U.S. commences airstrikes against ISIL – too little too late?

In a move to counter the rapid advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or the Group) in northern Iraq and Syria, the United  States of America (U.S.) increased its involvement in the conflict. On August 8th, 2014, President Obama announced the U.S. would commence to provide humanitarian aid to civilians fleeing the ISIL advance and would simultaneously initiate targeted airstrikes against the Group.

Source: BBC.

ISIL ON THE OFFENSIVE

ISIL has been spreading the Group’s sphere of influence throughout the region for months, driving back Iraqi Forces using speed and violence of action. As a consequence of the rapid advance and the Iraqi’s hasty retreat, ISIL was able to capture substantial amounts of Iraqi military equipment, including equipment provided by the U.S., such as, Humvees, Abrams tanks, M4/M16 rifles and M198 howitzers and other non U.S. provided hardware common to the region including T-55 tanks, T-72 tanks and RPGs.

Using the captured equipment, ISIL was able to transform from the average “toyota pickup rebel group” in possession of Ak47s, RPKs and RPGs into a more serious fighting force. Iraq Forces who already struggled to deal with ISIL, now seem to have an even tougher time to counter the Groups offensives, in part due to the low morale and low training standards present across many units of the Iraqi military.

Kurdish Pashmerga fighters in the northern provinces of Iraq were able to put up a stiffer resistance, in part because ISIL was focused on Iraqi Forces at the beginning of the conflict. Since the beginning of August, however, ISIL has changed course and launched a new offensive towards Erbil (ھەولێر), the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Aside from being the capital of Kurdistan, Erbil, is important because it is home to a U.S. Consulate and base to US military advisors assisting Kurdish and Iraqi Forces. Should Erbil fall to ISIL it would be a strategic blow to the Kurdish and Iraqi Forces as well as the U.S.

Additionally, last week ISIL managed to take Qaraqosh which is home to Iraq’s largest Christian community causing thousands to flee. ISIL also advanced onto towns home to the Yazidis, a minority group in Iraq, again causing thousands to flee their homes. Many are seeking shelter on nearby Mount Sinjar, however the people on top of the mountain are now facing starvation and dehydration if they stay or death by ISIL if they come down.

Source: BBC.

ISIL was also able to seize Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam near Mosul. The dam is a key asset to control water and power in the area, with the Tigris River south of the dam running all the way to Baghdad.

Source: BBC.

U.S. & INTERNATIONAL REPONSE

Over the last months, the Iraqi government has called for the U.S. to intervene numerous times as the country grew increasingly desperate. However, having just pulled its troops form Iraq and considering that  a renewed involvement in Iraq  is a tough sell to the American people,  the Obama administration has been hesitant to get actively involved in the conflict. However, with the continuous military successes of ISIL, the destabilization of the region and in light of the human rights violations carried out during the Groups advances, it became clear that looking away would become increasingly difficult for the Obama administration. Consequently, on August 8th President Obama announced a humanitarian mission to help the civilians on the ground as well as a military operation to support Kurdish and Iraqi Forces.

In his statement President Obama stated that the U.S. military is directed to conduct airstrikes against ISIL convoy’s should they move towards Ebil. Obama also said, “We’re also providing urgent assistance to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces so they can more effectively wage the fight against ISIL.”. This broad statements indicates that US operations will go beyond the narrow scope of only attacking ISIL forces headed for Erbil. However, Obama made specifically clear that the U.S. would not send combat troops to Iraq to directly fight ISIL.

Shortly after the announcement by President Obama, the U.S. Navy conduced the first airstrikes against ISIL targets in northern Iraq.

The video provided by U.S. Central Command shows two targeted airstrikes against ISIL targets. The first strike was carried out at approximately 06:45 EDT, when two F/A-18s attacked and destroyed mobile artillery pieces near Erbil using 500-pound laser-guided bombs. Later in the day four F/A-18s struck and destroyed a stationary IS convoy of seven vehicles and a mortar position also near Erbil. Additional airstrikes on ISIL targets have been carried out since and more are likely to follow.

As outlined by President Obama, the U.S. has also launched a humanitarian mission under which the U.S. has conducted four airdrops to bring aid to the civilians fleeing from or trapped by ISIL.

The above video shows an airdrop mission that included one C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft that together dropped a total of 72 bundles of supplies. The C-17 dropped 40 container delivery system bundles of fresh drinking water totaling 3,804 gallons. In addition, the two C-130s dropped 32 bundles totaling 16,128 meals ready to eat. According to  Admiral Jogn Kirby the US has dropped more than 74,000 meals and 15,000 gallons of water during the four airdrops conducted thus far.

TOO LITTLE TOO LATE?

The question remains whether the military actions taken by the U.S. are enough to halt  ISIL advances and/or to drive them back and ultimately dissolve the group.

ISIL is currently using it’s heavy weapons to successfully soften defenses before swiftly attacking with motorized elements. This Blitzkrieg style of warfare has been highly successful against the ill prepared Iraqi Forces. If U.S. airstrikes are able to eliminate ISIL’s heavy weapons and motorized elements it will likely tip the balance of power to the Kurdish and Iraqi forces and should halt ISIL’s advances.

While the US air support will give Iraqi and Kurdish forces a significant advantage, as seen in Libya, where opposition forces were able to cripple the regime of Gadaffi under the shield of western air superiority, US air support will have its limitations. The U.S. will likely be very careful when it comes to bombing ISIL targets in urban population areas where the risk of civilian casualties is high. The last thing the U.S. wants or needs is causing civilian deaths, further increasing anti American sentiment in the region. Additionally it has to be noted that ISIL will be able to draw supplies and resources from its operations in Syria an area that is currently out of the scope of U.S. air operations and therefore represents a quasi save haven for the group.

Ultimately, previous operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have showed that a significant number of boots on the ground is necessary to permanently control and defend an area against insurgent groups such as ISIL. Consequently to drive back and/or eliminate ISIL Kurdish and Iraqi forces have to use the American air support to push forward on the ground.The U.S. is currently not likely to provide a significant number of ground troops due to budgetary constraints and the lack of support for “boots on the ground” by the American public. While American Forces are providing advisory support and likely have Special Forces as well as intelligence assets operating in Iraq their actual combat role will likely be extremely limited if possible. Iraqi and Kurdish Forces will have to fight the ground war largely on their own.

Prolonged airstrikes should help the Iraqi and Kurdish Forces to dismantle ISIL in Iraq, however largely because the U.S. support came so late, this will take a long time and should be thought of in years rather than months or weeks. Even with airstrikes, defeating ISIL means to dismantle an ideology, which is a difficult task. All we have to do is look at Afghanistan, where more than a decade of ISAF did not manage to erode the Taliban. So the real questions is if Iraq will be able to find peace at all even after ISIL has been defeated from a military standpoint. The Kurds in the north are likely to demand independence from Iraq’s central government and other group may want the same. Iraq is a patchwork of religious believes and ethnic groups, finding peace even without ISIL will be a challenge.

Source: BBC.

However the tensions between all the players in the region are nothing new, remember what Dick Cheney said 1991 during the first Gulf War:

“… That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off: part of it, the Syrians would like to have to the west, part of it — eastern Iraq — the Iranians would like to claim, they fought over it for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey…”

If one adds the tensions between Shia and Sunni groups into the equation, it becomes clear that Iraq will remain a volatile place even in a post ISIL world.

Stages of War

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