The Kurds have retaken the town of Kobani from ISIS, and much of the media is hailing a victory. As The New York Times reports, however, the news invites serious criticism of U.S. Syria operations:
[E]ven as the Kurds celebrated, some activists said clearing the town was no great victory, given that it took more than 700 airstrikes to do it — nearly three-quarters of all the coalition’s strikes in Syria so far — and that Kobani was a relatively minor border city with a prewar population of 45,000.
Improved coordination between Kurdish ground forces and the American-led air campaign made it possible to eliminate the Islamic State’s foothold in the city, the activists said. But the battle illustrated something else as well, they said: the extremists’ ability and willingness to hold on for months in the face of punishing aerial attacks, even in territory with limited military importance. […]
[I]n the end, they said, [ISIS] appeared to have made a tactical decision to withdraw from Kobani, while its fighters continue to hold several hundred villages in the region whose Kurdish residents have nearly all fled.
The Times is dead right on this one—and the other media outlets hyping this as a big win are missing the forest for the trees.Part of the larger picture can be found in a piece on American efforts to arm the “moderate” Syrian rebels in the Wall Street Journal. CIA coordinators demanded reams of paperwork from rebel militia leaders; paid half as much as ISIS gave its own fighters; took weeks to approve missions; often provided only 5–20 percent of the arms requested; berated commanders; asked them to assault fellow rebel units instead of their perceived enemy (the Assad regime) or the declared U.S. target (ISIS); and in one case gave out so little ammunition that it rationed out to 16 rounds per man.Why is the U.S. coming up so small? Because we’re not making much of an effort. The total number of U.S. air strikes in Syria is dwarfed by historical comparison to the Gulf War, the Bosnian campaigns, or even the 2011 strikes against Libya. The aid to the rebels came after the “window of opportunity” to support real moderates closed, as former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford put it to the Journal. What now arrives is halfhearted, at best—the definition of too little, too late.It could not be more clear the Administration does not want to be fighting in Syria. It sees toppling Assad as unduly confrontational to his Iranian backers, reconciliation with whom is currently our overarching foreign policy goal in that region. Therefore, as we work to take out Assad’s biggest opponent but not him, many of the rebels see us as de facto pro-regime. And avoiding wars in the Middle East is to many Administration officials one of the raisons d’être of the Obama presidency.It would be almost mandatory to quote Napoleon’s commandment at this point that “if you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.” But the truth is, great nations have been able to play at war from time to time in history. We should, however, be aware that doing so carries a cost—to our reputation, our strategic position in the Middle East, and to the Syrian people.