On Monday, the U.S. and five Arab countries began airstrikes against key Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets in the Sunni militant group’s eastern stronghold of Raqqa, and three other provinces.
U.S. Central Command, or Centcom, said the Obama administration’s partners include the majority Sunni nations of Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The strikes are meant to destabilize ISIS in eastern and northern Syria, namely in Raqqa, the desert province that has become the group’s safe haven.
We asked Ayham Kamel, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Eurasia Group; Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at Stratfor focusing on Syria; and Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, to weigh in on the scale of the strikes.
Syria Deeply: Are the strikes what you expected?
Ayham Kamel: They’re largely in line with what I expected. The first wave of attacks is likely to target not only ISIS but al-Qaida and other groups in Syria, like Jabhat al-Nusra.
I think the first wave is meant to create a shock for ISIS and prevent it from having a safe zone or safe haven in Syria. [If left unchecked] its activities would become more complicated across the Syria-Iraq border.
The participation of Washington’s Arab allies is meant to provide the strikes with a measure of legitimacy but could also be interpreted as a way to have this fight appear as a joint initiative.
Omar Lamrani: Basically, most of the airstrikes were concentrated around Raqqa – the capital of the Islamic State. In terms of specific targets, they were very diverse. They hit headquarters, training bases, command and control networks, supply depots, logistics hubs and vehicles. It was basically an effort to hit and paralyze ISIS across a broad front. By hitting their headquarters, supply networks and command center they really disrupt the ISIS operation.
But they weren’t high-value strikes. They didn’t go after the leadership. This might be because they didn’t have the intelligence where the leadership is. I would imagine if they knew where Baghdadi was, they would have tried to hit him.
They were slightly stronger than expected. Keep in mind that over a period of many weeks in Iraq, only 190 targets were hit. In just a single night in Syria, we saw at least 47 cruise missiles being used from U.S. Navy warships, as well as many as many aircrafts from the Gulf Arab Nations, Jordan and the U.S. Navy. For one night, that’s a strong attack against an insurgent network.
This isn’t the U.S. going in and targeting a nation-state, which we might expect much more of a shock and awe effort like we saw in the first Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq war. This is against a much more diffuse group so intelligence won’t be as great, there won’t be as many obvious targets, there won’t be as many known airfields and aircraft to hit. It was pretty substantial for the first night. We need to keep an eye out and see if they maintain this tempo or retreat and start targeting single targets like in Iraq.
The first wave was a couple hours long because they started off with cruise missiles from warships and proceeded to airstrikes. It seems like they have largely stopped now, but in terms of a strategic victory, if we take the Obama administration’s stated goal of degrading the group at face value by airstrikes and support of the Syrian rebels by arming and training them, this campaign will last a long time.
In terms of the practical operational strikes, it is unclear if we are going to see tempo like we see now or single strikes like Iraq.
Syria Deeply: What will be the reaction of other major players on the ground, like the Assad government?
Kamel: I think the Syrian regime has had little choice at this point. I wouldn’t label this as any form of coordination [with the U.S.]. But the Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian governments are definitely in coordination [with each other] and have a very different view on the [ISIS] problem from the U.S. They’re willing to turn a blind eye, but it really benefits all of them to have ISIS and al-Qaida weakened.
Lamrani: The Islamic State’s propaganda over the past few days has shifted from threats to the U.S. to attempts to dissuade the U.S., as they realized a serious coalition was being formed against them.
As we’ve seen with the active participation of a lot of Arab countries – Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Saudi, Jordan, there is a lot of backing for the U.S. approach that will be very helpful in terms of basing and training and demonstrating to the U.S. public that there is support and that the U.S. isn’t just going in unilaterally.
In terms of the regime, they are anxious to portray this as the U.S. asking permission from the Syrian regime to go in.That’s why the Syrian foreign ministry stated that the U.S. informed them about the strikes before they began. That might be true, but it shouldn’t be construed as coordination and asking for permission, but should be seen as deconflicting: the procedure where you make sure your aircraft won’t be fired upon by the Syrians and that the Syrians know where you will be operating.
The Russians and Iranians are going to be pushing for the U.S. to be involved in the strikes with the permission of the Syrian regime, so they are going to take a position very similar to the Syrian regime.
The Israelis just shot down an aircraft from the Syrian regime that flew over their border, so they are obviously going to be keeping a very close eye on how this will spill over. Turkey will take a similar position. They are already very concerned about the amount of refugees crossing over the northern border and the spillover of the conflict.
Jordan is taking a very active role, which is interesting because they have been hesitant in the past, but now seem to be on board with the U.S. strategy.
Joshua Landis: I think many Syrians are excited about the strikes. The kind of response I’m getting is, we need something to happen. The stalemate, the progress of radicals in taking territory, needs to be reversed. I don’t think anyone trusts the U.S. to fix Syria; that’s the underlying anxiety everyone is feeling.
Everyone realizes Obama is not committed to nation building in Syria. Whatever he does will be at the smallest cost, but people are happy to take what they are going to get. They will criticize it for not being at Iraq-level spending and say that Syria has been forgotten in this great tragedy, but people at this point are desperate for change
The United States has to bring justice for Sunnis. It will go a long way to dent ISIS propaganda, which will be very persuasive, which says that the U.S. is colluding with enemies of Sunni Muslims to destroy them.
That’s the big danger: we are going to be seen by many Muslims, even those who don’t like ISIS, as just killing more Arabs.
The regime has stated that they welcome the strikes. Of course the regime wants to coordinate with Washington even though Washington has made it very clear they are not coordinating with the regime.
The regime is trying to pretend they got the forewarning that everyone got; they are trying to trumpet it up as collusion.
They welcome the strikes – but ISIS has been a major dent to their legitimacy. This regime after four years of constant stalemate and losses is used to dealing in a world of reduced legitimacy.
The regime really cares about what happens on the battleground, and these American strikes offer opportunities. It’s quite clear that ISIS has been able to give the regime a major black eye. ISIS is much better at propaganda, and it has been able to take regime bases with stunning speed and violence, executing hundreds of regime soldiers in the most humiliating fashion that has caused demoralization among Syrian troops. To have these people killed by a third party is a real blessing. The real question is whether the regime is strong enough to move to exploit the U.S. bombing.
Syria Deeply: Were you expecting the strikes to just hit Raqqa? How successful will they be in degrading ISIS?
Kamel: It had [to be wider] as a first attack. It had to target not one base but send a message across that it’s not only one offensive but that it’s trying to weaken ISIS across the board. The point of attacking ISIS in Syria is to eliminate its safe haven. So it wouldn’t make sense to only target Raqqa and leave other cities out of it. The first wave is bound to be more successful than [subsequent] ones. Targets in Syria are going to be difficult [to hit], and the offensive will be less effective with time without ground troops to support [aerial] activities.
Lamrani: Airstrikes by themselves are not a silver bullet. Airstrikes can hurt ISIS and put them on the defensive and to an extent paralyze their offensive actions, but airstrikes alone won’t destroy the group, even with a ramped-up campaign that involves kinetic strikes over a longer period of time. It’s not possible (to destroy the group) without soldiers on the ground, whether they are U.S. or international soldiers, which is completely politically infeasible.
More realistically, you need to build up a real indigenous force that will go into the areas that are hit and take the areas back.
In Syria, obviously there are questions being raised in the U.S. and the U.S. Congress about the feasibility of supporting the rebels, but that is the only realistic strategy they have in terms of degrading ISIS if it is not politically possible to send U.S. troops to Syria.