Aiming Low

America’s WTF Air War in Syria

The ‘pinpricks’ from American bombs continue, and so do the advances of ISIS. Better communications on the ground might change all that.

10.06.14 9:45 AM ET

SURUC, Turkey – The roar of U.S. warplanes swooping over the mainly Kurdish border town of Kobani in Syria on Saturday night was greeted with clenched–fist relief by Turkish Kurds keeping vigil in villages along the border. In the gloom the flash of missiles impacting in the distance heartened them. Kurds hope the second consecutive night of American airstrikes targeting militants of the so-called Islamic State, widely known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, herald a more concerted U.S. intervention to save Kobani from being overrun.

Under the shade of pistachio trees on a rise on the Turkish side of the border overlooking Kobani a group of refugees and local Kurdish farmers in the hamlet of Boydi questioned me about why the defenders have received no military assistance from the Turkish tanks lined up a mile from the outskirts of the town. And also, of course, why the U.S.-led coalition has been satisfied with a few pinprick airstrikes against the jihadists down below us. 

Gesturing to Kobani with the smoke rising in several places in the town center, Goçak, at whose farm we are drinking tea, says, “This could be over in a matter of days if the U.S. would just increase their airstrikes.”

In their frustration, refugees and farmers weave ever more byzantine conspiracy theories to explain the reluctance of the West to do more. “This is a deal between the Turks and the Americans against the Kurds and to make sure we can’t have a state of our own in Syria,” says one gnarled farmer. Others lustily add Israel as a member of the conspiracy. 

A few say the Turkish soldiers will intervene after Kobani falls in order to make themselves look good and are denying arms supplies now to deny the Kurdish defenders the glory of victory. 

Although the weekend air raids were hardly intense, the effect of even limited U.S. bombing runs was telling. The missiles launched on Friday and Saturday night interrupted what had been salvo after salvo of tank and mortar fire from the jihadists during daylight hours and forced Islamic State militants to move half-a-mile back from the besieged town. They also emboldened the Kurdish defenders, who are lightly armed and fending off heavy armor. On both nights the Kurds counter-attacked and had some successes, destroying at least one ISIS tank. 

Despite the airstrikes, the town’s fate hangs in the balance, says Ismat Sheik Hasan, a commander in the YPG Kurdish self-defense forces, whose vanguard is formed by an offshoot of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Even so, the point of American airpower was made, adding further poignancy to the Kurds’ questioning about why the U.S. is not being more forthright in assisting them to defend the town from an enemy President Barack Obama says he wants to “degrade and defeat.”

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. 

The Kurds aren’t the only ones querying the absence of “shock and awe.” The choice of targets for U.S. warplanes is increasingly puzzling. 

“So far IS seems to be able to function without too much trouble,” says retired U.S. Air Force Colonel John Warden, the architect of air strategy for Operation Desert Storm and one of America’s leading air power theorists. 

Warden developed the so-called Five Rings theory of military strategic attack (PDF), which involves hitting your opponent’s centers of gravity – from its leadership; communications and transportation (“processes”); infrastructure; popular support; and the troops in the field.

In an e-mail exchange Warden explained: “To date, there have been attacks on some leadership targets (first ring) and some oil targets (second ring).  There have also been attacks on some tactical targets (fifth ring). All of these were also included in the Gulf War I operations but in that case, there were far more included.  A very big difference is intensity; the current operation against the IS appears to be significantly less intense (even on a relative basis).”

Certainly the jihadists are not being paralyzed strategically in the way Saddam Hussein’s forces were.

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Some analysts argue U.S. airpower is constrained because of the lack of target spotters on the ground. Even so, Warden says, “Many (perhaps the majority) of important strategic targets can be found through drone and satellite observation.”

But he acknowledges ground intelligence is important also. “There should also be significant information available through the Syrian intelligence organization (one would certainly hope we are working with them) and through questioning of refugees from IS occupied territories.” 

U.S. officials deny they are coordinating with the Syrian government. Some rebels in other parts of northern Syria have been asked to engage in spotting, although several commanders from brigades that are favored by the Obama administration, like the Jaysh al-Mujahedeen or Army of Mujahedeen, say they have hardly had any operational contact with U.S. officials.

When it comes to Kobani, there appears to be no U.S. intelligence effort along the border to gather information from newly arriving refugees. And with the U.S. still labeling the PKK (and therefore its Syrian offshoots) as terrorists, there are no lines of communication open to Kobani for the defenders there to call in the close-quarter airstrikes they sorely need.

While Kurds – and Syrian Sunni rebels -- come up with conspiracy theories about the U.S. holding at arm’s length those who are fighting ISIS on the ground in Syria, the American approach seems more in keeping with the “hesitation and half-steps” of the Obama administration that former spy director and Pentagon chief Leon Panetta complains about in his forthcoming book, Worthy Fights. 

The Kurds aren’t alone in calling for more shock and awe. Syrian rebel commanders acknowledge that ISIS forces present far fewer stationary targets than, say, Saddam Hussein’s military during both Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. But despite their rapid mobility and small group formations the jihadists could still be targeted more effectively, if only there was more communication, they say. 

“It didn’t help that the Americans talked about bombing ISIS for days before they did,” sneers Abu Mohammad, an FSA fighter who works as a liaison between rebel militias. “It gave them time to flee from some of their bigger bases.”