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Lessons learned from Operation Inherent Resolve

The coalition made notable mistakes that upset Arab participants, resulting in a very small current Arab footprint

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the US-led air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), remains active after almost 18 months. Unfortunately, however, the coalition made notable mistakes that upset Arab participants, resulting in a very small current Arab footprint in OIR.

The campaign began on Sept. 23, 2014 when the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar struck terrorist camps and equipment stockpiles in Syria. The planning took months, but Washington and Arab allies practiced for it via numerous exercises. For the next three months, air operations were playing catch-up to integrate the participating countries and personnel from 30 others.

At the beginning there was a flow of support from Arab states, from aircraft, pilots and refuelling to humanitarian efforts and access to bases. From an American viewpoint, this was an important achievement demonstrating an active and robust partnership.

Arab drawdown

By Dec. 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were down to about one mission against ISIS targets each month. Bahrain stopped in the autumn, and Jordan stopped in August. The United States flies 95 percent of coalition missions over Syria and 70 percent over Iraq.

There are two major reasons for the drawdown of Arab air forces: the capture and execution by ISIS of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, and the opening of the Yemeni front by the Saudi-led coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Kasasbeh was captured in December when his F-16 fighter crashed over northern Syria while on a mission. An Arab official told me that a coalition air control commander ordered him to fly his jet low over the area where he was shot down in order to “test” ISIS’s air defense. The commander said there was a miscommunication. The result was catastrophic, with Kasasbeh being set on fire in a cage.

Fearful of the potential capture of other Arab pilots, Arab coalition members adjusted their rules of engagement, and some stopped flying sorties. The UAE requested that search-and-rescue capabilities by the Americans be put in place. Why Washington had not thought about this before remains a sore point to this day.

Operation Inherent Resolve is a real test for Arab states’ participation with the United States, and with each other, against ISIS in the Levant

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Arab states discovered, almost too late, that the ongoing Houthi rebellion in Yemen had slipped out of control. In early 2015, they switched focus from OIR to their own Operation Decisive Storm and Operation Restore Hope to neutralize and destroy the Houthi advance. These operations took valuable lessons from OIR and applied them to striking Houthi targets via the Riyadh-based operations center.

While in the Levant there are no ground units to find and fix targets for airstrikes, in Yemen that capability exists. In addition, the Iraqi contribution to intelligence-gathering for OIR is too slow and bogged down in internal disputes.

Clearly, OIR is a real test for Arab states’ participation with the United States, and with each other, against ISIS in the Levant. Combined with Saudi-led operations in Yemen, there is a new resolve to use these Arab assets in future operations throughout the region.

That is why it is important to understand the operational planning for any use of power-projection under the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) now taking shape. We may soon see the IMA active in the Levant and other strategic locations against Arab enemies.

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Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. 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.