David Cameron is being urged to do more to combat the so-called Islamic State (IS) group as it continues to impose a reign of terror on the citizens of Iraq and Syria as well as inspiring Islamist atrocities overseas.

Critics are calling for the government to do more to combat the threat from the group, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.

The former head of the navy, Lord West, has said the UK should consider carrying out air strikes in Syria as well as Iraq.

And the former army chief, Lord Dannatt, has called for special forces to be sent to the region to help fight the jihadis on the ground.

But in a BBC Radio 4 interview this week, the Prime Minister defended Britain’s contribution to the international coalition against IS.

Prime Minister David Cameron Visits RAF Base In Cyprus

fact_108x60“In Iraq we are the second largest contributor to air strikes.”
David Cameron, 29 June 2015

The Americans are in overall charge of Operation Inherent Resolve – the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria.

More than 60 countries pledged to join the anti-IS coalition in September last year, but only a dozen have made a serious military contribution so far.

The United States, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, the Netherlands and the UK are in action in Iraq. British drones fly reconnaissance missions above Syria but do not drop bombs after parliament voted against military action there in 2013.

The US, Canada, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have also bombed targets in Syria. There are reports of Qatar and Morocco flying sporadic bombing missions there too.

The US military must know which country has done what, but they have not made the figures public, so we have to go by what individual countries tell us.

Different nations release figures in different ways.

Britain counts the number of times its combat aircraft – eight Tornado GR4 jets and an unknown number of unmanned Reaper drones – hit targets successfully.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) says that, as of 20 June, Tornado fast jets have flown 452 sorties in Iraq and damaged or destroyed targets on 168 occasions. Unmanned Reaper drones have flown 558 sorties and hit IS targets 131 times.

So that’s 1,010 sorties and 299 strikes in about nine months, which works out at just over one per day.

Other countries, like France, Australia and Denmark, count the total number of bombs they drop, irrespective of the outcome, which makes it difficult to compare them to the UK.

Numbers put out by the US Air Forces Central Command and the Department of Defense say that 15,245 weapons have been released and 7,655 IS targets damaged or destroyed in air strikes, suggesting a success rate of exactly 50 per cent.

Let’s apply this rough equation to countries who only tell us about the number of bombs they drop – halving the total to get an approximation of successful strikes:

There are lots of holes in this: we know almost nothing useful about the activities of Belgium, the Netherlands and Jordan. France records its data in a fairly piecemeal way, and the strike count for the Canadians is probably an underestimate, as they are often vague about numbers.

Nevertheless, the evidence at this stage suggests the UK has carried out more successful bombing raids than any other of the US’s coalition partners.

The website Air Wars also finds that the UK is in second place behind the US for air strikes, although we haven’t been able to replicate their numbers for some countries.

All of this confirms what many analysts predicted from the outset: this may be a broad coalition but the US is doing the majority of the bombing.

US-led coalition forces hit ISIL targets in Kobani

The US military says coalition forces had flown 16,164 sorties by 31 May this year. The sorties we know about suggest America’s allies have flown the equivalent of around a quarter of those. But there are big gaps in our knowledge.

Apart from a Jordanian claim to have hit IS targets 56 times in three days in February after one of the kingdom’s pilots was captured and burned alive, there is little information from the Arab countries attacking IS in Syria.

According to Reuters, the proportion of air strikes carried out by US allies in Syria fell from 38 per cent in September to just 3 per cent in December, but we don’t know what has happened since then.

How much damage is Britain doing to IS?

The US military says coalition forces have damaged or destroyed 7,655 targets so far, including 98 tanks and 2,045 buildings:


If the 299 successful air strikes claimed by the UK are the best number to compare that with, it would mean that Britain is responsible for about 4 per cent of the damage done to IS so far.

The MoD gives lots of detail about the air strikes here. There is no way we can independently verify most of the claims, although some are backed up with video footage.

Britain claims responsibility for destroying one tank out of 98 (1 per cent) and about 40 buildings out of the 2,045 claimed by the Americans (2 per cent), although definitions of what constitutes a building make it harder to be precise about this.

Casualty figures

Britain makes no claims about casualties and there is considerable doubt about how many IS fighters have been killed by air strikes.

On 1 June, US General Hawk Carlisle said coalition strikes had “taken about 13,000 enemy fighters off the battlefield”, but other American officials have

given lower totals, and it’s not clear how any of these estimates have been calculated.

Estimates of IS’s battlefield strength have varied even more wildly, ranging from 10,000 to 200,000.

How much territory?

The latest map published by the US Department of Defense is dated April 2015. It claims that IS has lost control of 25 to 30 per cent of the Iraqi territory it ruled in August 2014:


But this is out of date now. More recent assessments from the independent Institute for the Study of War (ISW) takes in recent IS successes and are more pessimistic.

This was the state of play on 10 September 2014, according to ISW.

Black means ISIS are in control of the area, brown designates a “support zone” where there is no effective opposition to IS, and red zones show where the group is on the attack:


And this is the most recent version of the map, from 19 June this year.

Some differences are hard to spot but important: IS have lost ground near Tikrit, near Mount Sinjar, and along the Syrian border with Turkey at the very top of the picture:


Clearly, they have also made significant gains elsewhere, winning control of Ramadi, to the west of Baghdad, and of the area around the historic city of Palmyra – that’s the ominous big black smear that has appeared in the centre of Syria.

Evidence like this makes it hard to support the view that IS is generally on the back foot across Syria and Iraq as a whole.

Special forces

Asked about the possibility of putting special forces on the ground, Mr Cameron reiterated the government’s position that it never comments on where such units are deployed.

That’s the standard response all journalists get if they approach the government for an official response on the activities of the SAS and others.

Some media outlets have reported the presence of British special forces in Iraq, quoting unnamed officials. Obviously, that will not be officially confirmed or denied.

In its report on the British response to IS in January, the Defence Select Committee said special forces were “presumably” already operating in the region.