On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby conceded that the process of vetting moderate Syrian rebel groups who will eventually serve as the “boots on the ground” in the campaign to fight the Islamic State inside their Syrian stronghold has not even begun. That is merely the first step in creating a fighting force which planners estimate will need to be 15,000 strong in order to roll back ISIS in Syria. Exfiltrating them, training them, equipping them, and reintroducing them back into Syria are the next on the list of to-dos. The whole process is estimated to take at least one year before any tangible gains against ISIS will be made.
That should be unsettling for those Kurds and members of the Free Syrian Army already engaged in the fight against ISIS in Syria, but even more unsettling was Kirby’s next admission. “We should all be steeling ourselves for reality,” he said, for the likelihood that ISIS will take the strategic border town of Kobane (among, ominously, other unnamed cities in Iraq and Syria).
Despite days of coalition airstrikes on ISIS positions around the Syrian town on the Turkish border, the siege of Kobane has not been broken. In fact, ISIS forces are continually advancing on the town. But when Kirby warned the public that they should be “steeling” themselves for the sacking of Kobane, he likely meant the highly probable massacre of minority Kurds who will fall into the hands of the Islamic State.
“A terrible slaughter is coming,” a Kurdish official recently told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. “If they take the city, we should expect to have 5,000 dead within 24 or 36 hours.”
It should be considered a shocking admission for the Pentagon to concede that ISIS will continue to make territorial gains on multiple fronts more than 60 days into the coalition campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but it seems that only a few voices in the press are willing to express their dissatisfaction with the president’s feckless war strategy.
The Washington Post editorial board admitted on Tuesday evening that the administration’s strategy to combat ISIS is simply not compatible with the stated objective of defeating ISIS.
Why can’t the U.S.-led coalition prevent a ragtag insurgent army from overrunning large towns? The answers speak to the limitations imposed on the military campaign by President Obama as well as the continuing political complications of fighting the Islamic State. Military analysts point out that U.S. strikes on Islamic State forces around Kobane have come late and in small handfuls — not enough, as of Tuesday, to turn back thousands of fighters armed with tanks and artillery. In contrast with the successful 2002 air campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S. pilots cannot rely on Special Forces spotters to identify targets. Mr. Obama has ruled out such ground personnel despite requests from military commanders.
And if the Pentagon cannot stop them in Syria and Iraq, ISIS will not long hesitate to export attacks outside of their so-called caliphate in order to demoralize coalition governments waging this halfhearted war.
“One of the hallmarks of ISIS’s military strategy has been to launch several attacks simultaneously, distracting opponents from its real target,” New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently wrote. “The group is fighting on many fronts in Iraq and Syria, [Iraqi ISIS expert Hisham] Alhashimi said, and he believes that it may be planning a major attack somewhere else — in the Gulf or in Europe.”
The question remains: If the United State and its allies are not fighting a war against ISIS with the objective of “degrading and dismantling” the group within a non-glacial timeframe, why are they fighting this war at all?