Airstrikes Might Not Be Enough to Defeat ISIS

Iraqi security forces pull down a flag belonging to Sunni militant group ISIS during a patrol in the town of Dalli Abbas on June 30, 2014. Reuters

As United States airstrikes continue over Iraq and are expected to be launched over Syrian territory, they may prove ineffective against mines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and roadside bombs planted by Islamist fighters.

Islamic State militants use of land mines and IEDs is a tactic borrowed from Al-Qaeda and is “built on patience, the element of surprise and a willingness to take losses” to slow down a Kurdish attempt to take the town of Jalawla in northwestern Iraq last week, The Wall Street Journal reports. Islamic State, better known as ISIS, grew out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which successfully used roadside bombs and IEDs against the U.S. military during the Iraq War.

But are American airstrikes enough to hold off the ISIS attacks? For now, the consensus is clear: U.S. airstrikes alone cannot help Iraqi and Kurdish forces defeat ISIS fighters.

ISIS’s use of mines and IEDs proved effective when it helped the militants hold the northern Iraqi town of Tikrit by slowing down an advance by Iraqi government forces. However, despite the widespread use of mines by ISIS, American airstrikes did help Kurdish and Iraqi forces take back the strategically key Mosul Dam from ISIS fighters.

But U.S. airstrikes won’t be successful “in and of themselves,” said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and professor emeritus of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University. “There has to be an effective Iraqi state, Iraqi government, Iraqi army to push them out,” he continued. “The military response that took the shape of American airstrikes needs to be accompanied and tethered by political buildup of the Iraqi state.”

A combination of American airstrikes and coordination of Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground have been used in Iraq to defeat the Islamist fighters so far. But to attack the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, U.S. airstrikes will have to be launched over in Syrian territory.

“It is important to stop the momentum of ISIS. If we were to have gone into Iraq and conducted a fairly successful humanitarian operation, kicked ISIS out of the Mosul Dam and stopped right there, there is no doubt in my mind that ISIS would be back,” said Janine Davidson, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council of Foreign Relations. “Airstrikes are important and they can be useful, but I don’t think they’re sufficient in the long run.”

President Barack Obama has been reluctant to engage militarily with Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011, but Davidson said there is a difference between targeted strikes over ISIS sanctuaries in eastern Syria and conducting an operation to establish full air superiority over the country. “But I don’t think that’s necessarily what’s required or what’s being contemplated,” she says.  

The U.S. is “poised” to ask the United Kingdom and Australia to join it in striking northern Iraq, The Daily Telegraph reports. U.S. officials believe both countries would be willing to join in an airstrike, although the U.K. said no official requests for assistance have been received.

Bringing other countries into a broad anti-ISIS coalition is a “sound course” of action for the U.S., but even concerted action by a number of countries may not be enough, said Thomas McDonnell, a professor of international law at Pace University.

“I think the best thing we can do is develop a broad coalition of states, try to encourage democracies to the extent that we possibly can and use force very judiciously, because we run the risk of making the situation even worse,” McDonnell said.