Washington: In a dramatic expansion of the US-led war on Islamist jihadis, manned and unmanned American and Arab fighter aircraft launched their first air strikes on Syria early on Tuesday, dumping cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs on Raqqa, the so-called Islamic State’s headquarters, and on the Syria-Iraq border which cuts through the jihadis’ turf.
In a daring escalation, that time will reveal as brilliant or reckless, US ships in Middle Eastern waters also launched Tomahawk missiles on targets which Pentagon officials said included weapons stores, barracks and depots, and command-and-control centres.
Social media snippets from Raqqa claimed that a hospital, the regional governor’s house and an equestrian club had been hit – but there was no description of the damage or of death and injury.
They also suggested IS fighters had been ordered to abandon their Raqqa headquarters about the same time as pre-strike drone activity was heard over the city. There were reports of IS fighters in Raqqa city fanning out and heading into rural areas around the city of about 220,000 people.
Just as important as the commencement of the attacks on Syria, signalled by US President Barack Obama two weeks ago, was the regional representation among the attack aircraft.
Reportedly they included Saudi, Qatari, Jordanian, Bahraini and UAE machines – but in the absence of information on whether they were dropping munitions or were present more as fig-leaf cover for American strikes, it was difficult to read their presence as concrete proof of genuine Sunni Arab participation in the Obama-led coalition.
“We have five Arab Muslim Sunni-based nations attacking a Sunni-based terrorist organisation and that is … something we have not seen in the past. That is really quite an accomplishment,” General Jack Keane, a retired US Army officer, told the BBC.
The risk in the timing of the air attacks was the absence of US-allied forces on the ground to take advantage of any dislocation of IS forces. In neighbouring Iraq, the US can rely on the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and, much less so, on the dishevelled forces of the Iraqi government. But all it has in Syria are the under-trained, under-funded and under-armed Free Syrian Army rebel militia – most of who have long been removed from the Raqqa area.
The grand war design launched by Washington was that the Free Syrian Army fighters were to be flown to Saudi Arabia for training, but that’s a program that will take as long as eight months to train just 500 fighters to stand against the thousands in the IS ranks.
It took Obama years to reach the point of bombing Syria – he had issued many threats, but last year the US President angered many of his Sunni allies in the region when he backed away, after Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad agreed to co-operate in the destruction of his chemical stockpiles.
Obama’s rationale was two-fold – after Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans were tired of war; and strategically, Obama did not want another confused and complex war in the Muslim Middle East. But all that changed with a shift in US public opinion in the wake of IS releasing gruesome videos of two Americans, and later a Briton, being beheaded.
That “we must do something now” response to the videos fails to mesh with the complexities of Syria, in reality a four-cornered civil war, in which Washington now has gone to war against the entity most likely to achieve the outcome that the US was pursuing ahead of the emergence of IS – the downfall of Assad.
Dr Assad and his leadership clique will be delighted that Obama is doing some of the heavy lifting for their over-stretched military forces.
But at the same time, the presence of the Sunni Arab aircraft in the Raqqa strike force ratchets up regional tensions, bringing a kinetic edge to hostilities that for most regional governments had been confined to diplomatically bad-mouthing each other and covertly funding and arming their allies in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts.
In back-grounding Washington reporters, senior military officials are scratching their heads – “harder than anything we tried to do in Iraq and Afghanistan,” one of them said of Syria in an interview with The Washington Post. “We don’t have a precedent for this.”
Wherever you look the parallels are not especially useful. Seeking to reassure Americans that this is not Iraq or Afghanistan revisited, Obama tells them to think of Yemen and Somalia, where in each country government forces have been a boots-on-the-ground element supported by a US air campaign. But Yemen and Somalia are small beer compared with the separate and combined theatres of war represented by Syria and Iraq.
The lessons learnt in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, is that sacrificing thousands of young Americans – and Australians – and spending hundreds of billions on training local armies for a decade or more does not make a force that is capable of defending either nation.
So why anyone in Washington believed that training 500 men in each eight months for successive years will do the trick in Syria beggars belief.
Tuesday’s attacks followed taunts from Tehran that there was a double standard in Washington’s approach to the IS presence in Syria and in Iraq, because since the direct US entry into the war it had run scores of air missions and dispatched hundreds of “advisers” to Iraq, but seemingly had ignored the significant element of IS in Syria – ostensibly, according to Iranian analysis, because IS was successfully applying pressure to Assad.
Washington’s kudos in at least having convinced Arab leaders to have their aircraft in Syrian airspace and thereby seemingly at the frontline of a global coalition effort was dulled by Paris insisting on Monday that having joined the coalition, it would confine its air attacks to IS targets in Iraq.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.