Pin-Prick Air Strikes Won’t Defeat Islamic State

Strategic Culture
by Nikolai BOBKIN

The US fight against Sunni terrorist group called the Islamic State may turn into a full-fledged war. On October 12, the Pentagon had to use Apache attack helicopters to drive back the radicals from the Baghdad airport. US Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey panicked. He said the enemy routed an Iraqi unit at the distance of only 20-25 km away. The route to the airport was open. According to him, the US command could not let it happen, it needed the strip for operations. Clearly the loss of the airport would mean starting the battle for Baghdad – the key objective for establishing control over the whole country. 

The US government says it has no plans to have boots on the ground but it’s becoming obvious that the air strikes have little impact. The objections to the President Obama’s policy start to sound louder. 

General Martin Dempsey publicly put in doubt the President’s policy of keeping ground forces away. Responding to questions at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he raised the prospect that limited U.S. ground forces would be needed to battle Islamic State militants if fighting in Iraq grows more difficult. The U.S. military’s top officer said that almost half of Iraq’s army is incapable of working against the Islamic State militant group, while the other half needs to be rebuilt with the help of U.S. advisers and military equipment.  The General said that U.S. assessors who had spent the summer observing Iraq’s security forces concluded that 26 of the army’s 50 brigades would be capable of confronting the Islamic State. Dempsey described those brigades as well-led and capable. However, he said that the other 24 brigades were too heavily populated with Shiites to be part of a credible force against the Sunni ISIS. The option of having US ground forces on the ground in Iraq, and possibly in Syria, is on the table. 

Starting from August 9 the US and the allies have totally delivered 350 strikes against Iraq and Syria. 100 times the aviation hit targets in Syria and 250 – in Iraq. Mostly the targets are tanks and armored vehicles, as well as other means of transport. The Islamic State losses are not known, but it can be surmised there are not so heavy. No serious damage to the Islamic State could be inflicted if 21 block posts or 50 targets alleged to be terrorists’ havens were hit. Republican Senator John McCain, a ranking member of the Senate, said the strategy was failing. «They’re winning and we’re not», McCain said on CNN. «Pin-prick bombing is not working». McCain is right – the impact is limited, some military express skepticism over the efficiency of the ongoing air campaign. 

No matter massive air strikes delivered by the US-led coalition, the Islamic State keeps on expanding the territory under its control in Iraq and Syria. The terrorists put under siege the Syrian town of Ayn al-Arab (also known as Kobane in Kurdish). Many thousands of Syrians, mainly Kurds, had to escape to the neighboring Turkey. Now Kobane is fully encircled by Islamic State formations except a small corridor to allow exit or entrance. Hundreds of people, predominantly elder ones, are still in the heart of the city, around 10-13 thousand gathered nearby. If the town falls to jihad militants, civilians will probably lose their lives. Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said if no steps are taken now there will be another tragedy. Allowing the terrorist organization of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to seize the Syrian border town of Ayn al-Arab would be «a stain on the conscience of humanity», as she put it. Amos called on the international community to help the residents of the besieged Syrian town located on the border with Turkey. «I call on those in a position to help, to do so immediately. Violations of international human rights and humanitarian law must stop. If we don’t act now this will be another tragedy for the Syrian people and a stain on the conscience of humanity», said Amos, speaking in a statement in New York. Now what about the United States? 

US State Secretary John Kerry has said the US is deeply concerned about the «tragedy». However, Kobane does not define the strategy for the coalition with regard to the Islamic State, the US official said in comments on October 12. Speaking at a conference in Cairo on the rebuilding of the Gaza Strip, Kerry said it would take time to bring a coalition fully together to confront the radicals, adding that the focus must first be on Iraq while degrading the Islamic State in Syria».Kobane does not define the strategy for the coalition in respect to Daesh (the Islamic States in Arabic). Kobane is one community and it is a tragedy what is happening there. And we do not diminish that», Kerry said. He is not talking about the fate of Syrians in trouble. The US diplomacy is more concerned over dragging Turkey into the plans to occupy Syria. Meeting Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan on October 10, US Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa O. Monaco emphasized the importance of quickly getting Turkish military help in the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria. She «expressed appreciation for Turkey’s support to ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria and underscored the importance of accelerating Turkish assistance as part of the comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State», the White House said in a statement. 

Before that Marie Harf, the deputy spokesperson for the US Department of State, said Turkey was ready to join the fight against the Islamic State. Ankara is expecting a special US military team to make precise the details of planning. What is behind the US strong intent to involve Turkey into the Syrian internal battles? 

Turkey is a NATO member that has the largest army in the region. Bringing troops into Syria without international mandate would be tantamount to armed invasion making Ankara an aggressor. It’s not what Erdogan is after. Turkey is not rushing to join the United States-led coalition, its army won’t fight under the cover of US aviation, especially in view of the warning Ankara got from Iran. Tehran said it was ready «to intervene directly if any Turkish soldier walks into Syrian soil». 

Iran is closely following the events. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahiyan said the Islamic Republic won’t let the Bashar Assad regime fall. The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs continues to mistrust the US strategy of countering the Islamic State. Speaking in Tehran at the conference devoted to the Islamic State problem, he said the declaration of no-fly zone or moving ground troops into the Syrian territory by the United States or any other state would entail serious repercussions. 

Under the circumstances the attempts of Germany to convince Turkey and Iran to join the fight against the Islamic State make one wonder. According to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Berlin wants Tehran only to «join efforts» in the fight against the Islamic State but it wants Turkey to ramp up its role in fighting the Islamic State and fully engage in the process. 

The fight against the Islamic State is the continuation of old West’s policy towards Syria. Even if Washington will succeed in reducing the Islamic State threat as much as it can, it won’t reject its goal to overthrow the regime in Damascus, so the differences will remain. Until now Americans are busy with superficial changes trying in vain to repaint the motley crew of Syrian extremists into «moderate» opposition. 

Strategic Culture