As the United States begins bombing runs in Syria, a new Washington Post report raises questions as to how effective U.S. air power can be when delivered without ground support:
After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.
Although the airstrikes appear to have stopped the extremists’ march toward Baghdad, the Islamic State is still dealing humiliating blows to the Iraqi Army. On Monday, the government acknowledged that it had lost control of the small town of Sichar and lost contact with several hundred of its soldiers who had been besieged for nearly a week at a camp north of the Islamic State stronghold of Falluja, in Anbar Province.
When the United States has been able to work with troops on the ground, whether Sunni or Shiite militias, the Iraqi Army, or the Kurds, it has pushed ISIS back. But otherwise:
“It doesn’t look like anyone is moving at all,” said Michael Stephens, a researcher based in Doha, Qatar, at the Royal United Services Institute who recently returned from Iraq. “People have basically just dug trenches.”
As potent as air power is (and the USAF, as well as Naval Aviation, are an unparalleled global force), it is not a cure-all. Absent a combined-arms attack between air and ground forces, a determined enemy can survive even a savage aerial bombardment. In the 2006 war in Lebanon, Hezbollah picked a fight with an advanced air power, Israel, that was hesitant to put boots on the ground based on its past experiences there. Hezbollah was able to sustain a month-long bombardment from advanced weapons while sustaining only a few hundred killed and no detriment to their ability to fire missiles at Israel.
The key commonality between Hezbollah’s experience and the current efforts in Iraq and Syria is that in each case, the terrorist group had enough forewarning to dig in. President Obama’s deliberations over the current strikes have been publicized and analyzed from many angles, and one of the downsides may have been giving the enemy enough warning to render our sharpest tool less effective.