(CNN) – The United States and its allies are steeling themselves for what an American defense official described Thursday as a years-long fight against the so-called Islamic State, a revelation that came as airstrikes pummeled oil refineries in Syria used by the terror group to help fund its operations
“I think we are in this for a matter of years,” the Pentagon spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, told CNN Thursday. “… We are steeling ourselves for that period of time.”
U.S.-led airstrikes hit locations overnight in a remote area of eastern Syria where ISIS has been using mobile refineries to produce oil that brings in up to $2 million a day for the group.
The U.S. military was still assessing the damage to the refineries by the airstrikes, Kirby said. The attacks are focused on the “infrastructure around the refineries,” meaning the ability of ISIS to produce oil, he said. Ten fighter aircraft from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joined six U.S. jets yesterday in attacks.
“These small-scale refineries provide fuel to run ISIL operations, money to finance their continued attacks throughout Iraq and Syria, and they are an economic asset to support future operations,” the admiral said. “Producing between 300 and 500 barrels of refined petroleum per day, ISIL is estimated by some regional organizations to generate millions of dollars of revenue from these refineries.”
The strikes were intended to disable the refineries, not destroy them, the admiral said. “We’re trying to remove the means through which this organization sustains itself,” he said.
“These refineries were in place before ISIL came along,” he added. “And assuming that Syria gets to a point where it’s better governed, you know, we’d like to preserve the flexibility for those refineries to still contribute to a stable economy in what we hope will be a stable country when the Assad regime is not in control anymore.”
Until a time when the refineries can be used by a moderate opposition, he said, the airstrikes will stop the refineries from being used to produce petroleum or to serve as communications or berthing areas.
There are questions about just how much impact the destruction of the refineries will have on ISIS, which analysts have said has access to billions of dollars.
“Even if we stop their oil flow today, they still have about a billion dollars in the bank,” retired U.S. Army Col. Peter Mansoor said.
“They seized about a third of a billion dollars from the central bank of Mosul (Iraq).” On top of that, he added, ISIS has garnered millions of dollars in ransoms from European governments for hostages and have traded much of their oil.
About 500 soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division headquarters element, based at Fort Riley, Kansas, will be deploying to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility in October, Kirby said. About 200 of those soldiers will deploy to Baghdad and Irbil as part of the increase of 475 U.S. service members that President Barack Obama announced Sept. 10, he said, and rest will be based in the Centcom area of responsibility, but not in Iraq.
The troops in Iraq will provide command and-control for the ongoing advise-and-assist mission for Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the admiral said.
For now, the United States is focused on the refineries, according to Kirby. But he acknowledged there are “other economic levers the international community is going to have to pull” to cut off all funding to ISIS.
At least 14 militants and five civilians were killed in the overnight airstrikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a dissident monitoring group.
ISIS targets in Iraq were also hit Thursday morning by France’s military, government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told reporters in Paris.
Human rights lawyer executed
The news came as reports surfaced that ISIS fighters carried out a public execution of a well-known human rights lawyer, who took to Facebook to criticize the group’s destruction of mosques, churches and shrines in Iraq.
Calling the torture and killing of Sameera Al-Nuiamy savage and cowardly, U.N. special representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said the Iraqi government and the international community must do all they can to ensure those responsible for her death are brought to justice.
Al-Nuiamy was reportedly abducted from her home in Mosul on September 17 and put on trial before a Sharia court, which Mladenov says found her guilty of apostasy.
“She was then held for a further five days during which she was subjected to torture in an attempt to force her to repent before she was executed in public,” he said.
ISIS overruns Iraqi base
The reports about the execution came as new details emerged about the killing of up to 300 Iraqi soldiers in Iraq’s western Anbar province after ISIS fighters overran the base near Falluja this week.
A handful of survivors who escaped from Saqlawiyah, which had been under siege for a week, accused the Iraqi government of failing to respond to pleas for help in the days leading up to Monday’s final ISIS assault on the base.
One soldier recounted in a video posted to YouTube how he and his comrades battled the fighters for hours before starting to run out of ammunition and then being shot by a sniper.
“I called the commander … for support, but no one responded,” he said.
While CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the claims in the video, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered an investigation into what happened and why the soldiers were left to fend for themselves.
At least 113 soldiers were killed and another 78 are missing, according to Iraqi security officials.
The report has raised questions about whether the Iraqi military can defeat ISIS on the ground even with help from the United States and its allies in the air.
There are similar questions being asked about Syria’s moderate rebel groups, which have been battling President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and ISIS.
ISIS leadership dispersed?
ISIS has likely dispersed much of its command-and-control capabilities in Syria, and leaders are now “mixed in with the civilian population,” Mansoor said.
“So it’s unlikely these airstrikes have crippled ISIS,” he said. “As the President has said, it’s going to be a long campaign, and it will be months — perhaps years — before ISIS is dealt a serious blow absent any sort of ground force to go in and root them out on the ground.”
In the latest round of strikes targeting ISIS refineries in Syria, fighter jets from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates flew alongside U.S. aircraft, hitting 12 locations, Kirby said.
While ISIS has been the focus of most of the strikes in Syria, other terror targets have been hit.
The U.S. military said the al Qaeda-linked Khorasan Group also was targeted when the strikes in Syria began Tuesday morning.
And the terror group al-Nusra Front says its leader, Abu Yousef al-Turki — also known as “The Turk” — was killed. But the United States has not said whether al-Turki is dead.
“We cannot confirm any particular leadership that might have been killed in any of these strikes,” Kirby said Wednesday.
And as far as how many ISIS militants have been killed, “we don’t know that, either,” Kirby said.
While the support for the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria has been tepid, the support for the the international coalition against ISIS in Iraq is growing.
The Dutch foreign ministry announced Wednesday that its military will contribute six F-16 fighter jets and 250 troops to carry out airstrikes and train Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said his country’s parliament will weigh a request for six of its fighter jets to take part in the bombing campaign.
Similarly, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he’s recalling Parliament Friday “to secure approval for the United Kingdom to participate in the Iraq air campaign.
“The U.N. Security Council has now received a clear request from the Iraqi government to support it in its military action against ISIL,” Cameron said from U.N. headquarters in New York. “… So it is right that Britain should move to a new phase of action.”