ISIS must have been delighted to take control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra this week, not least because the city’s glorious Roman ruins and amphitheater allowed it to stage yet another sinister spectacle. This time, the terrorist army murdered 20 men “by firing on them in front of a crowd gathered in Palmyra’s Roman theatre, after accusing them of fighting for the Syrian regime,” as Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP. He added: “IS gathered a lot of people there on purpose, to show their force on the ground.” The Syrian men were literally murdered on an ancient Roman stage for the baying Islamic mob.
But that was just Palmyra. ISIS has had a good overall run in the last ten days after taking Ramadi in Iraq. Although Iraqi forces had declared their intention to retake the city, the enemy brought into Ramadi the shrouded, sinister imam known as Abu Asim, “the blind judge of the Islamic State,” who gave a sermon and whipped up his followers to an appropriate frenzy over the group’s recent success.
The terrorists seem well-ensconced in their twin nerve centers for Iraq and Syria, Mosul and Raqqa, respectively, and do not appear threatened in Fallujah, only miles from Baghdad. This despite the allied air campaign designed, in President Obama’s words, to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group.
The major oil refinery in Iraq, at Beiji, remains surrounded by ISIS, although it has not fallen, and of course Palmyra did indeed fall, bringing the enemy within striking range of the Syrian capital, Damascus. ISIS has announced that its soldiers will destroy every last priceless Roman statue in the city. The Iraqi cities of Kobani and Tikrit, the scenes of apocalyptic fighting among Iraqi Kurds, Sunnis, and ISIS, however, have remained success stories for the civilized world. On the whole, ISIS controls about one third of the territory of both Iraq and Syria, about the same proportions as it did one year ago and 4,100 coalition air strikes later. This raises obvious questions about the basic effectiveness of the air campaign as it is currently being waged.
No bombs at all were dropped on ISIS to save Palmyra. Only a tiny number of air sorties were dispatched to save doomed Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province.
In sum, the terror army has two advantages over the coalition, which may yet ensure ISIS’s victory. The first is its sheer fanatical violence. ISIS has a limitless supply of suicide car bombers who are nearly impossible to stop without anti-tank weapons. Unfortunately, the U.S. has been slow to provide the promised weapons to the Iraqi Army, and little coordination is taking place on the supply needs of Iraq’s government, let alone on the tactical coordination of airstrikes.
The second advantage is the feckless lack of commitment by the West to ISIS’s destruction. The total absence of the ground spotters and controllers explains why the gigantic expense of 4,100 airstrikes has totally failed to shrink ISIS’s control of terrain in Iraq and Syria. You can’t bomb an enemy to any tactical effect without precision spotting by ground forces using laser and GPS systems.
This lesson should have been learned on account of the early successful American war that toppled the Taliban in the fall of 2001. When CIA A-teams and Green Berets were inserted into Afghanistan and finally began lighting up Taliban and al-Qaeda targets with ground-based marked coordinates, the American air campaign became an almost instantly war-winning instrument. Not so today: the president and his team have “ruled out” any ground forces whatsoever, even merely to control the airstrikes. The president may be “winning” the war against ISIS, but only in the sense that Charlie Sheen was “winning.”
Christopher S. Carson is a lawyer and holds a master’s degree in national security studies.
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