So much for “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State with a combination of safe bombing runs and shoving proxy armies into the field against the head-choppers. The effectiveness of the air campaign remains highly debatable, despite weekly promises from the Obama Administration that the tide is turning. NBC News reviewed data that suggested ISIS has, if anything, “stepped up” attacks since the bombings began, with the head of Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center concluding, “The airstrikes certainly aren’t impairing their ability to intensify their attacks or carry out their campaign… they’re not cowed by them, they’re not afraid.”
The New York Times claims the air strikes have “blunted” ISIS but angered civilians, although it turns out they’re referring exclusively to the Syrian theater:
American airstrikes on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the vaunted capital of the Islamic State???s self-proclaimed caliphate, have scattered its fighters and disrupted the harsh system they had imposed, residents and visitors there say. But they see no gratitude toward the United States.
Rather, they suggested in interviews, many people are angry at the Americans. Food and fuel prices in Raqqa have soared, power blackouts have prevailed, and order is now threatened by a vacuum of any authority.
For all their violence and intolerance toward disbelievers, the fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, at least functioned as a government, providing basic services and some semblance of stability.
???People don???t want some outside power to attack,??? Khalid Farhan, a Raqqa resident, said during a recent trip to Turkey.
The anger in Raqqa underscored the potentially destabilizing consequences of the United States-led military campaign, in a place where there was little desire to see the Syrian government or other rebel groups return to power. The campaign also risks further alienating Syrians in opposition areas in the north who were already angered by the Obama administration???s narrow focus on destroying the Islamic State and refusal to counter attacks by the Syrian military.
The people who live in the area said, in essence, that they found the savagery of ISIS off-putting, but at least they brought a sense of order to an area that used to be a Wild West shoot-out between rebel factions. Some of the residents told the New York Times that the primary benefit they see to the U.S. bombing campaign is a halt to “indiscriminate bombings by the Syrian Air Force.” Not exactly the target we’re supposed to be shooting at, is it? The Syrians are our de facto allies against ISIS, now that ISIS is no longer our de facto ally against the Assad regime in Syria.
Pressure has been mounting against President Obama, particularly from the Turks, to expand the war into a direct attack on the Assad regime. This is not only a matter of long-standing emnity between Turkey and Assad, but also unhappiness over refugees from the Syrian civil war flooding into Turkey, and the ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood to expand its influence in a post-Assad Syria. Sources tell CNN that Obama has “asked his national security team for another review of the U.S. policy toward Syria after realizing that ISIS may not be defeated without a political transition in Syria and the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.” The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), has apparently heard the same rumors.
“The President has asked us to look again at how this fits together,” one senior official said. “The long-running Syria problem is now compounded by the reality that to genuinely defeat ISIL, we need not only a defeat in Iraq but a defeat in Syria.” The U.S. government refers to ISIS as ISIL.
Multiple senior administration officials and diplomats spoke with CNN on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions. The White House referred questions about the review to the State Department.
Meanwhile, other sources denied to CNN that Obama has ordered a review, but admit there is concern about some core aspects of the strategy. A senior administration official, responding to a CNN report, says there is an ongoing discussion and “constant process of recalibration.”
CNN follows this up with some argle-bargle from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes about how everything is going great, just like the White House constantly insists to the media, but running a world-class five-star degrade-and-ultimately-destroy operation requires taking a hard look at what you’re doing on a regular basis, and maybe the latest round of hard looks indicated that fine-tuning this brilliant strategy involves launching a second war on top of the first one.
A “senior Administration official” then allows as to how gosh, you know what, the existing strategy of “Iraq first” is starting to look “untenable” due to “developments on the ground,” so maybe it’s time to look at a range of options including a no-fly zone on the Turkish border, plus that old standby of wishful Assad-ISIS thinking, more training and weapons for the moderate opposition.
It’s going to take some awesome training and wrath-of-God weapons to help that “moderate” opposition defeat both Assad and the evil elements of the resistance, because the Associated Press reports that a long-feared alliance has been struck:
Militant leaders from the Islamic State group and al-Qaida gathered at a farm house in northern Syria last week and agreed on a plan to stop fighting each other and work together against their opponents, a high-level Syrian opposition official and a rebel commander have told The Associated Press.
Such an accord could present new difficulties for Washington’s strategy against the IS group. While warplanes from a U.S.-led coalition strike militants from the air, the Obama administration has counted on arming “moderate” rebel factions to push them back on the ground. Those rebels, already considered relatively weak and disorganized, would face far stronger opposition if the two heavy-hitting militant groups now are working together.
IS – the group that has seized nearly a third of Syria and Iraq with a campaign of brutality and beheadings this year – and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, have fought each other bitterly for more than a year to dominate the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
There’s still bad blood between ISIS and their old mentors in al-Qaeda, so it’s a limited alliance, and the intelligence community thinks the new deal could unravel easily, although that sounds like bit of fingers-crossed best-case thinking. The “moderates” were outgunned to begin with, and there’s always the chance successful tactical cooperation will lead to more integration between the forces of darkness. It sounds like that farmhouse meeting was quite the monster’s ball:
According to the opposition official, the meeting included an IS representative, two emissaries from Nusra Front, and attendees from the Khorasan Group, a small but battle-hardened band of al-Qaida veterans from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also reported present at the meeting was Jund al-Aqsa, a hard-line faction that has sworn allegiance to IS; and Ahrar al-Sham, a conservative Muslim rebel group.
The official said IS and the Nusra Front agreed to work to destroy the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, a prominent rebel faction armed and trained by the United States and led by a fighter named Jamal Maarouf. They agreed to keep fighting until all of the force, estimated to be 10,000 to 12,000 fighters, was eliminated, the official said.
During the meeting, IS also offered to send extra fighters to Nusra Front for an assault it launched last week on Western-backed rebels from the Hazm Movement near the town of Khan al-Sunbul in northern Syria, the official said. IS sent about 100 fighters in 22 pickup trucks but Nusra ended up not needing the assistance, he said, because Hazm decided not to engage in the fight. Sixty-five Hazm fighters defected to Nusra, he said.
Ahrar al-Sham is the group we suddenly started bombing a week ago, on the theory that they were poised to swear allegiance to al-Qaeda, even though they’ve cooperated with Western-backed rebels in the past. This led one Syrian activist to growl, “We are tired of people saying they are coming to help us, and then they kill us.” It sounds like the bloody chaos in Syria is providing the Big Uglies with fertile ground for alliances and recruiting efforts. Knocking out Assad would relieve some of those pressures, and free up the “moderate rebels” to turn their full strength against ISIS and al-Qaeda… assuming they want to follow up the defeat of Assad with a bloody battle against his even more brutal erstwhile enemies. That seems like a very shaky bet.
As it stands, the “moderate” rebels are so put-upon that the Administration is looking at establishing a “safe zone” in northern Syria where they can hole up, lest they be massacred or driven out of Syria entirely. The Turks are demanding such support for the moderate rebels after forces armed and trained by the United States were routed by al-Qaeda and its allies last week.
That’s not a situation that fills one with confidence that the Free Syrian Army and its chums can take out al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Assad. It’s hard to see how a new reality can be created without a significant American presence on the ground, especially given that Assad is unlikely to take the establishment of a “safe zone” on his turf in good humor. That means Obama will be forced to do something he swore up, down, and sideways he’d never do, as foreshadowed by CBS News:
In Washington, U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Thursday that the United States would consider dispatching a modest number of American forces to fight with Iraqi troops as they engage in more complex missions in the campaign against ISIS militants.
???I???m not predicting at this point that I would recommend that those forces in Mosul and along the border would need to be accompanied by U.S. forces, but we???re certainly considering it,??? Dempsey told the House Armed Services Committee.
If the war expands to either an incursion on Assad’s territory or direct attacks on his regime, the number of American troops sent into the fray won’t remain “modest” for long.
In another bummer development, it looks like ISIS mastermind Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is considerably less dead than previously hoped, as he released an audio recording that mentioned events following his hoped-for death in an airstrike last weekend, encouraged his followers to “explode the volcanoes of jihad everywhere,” and blew raspberries at the Obama Administration’s degrade-and-destroy efforts:
Al-Baghdadi said in his statement that the coalition effort had failed to repel his fighters.
???They thought and they estimated, they planned and they conspired, and they prepared to hit the Islamic State, and then they emerged with a failed plan that was to shell the sites of the Islamic State, and its brigades and its vehicles and its soldiers to halt its advance ??? but quickly the failure of this plan was apparent,??? he said. ???Soon the Jews and Crusaders will be forced to descend to earth, and to send its ground forces to its end and destruction, by God???s will.???
He pointed to the announcement of additional troops as proof the airstrikes were not working.
???And here is Obama, sending another 1,500 troops, claiming they are advisers, because the strikes of the Crusaders that continue night and day on the sites of the Islamic State have not halted its advance,??? al-Baghdadi said.
He urged Muslims to wage holy war everywhere, and to attack and kill ???apostates??? in Saudi Arabia and Yemen specifically. He also vowed that his group???s advance would ???reach Rome.??? Islamic militants often refer to Rome as a symbol of Europe.
It’s a lot of hot air, but then again, so is everything emanating from the Obama White House. Even as we hope al-Baghdadi is delivering this address from a blood-soaked deathbed in an ISIS field hospital, we should note that he’s right about one thing: if ISIS is able to force Obama to make the kind of strategic adjustments he promised the American people he would never, ever make, then Obama is not currently winning this war. If his moderate Syrian proxies are crushed, it’s hard to see how his old strategy could possibly work. Every military effort has a few reversals of fortune; no plan survives contact with the enemy. But when the essential elements of a grand strategy are compromised, to the point that one of the armies integral to success is getting wiped out, something more than a minor setback has occurred.