The Obama administration’s strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the extremist group known as ISIS (aka ISIL or the Islamic State) has already run into its first major roadblock.
The Pentagon on Tuesday said that airstrikes alone won’t be enough to halt ISIS’ advances on the crucial Syrian town of Kobani, which lies along the border between Syria and Turkey. It also admitted a central flaw in its plan: It has no effective partners on the ground at this point — and it won’t, perhaps, for more than a year.
“We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria. It’s just a fact. I can’t change that,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Wednesday. The administration has been providing limited assistance to various rebel groups on the ground, but has not coordinated airstrikes with them.
As for Kobani, Kirby said that people “need to understand we need a little strategic patience here. This group is not going to go away tomorrow, and Kobani may fall. We can’t predict whether it will or it won’t.”
“There will be other towns that they will threaten, and there will be other towns that they will take,” he added. “It is going to take a little bit of time.”
The White House has pointed over the past two days to the airstrikes carried out in and near Kobani, but has also sought to brace all parties involved for the increasingly inevitable fall of the town. US Central Command said six strikes in the area Tuesday and Wednesday destroyed an ISIS armoured personnel carrier, destroyed four ISIS armed vehicles and damaged a fifth, and destroyed two ISIL artillery pieces.
Kobani is representative of the larger problem. Both the White House and State Department have stressed the strategic objective of preventing ISIS from gaining a safe haven inside Syria. But White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged that the lack of partners on the ground limits the US’ ability to intervene in Kobani and hampers America’s broader goals.
The lack of ground support has been an issue from the beginning.
“That’s one of the main points Senators Graham and McCain have made from the start,” said Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been one of the Obama administration’s staunchest critics with regard to its Iraq and Syria policies.
“Air strikes alone won’t defeat ISIL.”
As part of his strategy, Obama requested and was granted the authority to train and equip moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. But there’s been “no vetting started yet and no recruiting at this point” of those Syrian forces, Kirby said Wednesday.
US officials have said it will likely take up to a year to properly train the Syrian rebels under a program in coordination with Saudi Arabia, and possibly longer. In the meantime, though the administration doesn’t consider Kobani a strategic objective of its campaign against ISIS, it could spell trouble for other key Syrian towns in which the US does not have ground partners.
“What’s to stop ISIS from grabbing more land in Syria? Nothing, really, at least not without a significant escalation of support. The coalition has launched more air strikes around Kobane, but what is really needed from them is on-call air support to pound ISIS any time it comes into view, 24/7,” Garrett Khoury, Garrett Khoury, the director of research at The Eastern Project, told Business Insider in an email.
“ISIS isn’t some shadowy guerrilla group; it has tanks and artillery. Kobane is a tragedy in the making, but the key is that it is still early enough for the opponents of ISIS to reverse the situation. The tide could be turned within a matter of hours if the Kurds there received effective air support and reinforcements. ISIS is not invulnerable; it has faced defeats before.”
Fred Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, predicted to The New York Times in August that the US would find itself “maneuvered into a very uncomfortable position.
He added that the US is “unconsciously walking into an ambush” if the remaining Syrian nationalist opposition is squeezed out by ISIS and the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad before significant US help arrives.
The situation in Kobani has also exposed a deepening rift between the US-led coalition and Turkey, which has been reluctant to fully join in the coalition.
Turkey wants the US and its partners to commit to ousting Assad, something the US has been reluctant to do throughout Syria’s three-plus-year civil war. It has also said it would not send troops without an established no-fly zone set up in Syria, which would prevent the Syrian government’s air force from intervening in that zone.
In turn, US officials put the blame for Kobani’s seemingly impending fall squarely at the feet of Turkey.
“There’s growing angst about Turkey dragging its feet to act to prevent a massacre less than a mile from its border,” a senior administration official told The New York Times. “After all the fulminating about Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, they’re inventing reasons not to act to avoid another catastrophe.”
“This isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border,” said the official, who spoke anonymously to avoid publicly criticising an ally.
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