Airstrikes in Syria Will Weaken, Not Destroy Militants



A salvo of 47 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles, fired from U.S. destroyers in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, preceded United States-led airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, Sept. 22. The initial operation was conducted without a Western ally, although heavily supported by allied Arab air force assets, reportedly from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar — composing the largest combined Arab mission since the first Persian Gulf War. Shortly after the operation began, Israel downed a Syrian Sukhoi Su-24 jet fighter which it alleged violated its airspace over the Golan Heights. It was not clear if the shooting down of the jet, by an Israeli Patriot missile, was coordinated in any way with the U.S. strikes on Syria.


Operationally, the participation of numerous Gulf Arab countries (especially Jordan) greatly relieves the U.S. effort in Syria. Turkey has been largely unwilling to commit forces or to allow the United States access to its air bases for manned combat operations over Syria, limiting the United States to its air bases around the Persian Gulf. The active participation of Jordan allows for the potential use of forward operating bases on the Syrian border, the staging of combat search and rescue assets required to rescue pilots having ejected over Syria, and secondary airfields for landing aircraft with mechanical problems en route from their bases in the Persian Gulf. The active participation of a number of Arab countries with a total inventory of hundreds of advanced aircraft also enhances the overall capacity of the force amassed against the Islamic State.


Image: Air Base Locations of Core Coalition Countries

The United States insists that no permission was sought from the Syrian regime for the airstrikes. In an attempt to avoid hostility between Syrian regime air defense assets and coalition aircraft, however, the United States has very likely initiated what is referred to as a de-conflicting process, in which prior warning would have been given to the regime in Damascus. In fact, Syrian state media reported shortly after the strikes began that warning of the attacks had been given to Syria’s permanent envoy to the United Nations.

The de-conflicting process will be significantly aided by the fact that the bulk of the Islamic State presence in Syria is located away from core regime positions in the west of the country. This ensures minimal contact between regime air defense assets and coalition aircraft, while the availability of airbases in Jordan and the Persian Gulf allows forces to avoid transit routes from the Mediterranean across heavy air defense zones in western Syria. The United States and its allies will be monitoring Syrian military forces very carefully, especially given the high tempo of Syrian air operations over eastern Syria in the last few months. For operations too close to regime surface-to-air missile batteries, the United States could elect to rely on more survivable stealth aircraft such as the F-22, which are reportedly already engaged in the Syrian strikes. If the United States makes such a choice, it will be the first time the F-22 Raptor is used operationally in a ground attack role.


Setting the Conditions

While not amounting to a full-scale “shock and awe” campaign such as those waged during the Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War, the first wave of airstrikes occurred almost simultaneously across multiple points in Syria in order to maximize the effect of tactical surprise. The bulk of the air and missile strikes appeared to be concentrated in and around the city of Raqqa, which is the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital. Targets were hit across the country included Aleppo, Hassakah, Deir el-Zour and Abu Kamal. Scores of Jihadist positions were engaged, including command headquarters, supply depots, training camps, armed vehicles, supply trucks, former army bases seized by the group and logistical hubs close to the Iraqi border.


Image: Concentration of Activity by the Islamic State

In an interesting expansion of the U.S. campaign against Jihadists in the Middle East, coalition aircraft reportedly also struck facilities used by a non-Islamic State affiliated jihadist group in Syria known as the Khorasan group. The group is reportedly led by Muhsin al-Fadhli and is directly linked to the al Qaeda core in Pakistan.

For weeks prior to the current airstrikes, the United States had been constantly flying intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance flights over Syria, mapping out the militant group’s layout, structure and capabilities. These reconnaissance flights would have been critical in drawing up a list of potential Islamic State sites from which current targets could be allocated.


Video: Conversation: Containing vs. Destroying the Islamic State

While air and missile strikes alone will not destroy or even comprehensively degrade the Islamic State in Syria, they will seriously degrade its ability to mass forces for offensive operations, hurt its financing and logistical efforts and aid local anti-Islamic State forces in their attacks against the group. Ultimately, the Islamic State will increasingly find itself on the defensive in Syria, especially as it receives pressure from multiple directions and its many enemies in Syria and Iraq. For the group to be defeated, however, a more comprehensive effort that extends beyond air power is needed. Local Sunni forces in Islamic State territory would need to turn against the group; the Islamic State’s resupply networks — including manpower and finances — would need to be shut off and indigenous forces, whether Syrian rebels in Syria or peshmerga and Iraqi forces in Iraq, would need to advance to reclaim territory from the group.