It’s essential to have the big picture on this. The war in Syria is turning into something bigger, with substantially bigger implications than what happens to ISIS.
But ISIS remains the handy pretext for Russia’s and Iran’s growing intervention in both Syria and Iraq. That intervention is changing their posture, and the correlation of both military and political forces across the region, almost by the day. They are not there for ISIS, and they’re not there for Assad. They’re there – putting down stakes from the Caspian and the Caucasus to the Horn of Africa – because they intend to be in charge of carving up the rapidly fragmenting ruins of the post-World War I Middle East.
ISIS will get something of a vote in this conflict. But America won’t. The reason for these two realities is that Obama has limited the use of U.S. force – limited it to such an extent that ISIS is still a very viable entity. Obama’s “restraint” is also the reason Russia and Iran keep having ISIS as a handy, open-ended pretext for arranging to occupy Iraq and Syria. Which is what they’re actually doing.
Obama has in fact restrained the use of U.S. force to an unnatural degree. We’ve known for a while now that 75% of the strike sorties flown against ISIS by our aircraft return to base without bombing anything. U.S. Central Command reported that in operational statistics months ago, and it was picked up by stateside media as early as May 2015.
But there was a focus in May on the lack of immediate tactical intelligence on potential targets: without boots on the ground to direct airborne strikes, the implication was that we couldn’t use air power effectively.
The disclosures discussed this week, from U.S. pilots as summarized by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are of a different order. The issue is not so much the lack of tactical intelligence, as the paralyzing fear, in the White House, of collateral damage from dropping bombs under any circumstances.
Washington Free Beacon quotes a Pentagon official who defended the Obama administration’s restrictive guidelines:
When asked to address Royce’s statement, a Pentagon official defended the Obama administration’s policy and said that the military is furiously working to prevent civilian casualties.
“The bottom line is that we will not stoop to the level of our enemy and put civilians more in harm’s way than absolutely necessary,” the official told the Washington Free Beacon, explaining that the military often conducts flights “and don’t strike anything.”
“The fact that aircraft go on missions and don’t strike anything is not out of the norm,” the official said. “Despite U.S. strikes being the most precise in the history of warfare, conducting strike operations in the heavily populated areas where ISIL hides certainly presents challenges. We are fighting an enemy who goes out of their way to put civilians at risk. However, our pilots understand the need for the tactical patience in this environment. This fight against ISIL is not the kind of fight from previous decades.”
Note well, however: the Pentagon official’s statement is narrowly couched and ultimately misleading. When you’re really trying to “degrade and defeat” an enemy force, as Obama said his objective was for ISIS, you don’t, in fact, fail to conduct strikes during 75% of your opportunity windows.
There are times when an operational commander with troops in contact on the ground wants to have available air support, and strike-fighters fly a lot of sorties during which they end up not being needed for bomb-dropping. (It could sometimes be that way in Iraq for months at a time in the years between 2004 and 2011.)
But that’s not the situation with ISIS in Syria or Iraq. The whole point of flying the sorties is to strike ISIS. In that situation, it’s not at all normal for 75% of them to return without striking anything.
As recounted at WFB, Retired Army General Jack Keane spoke about the Obama administration’s very abnormal attitude toward collateral damage:
“This has been an absurdity from the beginning,” Keane said in response to questions from Royce. “The president personally made a statement that has driven air power from the inception.”
“When we agreed we were going to do airpower and the military said, this is how it would work, he [Obama] said, ‘No, I do not want any civilian casualties,’” Keane explained. “And the response was, ‘But there’s always some civilian casualties. We have the best capability in the world to protect from civilian casualties.’”
However, Obama’s response was, “No, you don’t understand. I want no civilian casualties. Zero,’” Keane continued. “So that has driven our so-called rules of engagement to a degree we have never had in any previous air campaign from Desert Storm to the present.”
Keane is exactly right. No one disputes that we should minimize civilian casualties as much as possible, consistent with the priority and nature of the mission. But Obama has placed the complete avoidance of civilian casualties above all else, including the mission to “degrade and defeat” ISIS.
Over the previous 30 years, the U.S. outperformed the expectations of international conventions about minimizing casualties in war. But Obama’s guidance has taken that to an extreme level that is not mandated (or even implied) by any international agreement.
And his collateral-damage avoidance directive has prevented our forces from degrading ISIS to any meaningful degree, much less defeating it.
Neither France nor Russia will be operating under such a constraint. General Keane nails it again:
“Believe me,” Keane added, “the French are in there not using the restrictions we have imposed on our pilots.”
And the same goes for Russians, he said, adding, “They don’t care at all about civilians.”
To some extent, the other two militaries will make up in actual bomb-dropping for what they lack in U.S.-level precision and per-sortie effectiveness.
Limitations are still king
That doesn’t mean they’ll finish off ISIS any time soon. ISIS can’t be finished off using either air power, harassment from Kurdish militias, or tactical discouragement from encounters with forces (like Russia’s, Iran’s, or Assad’s) that have some conventional advantages, but can also be devastated themselves by guerrilla tactics. ISIS needs to be cordoned off and annihilated with a ground offensive, and it will take a ruthless, substantially superior force to do it.
That force does not exist in either Syria or Iraq. Russia and Iran together might be capable of putting such a force in play, although that is actually a question mark. But annihilating ISIS is not their priority. Their priority, for the moment, is consolidating territory to hold it against the other rebel forces in western Syria.
France has the priority of dealing ISIS as much of a blow as she can, but her overriding constraint is that she isn’t going to buy for herself the political problem of orchestrating a big reset in Syria. France doesn’t want that. There will be a limit to what France can do, given that constraint. At every step, France will be urging other nations to join in a coalition to solve the larger problem of “Syria,” so that the subordinate problem of “ISIS” will have to wither on the vine from its shrinking options.
It doesn’t matter whether this is called “smart power” or anything else (it used to just be called ordinary great-power geopolitics). What matters is that its effect will be to leave ISIS undefeated.
Russia and Iran are pursuing their strategic priorities
Meanwhile, video of this week’s flights to Syria by Russian long-range bombers shows that Russia is pursuing the policy I previewed in October, of opening up the eastern approach to Syria as a military air corridor for Russia. I assumed as much when the bomber flights were first reported, but the video released by Russian defense sources shows an Iranian F-14 operating as escort for part of a bomber flight.
That clarifies things. It means the Russian bombers flew, as I suspected, through Iranian air space – with Iran’s full cooperation. That in turn means they flew through Iraqi air space to get to Syria. (Directly over the top of the air base in Irbil being used by U.S. forces.)
If Russia had tried that at any time between 1947 and 1991, it could well have started World War III. Even after 1991, Russia never tried it – until now. That’s the measure of how completely the military-political situation in Southwest Asia has changed.
Russia has gone from not daring to fly bombers across foreign air space in Southwest Asia to flying them in company with Iranian fighters, when Russia feels like it. Russia also has the S-400 system in Syria, meaning her ability to control and deny air space in and around Syria and Iraq will be expanding quickly.
America does not have air space dominance in this region anymore – or the ability to quickly establish it. We had it for 25 years, but we no longer do. Period. The shift has already happened.
Subordinate role for U.S. forces
Keep that in mind when you see reports like this one, suggesting that USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75), which just left Norfolk for the Middle East, will be stopping off Syria to conduct strike operations. America doesn’t have the power to make good on that promise now, without consulting Russia.
We have a lane through which we’re sending the Air Force from Turkey into northern Syria. We established that lane in the weeks before Russia began her operations in Syria in late August. But aircraft from the carrier would come by a different route. There’s no guarantee the Russians will agree to deconflict with our carrier-based strikers, especially since Russian aircraft in-country are flying from the base at Latakia, on Syria’s west coast. The air space through which our carrier aircraft would have to fly is the same air space the Russians are using, not just to take off and land but to conduct strikes in western Syria.
Maybe we’ll get lucky. The French carrier Charles de Gaulle (R-91) arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean on Thursday, according to France’s announced plans, and will presumably arrange with the Russians to fly aircraft through exactly that air corridor on the Syrian coast. Perhaps the U.S. can work something out, so that our aircraft can fly through the lanes used by the French.
Or perhaps we will make the somewhat empty gesture of using Navy strike-fighters in Syria by staging them from the carrier to Incirlik, Turkey, where the Air Force base is. (Truman might even lurk right off Turkey’s coast so the carrier aircraft could go “feet dry” over Turkey to approach Syria.) We could at least do that without having to ask permission from the Russians.
The question is really how much the Obama administration wants to put into empty gestures. It will take Truman another 6-8 days to get to EASTMED; if something else is dominating the headlines by then, the administration may quietly drop the Syria plan and send the carrier on to the Persian Gulf, where it will end up anyway. Up to now, the carrier aircraft have been flying over Iraq. They can continue to do that without rocking the increasingly crowded geopolitical boat – which is now a consideration, given that Russia is busy establishing a prior claim on the air space throughout the region. (For a discussion of that evolving reality, see this earlier post, also linked above.)
This is how big wars start: over time, from little ones. Fasten your seatbelts. We live in interesting times.