Back when the Obama administration was contemplating retaliation against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to assuage worries that America would become ensnared in Syria’s civil war by promising that any reprisals would be “unbelievably small”—a matter of pinprick airstrikes. In the event Russian diplomatic maneuvering let the administration off the hook.
In Iraq today the administration has committed to doing something against the forces of the so-called Islamic State, but the limited military intervention we’ve seen to date lags far behind the bellicose rhetoric of Obama officials since the murder of American journalist James Foley. Once again, we see the same reluctance that was on display about retaliation against Syrian President Bashar al Assad for spreading toxins. Fear of mission creep, fear of putting American boots on the ground, and excessive faith in the wonders of American military technology contribute to a fatal and contradictory combination of excessive caution and excessive confidence.
The gap between rhetoric and action was on vivid display this weekend with pinprick U.S. strikes in northern Iraq. “Bombing raids could significantly weaken IS but they are insufficient currently,” says Jonathan Schanzer, a Mideast analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He says a “surge in sorties” is needed to meet even the limited administration goal of reining in the jihadists.
Consider this bottom line: Weekend strikes from U.S. warplanes defending the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and the recently retaken Mosul Dam managed to destroy a jihadist Humvee and an armed vehicle, according to U.S. Central Command. Meanwhile jihadists from the Islamic State scored a major advance in neighboring Syria by finally capturing the air base at Tabqa, the last military stronghold of the Syrian government in Raqqa province, and pressing assaults against more moderate rebels in northern Aleppo province, threatening to cut all-important supply lines to Turkey.
In Iraq, the loss of the key Mosul Dam doesn’t appear to have rocked the jihadists and their Sunni allies on their heels either. They are continuing to press their siege on Amirli, a Shia Turkmen town in northern Iraq, prompting fears that residents there may endure the same fate as the Yazidis of Sinjar, who fled to a mountaintop in the face of the Islamic State advance, a humanitarian crisis that partly prompted U.S. intervention in Iraq this month in the first place.
All efforts to get to Amirli have failed and the United Nations has warned of a “possible massacre,” with the U.N.’s special envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, declaring that without immediate action the town’s 17,000 people, already suffering “desperate conditions” after months of siege, face a very grim future.
Islamic State fighters are also holding off Kurdish efforts to retake a series of key towns bordering Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, including the flashpoint town of Jalawla. European military observers tell The Daily Beast they fear that the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military, don’t have the strength to push the jihadists and their Sunni allies back without much greater Western support, rearming and training.
“The Peshmerga are doing their best but they are not the fighting force they were,” says a senior British military observer. “There is an element of Dad’s Army to them with the bulk veterans from guerrilla warfare from 20 to 30 years ago.” Analysts say the Kurds' elite counter-terrorist group is doing well and has notched successes, taking some vantage points from jihadist fighters, but they are anxious for promised help from abroad.
“The help has not been up to the standard we need,” says Polad Talabani, the deputy commander of the Peshmerga’s counter-terrorism group. “The jihadists seized weaponry from the Iraqi army and they have much more advanced tanks than us, more arms, and they have a lot of ammunition. We are forced to scrape together what we can.” The tanks the jihadists seized from retreating Iraqi forces this summer were, of course, made in the U.S.A.
President Barack Obama explained last week that the challenge posed by the Islamic State would “take time” to combat: “There are going to be many challenges ahead. But meanwhile, there should be no doubt that the United States military will continue to carry out the limited missions that I’ve authorized: protecting our personnel and facilities in Iraq in both Erbil and Baghdad; and providing humanitarian support as we did on Mount Sinjar.”
General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, also stressed last week that IS can’t be defeated without taking the jihadists on in both Syria and Iraq.
But some analysts say the administration doesn’t have a plan for this—or the will—and the weekend airstrikes just underline the reluctance.
Counterterrorism expert Brian Fishman says the Islamic State has become a terror army that can only be defeated through a full-scale war with serious fighting in both Iraq and Syria. He argues it “will actually require years, direct military action on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border, tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars, and many more than 15,000 troops.”
“No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat IS that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border,” says Fishman.
Mideast expert Schanzer also sees the fight required as a huge undertaking. Even airstrikes extended across Iraq and deep into Syria will not be sufficient without a more comprehensive approach that includes sanctioning jihadist financiers in the Gulf and targeting the Islamic State’s financial and logistical networks in Turkey.
“However, it is still unclear to me if the U.S. and its allies are prepared to undertake such a comprehensive approach,” he says. “It would create diplomatic tensions with our allies, like Qatar, Turkey and Kuwait. It would also mean entering into the Syrian theater. These are two things the Obama administration has sought to avoid at all costs.”
Even that may not be enough. Syria expert Joshua Landis maintains that military action will fail if the “deep grievances of the Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq, where they are shut out from real power, representation, and basic justice by the sectarian governments of both countries,” aren’t addressed. He maintains the time has come for the countries to be allowed to split formally along sectarian lines.