On Sunday, news emerged that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) conducted airstrikes on a convoy in western Iraq in which it was believed that the spiritual leader of the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was traveling. Early reporting suggested the Baghdadi was amongst those killed in the operation but it now appears that he was not killed. It is not even clear if he was in the convoy traveling at the time near the western Iraqi city of Karabla.
This was not the first time that the reclusive leader was thought to have been killed in a military operation. In April of this year similar claims were made that Baghdadi was injured in an operation also carried out by Iraqi forces. The Iraqi government has since pulled back from its initial pronouncements that Baghdadi was killed. Reuters has reported that several military commanders were among those killed in the operation.
Even though Baghdadi appears to have survived this attempt on his life, the failed airstrikes and subsequent confusion about its results show that there is still a long way for the Iraqi government and coalition forces to go before they can show demonstrable progress in the fight against the militant organization.
In order to start achieving battleground victories and build long-lasting solutions, the political and social environment must be conducive to an inclusive Iraq. This means that any coalition airstrikes or military operations conducted by the Iraqi government must be married to substantive policy changes in Baghdad that benefit the aggrieved Sunni communities currently under ISIL control. The meteoric rise of ISIL has coincided with the relative decline of political power and opportunities for Sunnis in Iraq.
Years of corruption, political and economic marginalization, and repressive security measures have taken their toll on the Sunni heartland. ISIL has found less resistance than some would imagine because, as brutal as the group has shown itself to be, the Iraqi government in many ways has driven these populations into the arms of the organization. Iranian-backed militias, such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaâ€™ib Ahl al-Haq, have targeted Sunni communities throughout Iraq and the Baghdad government has done little to curb their actions. A concerted effort must be undertaken to reform the government, security policy, and military establishment so it is inclusive of all Iraqis.
This is why, after thousands of airstrikes and more than a year after Iraqâ€™s second largest city, Mosul, was overrun by ISIL, the group appears to be as entrenched as ever.
On August 8 of last year, the U.S. began airstrikes in Iraq following the incursion of ISIL forces into northern Iraq. According to figures from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), as of October 6, 2015, there have been 4,701 total international coalition airstrikes in Iraq, 3,231 (or 68%) of which have been conducted by the U.S. In comparison, in Syria, there have only been 2,622 total coalition airstrikes.
Despite the significant airpower being unleashed on ISIL strongholds in Iraq, mostly in the governorates of Anbar and Ninewa, there has been relatively little change in the territory that ISIL holds. This is because neither the U.S. nor any member of the international coalition will be able to completely remove ISIL through airpower alone. Based on the groupâ€™s positioning throughout the country, and its organizational structure, it seems that even if Baghdadi were to be killed, removing him would to not deliver a death-blow to the organization.
Last year ISIL shocked the world as it tore through the desert borderland between Syria and Iraq and trounced the ISF that were stationed near Mosul. The Iraqi national forces in Mosul, though far outnumbering the ISIL militants, fled as the ISIL detachments approached.
By embedding itself in cities in the Sunni majority regions of Iraq, the group hasÂ shielded itself two-fold. First, the U.S. and its allies cannot conduct extensive aerial bombardment in population centers because they are wary of incurring civilian casualties and further alienating these populations. It is for this reason that there are few airstrikes in the city centers themselves and mostly in areas where ISIL forces are seen to be operating away from civilian areas. The recent strike targeting Baghdadi was aimed at a convoy in a sparsely populated area.
Second, the demographics of these populations, which are mostly Sunni Muslim, are exploited and manipulated by ISIL. The group can infiltrateÂ the already existing social connections and tribal networks to gather intelligence and position itself so as to avoid the full force of airstrikes. This is also why, even though ISIL forces in these cities are outnumbered by the local populations, they do not face significant resistance.
Prior to ISILâ€™s advancement into these areas, these local populations had already been on the receiving end of vicious attacks from Shia militias and government forces. A group such as ISIL, though brutal in its attacks on its enemies, exploitsÂ these disenfranchised and marginalized communities.
The airstrikes that are currently being conducted will have their occasional successes, evidenced by the recent confirmation that one of ISILâ€™s highest ranking military commanders, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, was killed in a strike in August.
While ISIL has been able to hold territory, doing so can leave its members vulnerable to conventional attacks. Over the years the U.S. has grown adept at targeting senior leaders of militant networks, yet the underlying political and socio-economic conditions that produce such networks remain unchanged. This is where the real effort must be placed because loosening ISILâ€™s grasp through airpower alone can only go so far.