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In the weeks since the United States mounted its first airstrikes against ISIS and pledged to “degrade and destroy” the militants, it appears the Sunni extremists are showing no signs of slowing down.
ISIS militants have slaughtered hundreds of government troops, beheaded Western hostages and on Monday flew their black flag on the outskirts of a key Syrian border town — despite an aerial bombardment by American and Gulf state planes.
So what then have the airstrikes accomplished? Not much, according to analysts.
“We have not ostensibly degraded the capability of the organization — we have put them on notice that we will target them, but we have not prevented the movement or the offensive of ISIS,” according to David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Despite a large number of sorties, fewer bombs are dropping on Iraq and Syria than in previous, recent aerial campaigns.
“Both in Syria and Iraq we are not having the type of impact, I think, that to date that the administration had hoped,” Schenker said. “The operational tempo is so limited.”
That’s partially because the initial intensity of the airstrikes has dropped off as targeting the militants and their infrastructure has become more difficult, according to Schenker.
“These groups recognize that they are being targeted and are not making themselves so obvious,” Schenker explained. “They’ve gone to ground.”
Strike assessments coming in from officials have detailed direct hits on trucks, command and control centers, and small numbers of ISIS fighters. That’s not much to boast about, according to Schenker. With ISIS numbers estimated to range in the tens of thousands, “it’s hard to be very enthusiastic about” an airstrike that kills a small handful of militants, he said.
“The high-value targets are few and far between,” Schenker said. “It’s excruciating — a painfully slow and plodding operation.”
'Are these airstrikes worth it?'
It didn’t start off that way. Tactical strikes in Iraq helped prevent the massacre of thousands of Yazidis and helped Kurdish forces regain control of a decisive dam near Mosul. Since then, though, few tangible gains are visible — especially in Syria.
“We have provided ammunition to our Kurdish allies, we are working to try and shore up the Iraqi forces but on the ground in Syria we are not preventing the continued onslaught of ISIS,” Schenker said. “I do not see this in any way as a degrade-and-destroy operation — what I see it as is a limited containment operation that hasn’t had a great deal of success so far.”
The operation already has borne a hefty price tag; Tomahawk missiles don’t come cheap.
“There’s the obvious cost-benefit analysis: Are these airstrikes worth it?” Matthew Henman, manager of IHS Janes Terrorism and Insurgency Center, said. “At the moment, it appears to be pretty mixed.”
While there are some signs that tactical strikes in northern Iraq have helped slow the ISIS offensive, “its nothing revolutionary,” Henman said.
“Even with concerted airstrikes happening, the group is still able to mass large numbers of fighters for attack and is still able to seize control of strategic territory,” Henman added, noting the ISIS advance on Kobani, the Syrian town six miles from the border with Turkey.
Experts agree that ISIS cannot be destroyed from the air — but that doesn’t mean there’s another option yet.
“The administration knows full well that airstrikes alone won’t succeed in degrading or destroying ISIS,” said David L. Phillips, the director of Peace-Building and Rights Program at Columbia University. “Since President Obama has made clear there will be no U.S. boots on the ground, we need to find friends in Iraq and Syria who are prepared to confront ISIS.”
"The administration knows full well that airstrikes alone won’t succeed in degrading or destroying ISIS"
Because it will take at least a year for Syrians to benefit from more military training, that means Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria could be the best bet to countering the militants in Iraq. Already, they’ve shown their mettle in retaking Mosul Dam.
“Degrading and destroying can’t happen unless you’re killing ISIS fighters on the ground,” Phillips said. “The only forces that have shown any capability of countering ISIS are the Kurds.”
While the U.S. has been providing machine guns and ammunition, the Peshmerga need armor-piercing equipment and more sophisticated weaponry, Phillips explained. The Kurdish forces also would benefit from closer air support, he added.
The Syria problem
That might help defeat ISIS in Iraq — but Syria is a different story. Analysts say that spotters on the ground would help with intelligence on targets — “boots on the ground” that the U.S. administration has ruled out sending and which thus far have not been offered by America’s allies.
With Iraqi forces not up to snuff and moderate Syrian opposition fighters at least a year away from completing training, the only obvious combat force could be the most fraught.
Turkey has the second-largest European army in NATO, and its military participation in the anti-ISIS coalition could tip the balance in the battle against the militants. But while Turkey’s parliament adopted a resolution authorizing military action against ISIS, the country has not yet offered any assets to the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS nor is it participating in any significant way.
“Turkey is deeply ambivalent about choosing sides in this fight,” Phillips said. “Turkey’s primary interest is to overthrow the regime of Bashar al Assad and to undermine the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria. It will only send troops if the deployment of those troops advances Turkey’s core goals.”
The current siege on the Syrian border town of Kobani is a perfect example of the limited effect of airstrikes. While Kurdish forces have been battling to defend the town, ISIS militants have pounded Kobani with heavy artillery and besieged the town from multiple sides.
On Monday, ISIS fighters appeared to be making headway toward seizing full control of the city, raising their black flag over a building on Kobani’s eastern outskirts, according to Reuters.
The U.S. must intensify airstrikes — particularly on the hills on the south side of Kobani — in order to avert a “slaughter” in the border city, Phillips said.
“If Kobani falls there will be a genocide of huge proportions — tens of thousands of people will be beheaded,” Phillips warned. “And ISIS will be emboldened into thinking that they can do whatever they want, no matter what Obama says.”