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ISIS/Daesh: the military response in Iraq and Syria

Published Monday, August 1, 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 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, intended to counter their ideology.

The military campaign

It is the military campaign against ISIS (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 focused on air operations in support of those local forces, providing reconnaissance, surveillance and attack capabilities. Training and equipment 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 has also been leading a programme of support for opposition forces in Syria.

Going forward the Pentagon has identified its immediate priorities as:

  • Stabilising Iraq’s Anbar province in the West.
  • Generating Iraqi Security Forces to envelop Mosul.
  • Identifying and developing more local forces in Syria that will isolate and pressure Raqqa.
  • Providing more firepower, sustainment and logistical support to our partners to enable them to collapse ISIL’s control over Mosul and Raqqa.

At the end of June 2016 the Pentagon suggested that ISIS had lost nearly 50% of the territory it once controlled in Iraq, and about 20% in Syria. It also noted that “Daesh continues to not be able to mount large-scale attacks and only able to mount small-scale localized attacks designed to terrorize and disrupt as opposed to retaking territory that they have lost, and they are shifting tactics to conduct more suicide attacks than military attacks”. However, the Pentagon assessment went on to note that “Daesh still remains dangerous and still retains the ability to attack both military forces and civilian targets…”

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
  • Denmark
  • Belgium

The countries also conducting operations solely in Syria are:

  • Turkey
  • Saudi Arabia
  • United Arab Emirates

There are currently no coalition partners operating solely in Iraq.

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. At its recent summit in Warsaw NATO leaders also announced that direct NATO AWACS support would be provided to the coalition, in order to increase situational awareness. That support will begin in autumn 2016.

As of 12 July 2016 Coalition aircraft have conducted a total of 13,803 airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria (Iraq – 9,273 and Syria – 4,530). Approximately 68% of airstrikes in Iraq and 95% of airstrikes in Syria have been conducted by US aircraft.

Training and Assistance

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.

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.

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 2015 the US announced that it would pursue a new strategy with respect to supporting opposition forces in Syria.

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.

Duration of the mission

It is widely acknowledged that the campaign against ISIS will be longstanding. During the Commons debate in September 2014 then Prime Minister 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 then 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:

  • 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
  • Sentinel surveillance aircraft.

RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus is being used as the RAF’s main operating base in the region. Approximately 1,100 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. This figure is expected to rise to approximately 1,300 personnel (350 in a training/advisory role) following the MOD’s announcement at the end of June 2016 that additional military trainers, force protection personnel, and an engineering attachment, would shortly deploy to Al Asad airbase in Western Iraq.

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.

On 7 July 2016 the MOD confirmed that the UK had conducted more than 2,800 missions, including 915 airstrikes against ISIS targets in both Iraq and more recently Syria (865 and 50 strikes respectively). It went on to state that “the RAF has not operated at this sustained operational tempo in a single theatre of conflict for a quarter of a century”.

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. 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.

Following these deployments, the total UK training contingent based in Iraq will comprise approximately 350 personnel.

To date the UK has trained over 18,000 personnel (both Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga) in Besmaya, Erbil and Taji.

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 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 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, 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. While 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, in mid-June 2016 Russia was criticised for targeting opposition forces at At-Tanf garrison, close to the Iraqi border. Russia was also accused of using cluster munitions in the attack.  

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.


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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