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The war with Islamic State: An assessment of the United Kingdom’s Operation Shader and the wider coalition campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

by Chris Abbott, Steve Hathorn and Matthew Clarke
An RAF Tornado GR4
An RAF Tornado GR4

The day before the 2 December 2015 vote by the UK parliament to extend UK airstrikes against Islamic State from Iraq to Syria, Open Briefing published the first in a series of six monthly intelligence briefings on the United Kingdom’s military actions in the two countries.

Using the latest open source intelligence, these briefings have tracked and analysed the military efforts of the United Kingdom and the wider US-led coalition and analysed the military and political developments behind them. In particular, this series has monitored the use of UK special forces on the ground and the number of civilian casualties caused by UK and coalition airstrikes. Funded by the Network for Social Change, these briefings have been published in order to inform public and political debate on the conflict and to ensure any UK military action is accountable.

The first briefing in this series concluded that ‘The overall impression to be drawn from the proposed UK military strategy in Syria is that it is considered the “least-worst” option.’ The impression was that the strategy was being driven by the understandable need to ‘do something’ in the wake of the 12 November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris; however, the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya highlight the dangers of ill-thought through military action.

This present briefing is the sixth, and last, in the series. It provides the opportunity for an assessment of the success or not of the coalition’s campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This assessment has been made by examining a number of key indicators, including the extent of the territory held by Islamic State and the size of the population they control; oil production, revenues and the wages of IS fighters; the number of IS fighters in theatre; the impact on the international terrorism threat to the United Kingdom; and the number of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria. This briefing also provides an update on the latest developments in the conflict and an outline of the coalition’s likely next steps.

Executive summary

  1. Over the last 12 months, the US-led coalition and local partners have retaken up to 45% of Islamic State’s territory in Iraq and 20% of its territory in Syria and the group has been driven out of the major cities of Tikrit and Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. However, Islamic State still holds at least 55% of its territory in Iraq and 80% of its territory in Syria despite 21 months of coalition airstrikes. It also still holds its strongholds of Mosul (Iraq) and Raqqa (Syria), though the coalition and local partners are drawing up plans to retake them.
  2. The population controlled by Islamic State is now a third less than it was, but the group still exerts control over six million people in the territory it holds.
  3. Coalition airstrikes on Islamic State’s oil facilities have resulted in oil production falling by a third, but the group still produces 21,000 barrels of oil a day, accounting for 43% of its income.
  4. Islamic State’s revenues have dropped by 30% since mid-2015 and the group has had to reduce the salaries of its fighters by up to half; however, Islamic State’s revenues are still at $56 million a month.
  5. The flow of recruits to Islamic State has been reduced and half of Islamic State’s fighting force and over 100 of their senior figures have been killed. Despite this, the group still has between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters left in theatre.
  6. Overall, the US-led coalition has had some considerable successes in containing and rolling back the group in Iraq and Syria; however, much more should have been achieved given the combined military might and other resources of the 66 members of the global coalition to counter Islamic State.
  7. Furthermore, there are no signs that the terrorist threat to the United Kingdom from Islamic State is reducing despite nearly two years of UK airstrikes and other efforts to target the group.
  8. In addition, it is likely that a minimum of 1,217 civilians have died in the 12,453 coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria to date. Based on estimates alone, it is possible that around 77 civilians were killed in UK airstrikes.
  9. There are also concerns over the extent of the covert ground operation being carried out in Iraq and Syria by UK special forces and intelligence agents and the lack of parliamentary oversight of the operation.
  10. It is clear that both the civil war in Syria and the political turmoil in Iraq must end if the coalition’s current strategy is to have a real chance of success in finally defeating Islamic State. Given that political resolution in the two countries is unlikely in the short term, it is instead likely that the coalition will steadily ramp up their military efforts through incremental increases by individual coalition members, particularly of special forces and other ground troops.


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