Coalition strikes on ISIS: The vicious cycle in the Levant

It is as if the Coalition is dropping matches on a combustible fluid. What is needed are fire-fighters.

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik
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Some 70 days ago, U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, began against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, August 8 and September 23 respectively. With Coalition kinetic assistance, Iraqi forces have retaken many critical areas in the country, such as Mosul Dam, Haditha, Rabiya and Zumar. Yet ISIS maintains a solid swath of land. In Syria, the pace of anti-ISIS gains are slower or practically null, obviously because of a lack of ground forces with Coalition backing.

The statistics do not show that there is a short-term impact on the ISIS operations in terms of disruption of command and control, targeting weapons bunkers and training centers, and ISIS’s economic nodes of production. There is a vicious cycle unfolding in the Levant.

The vicious cycle of airstrikes and actions on the ground are telling. As of the end of 2014, close to 1400 airstrikes, including those supporting precision strikes supporting Iraqi security forces, have made only a dent in the ISIS’s ability to expand with impunity. In Iraq, strikes took place near al-Asad, Sinjar, Mosul, al-Qaim, Baiji, Kirkuk, and Tal Afar. Kinetic strikes targeted ISIS weaponry including mortar and rocket systems, as well as eight tactical units, two large ISIS units, two fighter positions, several vehicles, and storage containers. Sinjar and other areas are still active zones of ground skirmishes on both sides.

In Syria, the coalition launched strikes near Kobane, al-Hasakah, and al-Raqqah, last week destroying “several ISIS buildings, staging areas, a drilling tower, 19 fighting positions, and vehicles. Airstrikes also hit two large and four tactical ISIS units,” the U.S. Defense Department said in a statement. What does this statement really mean? Is selected targeting really working? Let us recall that ISIS had over a month to move their facilities around, leaving mock-ups and shifting other equipment to reportedly hidden facilities. Many ISIS buildings and facilities are emptied before attacked from the air.

These brief statistics beg the question: Is ISIS now in a position of retreat after strikes cost the U.S. $1.02 billion, with a daily cost of $8.1 million through mid-December 2014? Perhaps not. The cycle shows that ISIS is only becoming more strong and expensive to fight.

There is a sequence emerging that is likely to continue throughout 2015. This includes a continuation of aerial kinetic strikes against ISIS to force the extremist group out of Iraq and to be boxed in Syria.

The assertion that Operation Inherent Resolve will “remove the opportunities for the terrorists to manipulate youth, harm citizens, deny basic services and recruit fighters” is an objective not being met. Instead, there appears to be a growth in recruitment for ISIS fighters. It is quite possible that ISIS supporters and fighters are mushrooming faster than airstrikes can target them.

The killing of ISIS leaders Haji Mutazz, Abd al-Basit, Radwan Talib al-Hamdouni and Othman al-Nezeh is only a temporary set-back for ISIS. ISIS can easily—and have shown—they are able to adjust to the sudden removal of their leadership and military coordinators. But in this case, these individuals are not the key military strategists for the group because Chechens of Russian origin are at the helm of military strategy and attacks. So this scorecard only brings temporary success in the cycle.

To be sure, for several decades, air power theorists argued that decapitating the enemy leadership helps to reshape the battle space to kill, command and control. Airstrikes against Serbia, Iraq, al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda franchises come to mind. This approach does not work against networked fighters such as ISIS.

It is as if the Coalition is dropping matches on a combustible fluid. What is needed are fire-fighters

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Thus, ISIS is still able to launch counterattacks and use economic lifelines, even if slightly damaged and interrupted, to continue to operate.

Clearly, there is a difference on the ground in reaction to the kinetic strikes from above. In Iraq, there is support for the coalition strikes from the Kurds and some Iraqi tribes—Iraqi Shiites seem to be split. In Syria, there is criticism against the air campaign. Some argue that the airstrikes help the Assad regime.

In fact, this assertion is true and is a perhaps a positive development in order to quell ISIS in Syria.

In addition, given the requirement for Assad to remain in power at this time, several other Arab states are quietly talking to the Assad regime to set aside differences for now in order to focus on the threat from ISIS.

Jordan is a case in point. The shoot-down and capture of Jordanian pilot First Lieutenant Maaz al-Kassasbeh who hails from Bedouin tribe of Bararsha tribe, is a turning point in the vicious cycle. After the shoot-down of his F-16 fighter, al-Kassabeh floated in the Euphrates for at least an hour before ISIS took advantage of the situation for its own causes. Whatever the cause of the downed fighter, the impact on Arab participation in Operation Inherent Resolve has been substantial.

Overall, Operation Inherent Resolve is facing new challenges. The idea to deter and destroy ISIS is a noble one. But the situation on the ground is mutating through a cyclical nature. For military planners, there needs to be a stronger and more robust remedy to break the unintended progression by ISIS on the ground. It is as if the Coalition is dropping matches on a combustible fluid. What is needed are fire-fighters. Who those saviors will be is stuck in diplomatic failure where only military instruments are seen as extinguishers.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Senior Advisor to Risk Insurance Management in Dubai, UAE. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets: @tkarasik

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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