FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

More Planes Than Targets: Why the Air War on ISIS Will Fail

by

Britain has now joined a US-led campaign to weaken and ultimately defeat Isis in which air power is very much the dominant component. The British contribution will not make much difference because there are already far more aircraft available than there are identifiable targets.

The coalition has conducted 59,015 sorties in Iraq and Syria starting in August 2014, of which only 8,573 have resulted in air strikes, indicating that the great majority of planes return to their bases without having used their weapons.

Even if Britain’s role is symbolic at this stage, it has joined a very real war against an enemy of great ferocity and experience, not least of air attacks. The highly informed Turkish military analystMetin Gurcan, writing on Al-Monitor website, says that air strikes may have been effective against Isis communications and training facilities, but adds that “it is extraordinary that there is not a single [Isis] control facility that has been hit by allied air strikes”.

This is not for lack of trying and shows that talk of destroying Isis command and control centres in Raqqa is wishful thinking, given that 2,934 American air strikes in Syria have failed to do so over the last 14 months.

Air strikes have had an impact on Isis’s tactics and casualty rate, above all when they are used in close co-operation with a well-organised ground force like the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Isis may have lost as many as 2,200 fighters at Kobani which is a small and closely packed city. On the other hand, the length of time it took to drive Isis out of it with 700 air strikes demonstrated their fighters’ willingness to die.

Many Isis commanders reportedly regard their tactics at Kobani as a mistake which cost the group too many casualties and which it should not repeat. To do so it sacrificed two of its most important military assets which are  mobility and surprise. This does not mean that it will not fight to the last bullet for cities like Raqqa and Mosul, but it did not do so for Tikrit and Sinjar where it used snipers, booby traps and IEDs, but did not commit large detachments of troops.

Isis has modified its tactics to take account of the continuing risk of air strikes. It now has a decentralised command structure, with tactical decisions being taken by leaders of small units of eight to 10 men, whose overall mission is determined from the centre – but not how it should be accomplished. This limits the ability of its opponents to monitor its communications.

Its forces assemble swiftly and attack soon afterwards with multiple diversionary operations, as was seen when Mosul was captured in June 2014 and again when they took Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, this May.

They had been fighting their way into Baiji refinery, but this turned out to be a diversion and Isis units pulled back from there as soon as Ramadi fell.

Isis’s approach is to use a mixture of conventional, guerrilla and terrorist tactics, none unique in themselves, but they have never been used before in combination. Air strikes mean that it is less able to use captured tanks or big concentrations of vehicles packed with fighters. Instead it uses IEDs, booby traps, snipers and mortar teams in even greater numbers.

Public martyrdom as an expression of religious faith is such a central part of its ideology that it can deploy suicide bombers on foot or in vehicles in great numbers to destroy fortifications and demoralize the enemy. Some 28 suicide bombers were reportedly used in the final stages of the battle for Ramadi. Psychological warfare has always been an important element of Isis’s tactical armory. It has sought to terrify opposition forces by showing videos in which captured Iraqi or Syrian soldiers are filmed being ritually decapitated or shot in the head.

Sometimes, the families of Syrian soldiers get a phone call from their son’s mobile with a picture of his body with his severed head on his chest. Mass killings of prisoners have taken place after all Isis’s victories (the al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front, does the same thing).

Heavy air attack will increase Isis’s losses and it will be more difficult to bring in foreign volunteers through Turkey because most of the border is now closed. But Isis rules an area with a population of at least six million and conscripts all young men, who often want to become fighters because there is no other employment. Isis may have a fighting force of 100,000 men, as is strongly suggested by the very long front lines it holds and its ability to make multiple attacks simultaneously. Whatever Britain’s role, we will be fighting a formidable military machine.

 

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

Weekend Edition
February 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Richard D. Wolff
Capitalism as Obstacle to Equality and Democracy: the US Story
Paul Street
Where’s the Beef Stroganoff? Eight Sacrilegious Reflections on Russiagate
Jeffrey St. Clair
They Came, They Saw, They Tweeted
Andrew Levine
Their Meddlers and Ours
Charles Pierson
Nuclear Nonproliferation, American Style
Joseph Essertier
Why Japan’s Ultranationalists Hate the Olympic Truce
W. T. Whitney
US and Allies Look to Military Intervention in Venezuela
John Laforge
Maybe All Threats of Mass Destruction are “Mentally Deranged”
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: an American Reckoning
David Rosen
For Some Reason, Being White Still Matters
Robert Fantina
Nikki Haley: the U.S. Embarrassment at the United Nations
Joyce Nelson
Why Mueller’s Indictments Are Hugely Important
Joshua Frank
Pearl Jam, Will You Help Stop Sen. Tester From Destroying Montana’s Public Lands?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Attack on Historical Perspective
Conn Hallinan
Immigration and the Italian Elections
George Ochenski
The Great Danger of Anthropocentricity
Pete Dolack
China Can’t Save Capitalism from Environmental Destruction
Joseph Natoli
Broken Lives
Manuel García, Jr.
Why Did Russia Vote For Trump?
Geoff Dutton
One Regime to Rule Them All
Torkil Lauesen – Gabriel Kuhn
Radical Theory and Academia: a Thorny Relationship
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Work of Persuasion
Thomas Klikauer
Umberto Eco and Germany’s New Fascism
George Burchett
La Folie Des Grandeurs
Howard Lisnoff
Minister of War
Eileen Appelbaum
Why Trump’s Plan Won’t Solve the Problems of America’s Crumbling Infrastructure
Ramzy Baroud
More Than a Fight over Couscous: Why the Palestinian Narrative Must Be Embraced
Jill Richardson
Mass Shootings Shouldn’t Be the Only Time We Talk About Mental Illness
Jessicah Pierre
Racism is Killing African American Mothers
Steve Horn
Wyoming Now Third State to Propose ALEC Bill Cracking Down on Pipeline Protests
David Griscom
When ‘Fake News’ is Good For Business
Barton Kunstler
Brainwashed Nation
Griffin Bird
I’m an Eagle Scout and I Don’t Want Pipelines in My Wilderness
Edward Curtin
The Coming Wars to End All Wars
Missy Comley Beattie
Message To New Activists
Jonah Raskin
Literary Hubbub in Sonoma: Novel about Mrs. Jack London Roils the Faithful
Binoy Kampmark
Frontiersman of the Internet: John Perry Barlow
Chelli Stanley
The Mirrors of Palestine
James McEnteer
How Brexit Won World War Two
Ralph Nader
Absorbing the Irresistible Consumer Reports Magazine
Cesar Chelala
A Word I Shouldn’t Use
Louis Proyect
Marx at the Movies
Osha Neumann
A White Guy Watches “The Black Panther”
Stephen Cooper
Rebel Talk with Nattali Rize: the Interview
David Yearsley
Market Music
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail