Fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) scored another key victory in Iraq this week, overtaking the city of Heet in Anbar province as hundreds of local troops withdrew.
Meanwhile, ISIL fighters have continued to wage a fierce battle against Kurdish forces in the Syrian town of Kobane – even as a US-led coalition intensified its campaign of air strikes in the border region. While the aerial bombardment decimated an ISIL training camp and several groups of fighters, it has failed to halt the group’s advances in Kobane, raising questions about how much the current US strategy can realistically achieve.
Indeed, with the world watching from the other side of the Turkish border, Kobane has become a symbolic battleground in the broader war against ISIL – and a litmus test for the efficacy of the US plan.
“The air strikes still did function, because the expectation was that sometime last week [Kobane] would fall. It didn’t,” Soli Ozel, an international relations expert at Turkey’s Kadir Has University, told Al Jazeera. But air strikes alone will not be enough to end the crisis gripping Iraq and Syria, he added – particularly when the incoherent and ill-equipped assortment of local ground troops cannot adequately take advantage of the openings created by the bombings.
“At some point there’s going to have to be a [larger] ground war, but I don’t think the United States is willing to do it,” Ozel said. “If these so-called coalition forces do not want to put their boots on the ground, somebody else has to do the fighting.”
Washington has been clear that it has no intention of sending American troops back to Iraq, with Secretary of State John Kerry testifying last month before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that US forces would “not be sent into combat”, but rather be available to “support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their country”. On Tuesday, members of the coalition met in Washington to flesh out how that support could look.
In recent months, air strikes have helped Iraqi security forces keep control of areas such as the Mosul Dam, but in the western province of Anbar, ISIL has been on a rampage, with its takeover of Heet putting other key towns at risk of falling. In Kobane, the US appears to have acknowledged that victory is elusive, with Kerry telling a news conference in Cairo this week that the “tragedy” unfolding in the Syrian border town was not the coalition’s top priority – rather, the current focus must be on rebuilding the capacity of the Iraqi army, he said.
Abdulwahab al-Qassab, a former Iraqi military adviser and associate researcher at the Doha Institute’s Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, pointed out that ISIL has become more powerful than local forces: “They have succeeded to disintegrate the Iraqi army against all its technology and armament which had been given by the United States… Wherever [ISIL fighters] go, they can gain,” he said. Some of the disaffected local residents who have swelled ISIL’s ranks could likely be talked out of it, al-Qassab added, but they would first need to trust that coalition forces have their best interests in mind – a difficult task after the disastrous US-led Iraq war.
“Give [local residents] their rights, understand their grievances and try to address it. Otherwise the countries, Iraq and Syria, will be completely dismembered and destroyed,” al-Qassab said.
From the outset, Washington has stressed that air strikes alone would not be sufficient to defeat ISIL; rather, the US “degrade and destroy” strategy hinges on cooperation with effective local ground troops. Unfortunately, this key piece of the plan is missing, experts note.
“To be fair, this alliance is still fairly young, established in an ad hoc way just two or three weeks ago, so we are yet to see it in full strength,” Riad Kahwaji, founder of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, told Al Jazeera.
The bombing campaign has had some success in degrading the capabilities of ISIL by hitting command centres, supply lines and arms depots, he noted, but “we don’t have ground forces to back up the air strikes and translate them into gains on the ground”.
Sectarian strife is at the heart of the problem, Kahwaji noted. Iraq is confronted with a fragmented army that is fighting alongside local Shia militias and anti-ISIL Sunni tribespeople, while other disenchanted Sunnis have gone the other way, joining ISIL’s ranks. “On the Syrian side, it’s the same or even worse mayhem [with] the opposition forces, who still are yet to be united [and] organised within a clear structure, and they lack the weapons to do so,” he said.
ISIL will not simply disappear, allowing the territory it has occupied to be taken over by somebody else.”]
As long as the Iraqi army is seen as sectarian, with Shia militias fighting alongside Iraqi troops, Sunnis will not be an effective player in the larger battle against ISIL, Kahwaji said. The structure of the current conflict is inextricably linked to Iran’s policy of “exporting its revolution to the region”, driving sectarian divides, he added.
“If they fail to end the sectarian rift … then [to stop ISIL], we have to see some foreign forces on the ground – American, western and others,” he said. “They will be compelled to put boots on the ground.”
Ultimately, the high-profile conflict in Kobane and the apparent failure of US strikes to curb ISIL’s spread have prompted larger questions about the efficacy of the air strategy that cannot yet be answered, said James Denselow, a Middle East analyst and director of the New Diplomacy Platform. In the meantime, he told Al Jazeera, is it important to manage expectations: The US-led coalition is just a few weeks into a campaign that President Barack Obama acknowledged could take years.
“ISIL, being very effective communicators and propagandists, are in a way sort of humiliating the US operations by pushing this offensive now,” Denselow said.
“We shouldn’t forget what ISIL is, and what ISIL is, is the world’s richest terrorist organisation in history,” Denselow added, noting the group has extended its reach with oil smuggling, extortion and border controls. “It’s got an estimated $2bn worth of cash, it’s got a huge amount of high-tech heavy weaponry, much of it American-made weaponry, that it seized when it humiliated the Iraqi military… This is not a fly-by-night organisation. The fact that it is now in direct conflict with the Americans has given it a boost in terms of people who would flock to join it or support it.”
While the air strikes may slow ISIL’s advance – forcing it to change tactics, such as to avoid travelling in convoys – a larger ground war appears inevitable, said Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar with the Wilson Center’s Middle East Programme.
“Ultimately there will have to be a ground war; the question is who will fight it,” Ottaway told Al Jazeera. “Members of the alliance do not want to send in ground troops and local forces are weak … [but] ISIL will not simply disappear, allowing the territory it has occupied to be taken over by somebody else.”
According to Denselow, the US may ultimately backtrack on its refusal to send ground troops to combat ISIL. Already the Americans have sent helicopters into battle, posing a threat to the safety of American forces. “Now that they’re in the fight, they might argue that the polling still suggests that the public are happy to take on ISIL,” Denselow said.
But the broader strategy of bolstering local troops and persuading ISIL members to drop their fight and rejoin local armies is something that will take time, he added.
“Of course, with all the focus on this,” Denselow said, “time seems to be something that is not in huge supply.”
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