Britain has now joined a US-led campaign to weaken and ultimately defeat Isis in which air power is very much the dominant component. The British contribution will not make much difference because there are already far more aircraft available than there are identifiable targets.
The coalition has conducted 59,015 sorties in Iraq and Syria starting in August 2014, of which only 8,573 have resulted in air strikes, indicating that the great majority of planes return to their bases without having used their weapons.
Even if Britain’s role is symbolic at this stage, it has joined a very real war against an enemy of great ferocity and experience, not least of air attacks. The highly informed Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan, writing on Al-Monitor website, says that air strikes may have been effective against Isis communications and training facilities, but adds that “it is extraordinary that there is not a single [Isis] control facility that has been hit by allied air strikes”.
This is not for lack of trying and shows that talk of destroying Isis command and control centres in Raqqa is wishful thinking, given that 2,934 American air strikes in Syria have failed to do so over the last 14 months.
Air strikes have had an impact on Isis’s tactics and casualty rate, above all when they are used in close co-operation with a well-organised ground force like the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Isis may have lost as many as 2,200 fighters at Kobani which is a small and closely packed city. On the other hand, the length of time it took to drive Isis out of it with 700 air strikes demonstrated their fighters’ willingness to die.
Many Isis commanders reportedly regard their tactics at Kobani as a mistake which cost the group too many casualties and which it should not repeat. To do so it sacrificed two of its most important military assets which are mobility and surprise. This does not mean that it will not fight to the last bullet for cities like Raqqa and Mosul, but it did not do so for Tikrit and Sinjar where it used snipers, booby traps and IEDs, but did not commit large detachments of troops.
Isis has modified its tactics to take account of the continuing risk of air strikes. It now has a decentralised command structure, with tactical decisions being taken by leaders of small units of eight to 10 men, whose overall mission is determined from the centre – but not how it should be accomplished. This limits the ability of its opponents to monitor its communications.
Its forces assemble swiftly and attack soon afterwards with multiple diversionary operations, as was seen when Mosul was captured in June 2014 and again when they took Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, this May.
They had been fighting their way into Baiji refinery, but this turned out to be a diversion and Isis units pulled back from there as soon as Ramadi fell.
Isis’s approach is to use a mixture of conventional, guerrilla and terrorist tactics, none unique in themselves, but they have never been used before in combination. Air strikes mean that it is less able to use captured tanks or big concentrations of vehicles packed with fighters. Instead it uses IEDs, booby traps, snipers and mortar teams in even greater numbers.
Public martyrdom as an expression of religious faith is such a central part of its ideology that it can deploy suicide bombers on foot or in vehicles in great numbers to destroy fortifications and demoralise the enemy. Some 28 suicide bombers were reportedly used in the final stages of the battle for Ramadi. Psychological warfare has always been an important element of Isis’s tactical armoury. It has sought to terrify opposition forces by showing videos in which captured Iraqi or Syrian soldiers are filmed being ritually decapitated or shot in the head.
Sometimes, the families of Syrian soldiers get a phone call from their son’s mobile with a picture of his body with his severed head on his chest. Mass killings of prisoners have taken place after all Isis’s victories (the al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front, does the same thing).
Heavy air attack will increase Isis’s losses and it will be more difficult to bring in foreign volunteers through Turkey because most of the border is now closed. But Isis rules an area with a population of at least six million and conscripts all young men, who often want to become fighters because there is no other employment. Isis may have a fighting force of 100,000 men, as is strongly suggested by the very long front lines it holds and its ability to make multiple attacks simultaneously. Whatever Britain’s role, we will be fighting a formidable military machine.