The gathering on October 14th at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, DC, of top military brass from 22 countries in the American-led coalition against Islamic State (IS) had two main aims. The first was to work out how to integrate the effort of each into something that looks like a strategy. The second, underlined by the attendance of Barack Obama, was to demonstrate the seriousness of America’s commitment to defeating IS. The president implicitly acknowledged that both are a work in progress, saying that it was going to be a long-term campaign with “periods of progress and setbacks”.
Right now, setbacks seem to be more evident than progress. Intensified air strikes by the Americans and Saudis have pushed back IS fighters besieging the Syrian-Kurdish border town of Kobane (Ain al-Arab in Arabic), but America says it may yet fall. Meanwhile, even with coalition air support, Iraqi security forces have put up only pitiful resistance to the latest IS surge in Sunni-dominated Anbar province.
The refusal of Turkey to lift a finger to relieve the agonies of Kobane has cast a dark shadow over the whole enterprise.
IS, which this week seized an army base near Hit, some 115 miles (185km) west of Baghdad, is now estimated to control more than three-quarters of the province.
Martin Dempsey, the chairman of America’s joint chiefs of staff, says that, had it not been for the intervention of Apache attack helicopters last week, IS would have had a “straight shot” to Baghdad airport. General Dempsey has “no doubt” that IS will “use indirect fire [mortar, rockets and artillery] into Baghdad” in the days ahead.
Mr Obama’s hope for progress is hampered by the conflicting agendas of many of his coalition partners; and perhaps also by his own half-heartedness. The air campaign against IS “has been so small by the standard of recent conflicts that it amounts to little more than military tokenism”, says Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank.
The difficulties of coalition management are starkly illustrated by the simmering row between Ankara and Washington. The refusal of Turkey to lift a finger to relieve the agonies of Kobane has cast a dark shadow over the whole enterprise. American jets attempting to aid Kobane’s desperate defenders are having to fly more than 1,200 miles from the Gulf because Turkey will not allow them to operate from Incirlik, a big NATO airbase less than 20 minutes away.
Whether Turkey can be brought onside may depend upon Mr Obama conceding a long-standing demand of Mr Erdogan’s to establish a no-fly zone and buffer zone on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. Mr Erdogan also wants a commitment to take on the regime of Bashar Assad as well as IS. That is not on the cards, but to Mr Obama’s discomfort, General Dempsey and the secretary of state, John Kerry, now both favour a no-fly zone.
Measures being urged on the president include a big step-up in the tempo of air strikes in Iraq and Syria from the average of about seven a day since the campaign began to more than 150, and the use of special forces to provide forward air control.
General Dempsey wants a much more intense training effort to reconstitute at least some of the Iraqi army into a moderately effective fighting force, requiring many hundreds, if not thousands, of Western soldiers. Even this may not be enough unless some of those advisers are embedded in Iraqi combat units to stiffen them in battle. None of this is palatable to Mr Obama. But as Mr Cordesman warns: “The US is now embarked in leading and conducting a high-risk air campaign that will do too little and do it too slowly.”
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