Breaking Down America's Air War over Syria

September 27, 2014 Topic: SecurityCounterinsurgency Region: SyriaUnited States

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.

Arab participation in the opening night of hostilities was impressive, but to be truly groundbreaking, the coalition will need to be maintained and hopefully expanded over what will be months of offensive operations. Fortunately, there is no indication that Washington’s Arab allies are unwavering in their commitment—during the strike mission on September 25, more aircraft from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates participated in the mission than planes from the U.S. Air Force.

The Issue of Mission Creep

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant wasn’t the only “bad guy” that was pulverized in these airstrikes. The shadowy and mysterious Khorasan Group, widely reported to be an elite extension of Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, met the full force of U.S. air power as well. According to CENTCOM, the United States took action against the group “to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests.” General William Mayville, the Director of Operations for the Joint Staff, commented that Khorasan facilities were struck because the cell was “nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the homeland.” Therefore, Pentagon planners found it appropriate to extend the target list to Khorasan in order to safeguard the security of the United States and its European allies.

The question that needs to be asked—and one that Gen. Mayville declined to answer—was whether U.S. strikes on Khorasan were simply a one-off event that just so happened to take place on the same night as the strikes on ISIL, or whether Jabhat al-Nusra and its affiliates in Syria are now part of the package for the U.S.-led military coalition. If it’s the latter, the investment in military resources, the cost to the American taxpayer, the risk of retaliation to the U.S. homeland and facilities and the length of the campaign will all increase. This may very well be a smart policy, but it could elicit complaints and concerns from members of Congress that the Obama administration either misrepresented the scope of U.S. military action when selling its plan or that the White House is taking the United States deeper into the rabbit hole of another long commitment in the Middle East.

Obama Needs to Shore Up Political Support at Home

The vast majority of Americans support taking offensive action against ISIL in both Iraq and Syria, and statements coming out from members of Congress have been nearly unanimous in support for the president’s decision. Yet as in all U.S. military campaigns since the Vietnam War, popular support tends to erode as the operation goes on. The longer U.S. personnel remain engaged in a conflict, the more likely it is that something will go wrong along the way—whether it’s a plane shot out of the sky, casualties on the ground, or in the case of the Syria training mission, a blue-on-green attack. And when casualties mount, Americans tend to get impatient.

Although the administration received a critical boost of bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress on taking the fight to ISIL on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, there is already a loud minority taking issue with the way the White House has decided to prosecute this war. The New York Times editorial board, normally a reliable friend of the Obama administration, wrote a scathing editorial lambasting the president’s legal justification. “[H]is assertions have not been tested or examined by the people’s representatives in Congress.,” the Times wrote. “How are Americans to know whether they have the information to make any judgment on the wisdom of his actions?”

If there is a vocal minority today, one can only guess how the large that crowd would become if American involvement in Syria proves to be as tricky and unpredictable as Washington’s foray into Iraq.

A Good Opening Round, More to Come

To put it as brief as one can, the expansion of the anti-ISIL campaign inside Syria had a very effective first night, hitting the targets accurately, keeping civilian casualties to an absolute minimum, and striking the capital of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate. Yet 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. Like the U.S. military, the Islamic State will perform an after-action assessment and will survey the damage to its facilities, command-and-control nodes and personnel. ISIL, like Al Qaeda, is an adaptive organization: the group will try to scatter its remaining resources across northern and eastern Syria, and burrow its assets into the civilian population. Future operations by U.S. and Arab planes will become harder to carry out as a result.