The Complex

Pentagon: We Can’t Rule Out Kobani Falling to the Islamic State

The U.S. Defense Department offered a sober assessment Wednesday of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, warning that the Syrian border city of Kobani — along with other towns like it — could soon fall to militants who seem undeterred by two months of U.S. airstrikes. "I think we all understand ...

Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Defense Department offered a sober assessment Wednesday of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, warning that the Syrian border city of Kobani — along with other towns like it — could soon fall to militants who seem undeterred by two months of U.S. airstrikes.

"I think we all understand that that’s a possibility, that Kobani could be taken. We recognize that," the Pentagon’s press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, told reporters at the Pentagon. "We’re doing everything we can from the air to try to halt the momentum of [the Islamic State] against that town, but that air power is not going to be alone enough to save that city."

The overall campaign against the Islamic State, Kirby said, is going to be long and difficult.

"There’s going to be setbacks," he said. "There’s going to be successes. There’s going to be failures."

After weeks of Syrian Kurdish fighters holding back the Islamic State’s advance, Kobani appeared poised to fall into the militant group’s hands this week, but U.S. and coalition airstrikes have reportedly helped push some of the Islamic State fighters out of the town. Still, Kirby said that the fight in Kobani is not over yet.

Airstrikes near Kobani have stepped up over the last few days, with U.S. Central Command reporting Wednesday morning, Oct. 8, that aircraft from the United States and the United Arab Emirates launched a total of six airstrikes over the past day in the vicinity of Kobani, destroying an armored personnel carrier, four armed vehicles, and two artillery pieces. In total, the United States has launched 24 strikes against Islamic State targets near the town.

Kobani officials told a Reuters reporter Wednesday that the airstrikes had helped and that some Islamic State fighters had left the town. The fighting in and around the town led the Turkish parliament to authorize military force against the Islamic State, but Ankara — to the frustration of many U.S. officials — has yet to actually mount any strikes or send in any ground troops.

"ISIL does not own Kobani right now," Kirby confirmed, using an acronym to describe the Islamic State, but added that the town’s fate is still up in the air. And, in what promises to be a long and difficult campaign, it’s not just Kobani that could fall. "We all need to prepare ourselves for the reality that other towns and villages, and perhaps Kobani, will be taken by ISIL."

Kirby reiterated a point he has emphasized before, which is that the U.S. military is fully aware that airstrikes alone will not be sufficient to roll back the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq and Syria. To do that, the United States, along with its partners, is going to have to retrain the Iraqi security forces, bolster the Kurdish Peshmerga, and build a ground force in Syria out of vetted and trained members of the Syrian opposition. Barack Obama’s administration has flatly ruled out the possibility of sending U.S. combat troops into either country.

A reporter asked him, "Are you preparing the public, in effect, for the fact that not just Kobani but other Syrian towns may fall over the long haul of this air campaign until you have those competent forces on the ground?"

"I think we all should be steeling ourselves for that eventuality, yes," Kirby responded.

In Kobani, as well as in the rest of Syria, the United States does not have a ground force yet with which it can work, he said. "I understand that there are fighters, and they are brave, and we recognize the sacrifices they are making, but we don’t have military-to-military — we don’t have a force inside Syria that we can cooperate with and work with."

It’s going to take several months before that force is created and put back into the fight, the Pentagon has said, raising questions about what happens between now and then.

A training camp in Saudi Arabia is in the very early stages of being set up, Kirby said. And the vetting process, by which the United States and coalition partners will select Syrian fighters who can be trusted and armed, is still being developed, he said.

"There is a lot of spadework still left to do, which is why we were very honest about the length of time here — three to five months — until we can even get through that process. That’s before you even start doing any of the training," Kirby said.

In the meantime, the Islamic State is also making gains in Iraq.

Kirby said it is now largely in control of the town of Hit, in Iraq’s Anbar province.

While the Islamic State is still grabbing territory in Iraq, Kirby listed what the U.S. military views as the successes that have been achieved in that country. They include protecting the Haditha Dam and retaking the Mosul Dam, preventing two humanitarian disasters in Sinjar and Amerli, and keeping the Islamic State out of Baghdad and Erbil.

"There’s been progress, but I don’t want to overstate it either," Kirby said.

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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