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Article – Insights on the Contemporary Character of War During the Final Destruction of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s Physical Caliphate

Image courtesy of U.S Central Command

The purpose of this article is to provide Army with insights on the contemporary character of war in the Middle East during the period from September 2017 – July 2018. Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve (the Coalition) is engaged in supporting their Iraqi and Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) partners destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) so-called Caliphate. As recent articles from ASPI and the Lowy Institute highlight, ISIS only holds a limited amount of terrain near Albu Kamal and Idlib in Syria, but it remains a threat in terms of its potential for terror activity. This article was written using the framework that war has both an enduring nature and an evolving character as described in the Fundamentals of Land Power 2017. 

Confirmation of the Enduring Nature of War

Land warfare is affected by the political environment and geography is important. The challenge with the campaign to defeat ISIS, as it nears the phase change from ‘defeat’ to ‘transition’, is to manage regional political relationships. In Iraq, the Coalition has a state partner to ensure there is no resurgence of ISIS. However, there is no equivalent state-partner in Syria. While all foreign powers agree that ISIS is evil and requires defeat, there are competing interests with what happens next in Syria. This political competition occasionally becomes violent. On 07 February 2018, there was a battle near Deir al-Zour, which brought to bear all of the coalition joint fires assets, against a pro-Syrian Regime Force that killed an estimated 200-300 of these attacking fighters. The interests of Russia, Israel, Syria, the Coalition, Iraq and Iran will all influence the final settlement to conflict in Syria. The complex balancing task for military leaders is to allow politicians and diplomats the room to negotiate these competing interests whilst managing the competition between forces in the operating area.

Conflict rarely proceeds as initially envisaged. While reciprocity is not included in the Fundamentals of Land Power, the war in Syria suggests this concept is missing from the enduring nature of war. The definition of reciprocity is a relation of mutual dependence or action or influence. The relationship between Turkey (a member of the Coalition) and the SDF (a partner of the Coalition) has led the campaign through a series of branches. The Turkish military’s incursion into Afrin (Operation Olive Branch), led the SDF to pause the clearance of ISIS-held territory in northeast Syria. On 01 May 2018 the SDF and the Coalition announced the resumption of major combat operations. Later in June 2018, the Pentagon spokesman told Reuters ‘Coalition and Turkish forces have begun coordinated but independent patrols near, but not in, Manbij’ as part of Phase 1 of the Manbij Roadmap. Like Afrin, Manbij is an area liberated from ISIS by the SDF. Unlike Afrin, US troops have been patrolling in the Manbij region since it was recovered from ISIS. It will be interesting to watch how the Manbij Roadmap develops.

Friction, danger, uncertainty and chance will always be present in conflict. The following section (the evolving character of war) will outline the influence of modern technology; however, to date modern weapons have not been able to completely overcome the weather. Rain and dust will obscure the enemy generating friction when precision is required. Conflict will still generate uncertainty, danger and chance. Munitions will fail to function; crucial supplies will be held up by customs; and orders will be misheard or not heard at all. Experience and pre-deployment education helps officers thrive in this environment.

Insights into the Evolving Character of War

Violence still matters. While information operations are working to achieve the Coalition commander’s mission; it is worth stating upfront that the judicious use of violence still has a place on the battlefield. The Coalition has brought to bear its asymmetric advantage in joint fire support to enable our partners to liberate their territory. ‘By, with and through’ partner forces is the manner in which this war is prosecuted and ISIS has not been able to adapt to these tactics.

Real-time access to events and the ability to reach audiences with your narrative. Information operations have always been important in warfare. My preferred definition (not doctrinal) is ‘the use of any tool to create an effect in the information environment which results in one or more persons making a decision supporting friendly force’s missions or undercutting the decision-making of the enemy’.

The Coalition’s partner forces communicate success very effectively through social media to undermine ISIS’s narrative. The ubiquitous mobile device allows these security forces to record and edit photos, video, and text in real-time. A recent article highlighted that as information is disseminated, it has the potential to reach several thousand users. An Australian coalition adviser writing in the Immediate Lessons from the Battle of Mosul in 2016 discussed the significance for a message to be rapidly amplified and the need for the authorities and capability to take control of the narrative. For good reasons, delegating authorities to operate in the information environment to the lowest level is still a work in progress. Modern warfighters can still support their partner’s narrative by providing them with high quality digital images that capture their counter-ISIS efforts.

Another useful method to support partner forces is to create actions in the physical domain that will generate disproportionate effects in the information domain. An example was the use of the Iraqi Air Force to support the SDF as an enabler. Prime Minister Abadi’s authorisation of the Iraqi Air Force to strike ISIS targets in Syria on 06 May 2018 (released on Twitter) was reported by CNN, Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera and Reuters.

‘Signalling’ can prevent conflict when it is not in either party’s security interests. In an NBC news article about a month after the battle on 07 February, a coalition spokesman stated, “There is no reason for that amount of combat power to be staring at us this closely…I don’t think that’s healthy for de-escalation.” It is unclear if the message was heard, but there was no Battle of Deir al-Zour Part II.

The dissemination of high-technology weaponry and support equipment to belligerents. Two areas of assumed uncontested dominance for western forces are in the air and access to the electro-magnetic spectrum for communication and navigation.

Control of the air over Syria is contested. During one week in 2018, a Russian Su-25 attack aircraft, an Israeli F-16I multirole fighter, a Turkish T-129 attack helicopter, and an Iranian surveillance drone were destroyed by ground-based air defence. The density and modernity of the Russian integrated air defence system deployed to Syria, led to a defence journalist asking ‘Can US Warplanes Evade Russian Air Defences’? The counter to this anti-access area denial network is stealth and electronic warfare (EW) aircraft – these are two capabilities currently under introduction into service in Australia. Surface artillery will also play a role in the destruction/suppression of enemy air defences and these joint capabilities require combined arms practice.

There are also concerns with electromagnetic interference: ‘Right now in Syria, we’re in the most aggressive electronic warfare environment on the planet from our adversaries’. This was declared by the United States Special Operations Command in April 2018. Another article highlights that Russian military has begun ‘jamming’ the GPS systems of unmanned aerial vehicles and seriously affecting military operations. The implication for the Australian Army is to conduct training in a GPS degraded environment.

In this latest war in the Middle East, like many before, and the many that will unfortunately follow, we are gaining new insights and reaffirming the enduring nature of war. The key to Army’s success on our next battlefield will be ensuring we pay adequate attention to these insights, and applying them to our joint collective training and our professional military education.


About the author: Mark Mankowski is an experienced Australian Officer who recently returned from operations where he was embedded within Headquarters Combined Joint Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. He is a passionate advocate for professional military education. His interests include learning about the nature and character of war, developing battlefield intuition through simulation, and establishing the key factors responsible for effective Air-Land Integration.

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