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The Islamic State, Still Resilient After Eighteen Months of Air Strikes

Lack of unity and ground fighters hampering coalition efforts

Despite being on the receiving end of more than eight thousand air strikes flown by the United States-led coalition during the past eighteen months and the loss of an estimated 20,000 of its fighters, the Islamic State (ISIS) does not appear to be closer to defeat according to Western analysts. They suggest the ongoing lack of credible opposition on the ground and disunity among the states arrayed against it is allowing ISIS to pursue its goal of carving a “caliphate”— a state governed by sharia (Islamic law) – out of territory now comprising Iraq and Syria.

Conventional wisdom of recent years suggests that a war cannot be won through air power alone. This understanding appears to be validated through the multi-national campaign against ISIS as the group adapts and survives the attacks against it, Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, told The Media Line. “Before the air strikes started you would be looking at ISIS having administration, training camps, military equipment that was obvious from the air,” he explained. But as coalition strikes target ISIS, a “Darwinian process” occurs whereby fighters either learn to protect themselves from strikes or get hit.

“ISIS adjusts to the air campaign – it disperses its assets, it tries to move among the civilian population, use civilian vehicles,” Binnie said. He also added that “They will probably have to get smart about their communications,” alluding to the ability of the US led coalition to identify ISIS units disguised as civilians by phone calls and other communications its fighters use.

These are standard tactics used by modern guerilla fighters and allow a force to weather the attacks of a technologically superior opponent. For this reason, although the US and its allies have been able to inflict large numbers of casualties, it does not follow that ISIS will necessarily diminish in territorial size.

The role of infantry, the “boots on the ground,” has always been to take and to hold territory. Having friendly aircraft overhead can make the job of the fighters on the ground much easier by inflicting damage on an opponent, but the infantry must still be present.  According to some experts, the problem for the US and its allies is that there is a lack of volunteers to fill this role.

Following two costly and politically unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States administration is reluctant to re-enter the Middle East with Americans troops on the ground. Barak Obama was elected President of the United States on a promise to scale down troop numbers in both theatres and so, aside from occasional raids by Special Forces, there has been little will to deploy US ground forces in response to the Islamic State.

It would be the preferred choice of the Obama administration to rely exclusively on locally sourced ground forces, as the US did with great success during the opening months of the campaign in Afghanistan at the end of 2001. Afghan Northern Alliance fighters made sweeping gains against the Taliban backed by airstrikes from NATO warplanes. A similar strategy was used in Libya during the overthrow of Muammar Ghaddafi. But no such suitable ally is present on the ground in Syria or Iraq.

Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish units are considered by the US to be its most effective allies in the ground war, Binnie said. In one of ISIS’ most high profile defeats, the group lost control of the northern Syrian city of Kobani after committing large numbers of resources and fighters to the capture of the town. Kurdish units backed by coalition airstrikes were able to drive the group back over a number of weeks of fierce fighting.

Unfortunately, this is not a model that could work in areas outside of the Kurdish ethnic group’s territory, Binnie explained. In such areas, Kurdish fighters would be perceived by locals to be interlopers, he suggested. Some accusations by human rights organizations that Kurdish militias had been involved in war crimes and attempts to drive Sunni civilians away from areas they had captured would only underline this point.

In areas of Iraq held by the American-backed government, the military has struggled to regain territory lost to the Islamic State. Where the Iraqi army has had success, around Baghdad primarily, it has done so with the aid of Shiite militias. These armed organizations are often heavily influenced and even funded by Iran, the Janes editor said. Several of these groups were involved in battles with US and British forces during their time in Iraq and therefore make questionable allies for the coalition fighting ISIS. In addition, if they were to push into majority Sunni areas of the country they would face the same problems as Kurdish fighters. A number of allegations of war crimes have been attached to such groups in the past year.

“The problem was that the US chose to disengage and lead from behind,” Nir Boms, a research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line. He explained that because the US did not build military liaisons with Syrian militias during the early years of the Syrian civil war, it was unable to rely on these groups later when it needed them. Although attempts at training and equipping moderate elements of the Syrian rebels were attempted, all were unsuccessful because “the relationship was not formed in a deep enough way,” according to Boms.

Beyond the problem of ground troops, the collection of Western and Sunni Arab states that the US brought together is also foundering. “The coalition is losing its Arab partners… they are more keen on fighting the Shia militia in Yemen than they are on fighting Sunni militias in Syria and Iraq,” Boms said. A coalition of Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, began airstrikes in Yemen in support of the local Sunni government at the start of the year. This has acted as a distraction reducing the effectiveness of the US anti-ISIS coalition.

This lack of unity has been added to by Turkey, “a so called ally of this coalition,” Ely Karmon, an expert in terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC), told The Media Line. Turkey is a predominantly Sunni country and, after the US, has the largest military in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Despite this, the country delayed granting permission to the United States to use Turkish airbases to attack ISIS, Karmon said. To make matters worse, he added, when Turkey did join in air operations against the Islamic State it used them as an excuse to attack Kurdish groups for its own reasons, despite the Kurds being allies of the Americans.

Effectively, “the kind of coalition that the United States is trying to organize is very disparate and has conflicted interests,” Karmon concluded.

Added to this mix is the recent deployment of Russia air force units. President Vladimir Putin’s military began airstrikes at the invitation of the Syrian regime and have been accused of concentrating its efforts against groups other than the Islamic State. This only adds to the confusion in the area and limits the effectiveness of the US-led coalition which now has to organize its actions around the Russians, Karmon explained.

How this may change following a claim of responsibility by ISIS for the downing of a Russian passenger plane is yet to be seen. Investigators have not yet confirmed how the plane, carrying passengers and crew numbering 224 when it blew apart above the Sinai Peninsula, was brought down. But if it was an act by the Islamic State, Putin may come under pressure at home to target the group more proactively.

The resilience of the Islamic State has to be put in perspective. Despite the US coalition’s inability to neutralize and destroy it, ISIS has not been able to expand and is now an isolated enclave surrounded by enemies, he explained.

According to Boms, this too will be used by the group as propaganda.  “Just like Hizbullah was very happy to announce that they had survived the Israeli military in the war in Lebanon, ISIS are very happy to announce that they have survived the Americans.”