Four air strikes targeted Islamic State in eastern Syria on April 25. They targeted ISIS members near Abu Kamal and Al Shadaddi not far from the Iraqi border. But the air strikes have declined greatly from April 2017, when more were carried out in a day than in the last week of April 2018. It is a sign that ISIS has been largely defeated in Syria but also that it still poses a threat and must be rooted out.
Brig.-Gen. Andrew A. Croft is deputy commander of air operations for the international coalition that has been fighting ISIS. After several months in which operations in Syria slowed, Croft expects the tempo to increase in the next few weeks and months. The Syrian Democratic Forces – which have been the main partners of the coalition in fighting and defeating ISIS – want to clear the enemy from the Euphrates valley and from desert areas near the Iraqi border.
One of the problems for coalition air power has been finding ISIS targets to hit. The brigadier-general says that depends largely on the SDF and its operations. "When there is [SDF] movement, then it allows us to discover and uncover more ISIS targets."
Unmanned drones are constantly searching for ISIS locations, including places where the scattered fighters sleep and what the coalition calls "command and control nodes." As major combat operations ended after the battle of Raqqa last year, ISIS melted back into villages near the Euphrates River. This is an area where the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian-backed militias are on one side and the US and the SDF are on the other.
Now the challenge is finding the remnants of ISIS. That means using human intelligence to spread out ground forces over rural areas. "It's a constant drumbeat of intelligence [gathering], surveillance [and] reconnaissance to uncover and validate targets," Croft says. The challenge before launching air strikes is to make sure the targets do not include civilians.
Another problem the coalition and its partners face is stabilizing the areas that have been liberated. ISIS left behind thousands of mines and bombs, called IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that have to be cleared. The coalition has been contracting and training people to de-mine areas. So far, 250 people have been trained. However, the IEDs remain a continuous threat, which makes getting people back to work and restoring civilian life difficult.
"It's hard to clear rubble when you have booby traps in entry ways and in vehicles," says Croft. "It's a huge task. There are a lot of unsung heroes in NGOs doing work and the scope and skill [required] is huge."
There were many questions about what would come after ISIS following last year's battle for Raqqa, including whether the coalition would remain in eastern Syria or if some of its members would depart. Croft says there has been no change in terms of who supports the anti-ISIS coalition. The only difference is that the number of air strikes has decreased, for now.
Seth Frantzman is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum