Inherently Unresolved: The Military Operation against ISIS

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The second of two reports exploring international efforts to counter ISIS examines three key elements of the military aspect: the air campaign, the land component and the battle of the narrative

The military operation (primarily to deny ISIS a safe haven) was designed to degrade and contain ISIS in order to buy time in which the political and governance strands could take effect. Yet the latter remain underdeveloped – and is largely unsuccessful in the case of Iraq. Such a strategy is not even possible in relation to Syria, where there is currently no credible political partner for the West.

The passing of time has brought its own challenges. The situation both on the ground and at the negotiating tables of the international community has been greatly complicated over the last twelve months by the shifting patterns of groups within Iraq and Syria, as well as the intervention of external powers – within and outside of the coalition – in ways that run counter to the coalition’s efforts.

This introductory chapter explores the political landscape of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, how this has changed since September 2014 and the difficulties this poses for the military aspect of the counter-ISIS strategy. After outlining the military campaign, focusing in particular on the UK’s contribution, it goes on to assess the significant challenge of ensuring cohesion in a coalition of more than sixty countries, in the pursuit of a wide-ranging strategy over an extended period of time – possibly up to twenty years, according to the latest estimates of senior US military personnel. In military terms, the current objective is to degrade ISIS with an eye on its destruction by military means. However, it might be more realistic to accept a policy of open-ended containment (without a view to the group’s destruction as a military force), suppressing ISIS until a political solution is found in Syria. This does not, however, mean that there is nothing more that coalition members can do beyond their current efforts, and the chapter concludes with options for ways in which the UK can augment its contribution.

This occasional paper, the second of two exploring international efforts to counter ISIS, examines three key elements of the military aspect – the air campaign, the land component and the battle of the narrative – with each chapter considering the broader coalition effort before focusing on the UK contribution. The final chapter then assesses in detail the domestic terrorist threat posed by ISIS to the UK and its response to this threat so far.


Elizabeth Quintana

Associate Fellow

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Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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