The Complex

U.S. Strikes Haven’t Beaten ISIS in Iraq. Can They Do So in Syria?

The Pentagon is already describing its first wave of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria as "very successful," but in Iraq, where the air campaign has been going on for weeks, progress appears minimal. U.S. and some European airpower has helped Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters stop the Islamic State from taking ...

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Pentagon is already describing its first wave of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria as "very successful," but in Iraq, where the air campaign has been going on for weeks, progress appears minimal.

U.S. and some European airpower has helped Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters stop the Islamic State from taking the de facto Kurdish capital of Erbil in the north and has helped ground forces retake the strategically important Mosul Dam. So far, however, these efforts have been unable to wrest back the vast stretches of territory the Islamic State seized this spring or to prevent large-scale IS attacks like its slaughter this week of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers at a remote, besieged army base in western Anbar province.

Now, the attention shifts to Syria, where the United States, with the support of five Arab partner nations, kicked off an air campaign against the Islamic State Monday night with a powerful mix or armed drones, F-16s, and Tomahawk cruise missiles fired by Navy vessels in the Red Sea and the northern Arabian Gulf. The strikes targeted the Islamic State, but also members of a lesser-known al Qaeda cell called the Khorasan Group.

The strikes are part of a U.S.-led effort to "to degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State, which is also called ISIL and ISIS. But with progress slow in Iraq, where the United States has launched 190 strikes over the past six weeks, it’s unclear what impact any new strikes will have in Syria, where the political and military picture is far more complex and where European allies are so far refusing to join in the air campaign.

Pentagon officials said they were still assessing the impact of the initial Syria strikes and declined to provide a death toll. Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Tuesday that airstrikes alone are not sufficient to boot the Islamic State out of Iraq and Syria but reiterated President Barack Obama’s pledge that U.S. ground troops will not be serving a combat role in either country. Still, he said the military prefers to have eyes on the ground when it’s conducting airstrikes, especially when trying to avoid civilian deaths in densely populated areas like the city of Raqqa. Current plans call for 1,600 U.S. troops in Iraq to conduct an advise-and-assist mission.

"The most important thing is to create some space for the Iraqi security forces to reorganize and replace leadership, to allow them to reorganize their equipment and rearm, to get their ministry connected to this newly formed government, and to allow them to get on the offensive," Mayville said.

But in Iraq, some experts believe that progress has been too slow.

"It’s been disappointing to see the lack of forward movement, not only from the Iraqi Army but also the Peshmerga, who have decided that they’ll only go to a certain point and essentially draw a line in the sand," said Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar.

The airstrikes have bought the forces in Iraq time to get their act together, but based on the progress to date, it’s going to be a long and arduous undertaking, Stephens said. "It’s not just about dumping weapons and taking airstrikes. It’s about restructuring, retraining, and getting a meritocratic system back into the Iraqi military."

Another problem: Some of Iraq’s best military officers are now working for the Islamic State.

But central to President Barack Obama’s strategy is to support local forces as they take on the Islamic State and thereby avoid sending in U.S. troops.

"If the U.S. wanted to go storming in all guns blazing, they would wipe out ISIS in two weeks," Stephens said. It becomes a much longer and harder task when the United States doesn’t do all of the heavy lifting.

Some say the metric for success after six weeks of airstrikes should not be whether the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga have retaken land seized by the Islamic State. That’s an unfair expectation, said Dafna Rand, who recently served on the National Security Council staff before going to work at the Center for a New American Security. Instead, she said the immediate goal for the United States is to stop the group’s momentum.

If in six months, the Iraqi security forces still haven’t won back territory, then it’s a fair question to ask about what progress has been made, she said, noting that at the beginning of August, the Islamic State was poised to take Erbil, where the United States maintains a consulate, and Baghdad, where thousands of Americans live and work. U.S. airstrikes were decisive in preventing this from happening, Rand said.

Plus, U.S. airstrikes have changed the public’s perception that the Islamic State is on the march, which is an important tool to recruit new foreign fighters, Rand said. "You need to knock the wind out of their sails so that all of these recruits aren’t flocking toward it."

The Islamic State’s rampage through Iraq has been mostly put on hold, but in Syria the group has been overrunning Syrian Kurdish towns and villages, which recently sent more than 100,000 Syrian Kurds into Turkey, seeking safety.

The immediate goal of airstrikes in Syria should be stop the Islamic State’s momentum the same way it did in Iraq, according to Rand.

The airstrikes could also have a quicker effect in Syria due to the nature of the targets. In Iraq, the daily roundups from Central Command (Centcom) often note that a pickup truck, a checkpoint, or a mortar position has been hit.

In Syria, where the Islamic State is based, the militants have built up a significant infrastructure of buildings and facilities that could be more easily struck from the air. Centcom said on Monday night that the airstrikes hit "training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks and armed vehicles."

Still, the geopolitical landscape is far more treacherous than it is in Iraq, where there is an established military and a government with whom the United States maintains at least somewhat close ties. Neither is true in Syria.

"I don’t see a pathway whereby everybody can sit down and work their problems out," Stephens said. "If your goal is simply to do the following — degrade and destroy ISIS — fine, then degrade and destroy ISIS, but then you’ve got to worry about what comes next."

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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