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ISIS/Daesh: what now for the military campaign in Iraq and Syria?

Published Wednesday, March 7, 2018

ISIS has lost 98% of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria and in December 2017 the Iraqi government declared military victory over ISIS. The situation in Syria remains complex with operations to defeat ISIS complicated by the ongoing Syrian civil conflict. The Coalition has committed to maintaining its military commitments in Iraq and Syria. While tracking down remaining ISIS fighters remains a priority, the military campaign has, however, steadily begun to transition towards stabilisation, capacity building and training.

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ISIS has lost 98% of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, including Raqqa, the capital city of its self-declared caliphate, which was liberated in October 2017. In December 2017 the Iraqi government subsequently declared military victory over ISIS in Iraq and the US declared the end of major combat operations. Small pockets of ISIS resistance remain, however, with fighters believed to have dispersed into the desert. As such clearance operations continue, while stabilisation operations are increasingly becoming the focus of the campaign in Iraq.

In Syria, however, the strategic picture remains complex with operations to defeat ISIS complicated by the ongoing Syrian civil conflict and recent Turkish military action in northern Syria.

For the foreseeable future the Coalition has committed to maintain its military commitments in Iraq and Syria. While tracking down remaining enclaves of ISIS resistance remains a key priority, the military campaign has steadily begun to transition towards maintaining security, stabilisation and training.

This shift in the focus of the military campaign has been reflected in coalition air operations over the last few months. While airstrikes continue there has been a notable shift toward Syria and supporting SDF operations in clearing remaining pockets of ISIS fighters; while the number of airstrikes conducted has decreased significantly.

That downward trend is likely to continue, with changes to force composition considered likely over the course of 2018. Indeed, Australia and Belgium have already withdrawn their strike aircraft from the region.

The United States, France, the UK and the Netherlands currently undertake offensive strike operations on behalf of the Coalition. Canada, Germany and Poland all continue to deploy reconnaissance, refuelling and transport aircraft in an enabling role; while NATO continues its AWACS surveillance flights.

With the transition toward stabilisation operations and capacity building, the training mission is set to continue. NATO leaders recently agreed to initiate planning for a new training mission in Iraq that will put the training effort on a more sustainable, long term basis. That training mission is expected to be launched at the NATO Heads of State summit in summer 2018.

In Syria, the United States has stated that it intends to maintain a “conditions-based” military presence that will remain firmly focused on the threat posed by ISIS. Part of that presence will be the continued training of local security forces in Syria, including the Syrian Kurds which form a significant element of the SDF.

British participation

At present, approximately 850 UK personnel are supporting Operation Shader in Iraq and Syria, conducting airstrikes in support of local forces on the ground and providing intelligence and surveillance to Coalition operations. With the UK’s training contingent in Iraq (currently 550 personnel), the UK’s total footprint across the region in support of this operation is approximately 1,400 personnel. Those personnel on the ground are not combat troops.

The UK has been the second largest contributor to air operations in Iraq and Syria, behind the United States, conducting sorties at a tempo not seen since the first Gulf War. As of 13 February 2018, the UK had conducted 1,700 airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. And operations are still ongoing.

With the start of transition to a military campaign focused on clearance, stabilisation and training, attention has increasingly been given to the long-term presence of British military assets in the region, in particular the air component. The MOD has made it clear, however, that the military effort is not over and “there will be no respite in UK operations against Daesh until we can guarantee their absolute defeat”.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8248

Author: Claire Mills

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

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