US airstrikes have 'minimal effects' on Islamic State. Why that's not all bad.

The number of US airstrikes against the Islamic State are 'very, very low,' but the goal is not just a military one, as Tuesday's meeting of the 22-member coalition highlighted.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Obama speaks during a meeting with more than 20 foreign defense ministers on the ongoing operations against the Islamic State Tuesday at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

Despite more than two months of US airstrikes against the Islamic State, there are still large cities in Iraq and Syria that are in danger of falling, Pentagon officials warn.

Against that backdrop, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gathered military leaders from 22 countries at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland Tuesday to, among other things, come to some agreement on what, precisely, victory might resemble in this latest war.

Pentagon officials said that a big goal of the meeting would be to “achieve deeper consensus on the nature of the threat” posed by IS, also known as ISIS and ISIL. This is coded language, of a sort – a nod to the notion that, in the eyes of US officials, some countries do not realize how dangerous the IS advances are.

American military officials have attempted to sound the alarm. “I am fearful that Kobane will fall,” General Dempsey bluntly told ABC News on Sunday. He added that he has “no doubt” that IS would conduct atrocities in the Syrian border city if it had the opportunity.

To date, the broader campaign of airstrikes against IS have not been too effective, analysts say.

The US military has been flying between 15 and 30 strike sorties a day, “a very, very low level of activity” likely to garner only “minimal effects, both strategically and tactically,” argues Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Pentagon released some “observations from the meeting” Tuesday, which were striking in the low-key way in which they acknowledged that despite the US airstrikes, IS remains strong.

While the US-led coalition “has strategic momentum,” the statement said, it also acknowledged that, “ISIL has tactical momentum on several fronts.”

But the Pentagon has its reasons for keeping the number of strikes to a minimum, Dr. Cordesman adds. “The level of air support has been restricted in a way to push Iraqis towards unity – to make it clear to them that the US is not simply going to support a sectarian government.”

This means that victory in this campaign cannot simply consist of arresting the momentum of IS, but rather it must change the conditions that have allowed the group to thrive.

The 22-nation coalition also reached this conclusion. “The root of the struggle lies in the conditions of the region: Ethnic and religious tensions, exclusionary governance, intolerance, and economic privation,” was another observation to come out of the meeting.

President Obama made the same point when he dropped by the meeting, highlighting the need for “political participation and economic opportunity.”

This statement, again, is a sort of code. Currently, the Iraq government is seen as a Shiite government more than a national government that includes Sunnis and Kurds. To get more help from Sunni countries, it will need to become more inclusive.

 “I don’t think the Iraqi government has made enough progress to get strong Arab endorsement yet,” Cordesman says.

That’s a tall order, and one that America has tried to use US troops to enforce in the past, to little effect. But some measure of victory involves getting the 22-nation coalition to coalesce further, and that requires Iraq to reform further, analysts argue.

“It’s an unprecedented victory that we’ve got this coalition, in terms of the Arab league countries contributing military support,” says Dafna Rand, deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security.

Still, it will be a long battle to get the coalition’s 22 members on the same page, and then to carry out the goals upon which the members can agree, Cordesman warns. “This is in many ways the first meeting of what, if it works, will be a campaign of at least a year – and probably several years.”

Kobane offers a case in point. Though it sits on the Turkish border, Turkey has been reticent to join in the campaign against IS without some assurances that the coalition’s mission will also include the overthrow of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.

Pentagon officials have been pressing Turkey to let the US military use its conveniently-located bases – the country borders both Iraq and Syria – to launch airstrikes.

Says Dr. Rand: “I think there’s going to be a lot of expectation that the Turkish government will agree to something” on the heels of the meeting.

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