President Obama’s decision to bomb ISIS is attracting criticism on multiple fronts, with some arguing that the efforts are too limited, or represent yet another ineffectual military operation in a region where US hard power has a fairly low success rate.
But in Syria at least, there’s a specific flaw behind what some are seeing as the slow pace of US missions against jihadist targets. The US Air Force seems to be unable to accelerate its campaign because the lack of a ground component for the mission means US planners are having a hard time just scouting and selecting targets.
Already, Iraq has been the site of significantly more American airstrikes than its western neighbour. One day, October 4th, saw no airstrikes at all, while a recent spurt was due to US efforts to prevent ISIS from taking the strategically vital border city of Kobane — meaning the the US has targeted few other areas from that single flashpoint in recent days.
The Daily Beast points to one of the reasons why the number of airstrikes in Syria has remained steady and fairly low over recent weeks: It’s because of “the lack of US ground forces to direct American air power against ISIS positions,” Dave Majumdar writes.
“From the sky, it can be hard to tell friend from foe,” Majumdar notes. “And by themselves, the GPS coordinates used to guide bombs aren’t nearly precise enough.”
Majumdar’s reporting and analysis actually suggests that more precise targeting doesn’t necessarily require American boots on the ground. Rather, it needs a so-called “kill chain,” whereby military forces try (and as in the case against Khorasan, sometimes fail) to make sure they’re hitting the right target. In Syria, this is hampered by the absence of US combat boots on the ground or close allies who can fulfil targeting and intelligence responsibilities.
There’s no way to solve that problem without taking the conflict — and indeed the Obama Administration’s entire approach to Syria — into another league entirely. Increasing the pace of attack in Syria would mean either a direct military commitment or a the creation of relationships with players like Syrian Kurdish militias or even anti-ISIS Islamist groups that the US just doesn’t have yet.
Turkey, a NATO member state, could provide that kind of targeting support. But Ankara seems committed not to send its own army into Syria, even with the fast-moving crisis in Kobane, a crucial border city that ISIS is threatening to take.
Until the US gets better eyes on the ground, the Americans might be flying relatively blind over Syria. And even if that problem is solved and the “kill chain” can be accelerated, the current fight over Kobane presents a critical case study of how bombing alone can be ineffectual in achieving larger strategic goals.
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