Alex Hall discusses the impact that a British intervention could have on Islamic State
On Wednesday 2nd December, the House of Commons voted on whether Britain should extend its airstrikes against ISIS into Syria. The vote was an overwhelming majority of 397 for air strikes and 223 against. Just hours after the Commons vote, British Tornado jets left RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus to strike ISIS targets in eastern Syria, specifically the Omar oil fields. The Ministry of Defence stated that “the strikes were successful” and defence secretary Michael Fallon said that the strikes provided “a very real blow at the oil and the revenue on which the Daesh terrorists depend”. But how much of a difference can British air strikes really make?
Over the last year of air strikes against ISIS in Iraq, the RAF has flown almost 1,400 missions, but have only fired weapons 382 times. In comparison to US air strikes that number is very small. Over the same period the USAF has carried out 8,542 air strikes. Even the Russian Air Force has performed more air strikes than Britain, and their air campaign has only been operational for two months. Between September 30th and November 17th Russia had carried out 2,300 air strikes in Syria. That is an average of 48 air strikes per day. In order for British air strikes to even make a dent in Islamic State there would first need to be a dramatic increase in the number of air strikes taking place.
The number of air strikes isn’t the only important factor: the targets of these air strikes will make a huge difference. Combined Joint Taskforce: Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) is the rather unwieldy name for the US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq. CTJF-OIR has been focusing its strikes on Islamic State’s leadership and personnel, using tactics reminiscent of the last 14 years spent operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The coalition tends to use a combination of signals intelligence (e.g. phone/internet surveillance) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs – commonly known as drones) to locate and track high value targets. After a target has been identified, jets or armed UAVs are dispatched to eliminate them. After 2 years of strikes this strategy hasn’t proved particularly effective. Although they provide morale boosting victories, such as the US drone strike that killed the infamous “Jihadi John”, these strikes have failed to stop the spread of Islamic State, and play a large part of the ISIS narrative of Western intervention. The Russians on the other hand, have been targeting Islamic State’s economy by destroying oil refineries, pumping stations, and convoys. The illegal oil trade is one of the main sources of funding for ISIS, and Russian air strikes seem to be making an impact. At a briefing on Wednesday morning Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoy stated that “the income of this terrorist organization was about US$3 million per day. After two months of Russian airstrikes their income was about $1.5 million a day”.
In order for British air strikes to make a difference in Syria, we are going to need to take a similar stance to Russia. We need to pull away from the American strategy of “find, fix, finish”, and focus on destroying Islamic State’s economy. It is naïve to believe that we can defeat ISIS using air strikes alone, but if done correctly they could make a huge impact on Islamic State’s ability function as an effective fighting force.
Featured image credit: Reuters