America’s Newest War Spreads To Syria

US launches air strikes against Isil in Syria

The Guardian is live-blogging the US airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. Juan Cole expects them to do little good:

The some 22 sorties flown on Monday will have killed some ISIL terrorists, blown up some weapons warehouses, and destroyed some checkpoints. But ISIL are guerrillas, and they will just fade away into Raqqah’s back alleys. The US belief in air power is touching, but in fact no conflict has ever been quickly brought to an end where US planes have been involved.

Mark Thompson agrees the airstrikes will have limited impact:

The new attacks, against fixed ISIS targets, undoubtedly did significant damage. But they also will force ISIS fighters to hunker down, now that their sanctuary inside Syria has been breached. This means that the jihadists, who have shown little regard for civilians, will move in among them in the relatively few towns and villages in eastern Syria, betting that the U.S. and its allies will not attack them there and risk killing innocents.

That could lead to a stalemate. While air strikes are likely to keep ISIS from massing its forces, and traveling in easy-to-spot convoys, air power can do little to stop small groups of fighters from billeting with and intimidating the local population.

Jeffrey Goldberg admits that “there exists no strategy for victory, and no definition of victory”:

The advantage of launching strikes against ISIS positions early in this fight is that its commanders now have to spend extraordinary amounts of time, energy and resources merely digging in, and protecting their human and materiel assets, rather than pushing on, toward Baghdad, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. A terrorist preoccupied with his own survival has less bandwidth to threaten yours. But these strikes will not bring about the end of ISIS. Like other terror groups, it can “win” this current round of fighting by surviving, and maximizing civilian casualties on its own side.

The relatively easy task for airpower—of blunting ISIS’s lightning offensives against Iraqi cities—may already be accomplished. ISIS has not captured major population centers in Iraq since the beginning of the air campaign and in some areas, such as Haditha and the Baghdad suburbs, it is contributing to modest counteroffensive gains. Tactically, ISIS’s efforts to offensively employ heavy weapons, mass forces on technicals, and stage large amounts of its infrastructure in the open are highly vulnerable to airstrikes. However, it is important to remember that even in Iraq, where the United States has multiple partners and embedded advisers, these airstrikes have yet to precipitate major counteroffensive gains by Iraqi security forces. ISIS has repelled two major counteroffensives in Tikrit using a variety of guerrilla tactics, suggesting that it remains formidable defensively, a strength airpower has rather more difficulty countering.

ISIS’s tactics and structure suggest that rather than hitting only massed ISIS forces in Iraq and its fixed infrastructure across both Iraq and Syria, an offensive campaign should target its battlefield leadership and the elements of the organization necessary for sustaining and coordinating its operations across the region.

But Julien Barnes-Dacey doubts we can defeat ISIS:

The respective positioning of non-IS rebels and Assad highlights an inconvenient truth: as long as Syria’s civil war rages, international attempts to defeat Islamic State militarily will be significantly hampered, particularly if regional allies are also pulling in different directions. While tactical lines may shift as a result of air strikes, they are unlikely to provoke significant strategic realignments. Given their likely inconclusive nature, they risk drawing the West into deeper intervention. While Obama has clearly stated that US intervention in Syria will remain limited, those calling for wider action may see the proposed initial strikes and arming of rebels as the thin edge of the wedge, with further escalation inevitable.

Significantly, narrow air strikes that inflict collateral damage and leave the regime unscathed also risk further empowering Isis, consolidating its self-declared position as the only legitimate defender of Syria’s Sunni population. Isis’s apparent goading of the US to intervene in Syria and Iraq through the public beheading of a number of hostages may appear misguided given the power that the American military can bring to bear. But blunt military intervention may help entrench local support behind the group.

Larison sighs:

Loose talk of “destroying” ISIS practically demanded expanding the war into Syria. Obama stated he would not hesitate to do this. However, there is even less reason to think that U.S. air power will have the desired effect there than it will have in Iraq. It will not be lost on Sunnis in Syria and Iraq (and elsewhere) that the U.S. didn’t intervene directly in the Syrian civil war until it came time to attack a group opposed to their sectarian enemies. Even if the U.S. is not actively cooperating with the Syrian regime in all of this, it will be perceived as siding with it in the current conflict, and that will be to the detriment of American security now and in the future. For the second time this century, the U.S. is fighting a war that will benefit Iran and its regional allies and proxies, and it is doing so in a way that seems sure to trap the U.S. into open-ended fighting for many years to come.

Greenwald piles on:

Six weeks of bombing hasn’t budged ISIS in Iraq, but it has caused ISIS recruitment to soar. That’s all predictable: the U.S. has known for years that what fuels and strengthens anti-American sentiment (and thus anti-American extremism) is exactly what they keep doing: aggression in that region. If you know that, then they know that. At this point, it’s more rational to say they do all of this not despite triggering those outcomes, butbecause of it. Continuously creating and strengthening enemies is a feature, not a bug, as it is what then justifies the ongoing greasing of the profitable and power-vesting machine of Endless War.

And Hayes Brown wonders what comes next:

So far, Washington is mum on just how long the United States plans to keep up the strikes in Syria, though reports indicate that they will not continue at the tempo seen last night. U.S. Central Command has said only that “the U.S. military will continue to conduct targeted airstrikes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq as local forces go on the offensive against this terrorist group.” As for the people living in the areas that are now the target of these airstrikes, residents are reportedly fleeing Raqqa as quickly as possible. “There is an exodus out of Raqqa as we speak,” one resident told Reuters. “It started in the early hours of the day after the strikes. People are fleeing towards the countryside.” As the civil war in Syria has already caused over half of its population to flee their homes, it can only be assumed that the new campaign against ISIS will only exacerbate the refugee crisis the region has struggled to contain.

(Photo: Syrian children stand on the ruins of a destroyed building during a search and rescue operation among the ruins of it, in a region of Idlib, a northwestern city of Syria, on September 23, 2014. The US launched air strikes against ISIS in Idlib. By AA Video/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)