[The Islamic State is] a learning enemy and they know how to maneuver and how to use populations and concealment, they’re becoming more savvy with the use of electronic devices, they don’t fly flags and move around in large convoys the way they [once] did. . . . They don’t establish headquarters that are visible or identifiable.
— General Dempsey, October 7
That statement tells us something.
Meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) yesterday afternoon, President Obama would have heard an array of growing concerns. Those senior officers are personally aware that the coalition’s
war activity against the Islamic State (IS) is struggling.
Alongside the dire situation in the north Syrian city of Kobani, IS exerts pressure across the Iraq–Syria battle space. Consider that IS forces threaten the approach highways 30 miles from Baghdad.
Unfortunately, none of this is surprising.
As I’ve noted before, there are two fundamental inadequacies with President Obama’s present strategy. First, absent air-attack controllers on the ground, the coalition cannot effectively restrict highly mobile IS formations. Without onsite direction from ground personnel, coalition pilots lack situational awareness. Second, lacking deployed intelligence officers who can recruit agents against the Islamic State, IS’s high-value infrastructure is largely sheltered.
One can understand the impatience. After all, the U.S. military has been ordered to defeat a resourceful, determined enemy but has been denied the resources necessary. In short, Dempsey has been forced to play a passing game without receivers. His quarterbacks — the flight crews — are operating blindfolded.
And so, Kobani’s population stands on the precipice of slaughter and enslavement.
But with the Obama administration unwilling to bend to the task, humanitarian pressure has now shifted onto the Turkish government.
That’s because on paper, with the Turkish parliament having authorized anti-IS operations, and its capable military on high alert, few obstacles would seem to bar Turkey’s intervention.
Except for the Kurdish question.
His military leadership troubled by growing Kurdish autonomy in both Syria and Iraq, President Erdogan (an authoritarian I’ve described as an “Imam Ataturk”) is desperate to subordinate Kurdish political interests to his authority in Ankara. In part, this is understandable. While there are numerous Kurdish militias fighting IS, a major group is the YPG. And the YPG is aligned with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party of Syria (PYD), which in turn is aligned with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). That greatly complicates matters: The PKK has pursued an intermittent but bloody conflict with the Turkish state for many years. Witnessing deadly street protests in eastern Turkey, Erdogan fears Kurdish nationalism at home and abroad. Still, his refusal to allow Turkish-based Kurdish fighters to move into Syria and support their YPG compatriots is inflaming matters.
It gets more complicated.
Erdogan is a man of grand ambitions. As a qualification for his military support, the Turkish president is demanding that President Obama launch attacks against Assad. Despising Assad for his brutal subjugation of Syria’s Sunni community, his indirect empowerment of Kurdish separatism, and his rejection of diplomatic outreach in 2011, Erdogan is committed to the Syrian leader’s overthrow.
This mess illustrates where we are today.
With the Obama administration desperate to avoid deeper involvement in the Syrian civil war, upsetting the Erdogan government, or introducing ground forces, the Islamic State retains the initiative.
Nevertheless, for U.S. interests as much as humanitarian, President Obama needs to fix his strategy. If Kobani falls, the Islamic State will have a contiguous line of control from the Turkish border down the Euphrates through Syria to the outskirts of Ramadi, Iraq.
Put simply, that would be a big problem.
— Tom Rogan is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute, is based in Washington, D.C., and tweets @TomRtweets.