To stem ISIL advance, US must clarify Syria strategy

Washington’s ‘confused’ policy in Syria, and a strategy of containment rather than destruction have allowed the extremist group to exist despite airstrikes, writes Foreign Correspondent Antoun Issa

A member of Kurdish People Defence Units (YPG) guards near Tel Abyad border gate in northern Syria on June 23, 2015. Sedat Suna/EPA
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The recent losses incurred by ISIL at the hands of Kurdish forces in northern Syria do not necessarily indicate a weakening of the terror group.

The capture of Ain Issa just 55km from the extremist's stronghold of Raqqa and the fall of Tal Abyad on the Syrian-Turkish border were clearly important victories. But they follow an established pattern of gains and losses in the war against ISIL that are unlikely to result in seismic shifts on the ground.

Most of the Kurdish-majority territory lost to ISIL last year has been recaptured and continuing the offensive towards Raqqa and into Arab areas is unlikely.

Ten months after the United States vowed to destroy the group, the militants remain far from extinction, and appear to be growing.

ISIL's dramatic gains in Ramadi and Palmyra in May put the spotlight on the effectiveness of US-led airstrikes and raised doubts about the Obama administration's handling of the war effort.

“Just because somebody in Washington DC says the United States has a strategy, doesn’t mean we actually have a strategy,” said Christopher Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “There’s a huge difference between what we’re saying and what the United States is actually doing.”

Since the campaign against ISIL began last August, the US-led coalition has launched more than 4,200 airstrikes, killing more than 10,000 ISIL fighters according to US officials.

However, data from the Institute for the Study of War shows that the vast majority of airstrikes have been in frontline battles on the fringes of ISIL territory, such as Kobani, with less than 50 airstrikes hitting its key centres Raqqa and Mosul.

“What we are actually doing is applying a minor amount of military pressure around the periphery of ISIL to make sure they don’t expand any further,” Mr Harmer said, adding that American action is currently geared towards containing ISIL rather than destroying it.

One key setback in the US air campaign is the lack of partners on the ground to provide intelligence to strike at ISIL beyond the frontlines, said Joshua Landis, Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.

“The most prolific bombing is in front of various military campaigns, where they have spotters calling in airstrikes on ISIL positions,” he said. But the campaign lacks intelligence on targets from deep inside ISIL-held territory, Mr Landis added.

ISIL’s exceptional ability to blend in among civilians also makes it difficult for the US and its coalition partners to identify targets, Mr Harmer said.

“If you’re trying to bomb fighters who are mobile, intermixing with the population, there are only very brief windows of opportunity to hit those guys without killing civilians,” he said.

Washington’s preference to contain ISIL is also largely linked to its policy in Syria, and its desire to see President Bashar Al Assad removed from power. The US position on Syria is “confused”, Mr Landis said, as Washington tries to juggle priorities between fighting ISIL and pressuring Mr Al Assad.

“The United States sees Assad as an enemy, they’re trying to crush him through economic sanctions, and weaken him by supporting his enemies. This opens the door to ISIL.”

The US refrained from targeting ISIL during its battles with Mr Al Assad’s forces, most notably in Palmyra. “ISIL had surrounded the city and was sitting in the desert for three days where the US could’ve attacked it … they decided to let ISIL take it,” he said.

Washington’s key problem in Syria, Mr Landis said, is that it has no loyal partners on the ground, and opposes the three main forces – Assad, the Army of Conquest consisting of Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, and ISIL. While the Kurds have been a success story for the US in the country’s north-east, they cannot be expected to advance on ISIL deep into Arab territory.

“The US strategy of using the Kurds to roll back ISIL in Syria has come to an end because the Kurds have taken all of their territory,” Mr Landis said.

Although many rejoiced at the Kurdish victory in Tal Abyad, the disparate results in previous weeks on the various fronts against ISIL only further expose the lack of a clear, coherent US strategy to tackle the ISIL threat.

“The Kurds are getting a lot out of this American aid, the Iraqis are frustrated, and Assad is of course getting zero,” Mr Landis said.

Both analysts agree that the US will not be able to deal a death blow to ISIL until it finds reliable ground partners able to do its bidding, and adopts a clear policy on the Syrian conflict to avoid further ISIL advances.