WASHINGTON — Coalition airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria were down nearly 60 to 70 percent during the month of October.
This is compared to average of airstrikes over the past eight or nine months, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Croft, deputy commander, Air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command for Operation Inherent Resolve.
Coalition aircraft released roughly 851 weapons in Iraq and Syria in October, a major drop compared to some months where weapons drops peaked near 1800 to 2600, Croft told reporters at a Pentagon press briefing Tuesday.
The rapid drop in coalition strikes is a sign ISIS is collapsing. But, ISIS’ collapse doesn’t mean the U.S. is packing its bags and leaving the region just yet.
The reason for the sudden drop in coalition airstrikes is because ISIS targets are becoming harder to find, Croft said.
“The number of targets has dropped dramatically,” and those numbers are expected to drop further, Croft said.
With the fall of Raqqa, Mosul, Tal Afar, and recently al-Qaim, ISIS no longer has control of any major urban areas, and has lost control of nearly 96 percent of its territorial landholdings, according to officials in Baghdad.
However, the threat isn’t gone.
“There’s still remnants of ISIS in Iraq, and we will continue to assess the threat here,” Croft said.
As ISIS continues to lose territory its fighters are beginning to disaggregate into the Jazeera and Anbar deserts, where they will be much harder to spot and locate, Croft said.
Just five weeks ago, a band of more than 200 ISIS fighters came out of the Anbar desert and attempted to attack Ramadi, Iraq, Croft said. However, the response by Iraqi forces was “rapid and lethal.”
The attackers were defeated in a 14-hour period, and fleeing ISIS fighters were further pursued by Iraqi forces. Nearly a third of the ISIS fighters were killed in the attack, according to Croft.
As strikes against ISIS targets become less prevalent the need to maintain strike aircraft will decrease over time, allowing for U.S. commanders to flex other assets to other regions.
“We will see a continued requirement for aircraft such as our remotely piloted aircraft,” for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes to ensure ISIS does not reconstitute itself, Croft said.
Over the coming months there will be a greater reliance and switch to ISR assets in Iraq and Syria, Croft said.
Strike assets no longer needed in Iraq and Syria can thus be sent to Afghanistan to fill mission needs. The Combined Air Operations Center can make the assessment of what assets are needed when and where and “can flex our airpower day by day,” Croft explained to reporters.
A strike asset needed in Afghanistan one day can be used the next day in Iraq and Syria, he said.
But the coalition needs to “ensure we don’t take our eye off the ball,” Croft warned. Air operations against ISIS are “like a newly plowed field, if you don’t tend it the weeds will grow.”