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Coalition airpower helps drive ISIS out of key city in northern Syria

The campaign by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to free the northern Syrian city of Manbij from Islamic State control relied heavily on coalition air strikes to break apart urban infrastructure concealing ISIS fighters, U.S. Air Forces Central Command officials said Wednesday.

Manbij, near the Turkish border, had been a key logistics hub for the Islamic State and the third largest city still under its control.

The coalition zeroed in on Manbij and the so-called Mar'a line, defined by U.S. Central Command as a strategic corridor from Syria to Turkey, and the battle zone against the Islamic State north of Aleppo. There have been more than 330 air strikes there for both June and July, Lt. Col. Chris Karns, AFCENT spokesman, told Air Force Times. Together, the summer months saw nearly 700 strikes.

Over the past six months, there has been a "big uptick in airstrikes in the vicinity of [the] Mar'a line [and] Manbij," he said in an email. From June through July, there was more than "a three-fold uptick in strikes and at least 2.5 times weapons employed" compared to the previous months in 2016.

"During June and July the number of airstrikes in the vicinity of Manbij increased significantly, helping our partnered force gain terrain and the enemy to see defeat more clearly and ultimately flee," Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, AFCENT commander told Air Force Times in a statement. Harrigian took over for Lt. Gen. Charles Brown last month.

"As this enemy adjusts, we adjust. When they flee, we have the ability to track their movements and we will ultimately remove them from the battlespace. We will use the full complement of capability available to us to create similar conditions in places like Raqqa and Mosul," Harrigian said. 

More than 300 enemy fighting positions in Manbij, from small enclosures to larger structures like buildings, were destroyed in July, Karns said. "This figure represents a collective total that is more than the previous six-plus month total combined," Karns said. "In August, more than 50 fighting positions were eliminated by airstrikes."

Dispatching air support well ahead of ISIS movements -- or even a ground fight -- has been a critical maneuver in advancing the air war against the Islamic State group, officials have said. Strikes ahead of a close fight take ISIS extremists off the battlefield, and impedes them from building defensive positions, or planting IEDs and other explosives that could cripple Iraqi or Kurdish soldiers on the move, Brown said on May 23. 

"If I know where the next fight's going to be, then what I want to be able to do is actually soften up that with strikes. ... And we found that if we do that, the resistance that the ground forces face seems to be less for a number of reasons," Brown said at the time.

Coordinated airstrikes last week helped the SDF, which includes Kurdish militias and local Arab groups, regain control of Manbij. The bombing strategy will likely open the door for other offensives, likely Raqqa, just 85 miles southeast.

For the Mar'a line/Manbij campaign this year, the air component conducted more than 2,500 airstrikes and dropped nearly 8,400 precision-guided bombs, Karns said.

"We continue to build momentum and place significant pressure on the enemy," Harrigian said.  "We are causing them to act in ways that run contrary to their objectives and impacting their ability to hold land and sustain operations."

Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East and Europe for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at opawlyk@airforcetimes.com. 

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