American intelligence analysts have identified seven buildings in downtown Raqqa in eastern Syria as the main headquarters of the Islamic State. But the buildings have gone untouched during the 10-month allied air campaign.
And just last week, convoys of heavily armed Islamic State fighters paraded triumphantly through the streets of the provincial capital Ramadi in western Iraq after forcing Iraqi troops to flee. They rolled on unscathed by coalition fighter-bombers.
American and allied warplanes are equipped with the most precise aerial arsenal ever fielded. But American officials say they are not striking significant, and obvious, Islamic State targets out of fear that the attacks will accidentally kill civilians. Killing such innocents could hand the militants a major propaganda coup and alienate the local Sunni tribesmen, whose support is critical to ousting the militants, and Sunni Arab countries that are part of the fragile American-led coalition.
But many Iraqi commanders and some American officers say that exercising such prudence with airstrikes is a major reason the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh, has been able to seize vast territory in recent months in Iraq and Syria. That caution — coupled with President Obama’s reluctance to commit significant American firepower to a war the White House declared over in 2011, when the last United States combat troops withdrew from Iraq — has led to persistent complaints from Iraqi officials that the United States has been too cautious in its air campaign.
Iraqi officials say the limited American airstrikes have allowed columns of Islamic State fighters essentially free movement on the battlefield.
“The international alliance is not providing enough support compared with ISIS’ capabilities on the ground in Anbar,” said Maj. Muhammed al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi officer in Anbar Province, which contains Ramadi. “The U.S. airstrikes in Anbar didn’t enable our security forces to resist and confront the ISIS attacks,” he added. “We lost large territories in Anbar because of the inefficiency of the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.”
Much of the American caution comes from experience. Civilian deaths from American airstrikes during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were sometimes unacknowledged or understated by the military and caused a great deal of anger, which is a reason for the United States’ current skittishness and what commanders say is their overriding goal to prevent those deaths now.
The military’s Central Command on Thursday announced the results of an inquiry into the deaths of two children in Syria in November, saying they were probably killed by an American airstrike. It was the first time the Pentagon had acknowledged civilian casualties since it began the air campaign. A handful of other attacks are under investigation.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain that tracks the conflict through a network of contacts in Syria, more than 120 civilians have been killed by coalition strikes inside Syria.
By far the largest episode was in the remote northeastern village of Bir Mahli, where more than 60 people, including numerous women and children, were reported killed this month in a series of strikes. Military officials acknowledged that the coalition had struck the village but said that those killed were Islamic State fighters.
Human rights advocates say that it remains unclear how many civilian lives the restrictions on airstrikes have saved.
“The U.S. has indeed put in place rigorous policies and procedures to minimize civilian harm, but with no combat troops on the ground, it is hard to evaluate how successful these policies have been,” said Federico Borello, the executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an advocacy group.
Islamic State troops, however, appear to be taking advantage of the restrictions, as the militants increasingly fight from within civilian populations to deter attacks.
In Iraq, more than 80 percent of the allied airstrikes are supporting Iraqi troops in hotly contested areas like Ramadi and Baiji, the home of a major oil refinery. Many of the other strikes focus on so-called pop-up targets — small convoys of militants or heavy weaponry on the move. These have been a top priority of the campaign, even though only about one of every four air missions sent to attack the extremists have dropped bombs. The rest of the missions have returned to the base after failing to find a target they were permitted to hit under strict rules of engagement designed to avoid civilian casualties.
In Syria, the United States has a limited ability to gather intelligence to help generate targets, although the commando raid there this month that killed a financial leader of the Islamic State may signal a breakthrough. Many Islamic State training compounds, headquarters, storage facilities and other fixed sites were struck in the early days of the bombing, but the military’s deliberate process for approving other targets has frustrated several commanders.
“We have not taken the fight to these guys,” the pilot of an American A-10 attack plane said in a recent email. “We haven’t targeted their centers of gravity in Raqqa. All the roads between Syria and Iraq are still intact with trucks flowing freely.”
These critics describe an often cumbersome process to approve targets, and they say there are too few warplanes carrying out too few missions under too many restrictions.
“In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a U.A.V., over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage,” the A-10 pilot said, referring to an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, and speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid punishment from his superiors.
To be sure, the air campaign has achieved several successes in conducting about 4,200 strikes that have dropped about 14,000 bombs and other weapons. The campaign has killed an estimated 12,500 fighters and helped Iraqi forces regain about 25 percent of the territory seized in Iraq by the Islamic State, according to American military figures.
It has blunted the advance of Islamic State fighters in most areas by forcing them to disperse and conceal themselves. Allied warplanes have attacked oil refineries, weapons depots, command bunkers and communications centers in Syria as part of a plan to hamper the Islamic State’s ability to sustain its operations in Iraq and to disrupt communications among its senior leaders.
But American officials acknowledge that the Islamic State has remained resilient and adaptive. Fighters mingle with civilians more than ever. Islamic State commanders routinely change their methods of communication to avoid detection. Militants used a sandstorm, which made it more difficult for the Iraqis to identify targets, to seize an advantage in the recent Ramadi attack.
“We have always said this fight will be difficult, and there will be some setbacks,” Lt. Gen. John Hesterman III, the top allied air commander, said in a statement from his headquarters in Qatar. “Coalition air power has dramatically degraded Daesh’s ability to organize, project and sustain combat power while taking exceptional care to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties.”
The air campaign has averaged a combined total of about 15 strikes a day in Iraq and Syria. In contrast, the NATO air war against Libya in 2011 carried out about 50 strikes a day in its first two months. The campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 averaged 85 daily airstrikes, and the Iraq war in 2003 about 800 a day. American officials say targeting is more precise than in the past, so fewer flights are needed. A major constraint on the air campaign’s effectiveness, critics say, has been the White House’s refusal to authorize American troops to act as spotters on the battlefield, designating targets for allied bombing attacks.
Some members of Congress, including Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, have advocated this idea.
The absence of air controllers is a particular complication for battles in urban places like Ramadi, where Islamic State units cannot always be readily identified by American pilots flying overhead.
The administration is considering training a cadre of Iraqi troops to designate airstrike targets from allied fighter jets.
Canadian special forces advising Iraqi troops are designating targets “on a case-by-case basis,” said Ashley Lemire, a spokeswoman for the Canadian defense ministry.
The American-led coalition has imposed other conditions on its use of airstrikes. During the operation in March and April to liberate Tikrit, the United States initially refrained from bombing runs because of the involvement of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in the fighting who were not under Iraqi government control. Once those militias failed to retake the city, they pulled back, and the Americans began bombing before Iraqi security forces and the militias advanced.
Iraqi officials have praised those airstrikes as an important component in the liberation of Tikrit. But many of the Iraqis involved in that operation complain that the Americans refused to strike targets that they had provided.
One army commander in Salahuddin Province, of which Tikrit is the capital, said he had passed along a long list of potential targets, including weapons caches, training centers and the homes of local Islamic State leaders.
“The least important 5 percent of them were targeted,” said the officer, who was not authorized to speak publicly and did not want to be identified as criticizing Iraq’s ally. “We also asked the U.S. coalition to attack ISIS convoys while they were moving from one place to another, but they either neglected our requests or responded very late.”
These same Iraqi commanders drew criticism on Sunday from Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Iraq’s troops had shown no will to fight in Ramadi and had abandoned the city.
Civilians from Raqqa, who were interviewed in Turkey and often go back and forth across the border, said the Islamic State offices were well known around the city and had not been targeted by coalition airstrikes. Locals assume that this is because the Islamic State holds civilian prisoners in each location to deter the coalition.
The Islamic State’s primary security office is known as Point 11 and is inside a soccer stadium, where its central prison is also believed to be. The extremists’ Islamic court is in a building that used to belong to the Syrian Finance Ministry; it, too, holds prisoners, residents say. The office of the militant group’s so-called Islamic police is also near Point 11 and contains a small jail.
An American military spokeswoman declined to comment on specific targets in Raqqa.
Civilians who now rely on the Islamic State for services often come and go from the offices, according to a middle-aged real estate agent who lives in Raqqa and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of the extremists.
“The civilians like the coalition because it doesn’t hit civilians, but ISIS hates it because it targets their fighters,” he said.
But even residents who oppose the Islamic State said they could not imagine the group’s leaving Raqqa at this time, because it has learned to deal with the airstrikes and there is no force on the ground to challenge it.
“If they had acted when ISIS was small, they could have stopped them, but now it has settled and grown, and people have gotten used to it,” said an aid worker from Raqqa who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he travels in areas controlled by the Islamic State. “As long as there is no plan to get rid of them, they are staying, and it is clear that there is no plan.”