On September 10, 2014, the United States announced a comprehensive strategy for destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The campaign centers on an air war against ISIS in both countries and the provision of arms and training to local allies on the ground — the Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga, and “moderate” Syrian rebels. Iraq has generally been the priority, but that’s been shifting as Kurdish forces made advances against ISIS in Syria.
This didn’t come out of nowhere. On August 7, former President Obama announced he had authorized the US military to launch airstrikes against ISIS militants in Iraq if they threatened the Kurdish capital of Erbil or the thousands of civilians who were trapped on Mount Sinjar, both in northern Iraq.
The ISIS militants had pushed into once-secure Kurdish territory and surrounded thousands of civilians, who are members of an ethno-religious minority known as Yazidis, on a mountain where they lacked food and water. The siege of Mount Sinjar has since been broken, and US-Kurdish-Iraqi cooperation has pushed ISIS back significantly from its early-August high point.
Obama’s September strategy dramatically expanded the original air war. The airstrikes in Iraq are no longer restricted to limiting risks to US citizens or ending a humanitarian crisis: They’re all over Iraq, wherever the US wants to hit ISIS. Since then, the airstrikes have played an important role in the Iraqi military strategy against ISIS, disrupting ISIS’s ability to coordinate large offensives and helping facilitate Iraqi advances in places such as Tikrit.
In addition to airstrikes, the American strategy now involves a fairly sizable ground deployment. About 3,000 US troops are in Iraq, helping to train Iraqi forces and coordinate intelligence. Ideally, this should counter the discipline and effectiveness problems that the Iraqi army saw in places like Mosul. The US has also sent a number of new weapons to Kurdish peshmerga, who often have been outgunned by the advanced American weaponry ISIS captured from the Iraqi army.
The US also began bombing ISIS positions in Syria in September. While the US plan to help arm the moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS has been an unmitigated disaster, it has found some success supporting Kurdish fighters pressing ISIS in the country’s north. US airpower helped Kurds break ISIS’s hold on Kobane, a city on the Turkish border, capture the strategically important town of Tal Afar, and even come within 30 miles of ISIS’s de facto capital city, Raqqa.
These developments have shifted America’s counter-ISIS strategy from a model that focused on “Iraq first” to something called the ”three R’s”: Raqqa, the Iraqi city of Ramadi, and special forces raids on ISIS. The key priorities now are pushing ISIS out of Ramadi, which it took in May, seizing ISIS’s capital city, and amping up the pressure with occasional raids by US special forces. This isn’t a fundamental change in strategy — the basic idea is still to support local ground forces with airpower, supplies, and training — but more of a shift in emphasis and priorities.