The U.S.-led coalition plans to place simultaneous military pressure on the Islamic State's two critical strongholds in Iraq and Syria to thwart the militant group's grip in the region, a top U.S. commander said.
Conducting offensives at about the same time in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, and in Raqqa, the Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria, will force the militants to choose which city to defend and undermine their ability to control their forces. The plan also calls for coordinating ground offensives in both cities.
"If we're able to do simultaneous operations in and synchronize the Mosul piece and the Raqqa piece, think about the problem that generates for (the Islamic State)," Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian said.
"I think we have an opportunity there," Harrigian said in an interview this week with USA Today, his first since recently assuming command of air operations in the Middle East.
The Islamic State has lost about 40 percent of territory in Iraq it held at its peak last year. Progress has been slower in Syria, but the militant group has lost about 20 percent of its territory there. Recent successes give commanders new hope there for the opposition forces that the coalition backs.
"They've been presented with an opportunity to come at the Islamic State from both sides," said Matthew Levitt, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"It denies the Islamic State the ability to send additional forces from one to the other," Levitt said. "Having to fight on two major fronts at once is much more difficult for them."
The ground battles in Raqqa and Mosul are still months away. Iraqi security forces have started preliminary operations in Mosul, but the Iraqis are still mobilizing forces and slowly moving toward the city.
In Syria, commanders have cited progress that U.S.-backed fighters have made in pushing militants from Manbij, a key Islamic State stronghold, though those forces are still 70 miles from Raqqa.
Still, ground forces in both countries are closer to seizing the key Islamic State strongholds than any time since the militants swept into Iraq from Syria more than two years ago.
"During the last couple of months, we recognized the opportunity to strike around Raqqa and Mosul to keep (the Islamic State) off balance during offensives by Syrian and Iraqi ground forces," Harrigian said.
"The (coalition) team is focused on force generation to try and make that simultaneous operation occur, because we would see huge benefits from it," Harrigian said, referring to building Iraqi and Syrian ground forces.
The new conditions are the result of both progress in Syria, as well as delays in the Mosul offensive, which has been in the works for more than a year.
Iraqi forces were set to begin its offensive there last year, when Islamic State forces captured Ramadi, a key city in western Iraq, and diverted Iraqi forces from focusing on Mosul.
Since then, Iraqi forces have driven the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, from western Iraq and began operations to surround and cut off Mosul. Iraqi forces have captured a number of towns south of Mosul and began to seal it off.
In Syria, meanwhile, U.S. Sspecial Ooperations Fforces are helping identify and organize Syrian rebel groups into a force that can take on the Islamic State. The force now numbers about 30,000 and has generated some surprising early successes, particularly around the northern city of Manbij.
As a result, offensives in Raqqa and Mosul are coming together at roughly the same time.
Even if ground forces are still months away from entering either city, air power can provide a bridge to keep pressure on both locations. Harrigian said coalition aircraft have been striking targets steadily in both cities over recent months.
Harrigian said he is working on improving intelligence in order to keep the pressure on militants. "We're getting better, but there is still more we can do," he said. "The more intelligence we have, the more effectively we'll be able to develop targets."