Foreign Policy Blogs

An Effective U.S. Airpower Strategy against the Islamic State



Editor’s Note:
The following is a guest appearance piece by Misha Boutilier. Mr. Boutilier is an emerging analyst of international affairs. He has worked as a researcher with the NATO Council of Canada and done political risk. Mr. Boutilier has also done work in Canadian NGOs on mass atrocity prevention in conflict zones. He is currently completing his Honours BA at the University of Toronto in International Relations and History.

by Misha Boutilier

The recent American airstrikes on the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS/ISIL) in Iraq have reignited the debate about the role and effectiveness of American airpower. Even with the formation of a unity government in Iraq, the current campaign of selective pinprick strikes will not seriously disrupt IS. That said, American airpower employed against IS lines of communication can be effective at halting its momentum and supporting Iraqi forces in driving it back, but only if the Obama administration couples airstrikes with a strategy to undermine the Islamic State’s strongholds in Syria.

First, the Obama administration’s current use of airpower is clearly insufficient to significantly disrupt IS. Until August 15, the American intervention centered on selective pinprick strikes split evenly between Erbil and Mount Sinjar. The administration justified these strikes as a way to protect American personnel in Iraqi Kurdistan and prevent the genocide of the Yazidi ethnic minority. These are both noble objectives, but neither of them fundamentally addresses the IS threat to American interests and regional stability.

IS has made important strategic gains at the expense of both the Kurds and the Iraqi government, and American airpower has only marginally impacted them. Airstrikes likely prevented some instances of IS mass killing of Yazidis. However, IS’s primary aim was not bloodletting for its own sake but rather the forcible expulsion of the Yazidis from an area it wants to control. IS has already accomplished this, and the American-led aid and evacuation effort only reinforces its success by further relocating the Yazidi population. Likewise, in only several days IS successes reduced the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan from bold talk of declaring independence to begging for Iraqi and international support to save their capital. It humiliated the Kurdish leadership and destroyed the myth that the Peshmerga militia are a near-invincible military force. Coupled with its recent successful offensives against the Syrian military, IS has reinforced its own credibility and refuted the claims that its stunning successes in Iraq merely reflected the incompetence and corruption of the Iraqi military.

Second, building a unity government in Iraq is necessary to defeat IS, but will not succeed in the absence of a broader political-military strategy. The replacement of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki with Haider al-Abadi means that Iraq now has a leader with broad international and domestic support. Still, as Jessica Lewis of the Institute for the Study of War states, limited airstrikes and a unity government in Iraq do not equate to victory over IS. The group now occupies some of Iraq’s biggest cities, and to gain victory it is necessary to forcibly expel it from them.

Nor should the United States assume that Sunnis will begin to rally back to the Iraqi state now that the divisive Maliki has stepped down. The wounds of sectarian division cannot be papered over so quickly, especially since the Iraqi military has used airpower indiscriminately against Sunni cities in its fight against IS. On Aug. 15, for instance, Iraqi bombing and shelling of Fallujah killed fifteen civilians, and destroyed a water treatment plant, the sixth destroyed by Iraqi forces. This random bombing only further alienates Sunnis. IS has exploited this alienation, as well as the poverty and unemployment of many Sunni youth, by conducting a sophisticated propaganda campaign that has generated many new recruits in recent weeks.

Third, American airpower should be used effectively against IS because IS has morphed from an insurgency to a largely conventional military and organized state. Some commentators have suggested that the inability of airpower to defeat Iraqi insurgents during the American occupation means that it will be ineffective against IS. However, this mistakenly equates two dissimilar military forces. Unlike the insurgents of the mid-2000s, IS has captured a sophisticated collection of U.S.-supplied armoured fighting vehicles and artillery. Moreover, its declaration of a “caliphate” has predicated its legitimacy on a continued ability to hold and administer the territories it rules. As Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani correctly said, IS is no longer a terrorist group but a “terrorist state.” It thus has hard targets and military assets that are much more vulnerable to airstrikes than the dispersed and concealed assets of classical insurgent groups.

Moreover, because IS is waging war on multiple fronts, its lines of communication are highly vulnerable to airstrikes. In June, media commentary and the Obama administration emphasized that airstrikes would cause prohibitively high civilian casualties because IS fighters were in dense urban environments. That is certainly true of the battles raging in cities like Fallujah, Samarra, and Tikrit. However, the IS convoys traveling on or off road are highly vulnerable to airstrikes and discriminate from the civilian population. By launching targeted strikes on these convoys, the U.S. could seriously reduce IS’s ability to reinforce threatened fronts or deploy forces to conduct new offensives.

In fact, the United States has used airpower to successfully attack lines of communication of a force engaged in mobile operations even before the development of advanced surveillance drones and precision-guided munitions. For instance, in the D-Day invasion Allied tactical airpower prevented German armoured units from moving quickly to cut off the beachheads, buying time for Allied reinforcements to arrive and build up overwhelming superiority. Likewise, in 1972 American bombing raids in Operation Linebacker disrupted the lines of communication sustaining a major North Vietnamese conventional offensive, successfully halting the attack.

Finally, for the United States to enjoy real and lasting success against the Islamic State group, it must craft a strategy that recognizes the intrinsic connection between IS’ presence in both Iraq and Syria. IS emerged and grew in numbers because of the Syrian civil war. It established a permanent base of operations in Raqqa in eastern Syria, which it used to launch and sustain its incursions into Iraq. The group then built on its successes in Iraq by launching fierce offensives in that further solidified its control of eastern Syria. In effect, IS is waging simultaneous wars against the Iraqi state, the Assad government, and other segments of the Syrian rebels. If the status quo in Syria continues, even in the unlikely event that IS is pushed out of Mosul it will retain its base of operations in Syria and continue to have a free hand to destabilize Iraq.

Thus, the United States should reconsider its Syria policy in light of the IS threat. This could involve increasing arms supplies to those segments of the opposition that are also fighting IS. However, this strategy has proven unsuccessful to date, and the non-IS rebel elements by no means compose an effective third force. Instead, the United States may want to consider reducing its support for the rebels to better allow the Syrian military to defeat IS. The Assad regime has committed egregious human rights abuses and is no friend of the United States, but from a national security and arguably a humanitarian perspective it is better than IS.

Of course, the defeat of the Islamic State group is only one of many American foreign policy objectives in the Middle East. Maintaining good relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council states, successfully pursuing nuclear talks with Iran, and reducing its military presence to facilitate the pivot to the Pacific are also major American aims. The Obama administration has to balance all of these priorities as it crafts a foreign policy strategy. Nonetheless, the Islamic State group has already become an “entrenched strategic adversary” of the United States. The May synagogue shooting in Brussels has already been linked to the Islamic State group, and intelligence analysts warn that the group is trying to develop terrorist cells in Europe and could even begin to target the United States. Absent a decisive US response in both Iraq and Syria, the threat the Islamic State poses regionally and internationally will only increase.