ISIS adapts to U.S. airstrikes, holds territory and advances in American tanks, killing Kurds

A Wall Street Journal report shows that while the Pentagon claims that it has been successful in “disrupting” ISIS, what is much more obvious is the ease with which the organization has thus far adapted to the U.S.-led air campaign.

A U.S. official is quoted saying: “We’re not trying to take ground away from them [in Syria]. We’re trying to take capability away from them.”

And as the population of Kobane has witnessed, the U.S. is not even trying hard to prevent ISIS conquering new territory.

Islamic State fighters have reacted swiftly to the threat of airstrikes over the past weeks, moving out of captured military bases and government buildings in Syria, relocating weapons and hostages, and abandoning training camps, according to residents and rebels in the areas the militants control. In Syria and Iraq, they took down many of their trademark black flags, and camouflaged armed pickup trucks. They also took cover among civilians.

They also have maintained much of their financing and recruiting capability and continued to crack down on local populations, anti-regime activists and rebels in Syria said. At the same time, they publicized a series of beheadings of Western hostages.

In addition to holding territory after they came under attack, they pressed on with an ambitious offensive on the Syrian city of Ayn al-Arab, also known as Kobani, close to the border with Turkey.

Analysts said the U.S. is having a hard time getting intelligence to act on, and, as a result, a fraction of sorties flown have resulted in bombings.

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.

“ISIS will have a big problem when winter starts,” said one aid worker who provides relief in the eastern province of Deir Ezzour.

“They gained some popularity by distributing [a monthly stipend] of gas to the population and lowering prices. They won’t be able to do that.”

An Islamic State member interviewed via Skype said strikes by the Syrian regime have been more damaging than the U.S.-led assaults, and claimed the group’s production and refining of oil—a major revenue source — continues.

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.”

U.S. officials have said the strikes have had a high degree of accuracy.

One U.K. defense expert said that the coalition so far has struck mostly static targets, when the better way to hamper the group’s mobility is attacking fighters moving from one area to another.

“What air power can do is cut down on that mobility,” said Michael Clarke, the director at the Royal United Services Institute, an independent think tank on defense and security. “But it’s not evident at the moment that the coalition of air power has succeeded in doing that.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email