WASHINGTON — Airstrikes in Syria and Iraq are wearing down the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve said today while describing the coalition air campaign and the evolving train-and-assist mission.
Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who is also the III Corps and Fort Hood commander, briefed Pentagon reporters here via a live video feed from Baghdad on the progress of continuing efforts in Iraq and Syria to help local troops win against ISIL.
The task force is the operational-level headquarters charged with synchronizing combat operations and supporting coalition efforts against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
MacFarland said the coalition conducted its first airstrike in Iraq in August 2014 and its first in Syria a month later. Since then, the coalition has conducted more than 10,000 strikes — two-thirds in Iraq and a third in Syria.
Grinding Down the Enemy
“The cumulative impact of our airstrikes has ground the enemy down. When applied in support of our partners,” the general said, “we’ve forced the enemy to give up terrain.”
Since ISIL’s May 2015 seizure of Ramadi, Iraq, Iraqi forces — supported by the volunteer “popular mobilization forces” — ejected ISIL from Beiji and the nearby oil refinery, he added. Then, more recently, Iraqi forces, with Sunni tribal forces fighting alongside, recaptured Ramadi — which MacFarland called “symbolically and operationally important.”
“Make no mistake, the recapture of Ramadi was a turning point in this campaign,” he said.
ISIL suffered devastating losses, and the ISF proved itself capable of defeating them, even when ISIL had the advantage of prepared defense in an urban area, the general added.
Rebuilding a Force
Coalition forces have trained more than 17,500 Iraqi soldiers and about 2,000 police since training began slightly more than a year ago, he said. And more than 3,000 soldiers and police are in coalition training sites, MacFarland noted.
“The Iraqi security forces have been rebuilt into a force capable of defeating the type of enemy we are now facing,” he added.
The coalition has been flexible enough to modify training and equipping along the way, the general said, so they’re providing the most needed skills and gear.
In particular, he said, “we have shifted from a pure counterinsurgency focus and are now preparing the ISF to conduct what we refer to as combined arms operations.”
The ability to integrate infantry, armor, artillery, air power, engineers and other assets on the battlefield gives the Iraqis an advantage over a static enemy dug in behind complex obstacle belts, MacFarland said.
Iraqi forces proved the value of modified training and equipping during the liberation of Ramadi, he added, “and we’ve learned some important lessons from that battle and are already adjusting our approach as a result.”
In Syria, partnered with multiple groups willing to fight ISIL, the coalition also has seen progress, the general said.
“The Syrian Democratic Forces have made dramatic gains against the enemy in northern and eastern Syria, while the vetted Syrian opposition and other groups are holding the enemy back along what we call the Mara line in northwest Syria,” he said.
Effective Syrian Force
“It’s very complex, very complicated up there,” MacFarland said. “Many people would like to lay claim to that area, and we’re trying to come up with the right approach to block the enemies’ access to that important corridor.”
The Syrian Democratic Forces, which include Syrian Kurds, Syrian Arabs and others, have been an effective force in northern Syria and have put the enemy on its “back foot,” the general said.
“They would not have been able to do any of that without coalition air support. They know that … They owe their existence really to the support that we are providing,” MacFarland said. “And that’s why they continue to work with us. And so far as I can tell, they have not turned away from us toward the Russians,” MacFarland said.