Battling ISIS: Will Air Power Be Enough?

Arabian Gulf F18

An F/A-18 Hornet takes off from the deck of the aircraft carrier
USS Carl Vinson on its way to a target inside Syria;
photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy

Battling ISIS: Will Air Power Be Enough?
| published November 17, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Last weekend’s beheading of an American, Peter Kassig—a former U.S. Army Ranger and field medic who later became a relief worker who delivered medical supplies and food to hard-hit areas of Syria—may, as in the case of journalist James Foley, force the United States to raise its investment in the war against the so-called Islamic State, also sometimes called ISIL or ISIS. Kassig was the third American, and the fifth westerner in total, to be brutally executed by beheading—murders captured on video and then replayed around the world on social media.

President Obama, after consulting with his military and intelligence advisors to verify the veracity of the videotape, called Kassig’s execution “an act of pure evil by a terrorist group that the world rightly associates with inhumanity.” British Prime Minister David Cameron called Kassig’s killing a “cold-blooded murder.”

The question becomes: what now for U.S. military action in Syria and Iraq? The White House has already requested Congress approve an additional $5.6 billion for the fight against ISIS. And after months of official insistence by both the President and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that there would be no boots on the ground (at least not in combat situations), Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has hinted that if needed, U.S. military personnel may be required in some of the forward areas where ISIS units face-off against Iraqi troops. Dempsey’s slight change of narrative—and the somewhat nuanced new view by the President over the weekend that still more troops may needed—seems to indicate a realization by those leading the fight that air power alone is insufficient to dissuade and dislodge ISIS.

Though the incarnation of ISIS as a quasi-conventional army would seem to present its adversaries a battlefield opportunity to engage in symmetrical combat, the militant group bent on the creation of a pan-Arab Islamic state has proven maddeningly difficult to degrade or destroy—to use the terms of expectation most frequently employed by the Pentagon and the White House.

The air campaign, which began in mid-September, has produced mixed results, to say the least. Attempts to use air strikes to take out specific individuals, such as last week’s attack near Falluja in Iraq—an attack which at first elicited the Pentagon claim that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed—have also yielded results which could at best be characterized as fair-to-middling, even sometimes murky. At first U.S. officials claimed al-Baghdadi had been killed or severely wounded, but when reports from sources on the ground came back suggesting that the ISIS leader had only been slightly wounded, the Pentagon had to backpedal. Later, as it turns out, we learned that al-Baghdadi may not have been injured at all in the attack, a precision bombing strike which might have killed two to three members of a group fighting against ISIS.

From the beginning of the air campaign, which began with not only U.S. jet fighters, but also air power from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, there were military and terrorism experts who questioned how deeply a sustained air campaign could degrade or damage ISIS units. A few of the attacks on the first two nights had been directed against the shadowy and largely unknown Khorasan Group, a terrorism unit based in Syria and made up of hardened jihadists from dozens of other countries—including skilled bomb-makers and violent extremists from places as far away as Afghanistan and Chechnya. Most of the world had never even heard of the Khorasan Group until the morning after the U.S.-led air strikes began. Estimates of the total number of members of the Khorasan Group ranged from as few as 20 to as many as 60, and—likewise—assessments of how many members of this core terrorist group have been killed or injured range widely. Some anti-terror experts and military analysts suggest that this numerical elasticity is proof certain of the need for better ways to judge what is really happening on the ground. Nearly all military assessments of the success of the air campaign have depended entirely upon analysis of video provided by U.S. warplanes, drones, or satellite observations.

General Dempsey was in Iraq over the weekend to inspect the situation up close. His visit was unannounced, and some observers suggest that his role is to more accurately assess the U.S.-led training of a fresh crop of Iraqi troops. Questions persist by many observers about the ability of Iraqi troops loyal to Baghdad to stand and fight without at least some side-by-side assistance by Americans. There are also fresh concerns being raised about the screening and reliability of some of the new Iraqi trainees.

When ISIS first swept across the border from northeastern Syria into northern Iraq, much of the Iraqi army withered or melted away. The Iraqi retreat was accompanied by the wholesale abandonment of billions of dollars of mostly U.S.-made hardware and weapons—from personnel carriers to Jeeps to tanks, to rocket-launchers to machine guns to SUVs. Many Iraqi soldiers even shed their uniforms. Some in Congress are concerned about another expensive replay.

Indeed, just days ago Dempsey conceded to Congress that he would strongly consider sending U.S. military personnel to fight alongside Iraqi troops if so authorized by either Hagel or the President, and his visit to Iraq now may be an indication of his desire to see firsthand how the training and on-the-ground battles have progressed. There are currently about 2100 American military personnel in Iraq—up from about 900 after the President ordered another 1200 troops to be sent earlier this month.

Though the air campaign has been slow to produce verifiable results—or, in some cases, quick to produce positive results in limited ways (such as air support for Kurdish fighters defending the beleaguered city of Kobani)—there have been some measurable gains on the ground. Just last week, after intense firefights and shelling, Iraqi troops regained control of the area around Beiji, an oil refinery and oil distribution center—one of the largest in Iraq. ISIS units had attempted a complete takeover of Beiji and its oil production earlier in October, but the battles had stalled after weeks of close combat between ISIS militants and Iraqi troops. Some of the fighting inside the sprawling facility had been building-by-building, door-by-door.

While in Iraq, Dempsey also received detailed briefings on the fighting between Kurdish forces and ISIS units in various parts of northern Iraq. The fight for Kobani, now in its eighth week, has been particularly brutal. Nudged up against the border with Turkey, Kobani had been one of the last strongholds of Kurdish opposition to ISIS, and by late-September it was clear that the Islamic radicals wanted to consolidate its control of the long stretches of rural hills and ridges which roll along the hundreds of miles border fence. ISIS units moved in to encircle the town, and on occasions the fighting was so close to the Turkish border that civilian refugees, Turkish soldiers, and western journalists could easily watch the battles unfold. (See “ISIS, the Kurds, & the Fight for Kobani; Thursday Review; October 20, 2014). In the end, air power helped to halt the advance of ISIS units into the city of Kobani. But those air strikes—numbering in the hundreds now—have not allowed the Kurdish resistance to declare victory, nor have the air strikes been enough to dislodge ISIS units from the area completely. Kobani remains a divided city, and street-fighting between warring factions is now house-to-house.

Despite Dempsey’s willingness to leave discussions of more troops (and troops in closer combat situations) on the table, as it were, he was still reticent last week to consider any large-scale U.S. ground operations in Iraq.

“I just don’t foresee a circumstance,” Dempsey told Congress last week, “when it would be in our interest to take this fight on ourselves with a large military contingent.” Meaning, perhaps, more troops on the ground, and in forward, combat situations—but not in large enough numbers to qualify as “war” by political definitions.

Peter Kassig, whose parents said they were “incredibly proud” of his peaceful, humanitarian work, is now the fifth westerner to be executed by ISIS for the cameras. The beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were followed by the grisly executions of British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines. In all five cases, the ISIS spokesman said the executions were carried out as retribution against U.S. and British involvement in Syria and Iraq. The first four videos featured a black-clad militant who speaks with a specific London accent, sometimes called Multicultural London, but in this fifth video the narrator’s voice has been digitally altered to conceal his voiceprint and vocal characteristics. Experts are unsure whether it is the same man seen in the previous execution videos.

The video purports to even disclose its own location, in this case the northern Syrian town of Dabiq. Dabiq is near the spot where some among ISIS believers think that there will be a decisive battle between devout Muslims and all enemies of Islamic law. Military and intelligence experts have analyzed the video, comparing it to satellite images, and they have concluded they can determine the spot where the video was shot. The new video also shows the execution of 14 captured Syrian soldiers. During the video, numerous ISIS fighters can be seen—their faces unmasked with no attempt to disguise their identities. Law enforcement officials in the U.S. and Europe have already identified several of the ISIS militants, including two British citizens and two French citizens. One of the Frenchmen in that video has been identified as Maxime Hauchard, a self-proclaimed would-be martyr who gave a controversial interview on French television back in July, at which time he boasted that he had helped ISIS units in their attacks on Mosul. Another ISIS militant is the video may be a Welsh medical student, one is believed to be a citizen of Denmark, and at least two of the fighters who show their faces appear to some analysts to be Indonesian or Malaysian.

Why show fighters of such diversity and such a range of ethnicities? Intelligence analysts believe it is a tool to show that ISIS volunteers come from all parts of the world, and by placing them clearly in the video, ISIS may be able to broaden its reach using social media around the world. European and British law enforcement believe that between 500 and 1000 European citizens have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, many of them entering the battlefield by crossing the sometime porous border between Turkey and Syria.

Peter Kassig was 26 years old. He was kidnapped at a checkpoint in Syria while participating in the delivery of food and medical supplies for a humanitarian organization he had helped to found. Kassig was among those which the U.S. military sought to rescue last spring in a failed raid using stealth helicopters. During his captivity, Kassig is reported to have converted to Islam.

Intelligence experts believe that ISIS holds additional hostages, including John Cantlie, a British photojournalist, and an American humanitarian worker whose identity has not been made public.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Cost of Going Back Into Iraq; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 8, 2014.

More U.S. Forces on the Way to Iraq; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 7, 2014.

ISIS, the Kurds, & the Fight for Kobani; Thursday Review; October 20, 2014.