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