Since U.S. airstrikes began targeting ISIS on August 7, the group, which had been steadily expanding its territory, has been losing ground in Iraq. Now there are signs indicating that the air campaign could be expanding. If it does, the model for what has worked in northern Iraq—U.S. airpower backing local ground forces—gives a preview of what future operations could look like if they spread to other parts of Iraq.
“What we saw at Mosul,” where U.S. airstrikes allowed Kurdish and Iraqi security forces to push ISIS back, “was essentially our proof of concept,” said Douglas Ollivant, a former Army officer and one of the architects of the “surge” in Iraq who later served on the National Security Council.
ISIS’s answer to its first direct confrontation with the United States came in the form of a video, released Tuesday as the bombs continued to drop on the group’s positions in Iraq, showing the execution of a captured American journalist, James Foley. In the video Foley’s masked killer warns that further U.S. airstrikes will lead to the execution of more American hostages held by ISIS.
President Obama addressed the video Wednesday, calling ISIS a “cancer” that must be extracted. “The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people,” the president said, pledging, “We will be vigilant and we will be relentless.” He was clear on the nation’s resolve and said it is “necessary to see that justice is done” but announced no plans to expand military operations against the group.
After the president’s speech Wednesday U.S. officials revealed that special operations forces conducted a secret rescue operation earlier this summer in a failed bid to free Foley and other American hostages held by ISIS. In a statement Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the mission “was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location."
The president, who came to office on a pledge to pull troops out of Iraq, has avoided signaling any renewed military commitment in the country. But the reality in Iraq has never entirely matched the official rhetoric, and while it is apparent the president has no interest in signing on to an open-ended mission, military officials have suggested that current operations could be enlarged.
On Wednesday, senior military officials told the Associated Press that a small additional force of special operations troops could be sent to Iraq to provide security in Baghdad. And despite ISIS’s warnings, Defense officials confirmed that 14 new airstrikes were carried out Wednesday, targeting ISIS units around the Mosul Dam.
So far, U.S. military intervention has been carried out under the auspices of preventing ISIS massacres against Iraqi religious minorities and protecting Americans in the region. Under that pretext a functional alliance has been at work, with American air cover allowing Kurdish and Iraqi security forces to regain some momentum and lost territory.
Defeating ISIS in an open confrontation has not been part of any proposed plan, but weakening the group and pushing back its advances could go from the de facto U.S. approach to the official strategy if the air campaign expands.
The most visible result of the air campaign is the retaking of the Mosul Dam, a key piece of infrastructure that ISIS captured from Kurdish forces in early August. After a sustained bombing campaign with more than half the total U.S. airstrikes so far, 51 out 84 targeting ISIS positions around the dam, it was retaken Tuesday by Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi special forces.
The dam is no longer in ISIS’s hands, but keeping it that way may require keeping American airpower on call for the foreseeable future.
Christopher Harmer, a former Navy pilot and senior military analyst for the Institute for the Study of War, said he believes that recent Kurdish gains could easily be reversed. “We’ve already seen what ISIS vs. the Peshmerga looks like in the absence of American airpower,” Harmer said. “It winds up as a victory for ISIS.”
The Kurds aren’t the only Iraqi ground force capable of pushing ISIS back under air cover, and they aren’t even the largest, but so far the United States has been unwilling to provide the same level of support to the Iraqi army that it has given in the north. The reasons for that mostly owe to politics: The Obama administration had been reluctant to ally itself with the corrupt and sectarian regime led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. With a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, waiting to form a government, the prospect of using U.S. air support on a broader scale to support Iraqi forces fighting against ISIS is being revived.
“Once there’s an Iraqi government that we deem to be inclusive, there’s a very real chance that we will then expand the campaign to support the Iraqis where they want to retake ground,” said Ollivant, the former National Security Council official.
But airpower alone won’t be of much use inside ISIS strongholds like the city of Mosul, where fighters are mixed in with the civilian population. Defeating ISIS in the cities under its control can be accomplished only with a large ground force, something Obama has made clear the United States won’t be sending.
Today defeating ISIS isn’t part of the U.S. plan for dealing with the threat in Iraq. For now, it may not be possible, writes Brian Fishman, an expert on Iraq and jihadist groups. “No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat [ISIS] that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border,” he wrote in War on the Rocks. “And no one will, because none exists.”