Breaking Down America's Air War over Syria

"No one should be under the illusion that the operations will finish after a few more weeks or that the targets will be as open and easy to find as they were on the first three nights of operations."

After weeks of questions from the White House and Pentagon press corps and uncertainty from nearly everyone in Washington as to when kinetic activity above Syria would begin, the United States and its partners in the Arab world commenced an opening salvo of coordinated airstrikes on ISIL targets throughout Syria on the night of September 22, 2014. The operations weren’t exactly “shock and awe,”—big balls of fire lighting the night sky were not visible to millions of Americans watching on live television—but the strikes were still significant enough to “shock” the terrorists who have made eastern and northern Syria a base for their operations.

And that was only the first night; over the past several days, U.S. and coalition aircraft have gone on the offensive against a terrorist organization that has come to rely upon Syria as a relatively stable staging ground. The latest operations (as of this author’s writing), which took place on September 25 and included a total of sixteen aircraft, took aim at ISIL’s valuable oil assets along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

As is typical during the first seventy-two hours after a dramatic military operation, there are only minor details being released by the Defense Department and the U.S. Central Command combatant commander. More information will trickle in as the days go by, and as Obama administration officials step up to the podium to give reporters briefings on what occurred and when the decisions were made. But even with the limited information that we do have in the public domain, there are a few points that can be made.

Scope and Scale of the Operations

Americans who have been closely following U.S. military activity against ISIL have grown accustomed over the past month and a half to daily news articles released by U.S. CENTCOM, outlining which targets were hit and where those targets were located. The dozens of releases have been monotonous and very similar, not only in the language used, but in the kinds of operations that the U.S. Air Force has conducted: a strike on an ISIL Humvee here, a strike on an ISIL checkpoint there. In other words, nothing particularly earth-shattering or dramatic as far as the public is concerned.

The news release issued by CENTCOM on the morning of September 23—a few hours after the opening salvo of air strikes in Syria concluded—was a welcoming distinction from what we have become used to. Raqqah, Deir ez-Zor, Hasakah and Abu Kamal were all targeted by U.S. and Arab aircraft throughout the night. Command and control facilities, armed vehicles, supply depots, ammunition depots and training sites were hit by nearly fifty Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the USS Arleigh Burke and the USS Philippine Sea in the northern Persian Gulf. Reuters reports approximately fifty ISIL sites were destroyed and seventy Islamic State fighters were killed—and that is all in addition to attacks on infrastructure associated with the Khorasan Group, a special branch of Jabhat al-Nusra concentrated solely on planning and executing terrorist attacks on the United States and Europe.

What the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy conducted in Syria in just a few hours is not only impressive from a logistical point of view; it’s also an illustration of how well dug in and comfortable ISIL was (and remains) in Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor. The administration has insisted that President Obama’s “go” order was not based on any time constraints, but it may have gotten to a point where holding off for another few days or weeks would have provided ISIL with the opportunity to embed more of its military infrastructure into populated areas—making the avoidance of collateral damage far more difficult for the coalition.

An Impressive Coalition

The White House has gotten a lot of flak over the last several weeks for the fragility and ad-hoc nature of its coalition building. Reporters at the White House rightly pressed administration officials on the effectiveness of Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts, and whether Arab states in particular would contribute troops on the ground to both train the moderate Syrian opposition and perhaps hold territory cleared of ISIL militants by U.S. aircraft. The administration never answered those questions in a satisfying way, which led to the reasonable assumption that the United States military would once again be doing all of the heavy lifting.

Those assumptions, at least during this opening phase, proved to be wholly unfounded. A total of five Arab countries—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan—contributed to the air campaign over Syria during the opening hours. And by participating, we aren’t talking about simply throwing in enabler support or a few planes for mid-air refueling, but actual kinetic activity—dropping bombs on ISIL targets. Viewed in this context, the amount of planes that Arab nations contributed is irrelevant: the fact that they were willing to fly with U.S. aircraft in a hostile environment and release munitions on sites below is a political boon for the Obama White House and a strong demonstration of the common security calamity that ISIL poses to the entire region.