Assessing the War on ISIS

By Mona Alami for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The Islamic State’s control over large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria is slowly diminishing, as it is being aggressively pummeled by local and international forces, such as Kurdish and Iraqi forces on one side and coalition forces on the other. However, more can be done, say experts and combatants engaged in the war against the terrorist organization.

The war on IS launched by the US-led coalition in Iraq in September 2014 yielded positive results, with the organization losing 14% of its territory as of Dec. 14, according to estimates by the IHS Conflict Monitor team.

In spite of successive defeats with the loss of the city of Tikrit, the contested Beiji refinery complex, the transit route connecting Mosul to the city of Raqqa in Syria, and most recently Ramadi, the organization is far from being destroyed. “IS has had debilitating setbacks from a military perspective,” retired Col. Harry Schute, consulting adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on security affairs, told Al-Monitor.

IS has shifted to a defensive position, as stated in a report Dec. 21 by the Institute for the Study of War. The report underlined that IS had launched spoiling attacks across Iraq on multiple fronts, in Beiji, Makhoul and Sinjar in northern Iraq, as well as Hit and Ramadi in western Iraq. The organization has led “diversionary and probing attacks near Tikrit, Samarra and Fallujah, to forestall any upcoming anti-IS operations elsewhere in Iraq and force anti-IS forces shift resources to re-secure targeted areas,” as per the same report.

Front lines in Iraq have been marked by a movement of ebb and flow, more specifically in the contested sector of Beiji, which changed hands several times in the last year. Experts say that to avoid a reversal of IS losses, new measures should be introduced, some of which are already under discussion or have started being implemented.

The first measure includes a greater reliance on ground tactical controllers.

“The [US-led] airstrikes are very helpful, but they can be more effective if tactical controllers played a more active role in the choice of targets,” Schute said. Basically, a controller deployed in the vicinity of the target would be communicating directly with the pilot and giving final guidance on the strike. These controllers are generally embedded with the Internal Security Forces or KRG forces at forward locations to direct close air support, which greatly improves the coalition’s airstrikes. An opinion, also shared by Kurdish Gen. Sirwan Barzani, who told Al-Monitor that the operation center having to approve the strikes created delays, which could have costly repercussions on the battlefield.

An American military expert speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity believes the second measure would be to change the current Rules of Engagement (ROE). The expert said that the anti-IS coalition was currently following very strict ROE when it comes to targeting IS, which are equivalent to a zero-fault approach. “IS is acting like a state, we cannot maintain a zero-fault approach with a conventional opponent. The current ROE should follow a risk-averse strategy instead in regard to collateral damage. We cannot treat people who are openly collaborating with the organization [IS] as innocent civilians,” the military source said.

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