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.Jump to full report >>
A coalition of 68 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 peace talks.
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 has been 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.
Over the last year the dynamics of the campaign have begun to shift as ISIS has increasingly lost territory, operations to re-take Mosul and Raqqa 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.
As of 28 February 2017 Coalition aircraft have conducted a total of 18,666 airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria (Iraq – 11,245 and Syria – 7,421). 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 60% 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. Initially Turkey had also been pushing for a role in the campaign, a proposal which the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, firmly rejected.
After three and half months of fighting the Iraqi Government announced on 24 January 2017 that the city to the east of the River Tigris had been liberated from ISIS. Iraqi security forces now control all areas inside the eastern part of the city and the eastern bank of the river for the first time in two and a half years. As such attention has now increasingly shifted toward the west of the city.
Operations to liberate the western part of the city began on 19 February 2017. Iraqi forces, backed by the coalition, have liberated Mosul airport allowing troops access to the city from the southwest. However, the dense urban environment of the old city and the number of civilians in western Mosul is recognised as presenting a significant challenge to Iraqi security forces moving forward.
The Coalition has estimated that ISIS has lost more than 25% 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.
Turkish -led forces have since continued to push south and recently liberated the town of al-Bab, after almost a month of fighting. Although not supported by coalition forces in its initial stages, the campaign to re-take al-Bab was increasingly backed by coalition intelligence and surveillance, and more recently airstrikes. Syrian government forces have also been operating in the region and in mid-January Russian warplanes began conducting joint airstrikes with Turkey in the surrounding area. Following the liberation of al-Bab concerns have been raised that Turkey may now turn its attention to Manbij, and other areas in northern Syria under the control of Kurdish forces, in an effort to secure their sphere of influence.
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. Turkey has continued to push for a role in the campaign to liberate Raqqa, although has called for Syrian Kurdish forces, specifically the YPG, to be excluded from any operation. Russia is not currently involved in the plans to liberate Raqqa.
Following his inauguration in January 2017 US President Donald Trump stated that “defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority” and that “to defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary”. To that end, on 28 January President Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum directing the US administration to develop, within 30 days, a comprehensive plan to defeat ISIS.
The Pentagon presented its plan to the US National Security Council’s Principals Committee on 27 February 2017. The plan has been described as a “preliminary framework” that extends both beyond the military and beyond the immediate theatre of conflict in Iraq and Syria. No official details of the plan have been made public, to date. Speculation within the media has focused on the possibility of deploying US “boots on the ground” in Syria and the creation of “safe zones” for the protection of civilians.
Although there are 68 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. In total 29 nations contribute 3,800 troops to the counter-ISIS operation.
The countries currently conducting air strikes in both Iraq and Syria are:
Denmark recently withdrew its combat aircraft.
The countries conducting air combat operations solely in Syria are:
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”.
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 70,000 Iraqi personnel have been trained, including Iraqi troops, Peshmerga, police and border forces and other tribal fighters. The number of Iraqi forces being trained has also increased three-fold since October 2016, with approximately 3,000 Iraqi forces being trained every month.
In addition to training, the US is also leading efforts to advise and assist the Iraqi Security Forces and Peshmerga at the command level.
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. In October 2016 the UK 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.
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.
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:
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 mid-February 2017 had conducted over 1,200 airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. The RAF is conducting operations at a tempo not seen since the first Gulf War.
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. More recently the MOD confirmed that UK personnel would expand its training to other locations in Iraq.
The total UK training contingent based in Iraq comprises 500 personnel.
To date, the UK has trained nearly 40,000 Iraqi security forces personnel, including 7,300 Kurdish Peshmerga, in Besmaya, Taji and al-Asad. 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.
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 Parliamentary Question in February 2017 the MOD set the operational costs of the counter-ISIS mission, up to the end of March 2016, at £238.8 million (£21.9 million for 2014-15 and £216.9 million in 2015-16).
DMAP costs for 2014-15 were £23.5 million and £23.7 million for 2015-16. However, not all of those costs are directly attributable to the counter-ISIS campaign.
Up to October 2016, and as part of those overall costs, approximately £63 million has been spent on Brimstone and Hellfire missiles.
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.
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, with Russia being accused of deliberately targeting 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. 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.
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 appeared to have been relatively short-lived as Russian operations in support of Syrian government forces subsequently came to dominate the strategic picture in Syria, in particular in the besieged city of Aleppo which became the focus of a major assault by Syrian government forces, backed by militias, Iranian ground forces and Russian air power.
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 and its support for the Assad regime.
By mid-December 2016 Syrian forces, backed by Russia, had succeeded in re-taking eastern Aleppo from rebel opposition forces. A subsequent Turkish/Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement, followed by Russian-led peace talks in Astana in January 2017 has been regarded by many as indicative of Russia’s desire to take on the role of power broker in the region.
As such, the possibility of a drawdown of Russian forces has been widely mooted. With the exception of the withdrawal of Russia’s aircraft carrier in the region, there has, however, been little evidence, to date, of a drawdown; more a change of focus. In recent weeks a battalion of Russian military police has deployed to Aleppo in order to enhance security; while Russian involvement in counter-ISIS operations has increased. Russian warplanes have been conducting airstrikes against ISIS forces in Palmyra, around the eastern Government enclave of Dayr al-Zawr and in conjunction with Turkey in and around the town of al-Bab near the Turkish border.
At present Russia’s actions, in concert with Syrian government forces, are focused on ISIS targets in eastern Syria and the region north of Aleppo. The question remains, however, as to whether it will increasingly turn its focus towards Raqqa. Coalition plans for the isolation and liberation of Raqqa currently do not envisage Russian participation. However, Russian aircraft are reported to have targeted ISIS positions in Raqqa in recent weeks; while Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu, has reportedly indicated Russia’s willingness to engage in joint operations with the US in the region.
Commons Briefing papers SN06995
Author: Claire Mills