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Daesh’s Last Stand in Syria – ASSESSREP 003

‘One side of me says, “That’s right, it’s like shooting ducks in a pond.” Does that make me uncomfortable? Not necessarily. Except there is a side of me that says, “What are they dying for? For a madman’s cause? And is that fair?” Well, we’re at war; it’s the tragedy of war, but we do our jobs.”

Commander Frank Sweigart, during the bombing of the ‘Highway of Death’, February 19911

Welcome to the AssessRep. Over the past two weeks, Brexit was mercifully pushed off the front pages for a few days, only to be substituted by headlines in block capitals shouting about a nineteen-year old British girl who popped up in the ashes of Daesh’s dwindling territory in Syria. As with all such issues, there is no clear-cut solution. The only thing we can be certain of is that public relations are not Shamima Begum’s strong point. An unsettling combination of self-pitying millennial and unrepentant jihadist, her interviews read like a reluctant apology for partially breaching the terms of an unfair ASBO.

The British military, in particular the RAF, contributed significantly to the degradation and impending territorial destruction of Daesh. This was done in the most complex battlespace in the world. The supremacy of Coalition airpower, combined with partner forces willing to bear heavy casualties on the ground, that consigned Daesh to slow but inevitable defeat. Fast jets, remote pilots, targeting staff and ground crews worked on a relentless schedule to physically destroy Daesh’s armed force across the breadth of its territory. At the same time, British mentors worked to train the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga. Across the border, undeclared but implicitly acknowledged advisers worked alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces.2

For members of the British military, this short-burn media interest forms part of a much deeper story. Though Daesh may meet its end in Syria, it was born in Iraq. Following the thread, we walk over familiar ground: Shader, Telic, Granby – returning to 1991 and the stunning destruction of the Iraqi military in the Gulf War. In January 1991, Iraq had world’s fourth largest army, grizzled from a grinding eight-year war with Iran. Within a few weeks, it no longer existed as a coherent force and fled in burning retreat to Basra. It was in Basra again in 2003 that British combined arms once more defeated the conventional forces laid before them and pushed into the city. Here the supreme confidence of 1991 was tempered with the realisation of the limits of our military power as we were drawn into an occupation that became a civil war.

Basra was won, lost, and then won again.3 After several years of hard fighting, Operation Charge of the Knights finally secured the city in 2008, but it required American assistance to achieve. The last British soldier officially left Iraq in 2011.4 Yet only three years later masked Daesh fighters threw the multibillion-dollar5 Iraqi military construct back in utter disarray across a swathe of central Iraq. Many of the fighters had grown up during Iraq’s civil war – led by commanders who had passed through Coalition detention.6 For the British personnel who deployed on the very first iteration of Operation Shader in 2014, it was once again a matter of RAF and Coalition air power arrayed over the twin river valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris, this time against massed Daesh fighters in Ramadi, Bayji and Kobane in Syria.

The tide was turned, but Daesh earned a reputation for ferocity without parallel in recent history. Relentless in the attack, the group was unforgivably cruel in occupation. Now, after a crushing ground and air campaign, the group’s physical presence has dwindled to a few hundred fighters holed up in a town in Syria that nobody has heard of. They are about to be killed or captured by Kurdish fighters and Syrian Democratic forces, though many have already escaped.7 Yet it is a rarely acknowledged reality that Daesh initially recruited on the promise of liberation for Sunni Muslims from oppressive government forces in Iraq and Syria. It almost as if our public thought cannot break free from certain constraints – we cannot admit that most of Daesh’s foot-soldiers were not foreign jihadists, but local men fighting for local reasons.

Public attention focuses briefly on news stories that use individual, emotional stories to spark interest. Yet British personnel are routinely required to suppress their own emotional narratives  and implement rational, pragmatic solutions in the face of inherently divisive situations. Faced with sectarian strife, or outright civil war, it has been a military task in Iraq and Afghanistan to build representative forces that paper across deep social fractures. This takes a psychological toll and is difficult to articulate to the British public.8   The AssessRep is, in general, optimistic. Yet, as world media crowd in for Daesh’s last-stand, there is still much work to be done and still demons to be exorcised. The rise of ‘al-Qaeda in Syria’;9 the implications of Shia muscle in both countries; ongoing Russian presence – we are reaching the end of a chapter, but the story is far from over.

The AssessRep team would love to hear your views. So join the conversation. Every email will be read and answered by the AssessRep editor. So, our question for you: what next for the British military in Iraq and Syria? Let us know: assessrep@wavellroom.com.

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The Wavell Room would love to get to know your thoughts. Please email us at this link with your comments, thoughts, or carefully crafted vitriol. Do include a brief outline of your background – all messages will be read personally by the Assessrep editor.


  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1991/03/11/us-scrambled-to-shape-view-of-highway-of-death/05899d9a-f304-441d-8078-59812cdacc5c/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d1d89fd14259
  2. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46772412
  3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11419878
  4. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/eight-years-on-the-last-british-soldier-leaves-iraq-2287603.html
  5. https://fas.org/man/eprint/cow/201706.pdf
  6. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/11/04/how-an-american-prison-helped-ignite-the-islamic-state/??noredirect=on
  7. https://www.ft.com/content/acf5a70e-3384-11e9-bd3a-8b2a211d90d5
  8. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/kcmhr/publications/assetfiles/2019/williamson2019.pdf
  9. https://www.csis.org/programs/transnational-threats-project/terrorism-backgrounders/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-hts

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