Why Drones are More Instrumental in Iraq than in Syria

by Håvard Sandvik

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), inspire opposition like hardly any other conventional weapons system. Armed UAVs – colloquially known as drones – are used in Syria and Iraq in the fight against the insurgent terrorist group, Islamic State (IS). Until now, drone strikes against IS has been the prerogative of the United States, but The Independent recently reported that British Reaper drones will also start flying missions over the two countries. Although IS straddles the borders of both Iraq and Syria, there are three good reasons why drone strikes in Iraq might prove to be more useful than in Syria.

First, the greatest difference is that drone strikes, even in combination with conventional air strikes, are only effective against insurgent groups holding territory if land forces are involved. As long as your enemy has a territorial basis, airstrikes are helpful only to the extent they create momentum where land forces can challenge that territorial basis. In the case of Iraq, both the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces are acting in military concert with U.S. airstrikes. In Syria, the U.S. does not have an equally well-trained ally to rely on, except in towns like Kobani, where Kurdish forces have made an incursion from across the border.

The second reason has to do with air supremacy. Drone technology only works in combat operations where complete air supremacy exists. Otherwise drones prove to be sitting ducks to an adversary’s airforce or surface-to-air missile systems. In the case of Iraq, the United States, supported in its attacks by the Baghdad and Erbil governments, enjoy the air supremacy needed to effectively make use of UAVs in the fight against IS. In the case of Syria however, the U.S. faces two enemies, both the Assad regime in Damascus and Islamic State. With Assad still in a position to control Syrian airspace, UAV use against IS without coordinating with Damascus is risky.

Third, UAVs will prove more instrumental in Iraq than in Syria because of the availability of local intelligence. In both countries U.S. intelligence sources are limited, but in the case of Syria the U.S. is not coordinating strikes with any local group. In Iraq, the U.S. can rely on Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence sources. As the Achilles heel of any precision air attacks, the lack of reliable intel remains a big challenge for drone strikes in both countries, although the situation in Syria is even more dire than in Iraq.

Drones are only part of the military solution to combat IS. Intelligence, airpower and, last but not least, boots on the ground are all crucial elements without which drones are rendered ineffective in the fight against an insurgency group such as Islamic State. While the group straddles both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, there are good reasons why a drone strike over Fallujah might have more impact than one over Aleppo.

Håvard Sandvik is the Director of Security & Defence Programming with YPFP Brussels. Views expressed in this blogpost are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.