Striking back: How effective are ‘revenge’ attacks against ISIS?

France beefs up air forces over Syria after Paris attacks, just as Russia, Egypt and Jordan have done in recent months

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Late afternoon on November 24, four French fighter jets launched from aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the eastern Mediterranean. Their mission was to hit ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, in retaliation for the group’s attacks in Paris 11 days earlier that killed 130 people.

Over the course of the next five hours, the warplanes would release 20 missiles on a command centre and training facility belonging to ISIS near the town of Tal Afar in northeast Iraq, the French defense ministry reported.

Since the simultaneous attacks on the French capital this month, France has stepped up its commitment to the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS -- but analysts say that may not be enough to eradicate the militant group.


“ISIS has France on a hook because Hollande said [the Paris attack] was an act of war,” says Dr. Edwin Bakker, Director of the Center for Terrorism and Counterterrorism of Leiden University in The Hague. “You don’t sit at home and say this is an act of war. No, you have to do something,” he adds.

The arrival of the French flagship in the eastern Mediterranean this week has more than tripled the number of strike aircraft available to fly missions over Iraq and Syria. Since September 19, 2014, 12 French jets have conducted just over 285 strikes on ISIS targets from bases in Jordan and the UAE. And with the Charles de Gaulle carrier’s 18 Rafael M multirole fighter jets, eight Super Étendard carrier strike jets and assorted reconnaissance and support aircraft, the total number of strike aircraft available to the French mission now lies at 38. According to the French defence ministry, the aircraft have struck 35 ISIS targets since November 13.

“It has become an automatic response to ‘terrorist attacks’ to step up the number and intensity of airstrikes,” explains Dr. Reinoud Leenders, a Middle East expert in the War Studies department of King’s College London.

“But, if you look at the actual number of sorties, we’re talking about just scores of French strikes since the Paris attacks. This already says something about the impact these fresh strikes can have -- as in, very little,” explains Leenders.

Whether this number will climb sharply now that the Charles de Gaulle has increased capacity for bombardment is unclear but questionable says Leenders.

“It makes a political difference, the U.S. is less lonely in skies over Syria but militarily it doesn’t do much. 75% or more of airstrikes are still done by the U.S. It’s not a capability issue, it’s a targeting issue and political issue.”

Operation Inherent Resolve, the American-led coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, began launching airstrikes in Syria and Iraq over a year ago in response to the militant group’s atrocities in both nations.

Predictably, as the militant group commits another horrendous crime, nations carry out “revenge strikes” on ISIS targets. After the group shot down a coalition aircraft and executed its Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh earlier this year, Jordan pounded ISIS’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria. However, many of the statistics released by authorities aggregate non-U.S. coalition partner strikes making it challenging to know the actual number of missions that Jordanian pilots undertook. Much like in the wake of Paris, many experts speculate that the numbers are minimal.

The pattern has continued when ISIS executed 21 Egyptian hostages in Libya earlier this year, which was also met with Egyptian airstrikes. These strikes were short lived, however, as they lacked political backing when a number of European countries and the U.S. issued a joint statement calling for political solutions not military ones to Libya’s conflict.

As with the recent attacks on Paris, when ISIS claimed to have downed a Russian civilian aircraft carrying 224 people over the Sinai in October, they too intensified airstrikes in Syria. With every incident, the victimized country responds with a barrage of missiles at the militant group.

Unlike in Iraq where forces on the ground supported by the U.S. can call in coalition air support, in Syria there is less information passed by assets on the ground. Stepping up the number of missions over Syria therefore requires a reassessment of what is considered a relevant target. Recent French and Russian airstrikes have targeted ISIS oil infrastructure, including hundreds of fuel trucks, which previously were not hit for fear of hitting civilian populations relying on or working in those oil fields.

Leenders says “an element of posturing” is often behind the increased raids, as France and others must be viewed as responding firmly to the attacks. “But I’m not sure that this [bombing] is going to be an adequate response,” he continues, “A major source of finance [for ISIS] is now coming from extortion of local populations and that’s just not a bombable target,” Leenders says.


Instead, the strikes have come at a high price but with little change on the ground. In the 15 months since the coalition’s inception, American forces have conducted 6,471 airstrikes -- 3,768 in Iraq and 2,703 in Syria -- and coalition partners have conducted a further 1,818, of which 1,664 were in Iraq. The estimated cost to the U.S. thus far is $5 billion -- $11 million per day. And Russian media has reported that in the 48 days to November 17, Russian warplanes carried out nearly 2,300 sorties over Syria. This is a significantly higher rate per day than coalition strikes than the coalition’s 8,289 strikes in 450 days.

But the militant group has remained firmly in control of both Mosul and Raqqa, its headquarters in Iraq and Syria respectively. It has continued to fight on multiple fronts in both countries, has seen a steady stream of extremist groups abroad -- from Algeria to the Philippines -- pledge allegiance to it and continues to attract foreign fighters from around the world.

The skies over Syria are becoming increasingly congested. Alongside large numbers of Russian planes, the extra deployment of French fighter jets and those of the other coalition nations, the UK could hold a vote as soon as next week on joining the coalition striking ISIS in Syria.

But without substantial ground forces, Leenders and Bakker say, the expanded air wars will not be enough to defeat ISIS. In Iraq, numbers of Kurdish forces, the National Iraqi Army and government militias are beginning to take back territory, with significant coalition air support. However, in Syria no large, reliable, ground force exists for the coalition to support, while Russia has been lending air cover to a severely weakened and embattled Syrian army.

And as ISIS expands its operations outside its “caliphate,” the reactionary response of revenge strikes may become even less effective.

The Paris attack, the downing of the Russian passenger jet and a spate of other international attacks – including the recent bombings in Beirut, Tunisia and Iraq – show that ISIS terror cells abroad are effective tools for the militant group.
The analysts believe that tackling these will require a comprehensive security, social and political solution that goes far beyond air strikes.

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