The US-led effort against the Islamic State (IS) is gaining steam. Along with the US, Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Australia have all dropped ordinance against the Sunni jihadist faction in Iraq. Others will join. The US has struck hundreds of targets in Iraq and remains the campaign’s workhorse. Its latest reported attacks were in support of Kurdish forces near Sinjar in Iraq’s northwest on October 9. Analyzing the effectiveness of the air campaign in Iraq and Syria is tasking. Examining the results on a regional basis is most conducive, considering the various operational sectors and belligerents involved across Iraq. And so while having assisted mostly Kurdish forces in northern Iraq to hold and then regain some territory, coalition airstrikes have thus far failed to prevent further territorial losses to IS in Anbar Province west of Baghdad.
From the start of 2014, signficant and populated urban areas of Anbar, including much of Fallujah, have been under the control of IS. The group then realized an opportunity and furthered its holdings in the province after seizing the northern cities of Mosul, Tikrit, and most of Baiji in a lightning offensive back in June. Despite American and Western air support, the countless counter offensives by the Iraqi military and other allied forces in Anbar have failed to win back territory. As a result, the situation for the government in Anbar has only gotten worse.
Recent weeks have seen serious defeats for Iraqi forces in Anbar. Its forces were mostly driven from Ramadi, the provincial capital, and hundreds of Iraqi forces were enveloped and then defeated at Camp Saqlawiyah. Ground forces with coalition air support attempted to break the siege, but these efforts failed. After being overrun there, hundreds of Iraqi soldiers fled to the desert, seeking to find refuge at other government positions. The fate of many of them remains uncertain, although reports show that IS has recently paraded many captured soldiers in Fallujah. Other bases have fallen and IS has recently taken the city of Hit and the nearby town of Kubaisa. In doing so, the militant group is increasingly threatening the nearby Ain al-Asad airbase and the Haditha Dam. This has left IS in control of most of Anbar, with the exception of government-backed forces in Haditha and several isolated bases. To make matters worse, on Baghdad’s western doorstep, reports show that the Iraqi military and its allies are largely confined to garrison in Abu Ghraib, with militants controlling most of the town.
On October 10, the Iraqi military reportedly launched yet another counter offensive in Anbar, this time a three-pronged assault to retake Hit. The military may hope to relieve pressure on Ain al-Asad, and provide a foothold for a counter offensive east on the Tigris River. But first, they must retake the city. If they do, there is certainly no guarantee they will hold it. For above all, the Iraqi military, heavily reliant upon Shiite militiamen fighting far from home, suffers from many fundamental flaws.
Overall, the American-led campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy IS has mostly entailed tactical air support for allied ground forces in Iraq. But the situation in Anbar and elsewhere is indicative of a major problem. The effectiveness of tactical air support in Anbar is dependent on the quality of allied ground forces. Considering this reality and the fact that coalition airstrikes have failed to force IS to abandon large-scale military offensives in Anbar Province, the black flag will likely stay on Baghdad’s western doorstep in the coming months.