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Will the Fight against the Islamic State Subside After the Election?

by Rich Lowry

Brit Hume raised the prospect yesterday. I remember a friend of mine asking during the Syria red-line fiasco, when President Obama did himself such damage, “Does Obama not realize that all these foreign crises inevitably fade as matters of public concern over time?” I wonder if the president is counting on a similar dynamic here — in other words, he’s placated the public with limited action now, and if the public’s hawkish mood dissipates, he may never need to do the much more difficult things that will likely be necessary to success.

The Wall Street Journal has a good piece on the limits of the campaign so far:

As the U.S. prepares to launch a ground war by proxy forces in Syria and Iraq, there are signs that the air campaign is disrupting militant group Islamic State. Fighters are fleeing their bases, they travel at night and in smaller units and are cutting back on cellphone and radio communications to evade detection, according to U.S. officials and opponents of the group on the ground.

However, Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began.

“The strikes are useless so far,” said Mohammad Hassan, an activist in eastern Syria battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. “Most of the training camps and the bases were empty when the coalition hit them.”

Naturally, ISIS began preparing for airstrikes as soon as we announced them:

Syrian anti-Assad activists and members of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army said the U.S. is overestimating the impact it has had on Islamic State. Some residents living in areas controlled by the group in Syria maintain that the air campaign has had little effect.

Militants began moving weaponry and leadership away from their bases immediately after the U.S. announced in September it would strike targets in Syria, activists and rebels said. By mid-September, residents of Raqqa—Islamic State’s de facto capital in northeastern Syria—said the city was emptied of the group’s senior leadership.

“We used to see commanders around the city. But since the announcement [that airstrikes would begin], they’re gone,” said one Raqqa resident.

However, an official from one U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf defended the success of the strikes so far, saying they had slowed the militants’ advance in both countries and was slowly degrading their financing infrastructure.

One of our problems is that we lack intelligence:

Christopher Harmer, a defense analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said the U.S. is having a hard time getting actionable intelligence. As a result, he estimated only about 10% of the sorties being flown by the U.S. and its partners have dropped bombs.

“ISIS is not really structured in such a way as to be vulnerable to airstrikes,” he said. “They don’t have a lot of static targets. We can bomb a building here, a building there, a tank here, a truck there. But ISIS fighters are very good at intermingling with the civilian population.”

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