UK, Germany join air war on ISIS, but long fight ahead

Friday 11/12/2015
Reconnaissance jet of German Air Force

BEIRUT - Britain and Germany have joined the French air war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and pressure is mounting on the Netherlands to join the US-led coalition fighting the group Brit­ish Prime Minister David Cameron branded “medieval murderers”.
But despite the European surge to join the fray, largely in response to ISIS’s savage November 13th at­tacks in Paris in which 130 people were killed and hundreds wound­ed, there is growing concern that air power alone will not crush ISIS, which has flourished amid the tur­moil in Syria and Iraq and controls a self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate spanning both countries.
It is becoming increasingly evi­dent that 15 months of coalition air strikes in Iraq, 95% of them car­ried out by the Americans, have not driven ISIS out of territory it has conquered.
The addition of a few dozen Euro­pean strike jets is not going to make much difference unless there is a sustained and large-scale offensive on the ground. Cameron warned darkly that the fight will be long and hard.
“It’s important to highlight that a victory against such a group will neither be easy nor fast,” observed Beirut-based analyst Haid Haid. “The slow progress of the current air strikes is allowing the group to adapt its tactics to reduce losses.
“The anti-ISIS air strikes in Iraq and Syria were able to harm ISIS on many different levels: financially, militarily and by restricting their movements and so on. However, the majority of these gains are tac­tical and have not translated into a strategic victory over ISIS… In other words, the air strikes are not an ex­istential threat to ISIS.”
There are signs that US President Barack Obama is finally moving to­wards what he has long struggled to avoid: American boots on the ground in Syria. Right now, that is limited to inserting a 100-man spe­cial operations forces team in Iraq to operate in the Syrian desert east of the Euphrates, with killing or capturing ISIS leaders its primary mission.
There is a swell of opinion in the military establishment that this could be the nucleus of a larger US-led force similar to the special­ised US-British counter-insurgency group that proved so effective dur­ing the Iraq war.
The British and German contribu­tions to the growing air offensive are modest — a reinforced wing of a dozen Tornado and Typhoon jets operating from the Royal Air Force base at Akrotiri on Cyprus from Britain; six Tornado reconnaissance jets, a navy frigate and an A310 aeri­al tanker aircraft from Germany.
France, which also has forces in Mali fighting jihadists in the Sahel region, remains the main Euro­pean contributor. It has 15 fighter jets based in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates and 25 more aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle now heading to the eastern Mediterranean.
Britain’s parliament approved Cameron’s call to hit ISIS in a re­sounding 397-223 vote on Decem­ber 2nd after a fiery debate, setting aside bitter memories of how the country was hoodwinked into join­ing the United States in the 2003 in­vasion of Iraq, which spawned what is now ISIS.
Two days later, Germany’s Bun­destag gave the green light for send­ing forces to join the war against ISIS, a sharp reversal of Germany’s traditional reluctance to engage in foreign military operations.
The air build-up underlines Eu­rope’s alarm over the ISIS threat but it also increases the perils inher­ent in the steady expansion of the complex, multifaceted war in Syria, now in its fifth year. Bombing ISIS bases will undoubtedly cause civil­ian casualties that could drive many recruits into the group’s arms.
Cameron claims there are 70,000 “moderate” rebels in Syria who can beat ISIS but his assessment is con­sidered to be wildly optimistic be­cause of the poor military capabili­ties of the groups and their endless ideological rivalries.
What is missing is a political strat­egy aimed at understanding what makes ISIS tick and why it attracts such large numbers of recruits.
And there is the question of Syr­ian President Bashar Assad and his brutal regime backed by Iran and Russia, whose air force has been bombing Western-backed rebels rather than ISIS because Moscow’s main objective is keeping Assad in power. That can only prolong a war that has killed 250,000 people and left half of Syria’s 23 million popula­tion displaced.
Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar, author of the just-published The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of Insurgency and who has met many of the rebel chief­tains, notes that the rebels are badly splintered with many sharing jihad­ist ideology.
He conceded that Cameron’s 70,000 fighters exist but stressed: “In reality, they will not dedicate all their forces in fighting ISIS. They will not suddenly overnight become British tools to fight ISIS as long as they’re having to fight Assad.”