US airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria: Can they be effective?

US airstrikes, and what follows, are unlikely to be sufficient to wipe out IS and may not necessarily do anything to seriously degrade its military position. Moreover, the US is now, effectively, aiding the regime of Bashar Assad in its civil war. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama speaks about the participation of five Arab nations in airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria., on Tuesday, on the South Lawn the White House. The president said the participation of five Arab nations in airstrikes against militants in Syria 'makes it clear to the world this is not America's fight alone.'

Late yesterday while most Americans were settling down to watch Monday Night Football or the season premier of their favorite television show, the United States began bombing ISIS targets in Syria:

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The United States and five Arab allies launched a wide-ranging air campaign against the Islamic State and at least one other extremist group in Syria for the first time early Tuesday, targeting the groups’ bases, training camps and checkpoints in at least four provinces, according to the United States military and Syrian activists.

The attacks struck a fierce opening blow against the jihadists of the Islamic State, scattering their forces and damaging the network of facilities they have built in Syria that helped fuel the group’s seizure of a large part of Iraq this year.

Separate from the attacks on the Islamic State, the United States Central Command, or Centcom, said that American forces acting alone “took action” against “a network of seasoned Al Qaeda veterans” from the Khorasan group in Syria to disrupt “imminent attack planning against the United States and Western interests.”

Officials did not reveal where or when such attacks might take place.

Al Qaeda cut ties with the Islamic State earlier this year because the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, disobeyed orders from Al Qaeda to fight only in Iraq. Just days ago, American officials said the Khorasan group, led by a shadowy figure who was once in Osama bin Laden’s inner circle, had emerged in the past year as the Syria-based cell most intent on launching a terror attack on the United States or on its installations overseas.

The latest campaign opened with multiple strikes before dawn that focused on the Islamic State’s de facto capital, the city of Raqqa, and on its bases in the surrounding countryside. Other strikes hit in the provinces of Deir al-Zour and Hasaka, whose oil wells the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, have exploited to finance its operations.

The extent of the damage caused by the strikes remained unclear. Centcom said the wave of fighter planes, bombers, drones and cruise missiles struck 14 targets linked to the Islamic State.

“All aircraft safely exited the strike areas,” the statement said.

Almost 50 cruise missiles were launched from two American vessels in the Red Sea and the north of the Persian Gulf, it said, adding that four other attacks were launched on militant targets in Iraq in the same period, bringing the total there to 194.

The intensity and scale of the strikes were greater than those launched by the United States in Iraq, where it has been bombing select Islamic State targets for months. The air campaign also marks the biggest direct military intervention in Syria since the crisis began more than three years ago.

Centcom identified the Arab states participating in the campaign as Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Their participation is seen as important to limit criticisms that the United States is waging war alone against Muslims. But their role varied between support for the strikes and participation, the military said.

The Jordanian Army said on Tuesday that it had carried out airstrikes against “terrorist groups” that were plotting to attack Jordan, according to Reuters.

In intervening in Syria, the United States is injecting its military might into a brutal civil war between the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State and a range of rebel groups that originally took up arms to fight Mr. Assad but have also come to oppose the Islamic State.

It was unclear what effect the American-led strikes would have on the larger conflict.

On some level, of course, these attacks can hardly have come as a surprise. The administration has been telegraphing the intention to attack the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Syria for at least the past month, and President Obama said specifically in his speech nearly two weeks ago that the attacks would be coming. From a military point of view, of course, that means that there really was no element of surprise involved here, and there have been several reports in recent weeks that the group was moving men and equipment into civilian areas and otherwise taking steps to hide their most important assets in an effort to protect them from air attacks. How effective those efforts can be is questionable, of course, but at the very least it should mean that these airstrikes, and what follows, are unlikely to be sufficient to wipe out IS and may not necessarily do anything to seriously degrade its military position, which is of course the first part of President Obama’s “degrade and destroy” strategy that he announced in his White House speech. As has been noted before, any successful strategy against this group, especially in Syria, is going to require some level of ground combat forces, and since the administration continues to insist that its plans will not require American ground combat forces, that means we have to rely on the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels. As I’ve noted before, it’s entirely unclear just how reliable these “moderates” are and just how dedicated they would be to fighting IS rather than taking aim at their principal target, which is of course the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Additionally, at this point these groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, don’t appear to be anywhere near IS in fighting strength, meaning that it could take upwards of a year to train and equip them to the point where they’d even be able to begin to bring the fight. Finally, as Zack Beauchamp notes at Vox, there’s little chance that any American military action in Syria is going to be sufficient to change the factors on the ground that strengthen IS or turn the tide to the extent that the so-called “moderates” will be able to reverse a tide of rising jihadist victories in Syria that have been going on for the past three years.

The other important issue here, of course, is that the United States is now, effectively, aiding the regime of Bashar Assad in its civil war. The administration will deny this, of course, and point to our support, now authorized by Congress, for the “moderate” Syrian rebels. However, when you start attacking the military assets of one of the most prominent parts of the rebel alliance that is fighting against the regime in Damascus, it’s hard to argue that your actions won’t, even in just some limited sense, have positive benefits for a regime that the president was talking about bombing just a year ago. This parallels our actions against IS in Iraq, of course, in the sense that our actions they are helping to strengthen Iran’s position both in the region and as a player in Iraqi domestic politics. What this suggests, of course, is that the end result of our war against IS is likely to be a Syria that, in the end, survives its civil war and an Iran that is even more influential in the region, both of which are likely to create their own forms of regional instability, not to mention concern on the part of the Saudis, the Gulf States, and the Jordanians.

As for the attacks themselves, it’s safe to assume that this is only the first round and that we’re likely to see the same kind of escalation that we have seen over the last six weeks in Iraq. Those attacks, you will recall started out as a supposed humanitarian effort and a need to protect Americans located in and around Kiruk, but have since quickly expanded to be a much broader attack on IS positions in the country. As it turns out, though, the attacks haven’t seemed to have much of an impact on IS itself:

BAGHDAD — After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.

Although the airstrikes appear to have stopped the extremists’ march toward Baghdad, the Islamic State is still dealing humiliating blows to the Iraqi Army. On Monday, the government acknowledged that it had lost control of the small town of Sichar and lost contact with several hundred of its soldiers who had been besieged for nearly a week at a camp north of the Islamic State stronghold of Falluja, in Anbar Province.

By midday, there were reports that hundreds of soldiers had been killed there in battle or mass executions. Ali Bedairi, a lawmaker from the governing alliance, said more than 300 soldiers had died after the loss of the base, Camp Saqlawiya. The prime minister ordered the arrest of the responsible officers, although a military spokesman put the death toll at just 40 and said 68 were missing.


Behind the government’s struggles on the battlefield is the absence or resistance of many of the Sunni Muslim tribes that officials in Baghdad and Washington hope will play the decisive role in the course of the fight — a slow start for the centerpiece of President Obama’s plan to drive out the militants.

The Sunni tribes of Anbar and other areas drove Qaeda-linked militants out of the area seven years ago with American military help, in what became known as the Sunni Awakening. But the tribes’ alienation from the subsequent authoritarian and Shiite-led government in Baghdad opened the door for the extremists of the Islamic State to return this year.

The foundation of the Obama administration’s plan to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is the installation of a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who has pledged to build a more responsive government and rebuild Sunni support. But, though at least some Sunni Arabs are fighting alongside the army in places like Haditha, influential Sunni sheikhs who helped lead the Awakening say they remain unconvinced.

“The Sunnis in Anbar and other provinces are facing oppression and discrimination by the government,” said Mohamed el-Bajjari, a sheikh in Anbar who is a spokesman for a coalition of tribes. “This government must be changed to form a technocratic government of nonsectarian secular people, or the battles and the anger of the Sunni people will continue.”

Sunni tribal leaders said they were already disappointed by [new Iraq prime minister Haider al-]Abadi, who has been hailed by President Obama as the face of a more inclusive government. They said that the military had not lived up to a pledge by the prime minister to discontinue shelling civilian areas in the battle against the Islamic State — an accusation that could not be confirmed. They also complained that the government had done nothing to reform abusive security forces, and that it continued to give a free hand to Iranian-backed Shiite militias whom Sunnis accuse of arbitrary killings.

“Hundreds of poor people are in prison without being convicted, and today we have the militias as well killing our people, while the military is bombing our cities with barrel bombs and random missiles,” Shiekh Bajjari said. “If we ever put down our weapons, the militias would come over and kill us all.”

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at

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