Will U.S. Airstrikes Stop ISIS?

ISIS Fighters

Image courtesy of Reuters.

Will U.S. Airstrikes Stop ISIS?
| published August 10, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The flashpoints around the world are numerous: intense fighting in the Ukraine between forces loyal to the government in Kiev and heavily-armed pro-Russian militants defending positions in Eastern Ukraine; continued rocket and missile launches back and forth between Israel and Hamas fighters in Gaza, as well as on-again-off-again attempts at a ceasefire; serious concerns that Middle East instability will spill over into Lebanon, Turkey, even Saudi Arabia; deadly attacks on Coalition forces in Afghanistan, including a machine-gun assault which killed an American general and a high-ranking German commander.

Then, there are the blitzkrieg military actions of ISIS, or ISIL, as it is sometimes called, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. ISIS fighters, heavily armed, are now being confronted by airstrikes carried out by the United States. U.S. President Barack Obama says the strikes will be a part of a sustained campaign against ISIS positions, but he stresses that there are no immediate or long-term plans to put U.S. Marines or Army personnel on the ground in Iraq.

ISIS, an offshoot of al Qaeda and other Islamic radical groups, sprang suddenly and dangerously out of the chaos and lawlessness of northern Syria during the last two years of Syria’s bloody, protracted civil war. Co-opting the fighters and militants battling the government of Bashir al Assad, and consolidating its weaponry with militant groups as far north as the border with Turkey, ISIS began a high-speed military campaign in June—sweeping across much of northern and eastern Syria, driving headlong into Iraq, and capturing scores of towns.

Ahead of its advance, Iraqi troops and Iraqi security forces largely fled their positions, dropped their weapons and equipment, and even abandoned a billion dollars’ worth of military hardware, including Jeeps, Humvees, tanks, personnel carriers, SUV’s outfitted with heavy guns, and ammunition. Those Iraqi soldiers and police who were captured were summarily executed—shot in the head while being videotaped by ISIS social media handlers, or beheaded in front of crowds and cameras. Stores were looted, banks were swept clean of cash and gold, and local citizens forced to give their allegiance to ISIS in its goal to create a caliphate stretching from the frontier of Turkey across to the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

In the weeks that followed, oil pipelines were captured by militants and oil refineries fell into ISIS hands, including the enormous oil distribution center at Baiji. ISIS swept westward through Iraq, and eventually took over border checkpoints along the roads connecting Jordan with Iraq. ISIS took control of Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq. ISIS fighters also seized the strategically important Mosul Dam (though as of this week there have been conflicting reports as to who, exactly, commands the dam’s control center).

The dam is critical. North of the dam is a vast man-made, managed lake containing trillions of gallons of water. If opened up, or deliberately destroyed, the pent-up waters of the Tigris River could flood nearly all of the city of Mosul, killing or displacing nearly a million people, and wiping out vast tracts of farmland, fruit groves, and infrastructure on both the Left Coast and Right Coast of greater Mosul. Furthermore, the resulting flood could kill thousands downstream, through cities and towns like Hamman al Alil and Azwya, and flooding areas even as far south as Baghdad. The flooding could also disrupt the operations of the oil depot at Baiji, which sits just a few kilometers from the Tigris, and the Baiji power station, which is only a few hundred yards from the river’s edge.

In less than a month, the rapid advance of ISIS and the complete and total collapse of the Iraqi army have threatened to unravel a nation and render useless U.S. military intervention which cost hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

Worse, ISIS fighters are using primarily weaponry and hardware left behind by the United States, and, after consolidating its territorial gains across much of Iraq, it has recently turned those weapons upon religious minorities—most especially those groups it deems antithetical to the strictest interpretations of Islamic law. This includes Kurds (and some Kurdish Christians), who number in the hundreds of thousands, and tens of thousands of Yezidis, whom the ISIS militants consider infidels. In the towns of Koja and Qaboshi, at least 300 Yezidis families (nearly 1200 people total) have been threatened with immediate execution by firing squad if they do not convert to Islam.

Thousands of Yezidis have fled villages and homes and sought refuge in extreme summer conditions on the mountain tops in Kurdish areas, the majority of them clustered in makeshift camps on Mount Sinjar. Under siege from ISIS militants, the Yezidis trapped in their refuge have been on the brink of being wiped out in what would no doubt be a humanitarian disaster, even outright genocide.

Beginning a few days ago, the United States began bombing ISIS artillery and mortar positions in several areas, including near Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital. U.S. Navy transport planes, flanked by Navy fighter jets, have made flights near the mountains, where food and water has been air-dropped into the camps. Air-dropped in were more than 36 thousand meals-ready-to-eat and thousands of bottles of drinking water, though some Iraqi officials and some eyewitness reports from nearby areas say that some of the drops—which were made from between 10 and 15 thousand feet, exploded on impact when hitting the ground, dispersing the water and ruining the food.

On Sunday, at least 20 thousand Yezidis were rescued from camps and positions on Mount Sinjar, and—escorted by Kurdish fighters—the Yezidis were taken toward the Iraq-Syria border along corridors deemed safe from ISIS militants. Other Yezidis are reportedly still trapped in refuges along Mount Sinjar and in other remote areas, where they lack food, water and medical supplies.

The United Kingdom is also participating in the humanitarian efforts. On Saturday, British supply planes dropped in tents, first aid supplies and additional bottled water. On Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by phone with U.K. Secretary for Defense Michael Fallon. The two military commanders agreed to continue to coordinate relief efforts as well as coordinate military strategy for the aerial campaign against ISIS positions. Some airstrikes over the weekend were also aimed at assisting Kurdish positions near Erbil and Mosul. The U.S. is using fighter jets, high-altitude flyovers, and weaponized drones to attack ISIS positions on the ground.

The targeted military air strikes will continue, according to President Obama. But in Washington there is a now an intense debate over what steps the United States should take to intervene. Republicans in Congress have been vocal in their criticism of the President’s handling of the growing crisis in Iraq. Republicans—and a few Democrats—are complaining that U.S. intervention has arrived too late, and in too small a dosage, to be effective in stopping Iraq’s fragmentation.

U.S. troops withdrew completely from Iraq in late 2012. But under the guidance of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, virtually no efforts were made to bridge the deep sectarian divide separating Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite populations. Al-Maliki, a Shiite, is largely supported by leaders in neighboring Iran, a predominantly Shiite nation. Al-Maliki has shunned many Sunni political leaders and offered very few government jobs to Sunnis. Iraqi military officers have been picked and promoted largely for their loyalty to al-Maliki, and for their Shiite credentials. Most analysts say that al-Maliki is seeking to channel fear and stoke disruption to his favor in upcoming elections, at which time he will seek a third term.

President Obama has continually stressed that U.S. support for Iraq and for al-Maliki must be contingent upon the prime minister becoming more inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds in the government and in the Iraqi military Iraqi hierarchy. Even Iraq’s highest ranking Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a Shiite, has pleaded publicly that al-Maliki open up a dialog with Sunnis and Kurds as a first step toward diffusing ethnic tensions and sectarian strife, and as an essential step toward averting an all-out civil war.

The Iraqi parliament is deeply divided over who should become the next prime minister, though al-Maliki appears to be the front-runner by default. Talk of establishing a more inclusive government abruptly ended when Parliament adjourned until August 19. Critics of Maliki say that Parliament’s non-action works to his advantage—the longer Iraqi representatives debate and argue, the more the indecision and divisiveness shores up Maliki’s position.

ISIS rapid advance across Syria and Iraq has sent shockwaves through much of the Middle East, menacing the borders of Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and threatening the stability of all of these countries.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Iraq’s Maliki: Under Pressure; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 21, 2014.

Iraq’s Collapse & The Consequences for Saudi Arabia; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 16, 2014.