More than 60 days into the coalition air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the “jayvee” team remains on the advance. While it would be unfair to suggest that the ragtag rebel band that constitutes ISIS is winning the war to expand the so-called caliphate across the Levant, it would be fair to suggest that the Western and Arabian allies are losing it.
In Syria, near the Turkish border, Kurdish residents of the town of Kobane fear that they will be massacred by advancing ISIS fighters. A three week siege of the town by ISIS forces has resulted in a softening of Kurdish defenses, and some fear that the town could fall at any moment. Perhaps most dispiriting, the coalition air campaign designed to halt ISIS’s advance on that Turkish border town has been utterly fruitless.
“The latest reports place ISIS militants in key mountain positions surrounding the city,” Business Insider revealed Tuesday. “At the same time, ISIS fighters are within a mile from Kobane’s center as the siege has turned into a building-to-building street-fight.”
“A terrible slaughter is coming,” said a Kurdish intelligence official in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. “If they take the city, we should expect to have 5,000 dead within 24 or 36 hours.” The official added that the scale of the coming massacre would be worse than that which may have befallen Iraq’s Yazidi minority if the United States had not intervened in the conflict in Iraq when they did.
Kurdish fighters are outnumbered by ISIS, and they have no heavy weaponry. There are reports coming out of Kobani that at least one female Kurdish suicide bomber has struck at ISIS terrorists already. The situation is grim, growing grimmer, and one in which hesitation by the international community may not be easily forgiven.
The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer explained why the fall of this previously obscure Syrian border town would have significant consequences for the coalition’s campaign against ISIS:
Kobani would be a big prize for ISIS. Its capture would be of great symbolic value, showing that the jihadists are still maintaining their momentum, and would confirm their creeping dominance along a great chunk of the Turkish-Syrian border.
The fall of Kobani could also reignite a Kurdish self-rule insurgency inside Turkey, adding mightily to the woes of the region and complicating Washington’s efforts to persuade Ankara to fulfill a much more forward-leaning role in the coalition’s war on ISIS.
In Iraq, too, ISIS is on the move. Islamic State forces have struck and captured targets in Iraq’s Anbar province, including the town of Heet on the Euphrates. The insurgent army has reportedly begun to lay siege to areas surrounding the provincial capital of Ramadi.
“With Isis fighters also making advances into western Baghdad, which may allow them to close the city’s airport with artillery fire, President Obama’s strategy of containing the Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria is in ruins,” The Independent reported on Monday.
Nerves are apparently beginning to fray in Baghdad, where the State Department was forced to assure nervous members of the press on Monday that an alert in the Green Zone, where the American embassy is located, which suggested it had come under a mortar attack was merely a false alarm.
Re: reports that mortars landed in the Green Zone (aka International Zone) today: We've confirmed there was NO mortar attack today in the IZ
— Marie Harf (@marieharf) October 6, 2014
Security systems that detect/warn of incoming indirect fire activated apparently by approaching friendly aircraft – but was no incoming fire
— Marie Harf (@marieharf) October 6, 2014
The United States made a tacit admission of the air campaign’s failure on Monday when the Pentagon conceded that they had introduced Apache attack helicopters into Iraq where they struck ISIS mortar teams near Fallujah. The Apaches will allow U.S. military planners more flexibility, but they will also expose troops to the dangers of ISIS ground fire. Faced with strategic failures across the board, the United States is inching ever closer to introducing “boots on the ground.”
In fact, that may become a likely prospect if ISIS’s advance continues as it has, and America’s “indigenous” partners on the ground continue to fumble. In fact, coalition commanders insist that the Iraqi Army will not be in a position to serve as an effective fighting force for quite some time.
“The American official coordinating the international coalition fighting the Islamic State said on Friday that the Iraqi military would not be ready for a campaign to retake Mosul, the largest Iraqi city under insurgent control, for as much as a year,” The New York Times reported on Monday.
“The broad timeline given by the official, retired Gen. John R. Allen, seemed to reflect the immense challenges facing the Iraqi military command and its international partners,” The Times continued.
That report indicates that the operation aimed at retaking the city of over half a million would begin before this year is out, but implicit in his admission that the Iraqi Army will be unable to finish the job the coalition starts in Mosul alone for another 12 months suggests that this will be a long war.
Even The Times concedes that American-led airstrikes on ISIS targets have “not been able to make significant, sustained gains against the insurgency.”
Many predicted that the air war against ISIS would yield diminishing returns before too long but, just two months into that campaign, it seems that it is already evolving out of necessity into a more traditional military engagement.
There have been some coalition success stories, to be sure. Reporting from the region suggests that the Sunni tribes in Anbar province, while not aligning themselves with the government in Baghdad, have begun to turn on ISIS. In Turkey, illicit petroleum products smuggled out of the Islamic State for sale abroad have been largely interdicted. On the military front, however, ISIS continues its advance despite facing down coalition air power.
So long as the allies fight this war with the paramount political objective being to ensure that U.S. forces are not forced to engage ISIS directly, this war will be longer and messier than it likely has to be.