Exactly a year ago, on Aug. 8, 2014, the United States set up a coalition of 22 partner-nations to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Its members were committed to contributing aircraft and military aid to local ground forces, military advisers to train local forces, and a humanitarian effort for the ethnic minorities in flight from Islamist genocide.
Figures released by US Central Command last Friday show that the US and its partners had conducted a total of 5,946 air strikes in the first year of Operation Inherent Resolve: 2,657 in Iraq and 2,289 in Syria. They struck 10,684 targets including 3,262 ISIS buildings, 119 commandeered tanks, 1,202 vehicles and 2,577 fighting positions.
As for Islamist losses, CENTCOM’s Col. Pat Ryder revealed that ISIS had lost 25 to 30 percent of the populated areas it had seized in both countries; and thousands of fighters and dozens of leaders were killed in air strikes, so “damaging its leadership operations.”
Seen under the microscope of DEBKA Weekly’s military and counterterrorism experts, these facts and figures may be correct, but they are also misleading. Eight facts more closely approximate the real state of the war one year after its launch.
Why only “populated areas” are counted
1. Col. Ryder referred to ISIS losses in “populated areas.” But what about the rest of the territory the jihadis seized in the two countries? When all the captured land is taken into account, the Islamist State proves to have lost no more than an estimated 9 percent of the areas it seized as of June 2014.
2. The coalition’s territorial gains are therefore minimal. The only significant one was the partial recovery of the Iraqi town of Ramadi. That was achieved mainly by pro-Iranian Shiite militia fighters who turned it into a ghost town.
3. The grand total of air strikes, most of them carried out by US warplanes, sounds impressive. But it boils down to no more than an average of 1.8 strikes per day (compared with 115 carried out by the Israeli Air Force in its last Gaza campaign.) And, according to the US Senate’s Armed Forces Committee, American bombers routinely return to base with two-thirds of their ordnance unused.
ISIS recoups manpower losses by influx of volunteers
4. The war in Iraq is at a standstill. The Iraqi army and pro-Iranian Shiite militias have in recent weeks been stalled on both the central and western fronts. ISIS has not been dislodged from Fallujah, Mosul or even fully in Ramadi.
5. In Syria too, no coalition force has posed a military threat to the towns and areas captured by ISIS, whether in the north, the center or the east.
6. In the course of the year, ISIS, in contrast has opened or expanded seven battle fronts in Egypt, Sinai, Libya, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, West Europe and Afghanistan.
7. Despite a vast investment, the US-run training programs have failed to turn out Syrian or Iraqi fighters in numbers sufficient for challenging the Islamists on the battlefield. ISIS, in six-week courses, including a week for indoctrination, is turning out 1,000 to 1,200 trained volunteers every six weeks.
8. Most significantly, the jihadis, while undoubtedly suffering heavy losses, are not set back because a regular stream of volunteers helps them recoup those losses fast enough to maintain a steady manpower level of an estimated 30,000 fighting men.