Sunday, October 19, 2014

Into Syria: The Battle for Kobani

ISIS fighters planted the Islamic State flag on a hill overlooking Kobani early on in their attack.  This hill was recently retaken by the Kurds.
Since my post on the US launching an air campaign against Islamic militants in Iraq, the situation has broadened considerably.  For the past few weeks operations have included strikes against Islamic State (ISIS aka ISIL) infrastructure targets in Syria, in addition to continuing operations in Iraq.

The Islamic State is a rogue nation but it nevertheless "governs" large swaths of Iraq and Syria.  Its capital is Raqqa where most of its command and control is concentrated.  For that reason, on September 22, when Nobel Peace Prize winning President Obama ordered the US military to strike targets in Syria in an attempt to degrade ISIS war-making capabilities, Raqqa received the heaviest concentration of initial airstrikes.  In our social media-driven reality, one Syrian man tweeted about the initial attacks live as they happened.


Though there are several reasons for the US finally getting itself involved on the fringe of the long-running Civil War in Syria (which I have followed for some time now), the most immediate reason was the public beheadings of several US and western citizens by ISIS.  The highest profile of these were of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.  After these bloody executions the Obama war machine went into action.


Obama's original intent was stated to be very "limited" military action.  But now, much to the dismay of many liberals, this has expanded beyond that.  The primary reason for the expansion of airstrike activity is the rather obvious fact that the US underestimated the strength and vitality of ISIS from the beginning.


Our attacks in Syria began with the use of cruise missiles, mostly concentrated on specific communications targets in Raqqa.  F-15 Eagle's fill a prominent role in Iraq and Syria. Despite many advances in military technology, these jets from the early 1970's remain America's primary and most-reliable aerial weapon system.


But the real military news was the appearance of the F-22 Raptor for the first time ever.  This controversial $67 billion weapon system was designed as a stealth fighter for combat against advanced radar systems such as those possessed by Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.  So, it was rather ironic that the sophisticated F-22 made its debut in a low-tech situation against an enemy that had no radar capability whatsoever.  But, if you build a weapon system, sooner or later it will get used regardless of the actual relevance of its deployment.


Shortly after the US began operations against ISIS in Iraq the French decided they would join in to get some target practice. Britain, Belgium, and Denmark also committed resources to the campaign, again limiting their participation to Iraq only. This would allow the US to more fully concentrate on targets in Syria. Airstrikes in Iraq were still vital as ISIS remained a powerful threat to the hapless Iraqi army. Likewise, Baghdad remained legitimately threatened.


But for the US, going it alone in the air over Syria, degrading the infrastructure for ISIS was the primary target.  If you kill the capacity for a fighting force to communicate and to supply itself then that force will eventually have to cease or curtail operations. Unfortunately, after weeks of strikes, ISIS remained on the offensive as a highly-organized force.


Nowhere was this more evident than in the ISIS military offensive to take Kobani (also spelled Kobane), a Syrian town on the border with Turkey. Over 160,000 Syrian Kurds fled the city early on, seeking safety inside Turkey as ISIS forces draw ever-closer to capturing the town. Soon, ISIS controlled over 300 villages in and around Kobani, but many of these were deserted, the civilians having fled.


Sensing a humanitarian as well as military debacle at Kobani, over 200 Turkish intellectuals pleaded for western military intervention in late-September.  Turkey militarized its side of the border which abuts Kobani and promised to do "whatever it can" to prevent the fall of the city to ISIS. But in reality Turkey did very little and closed its border to Turkish Kurds wishing to join their Syrian counterparts defending the city. Rioting was widespread among Kurds in Turkey. Still, Turkey had several reasons for not stepping into Syria, among them was that they did not wish to strengthen the Kurds - considered terrorists inside their own country.


As September ended, the US began to beef up airstrikes around Kobani in an attempt to slow ISIS and assist the Kurdish resistance in the town.  The effectiveness of these strikes were almost immediately questioned.  In retaliation for this intensified bombing, ISIS began to indiscriminately shell populated areas inside the city. ISIS was now ironically supplied with US-made mortars, tanks, and other equipment captured from Iraqi bases that fell to them in their initial drive toward Baghdad in August.  All the Kurds had were small arms and a few automatic weapons.


As airstrikes continued over the next couple of weeks ISIS inched forward from three-sides of Kobani.  Only the rear area of the city facing the Turkish border remained open.  On October 3, ISIS defiantly beheaded an British journalist for Britan's decision to join in the air campaign in Iraq. On October 5, ISIS entered one corner of Kobani and began fighting resisters street to street.


Despite some signs that US airstrikes might be destabilizing the ISIS offensive, it was feared that the city would soon fall and that a terrible slaughter would then ensue. An intermittent live webcam of fighting in Kobani was available for a few days. By October 9, after four days of urban fighting, about 1/3 of the city was under ISIS control.


At this point, US military officials stated that airstrikes alone were unlikely to save Kobani.  Yet on October 12, the Kurds reported that they had "halted" the ISIS advance; more likely, ISIS merely paused and reorganized due to the airstrikes. Reinforcements were brought up and assimilated before the assault could continue.  Despite all this, hundreds of civilians remained "trapped" in Kobani even though the number who fled now reached about 200,000.


Meanwhile, Turkey seemed to placate the west with a promise to open a few of its air bases for western aircraft seeking to strike against ISIS targets.  The US did some posturing of its own when Secretary of State Kerry contended that the fate of Kobani was not an important factor in the overall US strategy against the Islamic State.  Nevertheless, an ISIS victory at Kobani would be a symbolic blow to Obama's air-only campaign strategy.


Back in Iraq, Baghdad was still threatened.  The US dispatched Apache helicopters to drive back an ISIS breakthrough of Iraqi army lines. The jihadist fighters got within a few miles of the international airport.  Top US military officials expected ISIS to intensify its actions against the Iraqi capital city. Kobani may be getting the headlines but Baghdad remained the most important Islamic State objective.


On October 13, fighting renewed in Kobani. Reports emerged of further savagery by ISIS within the city in the form of headless corpses and survivors with their eyes cut out. Many women were fighting among the Kurdish forces. One was used as a suicide bomber against ISIS - terrorist tactics were increasingly used by both sides. From the beginning of the battle, women played a key role in the Kurdish resistance at Kobani.


In another indication of the ineptness of President Obama's foreign policy team, Turkey said reports of it allowing the US to use some of its bases were untrue.  It seems the US, anxious to build a perception that it was not going it alone in Syria, anxious to build a "coalition," once more misunderstood the intent of a foreign power.


The situation in Iraq continued to deteriorate in Anbar Province where more than 180,000 people reportedly fled. Islamic State fighters captured the city of Heet as well as several Iraq army bases.  The Iraqis seem incapable of resisting ISIS to the same degree as the Kurds. Much of this was due to the divisive nature of Iraqi society itself, where Shia militias attack Sunni civilians. In either case, the air campaign rolled on with obviously questionable effectiveness.


On October 14, ISIS reached a portion of the center of Kobani, driving the hard-pressed Kurdish fighters to the half of the city nearest the Turkish border.  This was while the Turks were conducting airstrikes of their own against Kurdish terrorists inside their country, underscoring the hesitation on the part of Turkey to assist the Kurds in Kobani. 


As ISIS approached the center of Kobani the US stepped-up its airstrikes, bombing in and around the city 21 times on the 14th, the largest number of strikes in a single day yet.  Many of these strikes hit ISIS reinforcements.  This allowed the Kurds to retake a hill overlooking the city.  But, the US military, analyzing the overall situation, said the "tactical momentum" was still in favor of ISIS.


The beheadings and other atrocities were always a fear-mongering propaganda mechanism for ISIS. Soon this shifted gears and the militant group began bragging about enslaving women and children. This reflected a complete lack of understanding in their part as how such happenings were viewed in the US.  More Americans started to believe that it was necessary to put "boots on the ground" to deal with the aggressive Islamic State.


The Pentagon officially named the campaign in Syria-Iraq on October 15.  Inherent Resolve sounds more like a floor cleaner than a military operation, but whatever. Officials also reported that the US strikes at Kobani had killed "hundreds" of ISIS fighters.  The Telegraph provided an excellent map showing how much area the Islamic Sate controls in Syria and Iraq along with territories controlled by the other warring factions in these countries. Newsweek published a cover story about how the Kurds inside Kobani were dealing with the hardships of resisting ISIS aggression.


October 16:  For the first time, it was reported in both the liberal and the conservative press that the momentum may have shifted for now.  The Kurds were now "driving" ISIS away.  At one point the Kurds possessed only about 40% of the city but now they controlled about 70%, pushing ISIS fighters back to the city's southern and western portions.


Kobani may still fall to ISIS but one disadvantage to the Islamic State fighters is that they present a very concentrated target for heavy air strikes.  In September, I was reading reports of 5-6 strikes per day.  But in the past four days the reports were consistently around 14 strikes per day or more. The US drastically increased the bombing of Kobani. 


Apparently, about 2,000 civilians remained in the city. This meant most of the initial US airstrikes could not drop their bombs for fear of killing civilians.  But now, with live satellite images day and night and possibly through coordination with Kurds on the ground, the US could see precisely where and when ISIS fighters came out and concentrated for an attack on the Kurdish fighters (also known as the YPG). Likely, within a few minutes these spots were hit with US airstrikes.  ISIS has no radar nor anti-aircraft capability.  They could not know these strikes were coming until they heard them - always too late.  So, by concentrating for attack, ISIS was in effect killing itself the rain of fire.


Another way the airstrikes affected the battle of Kobani was, after so long, they were finally degrading the ability for ISIS to get ammunition inside the city.  No bullets, no attacks. Logistical interdiction and direct killing was the essence of the apparent "momentum" change. Kobani is probably the most bombed urban area on the planet right now. It takes its place prominently among the Earth's many little wars.


An excellent summary of the strategic situation and Kobani was reported by the BBC here.  Besides the concentrated killing of ISIS fighters, BBC analysis states that Kobani has become an invaluable propaganda symbol for both the US and the Islamic State.  For that reason, it is preventing thousands of ISIS troops from concentrating on the real prize of Baghdad.  Kobani is an effective diversionary enterprise, possibly allowing the pitiful Iraqi army to get better prepared.


All of these factors put together create a curious possibility. It is rare for air power alone to force the outcome of a military situation.  It always requires "boots on the ground." That was true as recently as with the French in Mali last year. I suppose you could argue that the rag-tag Kurds inside Kobani are boots on the ground.  But I think that is stretching it.  If Kobani is saved, as of right now, it looks like it will be saved by US airstrikes (53 in the first four days of intensified strikes) that so many called so "ineffective" to start with.


Even though the top US commander in the region believed, more likely than not, Kobani will fall to ISIS, he nevertheless stated: "The bombing campaign has changed the way ISIL communicates and fights. Airstrikes have destroyed Humvees, tanks and communication gear. ISIL fighters are now 'afraid to talk on their networks' and to gather for fear of being attacked. They no longer travel in large convoys."


Yesterday, in renewed heavy fighting, ISIS fired about 48 mortar rounds into Kobani. Some errant fire landed in Turkey.   Still, their original use of concentrated attacks against the Kurds are now seen as strategic blunders. Simultaneously, the morale of the YPG is greatly bolstered by the effect of US airstrikes. Apparently, a recent strike killed about 30 major ISIS commanders and their staff as they huddled for a planning session in one Kobani building. Think about how quickly US fire power reacted to that surveillance information.


But success stories like that are rare.  Overall, the bombing of Kobani has forced ISIS to reconsider its approach.  That does not mean it cannot adapt. Indeed, most US military commanders think they will adapt.  This likely means dispersal of their troops so bombings are less deadly.  It also means that their primary means for taking the city now is through infiltration tactics, not street to street fighting. 


The recent YPG morale boost is contrasted with a feeling of abandonment as recently as five days ago. Indeed, one of the issues facing the YPG is that they can draw on no reinforcements and have very limited food and ammunition. Retaking parts of Kobani lost to ISIS will mean little without supplies and more "boots on the ground."  In Iraq the US is assisting with air drops of supplies.  But in Syria, apparently only the Iraqi Kurds can be counted upon for supply and even that has not arrived so far.  


Meanwhile fighting continues in Iraq's Anbar Province.  The Iraq army continues its poor performance against the high-motivated invaders of the Islamic State.  ISIS is now more dispersed under the threat of airstrikes.  But, they still manage to assemble in smaller groups.  Mortar fire sporadically hits Shia areas of the capital city as car bombs kill dozens.


Part of what makes the Islamic State such a major strategic threat is that it is receiving millions of dollars a week from several oil refineries that were captured from the Syrian government. This is in addition to revenue from its organized crime networks in the region. As recently as yesterday, the US was still bombing these refineries to shut off ISIS "national" income.


Washington is now talking directly with the YPG, which is tricky as they are associated with the PKK, which are terrorists in Turkey. Such is the twisted nature of diplomacy and warfare in the middle east. Nevertheless, in the battle for Kobani, improved communications with the resisters along with extremely accurate US airstrikes seems to have shifted the winds of war. Of course, no one can predict which way the winds will blow next.  


Late Note:  The US began to airdrop weapons and supplies to the YPG resisters the day following this post.  Meanwhile, Turkey has reversed its position and will allow some Kurds to reinforce Kobani through its borders. 

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