Shock & Awe In Syria: It never Works

By Juan Cole

The London pan-Arab daily “Hayat” [Life] reports this morning on the air strikes conducted on ISIL positions in Raqqah, Syria, by the United States and several Arab allies.

The Syrian government acknowledged that the US gave fair warning it would bomb Raqqah to the Syrian ambassador to the UN. That is, the US may not militarily be coordinating with Syria, but it does inform the regime of enough information to avoid a shoot-down.

Not only ISIL positions but also some targets of the Jabhat al-Nusra or Succor Front (the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria) were struck by the US and its allies. Once you enter a war, it doesn’t stay limited.

The US deployed not only fighter jets but also drone strikes and Tomahawk missiles, presumably fired from a destroyer from the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. It targeted suspected arms depots, the mayor’s mansion (used by ISIL as its HQ in Raqqah), and checkpoints, among other things. Dozens of ISIL fighters were said to be killed and more wounded.

Jim Sciutto tweeted,

Louisa Loveluck also weighed in:

Apparently “backed by” does not mean “joined in the bombing” in the cases of Bahrain and Qatar. Qatar may have flown escort, but word is that it didn’t actually drop bombs.

Some 80% of Raqqah’s 240,000 inhabitants, i.e. about 190,000 people, are said to have remained after ISIL took over the city, despite its harsh and arbitrary rule. It is inevitable that US and allied bombing on important Raqqah military targets will kill a certain number of civilians. That is, Raqqah is roughly the size of Grand Rapids, Michigan or Salt Lake City, Utah. Imagine if fighter-jets were dropping bombs on targets within those small cities?

The some 22 sorties flown on Monday will have killed some ISIL terrorists, blown up some weapons warehouses, and destroyed some checkpoints. But ISIL are guerrillas, and they will just fade away into Raqqah’s back alleys. The US belief in air power is touching, but in fact no conflict has ever been quickly brought to an end where US planes have been involved.

The ISIL guerrillas will fade away, perhaps inside the city, where you can’t bomb them without killing a lot of civilians (and they will video the victims for you). Then there will just be occasional drone strikes of the sort that were relatively ineffectual in Afghanistan and FATA in Pakistan.

The US dropped enormous numbers of bombs on Iraq since 2003, and in the end its sponsored government lost 40% of the country to ISIL. Bombing positions in Syria in the absence of an allied ground force is highly unlikely to be decisive in and of itself.

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Related video:

CBS Evening News: “U.S. begins airstrikes against ISIS inside Syria”

CBS Evening News [Verified]

37 Responses

  1. “Bombing positions in Syria in the absence of an allied ground force is highly unlikely to be decisive in and of itself.” Irony? Since when have “coalition” or even “allied” ground forces even with lots of “air” managed to be “decisive” in 4th gen “whatever you call theme?” Fun for the Blue Force Warfighters, but a very expensive fool’s “mission…” “This time it’ll be different!!!!” Maybe use our new nukes?

  2. It’s rather difficult to keep track of who is our ally and who is our enemy. I think I read the Syrian rebels, whom we support, were passing along US supplied weapons to ISIL…the target of our bombing. I have also seen past photos with McCain and others meeting with ISIL leaders proclaiming they were the equivalent of our founding fathers.

    I keep going back to this famous quote which is the only explanation that seems appropriate….War is a racket.

    • “War is a racket” – Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler.

      Check the stock page tomorrow and let’s see if the shares of Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, DuPont and Dow Chemical have not skyrocketed in value.

      • Small potatoes only at this very point so far–meaning the impact on stock prices you suggest as a test is not realistic. Stocks are valued at the present value of all expected earnings discounted by perceived risk. It is more complicated as 1) rick factors can also change due to instability and 2} These strikes are not enough to change expected demand.

  3. And the international legitimacy of bombing yet another Mid-Eastern nation, against the wishes of the Syrian government?

    • “……against the wishes of the Syrian government.”

      Secretary of State John Kerry notified the Iraqi foreign minister, who then notified his Syrian counterpart of the impending bombing raids.

      A Syrian government spokesman issued a statement that Kerry’s notification satisfied them that Syrian sovereignty was respected and appropriate consent, therefore, had been obtained from the Syrian government for the air force action by the U.S.

      One suspects the Assad regime may be celebrating the U.S. air intervention against ISIS.

      • So ‘we are going to bomb your country next week and there is nothing you can do about it’ now provides legitimacy for bombing at will?

  4. Well, the obvious answer is this: the USA bombs, and then the Syrian Army moves in once the rubble stops bouncing.

    Still, that would require “co-ordination”, not “forewarning”, and apparently the USA claims that it doesn’t want to do that.

    Well, not yet, anyway….

    • Enabling Assad’s army to retake control is an outcome favored by Rand Paul as well as hand-washers on the left. Letting the strong man render rough justice is always an attractive path of least resistance.

      Two years ago, ISIS truly was the JV team of Syria. They attracted membership and power by building on success. There is no legitimate reason why the Free Syrian Army can not consolidate and build momentum once they demonstrate gains.

      Dr. Cole and many other skeptics have listed 101 reasons why the Free Syrian Army is doomed. The arguments are not wrong, but they will be overwhelmed by persistence. The FSA has shown remarkable tenacity. They are wanting only for sufficient support.

      The FSA skeptics share one trait: they wish for such an approach to fail. We shall see where this marathon leads.

      • One other point: if strategy here was to allow Assad to reclaim territory vacated by ISIS, Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni states would never have joined the coalition.

        The initial purpose of the trained Syrian Army rebels will be to assist air strikes as spotters.

        The funding for FSA will mostly come from Gulf States, as they commit to the FSA as opposed to ISIS or other radical groups.

      • “There is no legitimate reason why the Free Syrian Army can not consolidate and build momentum once they demonstrate gains.”

        The Free Syrian Army runs away when attacks. That’s how Syrian Army soldiers characterize the so-called FSA, which is barely in existence and will never coalesce as a fighting force. You really need to do more than try and use correlation or your logic. Read more sources. You are either a hack or a fool. Your choice.

        • Sadly, the Syrian Support Group (SSG), an NGO based in Washington D.C. which had been designated as the implementing agency for U.S. government aid to the Free Syrian Army, and whose activities were supported by former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, closed its doors about one month ago.

          SSG had raised millions of dollars in funding from the Syrian expatriate community in Europe and North America for non-lethal aid to the FSA pursuant to a U.S. State Department license in addition to distributing aid from the federal government.

          Here’s the link:

          link to macon.com

        • The Syrian Army characterizes the FSA as hopeless? Well, I guess that settles it.

          Watch and learn.

    • That has been the reaction that Free Syrian Army commanders have issued to the press over the bombing runs.

  5. There’s no problem that the American government feels it can’t solve by lighting a few things on fire. Government we don’t like in Iraq? Light some of Iraq on fire — that’s probably an effective means of dealing with that powder keg. Government we don’t like in Libya? How about we light some of it on fire? People who dislike us in Yemen and Afghanistan? Send drones to light their villages on fire! That’ll turn public opinion!

    And now Syria. I’m sure that lighting Raqqa on fire won’t further destabilize the region. I’m sure it’ll touch the hearts and minds of those who oppose us, and convince them to join us in rebuilding their country.

    There’s nothing a little fire can’t fix.

  6. The NATO alliance is keeping its long term war aims so secret
    that Putin’s spies cannot find the plan … because there is no plan/

  7. And the reason hundreds or thousands of civilians will be terrified and killed is what again? Payback for beheadings? Fighting the enemy over there so we don’t have to fight them over here?

  8. Isn’t it the case, though, that ISIL has at some times used assymetrical warfare and at other times more conventional warfare, the latter of which has been instrumental in holding large swathes of territory?

    If this air campaign forces ISIL to switch tactics, limiting themselves to assymetrical warfare, then that whole equation changes. I fully agree, though, that ISIL wont completely go away unless their local enemies get their stuff together and local Sunnis turn decisively against them.

  9. It appears Obama’s claim to have ended the war on/in Iraq was really an ending of the prologue to a wider Middle East War. And who knows where it will go to from there? Netanyahu, Kristol, McCain and their cohorts must be feeling this is like Christmas in September. Well, maybe, “Christmas” isn’t appropriate for the first two.

  10. “Shock & Awe In Syria: It never Works”

    Actually, shock & awe works remarkably well in the middle east. Forces are extremely vulnerable to air power in that terrain.

    Obviously it’s a question of what “works” means. Since we’re dealing with political problems, the military piece of puzzle is just the start.

    I don’t think bombing will accomplish much until ground forces are in place. That will take years. If they are going to do some bombing now, how about relieving pressure on the besieged Kurdish city of Kobani.

    • I just checked the Aljazeera Syria liveblog and found this:

      “Activists reported several air strikes overnight on ISIL’s positions in the northeastern Aleppo countryside. in Sarrin, Qubah, Ilajaj, QaraQuzak and Khrab Ashak villages.

      “The villages are located in the southern Kurdish area of Kobani where fighting between ISIL and Kurdish fighters are taking place

      “The attacks are believed to have been carried out by the US led coalition.”

      High time. Rojava seems to be the only part of Syria that combines good politics (efforts to create an inclusive, democratic system of governance, replete with Murray Bookchin-inspired popular assemblies), and an effective military (40% of the soldiers, apparently, women.) I had been afraid that the US would strategically allow them to collapse, because they’re PKK.

  11. There are ways to win wars that haven’t changed for a long time. Professional soldiers are taught how at West Point, and in other War Colleges. Airpower supports Tanks corps, Artillery supports both the Tanks and the infantry, but a won war looks like boots on the ground that control violence there, as gendarmes apply civil policing. Turkey and Syria are involved in buying oil from ISIL, are they not? As a person who sees the US as involved whether it likes it or not, with allies it likes and doesn’t, at the least I would say it appears it is easier to bomb than end the oil sales, from which money is made to finance the opposing forces.

  12. Beverly Spence

    @GottaLaff No shock no awe intended not much works easily Mideast no question cannot permit ISIS caliphate in Mideast-end story

  13. Have readers still not learned what a caliphate is? (as opposed to what our politicians imply to scare the public). 632 CE-1924 CE.
    Check it out.

  14. UN? What UN?
    But when the US does it, it’s not against international law!

    How ’bout those evil Russkies in Ukraine, eh?

    Lots of refugees and crimes created by Boko Haram, and there’s OIL in Nigeria, too, but we aren’t in any hurry to get involved in African squabbles, are we?

    • Maybe “we,” whoever “we” are, are waiting for Ebola to run its course, hopefully while being able to keep the infected critters out of our Sacred Homeland (except for demonstration projects like infected caregivers, and what could possibly go wrong with importing nice parcels of viruses because “we” have such a great track record of keeping the pathogens under control). Then there would be a tabula rasa to g’wan in and take whatever our corps want in the way of extractables, without having to play games with petty local potentates to buy “legal, legitimate” ripoff chits and have excuses to crush local complainants…

  15. So as the Afghanistan war winds down, Iraq having only token US military personnel and Iran being seen as a dubious but needed ally, the war party, hating a war vacuum, has fed the press outrageous propaganda designed to instill fear into our 9-11 psyche that ISIS is our newest terrorist threat and another war is born. Good for Obama to at least make other nations in the region do some of the heavy lifting.

  16. Iraq in shambles, Libya in shambles, Syria in shambles…was that the plan? Sure seem to be implementing the PNAC (Project for a New American Century) “Securing the Realm” blueprint. So sad to witness Obama become part and parcel to such destructive strategies

    • There seems to be some significant debate on that point. The Joint Force Bombers and PNAC types are all brave and convinced about the promethean efficacy of Air Power — others, not so much:

      Kosovo and the Great Air Power Debate
      Journal Article, International Security, volume 24, issue 4, pages 5-38
      Spring 2000
      OVERVIEW
      In the first of two articles on the 1999 war over Kosovo, Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman of the RAND Corporation seek to dispel the notion that NATO air attacks alone brought Serbia to the negotiating table. They argue instead that air power worked synergistically with other factors—including the threat of a NATO ground assault, declining Russian support for the Serb cause, and the role of the Kosovo Liberation Army—in ending the conflict. More generally, Byman and Waxman maintain that the current debate over the role of air power as an instrument of coercion is “fundamentally flawed.” Noting that the outcome of this debate could have broad policy implications, the authors suggest that instead of asking if air power alone can coerce an adversary to surrender, political and military leaders, as well as theoreticians, should ask: “How can [air power] contribute to successful coercion, and under what circumstances are its contributions most effective?”
      link to belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu

      So maybe you aren’t claiming that air strikes did it all, and given the collateral damage one might ask what all that zoom-and-blast actually accomplished in terms of creating stability and comity, “going forward?” Any more than bombs and missiles, dropped and launched with the hopeful expectation of blowing up something “important,” munitions which so often go astray, and patently just blow shit up/build nothing, have a prayer of bettering bad situations that will eventually require political and social resolutions (often delayed and damaged by the bomb-bomb-bombs themselves.) What is with the belief and age-old practice that holds that flattening buildings, and using explosives to blow up tanks and APCs and “troop concentrations” is any kind of way to run a railroad? Granted that war-making seems to be the only longitudinal behavioral marker that distinguishes us from lesser beasts…

      Bear in mind that Bomberdroners and all the other Players, including well-paid white-paper generators like RAND, and ground forces and strategic forces and paramilitaries and jackals and “conractors,” are all ambitious careerists seeking to justify their slice of the nation’s wealth, and pre-eminence or at least co-coolness in the panoply of Warmaking idiocy.

  17. Let us suppose now this strategy works, what will the Americans have achieved? That the Assad government takes back control of the lost territory. Exactly the opposite of their strategic planning. And the ones responsible for this all (Gulf states), are their so-called “coalition partners”. Why are they not bombed? Because they have oil and a lot of money. The cynicism of it all…

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