War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

Photo by Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images
An F/A-18C Hornet takes off for Iraq from the Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush on Aug. 15, 2014. ISIS, unlike Vietnamese guerilla fighters, might prove surprisingly vulnerable to air power.

Photo by Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama’s air war against terrorist targets in Syria has begun, sooner and more deeply inside Syrian territory than expected. The question: Will the strikes—which mark the mere “beginning of a credible, sustainable, persistent campaign,” as the U.S. military’s operations chief put it at a Pentagon press conference Tuesday morning—really degrade and destroy the jihadist group known as ISIS?

History suggests that airstrikes usually have little effect unless they’re combined with assaults by ground troops, which the United States is unwilling—and the “moderate Syrian rebels” aren’t yet able—to provide. Then again, historical precedent might not be the best predictor here.

Analysts who cite the limits of air power often point to the wars against Nazi Germany, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, among others. But the foes in those wars were nation-states with vast resources at their disposal, dispersed infrastructures, redundant command-and-control links, and, in some cases, flourishing economies.

That is not the case with ISIS, which, while calling itself the Islamic State and aspiring to control the areas it now occupies, lacks the governing mechanisms or political institutions of a state.

Monday night’s airstrikes—three waves of them, in a span of four hours, involving cruise missiles launched from a destroyer and smart bombs fired by a wide variety of combat planes—were said to be aimed mainly at ISIS command-and-control sites, training camps, barracks, headquarters, logistical nodes, and armored vehicles.*

Those are the standard targets of this sort of air campaign. It’s often unclear, though, just what the words mean. A “command-and-control site,” for instance, might be a radio transmission tower, a cellphone center, the node for a fiber-optic cable—or it could be a desk with a telephone on it. It’s easy to blow up some of these sites; the question is whether the foe’s leaders are still able to send orders to their troops through other means. Destroying a command-and-control site doesn’t necessarily mean that a commander’s ability to communicate has been destroyed, too.

How robust and redundant are the command-and-control links of ISIS? Are they centralized, as is often true in a nascent, primitive aspiring state? Or are they decentralized, as is true of a guerrilla army, and therefore not much affected by isolated airstrikes? We don’t know—and by “we,” I mean not only the likes of you and me, who lack access to classified intelligence, but, I suspect, U.S. intelligence agencies as well. They may find out the answer only after watching how well ISIS operates in the airstrikes’ aftermath.

A useful map on the New York Times’ website, put together from data supplied by the Defense Department and the Institute for the Study of War, shows that Monday night’s bombs were dropped along the path of areas under ISIS control. This suggests that the main goal of the strikes was to disrupt the supply lines supporting ISIS forces in Iraq. Earlier this month, U.S. officials said that the initial phase of airstrikes in Syria would focus on degrading ISIS fighters in Iraq; this map supports that claim. (The one exception was the wave of cruise missile strikes near Aleppo, in northwestern Syria, which were aimed at the Khorasan Group, an al-Qaida offshoot said to be in the final stages of a plot to blow up an airplane bound for the West. This part of the campaign had nothing to do with ISIS, except perhaps to show that Obama is willing to attack all terrorists who pose a direct threat, regardless of their location.)

Attacks along supply paths—interdiction campaigns, as they’re called—have a mixed record in the annals of combat. During the Vietnam War, U.S. planes endlessly bombarded the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which the North Vietnamese Army used to resupply its fighters in the South, but they barely slowed down the traffic; the NVA and Viet Cong made quick repairs to key bridges and carved out new supply lines elsewhere. On the other hand, during the 2007 “surge” of the Iraq war, U.S. troops attacked the “belts” surrounding Baghdad, the areas that the insurgents were using as staging areas and bomb-making factories—a campaign that played a huge role in reducing, and for a while almost ending, violence in the capital.

The results of Obama’s current air campaign will depend, in part, on whether ISIS can expand its holdings and weave new supply routes. If the airstrikes keep coming, this will be hard for ISIS to manage. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was carved in a jungle, and the canopy of treetops prevented bombardiers from seeing below. Besides, the North Vietnamese had been waging highly disciplined guerrilla warfare against stronger powers—the French before the Americans—for more than a decade. The Iraqi-Syrian border has no such protection, and ISIS is a relatively new outfit, as yet untested by the ravages of heavy firepower.

But the key to this war, like in all wars, will be political. It is highly significant that four Arab nations—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain—participated in Monday night’s airstrikes and that a fifth, Qatar, supported them. No one has yet said how many bombs the four dropped, or what Qatar’s support amounted to, but it doesn’t matter. During the 1990–’91 Gulf War, these and several other Arab nations, including Syria and Egypt, sent tank divisions and air wings to help push Hussein’s army out of Kuwait. Few of them did much, but the important thing was that they joined the coalition in active force—and, therefore, Hussein could not claim that this was purely a Western, imperialist war. Sending this message is even more important in the fight against ISIS, which bills itself as the Islamic army and its mission as a religious one—the revival of a caliphate. To have Muslim nations, especially Sunni nations, battling against ISIS helps discredit its rationale for existence.

More vital still is the forging of a unified government in Iraq. The new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has talked about inclusiveness and giving Sunnis a stake in the regime, but he hasn’t done much yet. ISIS has conquered as much Iraqi land as it has because the Sunni residents, much as they despise or distrust the jihadists, prefer their rule to that of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Once Abadi fills key ministries with Sunnis and lets more Sunni soldiers join the national army, popular support for ISIS will dry up—or at least that’s the hope. Until he takes those steps, the hope can’t be fulfilled, much less even tested.

As for the fate of Syria, air power—whether American or Arabian or both—can do only so much without ground forces. Before it went on recess, Congress approved Obama’s request for $500 million to train the Free Syrian Army—the militia that opposes both ISIS and President Bashar al-Assad’s rule—on bases in Saudi Arabia. But, as Obama said in his Sept. 10 speech, which laid out his anti-ISIS strategy, it will take months, perhaps more than a year, for the FSA to be ready to fight. (This is why the airstrikes for now are directed mainly at the battle in Iraq, where the national army, the Kurdish peshmerga, and Shiite militias have been fighting ISIS on the ground and keeping its jihadists from expanding further.)

It’s not at all clear that the FSA will ever be able to repel ISIS or overthrow Assad, let alone both. Certainly, most FSA fighters are more interested in the latter than the former. It’s easy to foresee fissures between these rebels and their American paymasters. Just hours after Monday’s airstrikes, some FSA fighters were already grousing that ISIS can’t be defeated until after Assad is ousted. That may be the Syrian rebels’ priority, but it isn’t Obama’s—or, it’s safe to say, any other American’s.

On the cable news channels Tuesday morning, some commentators grumbled that while Obama’s air campaign might degrade or contain the ISIS fighters, it isn’t likely to defeat them. A few raised alarms that, after weeks of airstrikes in Iraq, ISIS hasn’t yet surrendered. It all makes one thankful that cable news wasn’t around during World War II: The Battle of the Bulge would have sired calls for Franklin Roosevelt’s impeachment.

In any case, President Obama has entered into, and swiftly expanded, a new war in the Middle East—which, by definition, is fraught with great risk. At the same time, he’s engaged in it more shrewdly than some of his predecessors: with active allies in the region, with clear aims, and with a firm insistence on limits (at least for now). How it’s going, whether it will work, is something that nobody will know for some time—and something that lies beyond Obama’s full control.

None of it may work out. ISIS may prove resilient to airstrikes. The Iraqi government may not get its act together, in which case Sunni citizens will remain supportive of—or at least unwilling to fight against—their fellow Sunnis in ISIS. The airstrikes in Syria may trigger still more chaos in that already besieged country. ISIS or other jihadist groups may strike back with terrorist attacks in the West, including the United States. It wouldn’t be the first time that a limited war spread like wildfire.

Correction, Sept. 24, 2014: This article originally stated that U.S. airstrikes in Syria on Monday included Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from an aircraft carrier. They were launched from a destroyer. (Return.)