Anti-ISIS coalition looks to stabilize Iraq and eastern Syria as war winds down

The coalition has estimated that there are around 3,000 or fewer ISIS fighters left to hunt down.

Retaking Mosul from ISIS (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
“We are approaching a military shift,” says Maj.-Gen. Felix Gedney, the deputy-commander for strategy and support of the US-led coalition. “We are coming to an end of the liberation of Iraq and Syria from ISIS, a big campaign milestone,” the commander told The Jerusalem Post.
The battle against ISIS has been going on for more than three years in Iraq and eastern Syria. Gedney, who was born in the UK, has been posted to Iraq and Afghanistan in the past.
In 2008, he commanded an armored regiment, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, and set up the UK’s military transition teams in Basra in the country’s South. Since September he has been overseeing the future strategy in what he says is a particularly interesting time in the campaign. The defeat of ISIS in Raqqa and the last urban areas it held along the border of Iraq and Syria is a turning point. “One we can celebrate,” he said.
It also represents a major sacrifice on the part of the many coalition partners, including the government of Iraq and the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Symbolic of the progress is that some of the big guns are heading home.
On November 30, Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS coalition, announced that the US marines were heading home; the 400-strong unit deployed September 15 with its M777 howitzers and supported the coalition in the battle for Raqqa.
“The departure of these outstanding Marines is a sign of real progress in the region,” said Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Braga, according to a press release from the coalition.
Still, Gedney said: “We are still fighting against Daesh [ISIS] and the last remnants that they hold.”
This involves clearing the explosives or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) they have left on the field of battle and with which they have honeycombed civilian areas.
“[We are] preparing for some form of insurgency that our partner forces will have to deal with,”he said.
The commander speaks in general terms about the need to move into a phase of consolidating gains and focusing on non-military issues, as well as how to support allies on the ground and win over the local people. Some of the areas liberated from ISIS are populated by mostly Sunni Arabs, some of whom welcomed the extremists in 2014.
The question is what can be done differently, now, in the waning days of 2017 and early 2018 that will make Iraq turn out differently than after the defeat of the insurgency during the “surge” of 2007-2008.
In December 2011, US troops withdrew from Iraq. The last British forces had gone home in May of that year.
“We are in a different environment and position than in the past,” said Gedney. “We have strong partners we work by, with and through, and strong government that supports us here and wants coalition support and an enemy on the back foot and nearing defeat.”
The concept of “by, with and through,” has become the coalition’s maxim for working with local forces, specifically the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga and the SDF. It is a concept historically drawn from US special operations forces that RAND Corporation senior policy researcher Linda Robinson said US Gen. Joseph Votel has “adopted to call attention to this new way of war-fighting.”
In short, as she noted in a May report: “What makes this campaign unusual is that US forces are not providing the muscle of the front-line combat troops.”
Instead, they provide artillery, special forces, advise and assist, training, airstrikes and an eye in the sky from drones and other assets. Now that strategy has won the day.
The coalition has estimated that there are around 3,000 or fewer ISIS fighters left to hunt down, and Gedney agrees.
“It’s pretty difficult to put a number on it. Compare it with the 35,000-45,000 [ISIS] fighters in 2014,” he said.
The coalition also has liberated more than 100,000 square kilometers and 7.5 million people from ISIS control.
In Syria, the coalition will continue to support the SDF in operations against ISIS.
“They are, at the moment, in Raqqa handing over [to a] civilian internal security force and there is intention to hand over [to an] internal security force once the [other] areas have been liberated,” Gedney said, adding that the coalition will continue to work with these partners.
“The forces will need some development to manage the residual threat from ISIS so that the cancer that is ISIS is not allowed to return to the region,” he said.
What does all this look like on the ground? First of all, it means clearing IEDs, which are a particular threat in some areas, such as western Mosul.
In Iraq, “in each area the Iraqis have a holding force and they conduct patrols and ensure that Daesh can’t re-establish itself, and [they are] providing security for military and civilian agencies to try and clear IEDs.”
As soon as possible, the Iraqis will move toward normal policing- style functions, he said.
“We will continue to provide some support for security operations that will come less and less as the Iraqi Security Forces are very capable,” he said.
The coalition also intends to continue to do training for as long as the local government wants it: “We are here by invitation to provide capabilities so they can contain any insurgency and stop ISIS from re-establishing itself.”
There is also reconstruction support.
In Syria, the future is more opaque because the coalition is not there at the invitation of Damascus.
“The mission is clear and it is here to defeat Daesh and there is more work and we will remain until that job is done,” said the commander.
One thing is certainly clear, the plethora of partners in this battle is unique.
“The global coalition of 70 nations and four international organizations is the most powerful ever and our mission is to defeat ISIS and the people of this region deserve that.
They put a lot into liberating their countries from Daesh and we are intent on helping them with their future,” he concluded.