syria

On 30 September 2014 Tornado aircraft carried out their first airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq (Operation Shader). RAF Tornado aircraft conducted the first offensive operation in Syria on 3 December 2015. RAF aircraft had, however, been conducting non-offensive surveillance operations over Syria since 21 October 2014.

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:

  • 8 Tornado GR4 fast jet aircraft
  • 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 (temporarily grounded)
  • Sentinel surveillance aircraft.

RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus is serving as the main operating base for aircraft in the region.

In August 2016 the MOD announced that the Type 45 destroyer HMS Daring would deploy to the Gulf in order to provide air defence support to US Carrier Groups deployed in the region.

At present, approximately 850 UK personnel are currently supporting Operation Shader in Iraq and Syria. With the addition of the UK’s training contingent in Iraq (500 personnel) the UK’s total footprint across the region in support of this operation is approximately 1,350 personnel. Those personnel on the ground are not combat troops.

The UK has been the second largest contributor to the air campaign in Iraq and Syria. UK aircraft have flown over 3,000 missions as part of Operation Shader, and as of the beginning of November 2016 had conducted 1,115 airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria (1,048 and 67 respectively).

In July 2016 the MOD acknowledged that “the RAF has not operated at this sustained operational tempo in a single theatre of conflict for a quarter of a century”.

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. At the end of June 2016 the MOD confirmed that it would expand its training assistance, with the deployment of an additional 50 military trainers to the Al Asad airbase in Western Iraq to provide counter-IED, infantry skills and medical training.

The total UK training contingent based in Iraq comprises 500 personnel.

To date, the UK has trained more than 30,000 Iraqi security forces personnel, including 6,900 Kurdish Peshmerga, in Besmaya, Erbil and Taji. Many of those trained personnel are currently conducting operations in Mosul.

On 25 October 2016 the Defence Secretary announced that the UK would resume training of vetted moderate Syrian opposition groups following a request by the US for support of its train and equip programme. 20 UK personnel are expected to deploy to a number of locations in the region, outside of Syria. Training will focus on basic infantry tactics; command and control; medical training and explosive hazard awareness training.

Gifting of equipment to the Peshmerga

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 since August 2014. In May 2016 the Defence Secretary announced that a further £1.4 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 answer to a PQ in September 2016 the MOD set the costs of the operation, between August 2014 and 31 March 2016, at £265 million (£45 million in the 2014-15 financial year, and £220 million in the 2015-16 financial year).

To date, and as part of those overall costs, approximately £63 million has been spent on Brimstone and Hellfire missiles.

Russian involvement in the campaign against Daesh/ISIS

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 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, or Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, as it has been known since dropping its al-Qaeda affiliation in July 2016. 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, Russia has retained a significant military presence in Syria, including combat aircraft, attack helicopters and air defence systems. In March 2016 it also established a forward operating base in Palmyra, following its recapture from ISIS forces. In early July 2016 the Russian Ministry of Defense also announced that it would deploy its flagship aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to the Mediterranean to serve as a platform for carrying out airstrikes in Syria. The carrier transited the English Channel in mid- October 2016 and is expected to be deployed until at least February 2017.

Ongoing support for the Syrian regime

Following the February ceasefire agreement, many analysts concurred that there had been a shift in Russian military activity, which appeared to be increasingly focused on ISIS and other groups such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. This was a position confirmed by the Pentagon on 18 May 2016 when it stated that “in the last several weeks, a majority of their strikes have been more ISIL focused”.

However, that shift in attention appears to have been relatively short-lived as Russian operations in support of Syrian government forces have come to dominate the strategic picture in Syria over the last few months, in particular in the besieged city of Aleppo. The result has been an increased blurring of the lines between the campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria and Russia’s involvement in the broader civil conflict.

Indeed, Russia’s focus on supporting the Syrian regime has left many to question how much it will contribute to the counter-ISIS campaign going forward. The liberation of northern Syria over the last few months has largely been achieved by Turkish-backed opposition forces; while plans for the isolation and liberation of Raqqa currently do not involve Russia.



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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