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Leading from Behind
ISIS Advances in Syria Despite US Airstrikes

The U.S. has been bombing ISIS positions in  Syria since September. The results? A map in The Wall Street Journal tells the tale:

Syria, before and after. Map created by Wall Street Journal

Syria, before and after. Map created by Wall Street Journal

The U.S. has the world’s most powerful air force, so how can this be so? Well for one thing, as we have pointed out, “airstrikes” is a general term—the actual number of bombs we have been dropping is historically small in number. For another, we gave the enemy plenty of warning we were coming. As the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war demonstrated, a ground force can survive in the face of overwhelming air power if it has time to dig in first.

But above all, we have no ground troops in Syria with which we are coordinating to press the attack. In Iraq, we have been successful in driving back ISIS in combined-arms efforts coordinated with ground troops. But in Syria, the Administration has no allies that it feels it can work with. While thought of cooperation with the Assad regime is repulsive, we are also reluctant to take them out because of our ongoing attempts to make nice with Iran. That demolishes a lot of our credibility with the few forces that are anti-regime but not Islamists, and our plans to build our own local support are years away from fruition.

In Iraq, we have a plan, and slowly but surely it seems to be working. In Syria, we’re adrift. And as the old adage has it, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

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  • Greg Olsen

    We can hypothesize an alternate scenario unfolding. I don’t stalk the halls of power, but being generous in assessing the foreign policy acumen of the administration, perhaps they are attempting to calibrate the response to maintain a stalemate in Syria. Weaken ISIL too much and you benefit the Assad regime and Hezbollah, Iran’s proxies. Weaken both ISIL and the Assad regime you benefit the Kurds which would threaten intervention by Turkey. The administration wants all sides grinding each other up. I doubt the administration has a grand plan for the region, when the best outcome for stability would be a dissolution of the current Sykes-Picot borders and the establishment of states divided on sectarian lines. I am guessing the administration is approving every air strike with great faith in their technocratic ability to calibrate the effect and avoid escalating the conflict where we only have peripheral interest, nor substantially altering the balance of power between belligerents.

  • gabrielsyme

    our credibility with the few forces that are anti-regime but not Islamists

    Of course, a great proportion of the forces we thought were “anti-regime but not Islamists” at the start of this debate either turned into Islamists or turned out always to have been Islamists. In an essentially sectarian war, it is almost inevitable that Islamism would come to dominate the opposition.

    We lost our chance to suffocate the rebellion by (fairly passively) denying it external support. Hundreds of thousands have died, and the most virulent Islamist organisation in centuries (if not ever) has gained enormous strength, and is already spinning off terrorism to the West. “Smart diplomacy” indeed.

  • f1b0nacc1

    Without troops on the ground, air power cannot be effective against a determined foe. Small detachments of troops can move ‘quietly’, making airborne targeting difficult (or unworkable), and it is far too easy for opposition forces to hide from airstrikes among civilian-heavy areas. Airstrikes can degrade the enemy’s offensive capabilities, slow their movement, and in general reduce their effectiveness, but it cannot destroy them, and that is what we have to have here. Until and unless the administration gives up its opposition to boots on the ground, the rest of this is all for show.
    With that said, I speak as someone who thinks that we should leave the area and not look back. If we liberated Syria tomorrow, we would be dealing with a new insurgency the next day. Let them kill one another and be done with it. Bismark’s comment was well-taken….they are not worth the bones of a single soldier.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Obama wouldn’t know a strategy if it jumped up and bit him. All these airstrikes are just the Leftist Obama’s version of a Potemkin war campaign, it’s all for show, just a facade to show Obama is doing something.

  • Joseph

    That is without a doubt the WORST map of controlled territories I have ever seen re: Syria and Iraq.

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