Making sense of coalition airstrikes against ISIS

f15overiraqThe air campaign against ISIS is closely tied to fighting on the ground, which reveals important operational patterns. Use these three patterns to understand the objectives behind the air campaign.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to monitor the latest reports of the coalition air campaign against ISIS, especially in Syria. See my updates on the Airpower vs ISIS page. The picture we get through the press is very fragmented, so it takes some digging to find the pieces and put together the bigger picture.

cloudkobaneBut looking at airstrikes only takes you so far. To really understand the air campaign you need to look at the ground situation it is supporting. In this case that means following the clashes between Kurdish forces (Peshmerga in Iraq, YPG in Syria) and the Islamic State.

From what I see, these are the patterns that emerge:

Breakout from Kobane. Since the ISIS siege was broken on 26 January, Kurdish forces have rapidly pushed out from Kobane, taking control of the surrounding villages and countryside. In the east, the YPG (and some Peshmerga fighting alongside them) have pushed into Raqqa Governate, the “capital” of the Islamic State’s caliphate. Strikes along the edges of the expanding Kurdish zone show the coalition providing direct air support to YPG advances. For example, over the last several days YPG and ISIS have been battling for control of a large concrete plant sitting astride the main M4 highway leading into the city of Raqqa.

Below are a couple of recent Kobane Battle Maps from Chuck Pfarrer and colleagues. Used with permission. See more of these excellent maps on Chuck’s Twitter feed.

battlemap 25feb

concrete factory 23feb

Cutting ISIS supply lines. The YPG push south from Kobane to control the M4 and the Qara Qawazk bridge appears to be part of a larger effort to interdict major ISIS supply lines. It spans both Syria and Iraq, and probably reflects a coordinated plan between the US-led coalition and Kurdish forces — obviously including the focused application of air power. Several recent clashes between the Kurds and ISIS, and airstrikes in those vicinities, fit this pattern. For example, this article and this one report on the key fight for Kiske, Iraq on the highway west of Mosul. The Washington Post observes:

Without their vital supply line, ISIS would be vulnerable in Mosul, which is increasingly isolated as Kurdish forces close in. They would also have to use alternative supply routes to Raqqa that  expose them to dangers such as airstrikes.  

Wpost map
Map by Washington Post

Chopping up the caliphate. The other major objective of the combined anti-ISIS campaign, on the ground and in the air, is to reestablish control over the Iraq-Syria border, thereby cutting the ISIS-controlled territory into two or more pockets. In operational terms, isolated ISIS enclaves will be easier to contain and ultimately defeat. And from a strategic perspective, if the so-called “caliphate” can’t control a cross-border contiguous territory, it loses much of its mythical stature and psychological allure for Islamic extremists.

YPGinHasakahConsequently, media reports reflect an accelerating line of effort — by coalition forces and by the Kurds — to eject ISIS forces from the border areas. Recent YPG gains in NE Syria near Hasakah and Qamishli, and the coalition airstrikes supporting them, should be seen in that light.

So, next time you see information about airstrikes in Iraq or Syria, do a quick Google search on the location to see if the target locations fit the operational patterns.


Here’s another very good reference from


2 thoughts on “Making sense of coalition airstrikes against ISIS

    1. Thanks Frankie,
      Yes, it looks like ISIS is being pushed back on several fronts. I’m interested to know if both the coalition and Syrian government are conducting airstrikes in that area. Are you familiar with what’s going on there?


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