Sunday 13 October 2019

Why air strikes without troops in the field will not stop terror group

In this image shot with an extreme telephoto lens and through haze from the outskirts of Suruc at the Turkey-Syria border, militants with the Islamic State group are seen after placing their group's flag on a hilltop at the eastern side of the town of Kobani, Syria, where fighting had been intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group. AP Photo
In this image shot with an extreme telephoto lens and through haze from the outskirts of Suruc at the Turkey-Syria border, militants with the Islamic State group are seen after placing their group's flag on a hilltop at the eastern side of the town of Kobani, Syria, where fighting had been intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group. AP Photo
Protesters run away from tear gas during a pro-Kurdish demonstration in solidarity with people of Kobani, near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border, in the Turkish town of Suruc in southeastern Sanliurfa province. Reuters
Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani after a war plane carried out an air strike, seen from near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province. Reuters
Smoke rises after an airstrike in Kobani, Syria as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, as seen from Mursitpinar in the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border. AP Photo
Protesters run away as an armoured army vehicle sprays water to disperse them during a pro-Kurdish demonstration in solidarity with people of Kobani, near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border, in the Turkish town of Suruc in southeastern Sanliurfa province. Reuters
A protester throws stones at an armoured army vehicle during a pro-Kurdish demonstration in solidarity with people of Kobani, near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border, in the Turkish town of Suruc in southeastern Sanliurfa province. Reuters
A Kurdish party flag is seen on a pole on a hilltop on the western side of Kobani, Syria as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, as seen from Mursitpinar in the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border. AP Photo
Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani, seen from near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province. Reuters
An Islamic State fighter walks near a black flag belonging to the Islamic State as a Turkish army vehicle takes position near the Syrian town of Kobani, as pictured from the Turkish-Syrian border near the southeastern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province. Reuters
Riot police take up positions as they clash with protesters in Istanbul, during a pro-Kurdish demonstration in solidarity with the people of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. Reuters

Walter C Ladwig

Air strikes are an easy option for politicians to turn to, but they are not all-powerful. Rather, they have their strengths and limitations just like any other military tool.

In the case of the current strikes against Isil, the efficacy depends significantly on how they are employed, against whom, and in what context.

Air strikes against the heart of the nascent Caliphate in Syria have the ability to present Isil's leadership with a difficult dilemma: either stand fast against modern precision-guided weapons, or blend back into the populace as guerrilla fighters, which necessitates surrendering their claim to Islamic State.

In this region, the group possesses a range of military positions, training camps, headquarters buildings, oil facilities and other infrastructure that is readily vulnerable to air strikes. Critically missing is an intelligence breakthrough that would facilitate a decapitation strike against Isil's leadership - the most probable outcome of attacks on these targets will be a form of defensive response by the group, such as dispersing its forces and perhaps abandoning buildings and active base camps.

Not only would such a move hinder their military effectiveness, it would inflict a fairly significant political blow as they would be forced to give up control over the very territory which they claim constitutes the caliphate, thus harming their international appeal. These air strikes alone will not destroy or decisively defeat Isil, but they can make life very difficult for them.

Air strikes against Isil's forces fighting in Iraq present an entirely different scenario. The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that air power and other forms of long-range precision strikes can be devastatingly effective against relatively unskilled opponents, such as the 2001-era Afghan Taliban or Iraqi army conscripts in 2003.

However, the same weapons have proved to be far less effective against relatively more skilled opponents, such as al-Qa'ida's foreign fighters, who have the ability to employ cover and concealment, build effective fighting positions, and otherwise adapt to the circumstances on the battlefield. .

Despite the startling advances in sensor technology in the past 20 years, it is still very hard to find targets to strike with air power in complex terrain, be it natural or man-made. Although Iraq is devoid of detection-disrupting forests, the critical landscape is its urban areas, which contain vast amounts of cover, not to mention innocent civilians that must be distinguished from legitimate military targets. Conducting effective air strikes in these circumstances against an opponent who knows how to exploit the terrain for their protection is not an easy task.

The way modern militaries have succeeded in overcoming this problem is to combine air strikes with capable ground forces.

Units on the ground moving into close contact compel a defender to coalesce and reveal their hidden positions by opening fire. This, in turn, allows ground-based observers to guide their partners in the air into effective strikes on the opposition. The relative weakness of Iraqi forces and the limited number of western "boots on the ground" means the effectiveness of air strikes on Isil fighters in the field will be significantly retarded.

Without better trained and motivated ground forces to partner with - be they Iraqi, Kurdish or other - it is hard to see how air strikes alone can halt Isil's advance.

Dr Walter C Ladwig III is a lecturer in International Relations at King's College, London

Irish Independent

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