Syria strikes need on-the-ground intel, say defense experts

Defense officials lack the intelligence to know how many Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters it has killed so far in its Iraq air campaign, a deficit that would complicate an air campaign in Syria. 

Officials say details like that are impossible know without U.S. soldiers on the ground to verify them, according to a defense official on background. 

The official said an accurate count of ISIS targets destroyed or damaged can't be verified from the air, despite more than 50 U.S. surveillance flights over Iraq daily. 

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There are roughly 1,150 U.S. troops on the ground, but they are mostly providing security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad or at other diplomatic facilities, or are at joint operations centers in Baghdad and Erbil in northern Iraq. 

Although the U.S. is working with Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground, those forces do not have the capability to conduct accurate “battle damage assessments” of targets hit or of casualties. 

In some cases, the Iraqi and Kurdish forces cannot physically access the attack sites, the official said. The majority of the targets have been military vehicles stolen from the Iraqi army, making it difficult to tell how many fighters are inside. 

"Unless we had persistent ISR [Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance] over a group of people out of their vehicles, we cannot get a reliable number," the official said. 

"Was there one person in that vehicle we destroyed or was it full of people? We generally cannot answer that. There have been a couple cases where we could but most of the time we cannot," the official said. 

Another defense official said while there is no exact count, there would be “several” ISIS fighters at each target.

The U.S. military has conducted 154 airstrikes to date and estimates it has destroyed or damaged between 212 and 243 targets, which would bring estimated casualties to between 424 and 486 if there were more than two fighters at each target.

Some of the targets include fighting positions, checkpoints, observation posts, buildings, command posts, bunkers and a large ground unit — making it likely the numbers range far higher. 

Defense officials estimate there are "thousands" of ISIS fighters in Iraq. 

Despite not knowing how many ISIS fighters have been eliminated, U.S. officials say the air missions to date have been a success. 

The president has ordered airstrikes to push ISIS fighters back from Erbil and the Mosul Dam, to aid in humanitarian missions for the Yazidis and Turkmen Shiite and to protect the Haditha Dam. 

"Across the board our strikes have proven successful in achieving the missions that we've outlined," Army Col. Steve Warren told The Hill. 

But the gaps highlight the limits of U.S. intelligence, and the difficulty the U.S. would have in conducting a similar air campaign in Syria, where there are fewer and less-capable partner forces. 

Experts say that U.S. aircraft would need forces on the ground to help identify targets as well as gauge the success of strikes. 

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Ralph Jodice, commander of NATO’s air campaign against Libya in 2011, said without on-the-ground forces, it would be difficult to tell “friend or foe.”  

"When you’re talking about a non-state actor like this, that is widely dispersed and not using standard conventional types of tactics, then the human intelligence to pinpoint the exact locations to achieve the desired effect you want becomes very important," he said in an interview with The Hill. 

“One of the problems we ran up against in Libya was properly identifying who the bad guy is,” he said. “Both sides are using similar equipment. They’re fighting from probably pickup trucks with makeshift mounted weaponry, no uniforms,” he said. 

Oftentimes, Jodice said, it’s “pickup truck versus pickup truck and they’re wearing the same clothes. They’re not flying flags or wearing insignias.”  

He predicts if the U.S. launches an air campaign, ISIS fighters would try to copy and emulate Free Syrian Army and other moderate opposition fighters to make it harder for the U.S. to tell who they are striking. 

“Thats what I saw in Libya. Pro-Gadhafi forces even painted symbology on their vehicles to look like anti-Gadhafi forces," he said, referencing former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. "They were blending in together.”

"Human intelligence in this situation is so important," Jodice said. "That intelligence will help you to fuse and focus the exact targets that you want to be able to hit." 

So far, the CIA has reportedly trained and armed about 4,000 Syrian moderate opposition forces. Far fewer would be trained to have the special capabilities needed to identify and call in U.S. airstrikes. 

The White House has proposed a program that would train and arm at least 3,000 Syrian moderate oppositions forces, but that would begin sometime later this year, and take about 18 months. 

In the short term, the U.S. or other nations could place special operations forces with the capability on the ground, Jodice said.

“Those types of special operations forces, whether they’re from some Western countries or from countries within the region, would you be very beneficial,” he said.