WASHINGTON – It’s not too soon to state the obvious: At this point, the war against the Islamic State can only be seen as failing.
U.S.-led air power has barely been able to keep the jihadist militants from capturing the Syrian town of Kobane, near the Turkish border – and the besieged city may yet fall. Far to the southeast, Islamic State fighters have come within a few miles of Baghdad and threaten to consolidate their control of the vast Anbar Province, the Sunni heartland of Iraq. The self-proclaimed “caliphate” remains intact and its forces are advancing.
Intervention by the world’s mightiest military force has produced no shock and no awe. To be sure, U.S. and coalition airstrikes are inflicting some damage on Islamic State troops and equipment. But the bombing has done virtually nothing to alter the strategic balance of power – or to boost the fortunes of our ostensible allies on the ground, the “moderate” Syrian rebels and the hapless Iraqi military.
Why, then, are we fighting this war?
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President Barack Obama was reluctant – for good reason – to get involved in the Syrian civil war or renew U.S. military involvement in Iraq. His airstrikes-only strategy reflects that caution. But results so far suggest the president might as well have followed his original instincts and stayed out.
Asked at a conference in Cairo about the desperate situation in Kobane, Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that “Kobani does not define the strategy for the coalition in respect to [the Islamic State].” Kerry added that “the focus of where we ought to be focusing first … is in Iraq.”
But it is in Iraq where the Islamic State has been taking new territory and consolidating its earlier gains. Jihadist militants are fighting for control of key cities in Anbar Province and Ramadi, and have even launched attacks in Abu Ghraib, on the outskirts of sprawling Baghdad. U.S. forces recently conducted helicopter missions to ease the threat that the militants might seize areas around the city’s international airport.
No one thinks the Islamic State has the wherewithal to take Baghdad, which would be fiercely defended by Shiite militias and what is left of the Iraqi army. But no one thinks that airstrikes alone will be enough to dislodge the Islamic State from the Iraqi territory it holds. “They’re winning and we’re not,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Sunday on CNN.
The Obama administration responds that its strategy will take time to implement. In Kerry’s words: “We expect, as we have said, there will be ups and downs.”
But patience is justified only if there is a reasonable expectation that the myriad political obstacles barring the path toward success can be overcome. I’m not sure whether the president and his aides are guilty of optimism or self-delusion.
The situation in Kobane is illustrative. The border town is well within range of Turkish artillery, which could easily devastate the Islamic State’s battle formations. Yet the Turks do not fire – nor do they allow Turkish Kurds to cross the border and aid their Syrian brethren. They have, however, allowed thousands of Islamist fighters to pass through Turkey on their way to join the fight to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
On Sunday, U.S. officials said the Turkish government had decided to allow the use of Incirlik air base for operations against the Islamic State. On Monday, Turkish officials told The Associated Press that no such decision had been made.
What’s with the Turks? They want the U.S.-led coalition’s goals to include Assad’s ouster. Specifically, they want the establishment of a buffer zone – which would be a no-fly zone for Assad’s aircraft – that can shelter refugees on the Syrian side of the border. But Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said Sunday that such a zone is not seen “as essential to the goal of degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State.
In Iraq, the Islamic State will not be defeated as long as it has the support, or at least the acquiescence, of large segments of the nation’s Sunni minority. But this will not change as long as Sunnis view the jihadist militants as a bulwark against the Shiite majority and its sectarian militias.
Obama knew from the beginning that these – and other – problems in Iraq and Syria are essentially political and can’t be solved by military action alone.
So tell me again: What, exactly, do we think our bombs are accomplishing?
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.