While President Obama has admitted the U.S. is in the process of putting together a plan to deal with ISIS, signs are emerging that the plan is coming together. Late Tuesday, U.S. officials revealed that any salaried employee of an oil facility within ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria will be considered a “legitimate target” for coalition airstrikes.
Analysis of a recent Delta Force commando raid in eastern Syria last month, which obtained a treasure trove of laptops and cell phones belonging to members of the Islamic State, showed detailed organizational charts about staffing and operation of the group’s lucrative oil facilities.
Prior to the raid it had been thought that such facilities were staffed by conscripts, but workers at the plants were revealed to be “salaried Islamic State employees, thus making them legitimate targets” for military strikes.
CENTCOM, which is leading the aerial campaign against ISIS, takes “great care" in order to minimize the risk of collateral damage, particularly any potential harm to non-combatants,” a government official said.
The key takeaway from the revised policy is that it dramatically expands the range of potential targets for coalition strikes. Strike to date have had narrow target ranges, which has led to many jets returning to base without dropping their bombs.
Yet there are, as in any war, devilishly tough human rights issues.
“It’s certainly problematic from a human rights perspective if they're describing these people as legitimate targets,” said Matthew Henman, head of defense consultancy IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. “There’s a massive distinction between those who support ISIS because they have no other choice and those who endorse its ideology, the card-carrying members of the group.”
In fact, ISIS, in trying to become a legitimate state, has made a point of paying as many workers as possible in critical services, such as doctors and nurses in its hospitals and teachers at its schools.
But the U.S. appears to draw a line when it comes to individuals with much-needed technical expertise, as such people are key to keeping oil refineries running. Smuggling oil, mostly by way of Turkey, is the number one source of revenue for ISIS, with the group exporting up to 80,000 barrels a day, worth over $1 million, at its peak last summer.
Pentagon officials confirm that U.S. air strikes have notably reduced ISIS capacity to produce oil, yet there are risks with striking the facilities.
As the civilian death toll rises, the population under ISIS control may become disillusioned with the United States and start thinking that ISIS is the only force who can protect them.
"If these lines and boundaries start to blur," said Henman, "you'll have a population caught between ISIL forces on the ground and coalition forces in the sky."
The U.S. has faced similar issues in Afghanistan, where its drone missile attacks on senior Taliban leaders led to horrible morale blowback. One commander was successfully killed, however a further 100 community members also died as the attack took place at a wedding, in which the Taliban accounted for just a small number of the guests. Such events produce generations of hate, as children see parents, grandparent and cousins all killed by U.S. forces. They then grow up despising the United States.