“Air strikes alone are really not enough to defeat ISIS in Kobane. They are besieging the city on three sides, and fighter jets simply cannot hit each and every ISIS fighter on the ground,” Idris Nassan, a senior Kurdish spokesman, told the Guardian, using one of the group’s acronyms. He added: “Each time a jet approaches, they leave their open positions, they scatter and hide.”
While U.S. officials maintain the airstrikes have disrupted the Islamic State, helped recapture a pivotal Iraq dam and forced the group to travel in smaller units and under the cover of darkness, the Kurd spokesman’s remarks echoes mounting criticism locally and abroad of a U.S. policy that hasn’t yet defeated the group.
“The strikes are useless so far,” Mohammad Hassan, a Syrian activist warring against the Bashar al-Assad regime, told the Wall Street Journal. “Most of the training camps and the bases were empty when the coalition hit them.”
Michael Stephens, an analyst based in Doha, Qatar, recently told the New York Times the airstrikes haven’t appeared to alter the broader scope of the wars in Iraq and Syria. “It doesn’t look like anyone is moving at all,” he said. “People have basically just dug trenches.”
So why has a policy, which has already cost between $780 and $930 million, not done that much? It’s complicated. Islamic State militants have responded quickly and adroitly to the tactic, the Journal reported, vacating targeted locations and moving weapons and hostages to new bases of operation. Many black flags have been removed, and militants are disguising themselves among civilians. “The airstrikes have been lamer than expected,” one Islamic State militant told the paper.
Another fighter, Abu Talha, boasted to the Christian Science Monitor: “They hit us in some areas, and we advance in others. If we are pushed back in Iraq, we advance in northern Syria. These strikes cannot stop us, our support or our fighters.”
The strikes are clearly still in their early stages, and it’s difficult to determine the long-term success without more substantive evidence. But even in a few weeks, there have been several disappointments. One leading the list, experts said, is there has been no repeat of the so-called “Sunni Awakening,” an uprising of Northern Sunnis who helped fight insurgent forces during the surge in 2007.
Before the surge, according to the New America Foundation, airstrikes did little to dent al-Qaeda forces operating in Iraq. “From 2004 to 2006, the U.S. military conducted an astonishing number of special operations and airstrikes against [al-Qaeda] and other hardline insurgent groups in Iraq’s Sunni areas, but despite the physical damage that these operations inflicted on [al-Qaeda], the group grew stronger on the ground.”
What tilted the balance were al-Qaeda’s own hard-line tactics that turned the local population against it, unleashing a backlash that hastened defeat. “In 2014, ISIS appears to have learned from [al-Qaeda’s] mistakes to some degree,” New America Foundation reported. “Thus far, ISIS has mainly avoided the measures that offended and angered Iraqi Sunnis.”
Iraqi military forces have meanwhile suffered some serious defeats. Several weeks ago, in Iraq’s western Anbar province, the Islamic State laid siege to an Iraqi army base, which led to the disappearance of 300 to 500 soldiers feared to be dead, kidnapped or hiding. Either way, The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris reported, the defeat again exposed the shortcomings in an army the United States poured billions into.
Islamic State militants, who have continued to hold onto much of their seized territory, then launched an ambitious attack on the Syrian city of Kobani, near Turkey. There, Kurdish forces say the airstrikes have done little to diminish the capabilities of the Islamic State, which has surged within two kilometers of Kobani, the Guardian reported.
The Islamic State “is not really structured in such a way as to be vulnerable to airstrikes,” Christopher Harmer, a defense analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told the Wall Street Journal. “They don’t have a lot of static targets. We can bomb a building here, a building there, a tank here, a tank there. But ISIS fighters are very good at intermingling with the civilian population.”