The US and its allies have carried out 6700 airstrikes at an expense of nearly $4 billion in the year since President Barack Obama ordered a campaign against Islamic State.
Yet the terror group shows no sign of defeat and has even expanded its reach.
On September 10, 2014, Obama announced a “comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy” to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS/ISIL), referring to it by the preferred US government acronym, ISIL (which stood for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”). US drones and warplanes had already been targeting the group since early August of 2014, after IS killed two American journalists it had been holding hostage.
In the announcement, Obama outlined a four prong strategy against Islamic State: while conducting a “systematic campaign of airstrikes,” the US would “increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground,” use counter-terrorism capabilities to prevent IS attacks elsewhere, and “provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians” displaced by the group.
Initially nameless, the campaign was dubbed “Operation Inherent Resolve” in October 2014. Since then, the US and its allies have flown 53,278 sorties “in support of operations” in Iraq and Syria, conducting a total of 6,700 airstrikes as of September 8, 2015, according to official information provided by the Pentagon.
Some 10,000 IS “targets,” from tanks and vehicles to trenches and oil facilities, have been destroyed. While there is no official body count, IS casualties were estimated at over 8,500 in May of this year. The cost of the campaign has been estimated to be $9.9 million per day, totaling over $3.7 billion as of August 2015.
The air campaign has certainly produced some impressive-sounding numbers. However, it has done little to fundamentally affect the reality on the ground, where IS militants have only grown stronger. After US-backed Iraqi forces managed to wrest control of Tikrit from IS in April 2015 following months of heavy fighting, US officials began to talk about pushing on to Mosul and beyond. All talk of a quick and easy victory ended in May, however, when IS fighters captured Ramadi and got within striking distance of Baghdad.
Efforts to support local forces ended up snarled in local politics, partisan rivalries in Washington, and the continued US insistence on pursuing regime change in Syria. After the fall of Ramadi, the US sent 450 additional instructors and advisers to train Iraqi government forces, as well as Kurdish and tribal militias. Initiatives in the US Congress to fund the Kurds directly, rather than through the central government in Baghdad, met with opposition both from the Iraqi government and the Obama administration.
At the end of 2014, Congress approved a $500 million program to train and equip “moderate rebels” as a force to be used against IS in Syria. The ambitious project aimed to have a force of at least 5,000 fighters ready by the end of 2015, using training camps in Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Fewer than 200 fighters ended up finishing the training in practice, and the first group of 54 ended up getting ambushed and scattered by Al-Nusra Front, without even ever seeing combat against IS. Rebel commanders have refused to send any more of their men against IS until they received assurances the US could protect them.
The one local force that has been successful against Islamic State ended up being a target of Turkey, a US ally, due to Turkish internal and regional politics. After successfully pushing IS forces away from the once-besieged Kobani, the Kurdish militias in northern Syria overran a series of IS strongholds along the border with Turkey. By July 2015, however, that offensive was stopped dead in its tracks by Turkish intervention. While granting the US the right to use two of its airbases – Incirlik and Diyarbakir – for sorties against IS, Ankara sent its own warplanes against the Kurds.
Meanwhile, civilians continue to die both at the hands of IS and in US-led airstrikes. Over 3,000 people, including more than 70 children, have died in IS executions in Syria alone, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while according to another UK-based group, the Stop the War coalition, Western bombing had killed over 450 civilians – including 100 children – as of August.
While the FBI claims to have thwarted a number of IS-inspired plots in the US, there have also been a number of terrorist acts where perpetrators claimed to have been motivated by the self-proclaimed Caliphate, including the July attack on US military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
After seizing the ancient city of Palmyra in May 2015, IS militants demolished several ancient temples and gravesites. The city’s custodian, 82-year-old archeologist Khaled al-Asaad, was tortured and beheaded by the group. This was only the latest IS hostage execution that went public. Currently, a Chinese and a Norwegian may be facing the same fate after they were “put on sale” for a “limited time only” on the extremists’ online journal.
Announcing what the Pentagon would later term a “kinetic campaign” against Islamic State, Obama branded IS as “a terrorist organization, pure and simple.” He declared that the group had “no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way and vowed the US would stop the group’s murderous rampage. A year later, that promise remains far from being fulfilled.