29 Nov 2014

Air strikes against IS ‘not working’ – is it true?

The Syrian regime says two months of US-led strikes have failed to weaken the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Is it right – or are other motives at play?

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The US-led coalition has carried out nearly 300 air strikes against Islamic State (IS) militants since September, killing nearly 800 IS fighters in Syria in the process.

Coalition air strikes have been central to defending what are seen as strategically important locations, including the Haditha dam in Iraq and the Turkish border settlement of Kobane.

But Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, has told Lebanese TV IS has not been weakened by the air strikes – only days after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appealed for western states to join him in “real and sincere” co-operation to defeat IS.

“All the indications say that [IS] today, after two months of coalition air strikes, is not weaker,” Mr Moulame told al-Mayadeen TV on Friday.

US President Barack Obama was reluctant to commit ground troops to any offensive against IS in Iraq and Syria – reflecting similar concerns in the UK when it approved air strikes in Iraq in September, although not in Syria.

Mixed motives

Both countries may have some incentive to promote the achievements of the air campaign, in the hope that air power alone can stop the advance of IS and eventually lead to their defeat.

So is there any truth in Syria’s claim, or is a more complex motive at play?

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Air strikes in Syria killed 910 people between the start of the US campaign in July and mid-November – including 52 civilians and 785 Is fighters – according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The effect of such strikes has been called into question, given the size of IS forces and their geographic spread, spanning the borders of Iraq and Syria over hundreds of miles.

According to some estimates, IS (also known as Isis) is thought to comprise up to 10,000 fighters, drawing in hundreds of foreigners including over 500 from the UK.

The US and UK governments have said repeatedly that they are providing support to local Iraqi forces in the battle against IS, while Syrian opposition groups will also be crucial to the campaign.

Blurred strategies

But the US approach is emboldening the Syrian regime and “undermining the very rebels it is ostensibly designed to support”, according to Noah Bonsey, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.

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Apparent US attacks against groups unrelated to IS – such as Ahrar al-Sham and al Nusra Front – “strengthen jihadi claims that the US campaign aims to quietly boost Assad while degrading a range of Islamist forces”, he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

The US air campaign “has further blurred the lines between US and regime military strategies”, meaning that Syrian rebels are becoming less willing to partner with the US, he added.

Robert N Hein, a fellow at the US Brookings think-tank, has questioned the aim of seeking a victory over IS forces.

“The enemy decides when a war is over,” he said in November.

“Isis will have lost when they no longer have safe haven, can’t sustain funding, their recruitment dries up, and disillusioned young Islamic extremists go home.”

syria iraq air strike isil isis islamic state us coalition

“But even then the fight will certainly not be over,” he added, given that a range of terrorist groups will seek to take advantage of “young, disillusioned extremists”.

Obama has set out to “degrade and ultimately destroy Isis”, which implies his aim is to “weaken rather than eliminate Isis” in the short to medium term, according to Shashank Joshi, a defence analyst for the Royal United Services Institute think-tank.

“The aim of degradation is still fluid and open-ended, but considerably more modest than seeking outright defeat,” he wrote in October at the start of the UK’s air campaign.

The Syrian regime may have its own motives in declaring the US-led coalition unsuccessful so far – given its continuing battle with rebels within its own borders, whom it may want to discourage from joining the US effort.

But the coalition’s road towards victory, defeat or undeclared stalemate is still likely to be a long one.