Air strikes. Roughly 11,500 of them. There have been 7,800 in Iraq and 3,700 in Syria. So many of them, to rewind back to December of 2015, we were actually expending munitions faster than we could replenish them. That is how the fight against ISIS (Operation Inherent Resolve) has been largely defined thus far.

But what’s happening on the ground? Who is guiding missiles and selecting these targets? Although the air strikes will continue, 2016 and 2017 will focus on the ground offensive. Iraqi and Kurdish military forces, with the help of the U.S.-led coalition, will begin their push to drive ISIS out of Iraq and liberate major cities such as Mosul, a giant city of over one million people that I called home for a deployment back in 2004. Driving ISIS out of Iraq and back into its Syrian strongholds will be the first of many steps required to win this battle.

The American task force of roughly 50 soldiers (primarily special operations) in Syria and the few thousand service members in Iraq have the challenging task of hunting down and destroying ISIS forces in an area comparable in size to Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana combined.

Unlike our previous foray into Iraq against both the insurgency and al-Qaeda forces, we currently know where the enemy is. They are not hiding in the shadows or among the civilian population. Phrases such as “behind enemy lines,” “enemy strongholds,” and “supply lines” have been relatively nonexistent in our 15-year hunt against Islamic terrorism—until now. Aside from operations against the Iraqi Army in 2003, this could be the most conventional fight U.S. soldiers will experience since 9/11.

At a glance: Our war against ISIS
Size comparison between the U.S. Pacific Northwest and the Iraq/Syria area of operations.

So who do we have on the ground, where are they, and what are they doing?

In Iraq:

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We already know that Delta has been relatively active setting up safe houses, gathering intelligence, and conducting direct-action raids and hostage-rescue operations within both Iraq and Syria. The JSOC operators, according to a Department of Defense official, are part of a 200-person expeditionary targeting force (ETF). The ETF is currently operating under the same modus operandi as previous JSOC units, such as Task Force 145, Task Force 6-26, etc. It is safe to assume that a full Delta squadron, their support elements, and JSOC intelligence units make up the bulk of the ETF.

The Pentagon claims that roughly 3,900 service members are deployed throughout Iraq, and are responsible for providing security of key coalition bases and facilities, training and advising Iraqi forces, and establishing forward operating bases in preparation for offensive operations to retake Mosul.

  • October 22, 2015 – Roughly 30 Delta commandos alongside a Kurdish counterterrorism unit conducted a hostage rescue operation in Iraq’s Kirkuk Province that resulted in the rescue of 70 Iraqi hostages and roughly 20 ISIS killed. This same operation cost the life of Delta MSG Joshua Wheeler, the first American to be killed in action by ISIS forces.
  • February 2016 – An element from Delta conducted a direct-action raid that resulted in the capture of a key ISIS militant, Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, outside of Tal Afar, Iraq.
At a glance: Our war against ISIS
Delta commandos assault ISIS compound in hostage-rescue operation.

In Syria:

Not much is known about the 50 “special operations soldiers” deployed to northern Syria, other than they are there to “advise and assist” the Kurdish and Arab forces fighting against ISIS. It would be safe to assume this small task force is comprised mostly of Special Forces (Green Berets) soldiers deep in Kurdish-controlled territory. From an operational perspective, it would not make sense to split up the JSOC task force (ETF), as their northern Iraq staging point has the necessary support infrastructure in place to conduct direct-action raids in both countries. These 50 soldiers could soon be joined by an additional 250 based on recommendations from the Department of Defense.

  • July 4th, 2014 – Roughly two Delta troops conducted a rescue operation outside of Ar-Raqqah, Syria, ISIS’s capital, to recover two American journalists (Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff) and another two dozen foreign hostages. Unfortunately, the hostages had been moved the day prior, and were subsequently beheaded in the following weeks. A pilot with the Nightstalkers would be the first U.S. service member wounded in action against ISIS forces.
  • May 2015 – A Delta troop (rumored that British SAS were also on the ground) conducted a direct-action raid against a key ISIS commander, Abu Sayyaf (killed in the operation), in the city of Deir-ez-Zor in eastern Syria.

What’s next for these soldiers? Since air strikes began in late 2014, the coalition has degraded (but not defeated) ISIS’s capability to conduct massive offensives, and for the most part, move as freely as they’ve been used to. From 2016 forward will be the ground offensive. As JSOC’s ETF begins to systematically hunt down ISIS leadership and key personnel, U.S. Army and Marine Corps personnel will concurrently provide support to Iraqi forces as they begin retaking their cities.

We all watched as ISIS trampled over Iraqi forces like a wildfire. We’ve learned the hard way we can’t rely on them. But with the help of  U.S. commandos and JTACs calling in massive air strikes from the front lines, we just might push ISIS out of Iraq by next year. The campaign against ISIS in Syria will be another story. A much more arduous, if not impossible one. Stay tuned.