From 1.6 airstrikes a day to 39 a day: How the US-led Coalition's air campaign helped take Hajin
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
An examination conducted by the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) of the US-led Coalition's airstrikes on the ISIS-held pocket near the Euphrates river illustrates how the Coalition's air campaign increased to help push ISIS out of the town of Hajin in early December. On December 14 the US announced significant progress in defeating ISIS in Hajin, with key points in the city taken by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Since the fall of 2018 the Coalition and its SDF partner forces on the ground have been engaged in a battle against ISIS under the auspices of Operation Roundup and the SDF's Operation Jazeera Storm. Phase 2 of Operation Roundup began on June 2 and the final phase began on September 11 according to the US Department of Defense. The SDF's Jazeera Storm had re-launched an offensive in May and the final phase was timed to coincide with the September announcement. However ISIS launched a series of counterattacks in October and November, many under the cover of sandstorms and fog. These counterattacks were effective and the YPG had to send special forces and veterans from other campaigns to bolster the SDF frontline. A pause in November due to Turkish shelling in northern Syria also prolonged the operation's success.
The Coalition sought to use air power to not only shape the battlefield but also to help stem the tide of reverses in November.The increase in airstrikes begins on September 11, to coincide with phase 3, and continues to October 2 when the number begins to increase again. By mid-October the number of daily airstrikes is often in double digits.
For instance on October 22. "Near Abu Kamal and Hajin, 33 strikes engaged 16 tactical units, and destroyed 13 fighting positions, 10 supply routes, two firing positions, two compounds, one piece of heavy equipment, one IED facility, and one staging area," the Coalition daily strike report notes. On October 27, "near Hajin, 24 strikes engaged 12 tactical units, and destroyed three headquarters buildings, five command and control centers, four supply routes, three weapons caches, two IED facilities, and one mortar."
The campaign culminated on December with 46 airstrikes. "Near Hajin, 46 strikes engaged one ISIS tactical unit, and destroyed 19 fighting positions, seven pieces of heavy equipment, seven staging areas, five supply routes, four command and control nodes, three vehicles, one building and one financial facility." The first week in December saw the average daily number of strikes reach 39, a major increase from August when the average was 1.6
The air campaign has played a key role in the defeat of ISIS over the last months. It also illustrates that the Coalition and particularly the US whose air assets make up the vast majority of the capabilities deployed in Hajin have sought to end the bulk of this campaign by December. The intensity of the strikes in December was greater than the intensity of most days of strikes during the Mosul offensive which began in October 2016 and ended in the summer of 2017. Part of this is because of the nature of the terrain and the fact that the US partners in Syria do not have any of their own air power and also do not have the large and heavy armored units that the Iraqi army had to fight in Mosul. This means that the air war is essential to degrading ISIS capabilities and also preventing ISIS from inflicting heavy casualties on the US partner forces among the SDF.
The increased use of air power over Hajin is reflected in overall numbers. "Between Dec. 2 and Dec. 8, CJTF-OIR conducted 251 strikes consisting of 494 engagements in Syria and Iraq." Back in August the Coalition said it had conducted only 18 strikes in both Iraq and Syria from August 20 to 26. The number of airstrikes in Iraq were low over the last three months, consisting of several a week.