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Air war vs Islamic State: myth and reality

The intense United States-led bombardment in Syria-Iraq is escalating. But how effective is it?

During the last decade's Iraq war, the Pentagon practised “embedding” media personnel with United States armed forces in order to give the American public something approaching a frontline picture of their efforts. The great majority of the journalists involved came to identify with the troops they were living with, and in the main the Pentagon’s media managers were pleased with the result. After all, if a reporter filed what the Pentagon considered to be an unflattering view, then it would take steps not to repeat that particular “embedding” experience, perhaps making it near impossible for the professional concerned to work in the field without official access.

A few journalists were independent from the start, Patrick Cockburn being a noted example. Their reports often turned out to have given a much truer picture of the war, and how it was going wrong. In other cases, good reporting by embedded correspondents produced results that seemed reasonable to the Pentagon, but which in hindsight took on a different cast. One example was when Pamela Constable, a highly experienced correspondent for the Washington Post, reported on a US marines' operation in the city of Fallujah in April 2004.

A convoy taking supplies to a forward base in the city was ambushed and came under severe assault, only getting out when a powerful force of marines moved in and fought for hours against the attackers. There were injuries but no deaths among the marines, but the level of opposition was a huge shock, The commander subsequently called in AC-130 gunships that devastated several blocks of the city in what Constable reported was a reprisal raid.

At the time, the insurgents were widely considered to be terrorists, supporters of the Saddam Hussein regime and therefore somehow linked to the 9/11 attacks. Reprisals against terrorists were clearly deemed fair, with little understanding of what killing civilians on a large scale might imply. At least, though, that action did come to light through Constable’s careful reporting. (see "Between Fallujah and Palestine", 22 April 2004)

An intense campaign

In the new air war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the media environment is very different world. There is virtually no reporting in the western press of what is actually happening on the ground. Information is sometimes forthcoming, though, in some of the military journals, and here a couple of interesting recent indications of the impact of the air-war can be found. 

The first is a report in Air Force Times where members of B-1 bomber crews of the 9th bomb squadron were interviewed (see "Inside the B-1 crew that pounded ISIS with 1,800 bombs", Air Force Times, 23 August 2015). Its context is the battle for the Kurdish town of Kobane in northern Syria in late 2014. This was not central to the war against IS, but was more widely reported when the Kurds finally forced IS to withdraw. A few TV reports of the aftermath were broadcast, with some evidence that the town had been seriously damaged in the attacks. Air Force Times fills in the details, not least that a third of all the bombs dropped in Iraq and Syria in the first five months of the war (August 2014-January 2015) were dropped on Kobane by the B-1 bombers, killing 1,000 people.

An airforce major says: “To be part of something, to go out and stomp those guys out, it was completely overwhelming and exciting”. An Islamic State source quoted by CNN comments: “They targeted everything. They even attacked motorcycles; they have not left a building standing, but God willing we will return and we will have our revenge multiplied.”  The battle for Kobani may have been won by the coalition, but there seems to be little left of the town.

It seems to be common practice to destroy a truck or even a single motorcycle with a 200-kilogram bomb dropped from altitude. This intense air war is now escalating, with the large airbase at Incirlik in southern Turkey - only 20 minutes flight-time from the war zone - now available to the US airforce (USAF). F-16 strike aircraft moved to Incirlik from their base at Aviano, Italy on 9 August and flew their first attack-raids three days later. 

Again, Air Force Times says it with effect: “Hammering the Islamic State group 24 hours a day." Brigadier-General Kevin Killea, one of the coalition commanders, commends Turkey for providing a “fantastic strategic location to fly from”. He continues: “The longer time on station, the ability for turnaround times - back to Incirlik and then back into the theatre of operations - is an obvious advantage, not the least of which we have armed RPA [drones] out of Incirlik now, so that brings another punch to the fight.”  

In the year of air-war to 21 August 2015, coalition aircraft and drones had released 22,863 weapons. The availability of Incirlik makes the intensity likely to increase further. Even so, Islamic State appears successfully to have replaced its losses with new recruits, and even the airforce acknowledges that the war will last for years.

A sober reality

An extra dimension is now being added to this picture. The Pentagon’s inspector-general is investigating claims that US defence-department officials have been skewing intelligence outputs to present an over-optimistic picture of the progress of the air-war, in contrast to some intelligence agencies. The New York Times, for example, reports:

“[Recent] intelligence assessments, including some by Defense Intelligence Agency, paint a sober picture about how little the Islamic State has been weakened over the past year, according to officials with access to the classified assessments. They said the documents conclude that the yearlong campaign has done little to diminish the ranks of the Islamic State’s committed fighters, and that the group over the last year has expanded its reach into North Africa and Central Asia.” 

Whatever the reality on the ground, what is clear is that the air-war has been furious and concentrated, and is going to expand further. In the case of Kobane at least, Islamic State fighters can be repulsed. But the damage, there and elsewhere, is appalling. Once again, the phrase of the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus, as recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus, comes to mind: “They make a desert and call it peace.”

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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