Attrition: Fatal Attractions


April 24, 2015: Although the American led coalition has been attacking ISIL from the air in Iraq and Syria since 2014, the pattern of attacks are different in each country. As of early April there have been nearly 1,900 attacks in Iraq, of which 68 percent were American. In Syria there have been nearly 1,400 attacks of which 86 percent have been American. Because of the more complicated political situation in Syria fewer NATO and Arab nations are willing to make attacks in Syria. The problem there is many more factions and no coalition members have agreed to attack the government (Assad) forces yet. Worse ISIL is but one faction of the rebels and ISIL is the main target. While ISIL is the largest rebel faction, some of the other rebel factions are allied with ISIL. Moreover there are far fewer ground controllers in Syria thus making it easier to bomb someone you don’t want to hit. In the meantime the coalition has become more active in both countries. So far this year there have been 25 percent more air attacks a month than in 2014.

This air campaign began on August 8 2014 when the U.S. began aircraft began attacking ISLI in Iraq. Between then and the end of the year over 14,000 sorties were flown, mostly by American aircraft but also by those from NATO and nearby Arab countries as well as Australia.

Only ten percent of those sorties result in an aircraft using a smart bomb or missile. About two thirds of the air operations are against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq. Half of the air strikes in Syria have been carried out by American warplanes. The rest have been flown by NATO and Arab countries. Most of the air activity has been in Iraq because these operations began in Iraq began in early August while those in Syria did not begin until late on September 22nd. Moreover most NATO nations prefer to restrict their operations to Iraq, so initially only the U.S. and five Arab nations were bombing in Syria.

One of the limitations has been finding suitable targets. The strikes in Syria are limited by the lack of reliable people on the ground to confirm targets. This is less of a problem in Iraq where there are Iraqi air controllers and some Iraqi army units that are reliable enough to provide reliable target data. Then there are the Kurds (in Iraq and Syria) where Special Forces controllers can operate with Kurdish militia groups they know (and often trained over the years). The trained Kurdish fighters are spread thin, trying to protect long borders and widespread Kurdish civilian populations. As more American controller terms get into Iraq and Syria, the air attacks against ISIL combat forces will become more frequent and effective. Most targets do far are identified from the air and then verified and approved by two control centers in Iraq (one outside Baghdad and the other in the Kurdish controlled north.)

Many of the older ISIL fighters, with experience fighting American air power in Iraq (and, for a few ISIL men, Afghanistan) know that with enough information about what is on the ground and enough bombers in the air ISIL will no longer be able to take and hold ground. This explains the changes in ISIL offensive operations, which are now more hit and run than hit and hold. ISIL leaders know that as time goes by they will not be able to travel easily by road or even cross country on foot. Syrian civilians have also gotten the word and air reconnaissance shows civilians fleeing residential areas where ISIL has sought sanctuary from the air strikes. ISIL will be forced to follow the Taliban practice of forcing (at gunpoint) civilians to stick around to discourage the warplanes above.

The first air strikes in Syria hit the obvious targets like buildings taken over by ISIL (especially in the eastern city of Raqqa which has become the ISIL capital) as well as large storage areas for captured vehicles, weapons and housing for ISIL fighters. Also hit were large ISIL checkpoints that controlled traffic on the few major roads in eastern Syria. As expected ISIL, under the direction of Iraqi ISIL men who had experienced American air power in Iraq from 2003-2008, quickly began to disperse. Headquarters were moved to residential areas, large permanent checkpoints were abandoned (replaced by temporary ones set up by ISIL fighters travelling in vehicles equipped with baggage on the roof, to look like civilians) and all vehicles and equipment was also dispersed to residential areas. Schools, hospitals and mosques now have to provide some space for ISIL men and equipment. ISIL personnel have been warned to use cell phones and radio communications carefully because the Americans are probably listening. The Americans are listening and they have proven tactics to defeat the dispersal tactics ISIL is using to avoid air attack.

Dispersal will not make ISIL safe from attack bur it will slow down the rate of loss to air attack. The attacks in Syria and Iraq have killed over 2,000 people so far, that’s about one death and less than a dozen wounded per strike. The attacks so far have concentrated on things like command and control (headquarters and communications) and logistics (fuel, vehicles and stockpiles of food and equipment). This causes ISIL long term problems right away and killed or wounded several senior people. The attacks prefer to concentrate on combat forces but many ISIL commanders are good at not presenting such attractive targets. This could be seen in northern Iraq where Kurdish forces, long comfortable working with American troops and air power have been pushing back ISIL and inflicting (with the help of air strikes) lots of ISIL casualties whenever ISIL gathers together a lot of gunmen to try and stop the Kurds.  Because of the threat of air strikes ISIL has to be careful concentrating forces to push back the Kurdish advance.

In response ISIL is, as expected, claiming massive civilian casualties from the air strikes. Again, as expected, the U.S. is ready with video and eyewitness evidence that the ISIL claims are false. Since the wide use of smart bombs in the 1990s civilian casualties have plummeted over 80 percent compared to the pre-smart bomb era. This sort of thing does not make good headlines, but false accusations from Islamic terrorists, who regularly use civilians as human shields, do. Another non-news event is the large number of smart bomb strikes that are called off to avoid civilian casualties.






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