During his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Barack Obama announced that the US military is “stopping ISIL’s advance.” But a close look at the details of the American air offensive reveals a less triumphant narrative: Although the strikes may have slowed ISIS’s advance in the area around the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, the overall strategic gains have been minimal. Kobani “became a symbol of the ability to contain ISIS regardless of its strategic importance,” says Anthony Cordesman, military and national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former national security advisor to Sen. John McCain. Instead of a concrete strategy, the concentration on Kobani is a “practical problem,” says Cordesman. In October, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech that Kobani was not a “strategic objective” for the US.
So why all those bombs? Since September 23, when air strikes in Syria began, US and coalition forces have pummeled both Syria and Iraq with nearly 2,000 air strikes. As of early this week, 870 of those strikes were in Syria; almost 70 percent of these Syrian strikes have focused on Kobani and its surroundings. The total area, about the same size as Rhode Island, covers less than two percent of Syria and the majority of the population are ethnic Kurds.
There’s a reason that Kobani became so symbolically important: Stories of the brave Kurdish fighters defending the small border city against ISIS swept international headlines last September, and the public demanded that the US step in to prevent a humanitarian disaster. The Kurds, unable to defeat ISIS on their own, turned the tide once they had coalition air support. “Seventy-five percent of all US strikes in Syria were on Kobani,” Thomas Pierret, a Syria specialist at the University of Edinburgh told Ekurd Daily, a Kurdish news site last week. “You give any force on the ground that kind of aerial support and they will get the upper hand.” It has cost taxpayers $8.2 million a day, on average, to conduct the entire airstrike campaign. ISIS now occupies one-third of Syria, or twice what it did when the campaign began, and around 400,000 people have fled Kobani alone. US military officials have conceded that Kobani isn’t strategically important.
After the initial battles, ISIS continued to cling to the border city—forcing the US and the coalition to “devote major air assets to a minor objective,” Cordesman explained in an e-mail. The strategy was partly successful. As of recent weeks, air strikes near Kobani killed as many as 1,000 ISIS fighters and destroyed stockpiles of weapons and supplies, according to a defense official. The strikes distracted ISIS in something of a “sideshow,” Cordesman says. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Kurds currently hold around 80% of Kobani, and continue to push ISIS back.
But although the campaign in Kobani has been partly successful, it has been long-fought, and ISIS forces continue to pose a significant threat to the city despite the assault. And, even if the battle in Kobani is decisively won, large swathes of territory in the rest of Syria remains in ISIS control. The ISIS leadership and command positions have dispersed and its fighters are mixing in with civilians to use them as human shields. Cordesman notes that ISIS has adapted to a world with air strikes and learned to operate around them.
ISIS was never in control of more than 25 percent of Kobani, but ISIS dominates Raqqah in northern Syria, one of Syria’s largest cities, which is around 70 miles from Kobani. Some US-led airstrikes hit areas near Raqqah, but there were many days, at least 20, where Kobani was the sole target. Many strikes only damaged, or “struck,” targets in and around Kobani, including “fighting positions” and “tactical positions,” according to Pentagon press releases, which a coalition official tells me are exactly the same thing. He did not clarify how large these areas were, nor if they included buildings or infrastructure. One target could be as small as a motorcycle (US airstrikes have hit two) or as big as a large building.
With US eyes on Kobani, ISIS is careful not to go out into the open and expose itself to further strikes. “ISIS still has problems in moving, exposing combat vehicles, and deploying the kind of weapons US assets can target,” says Cordesman. “That is why so many other air strikes targeted exposed ISIS forces near the Mosul Dam,” or other offensive areas in Iraq.
A defense official tells Mother Jones that ISIS is the one focusing on Kobani, and not the other way around: “You would need to ask ISIL why the emphasis on Kobani,” she says. “ISIL continues to provide targets and we continue to conduct air strikes.” Although ISIS has gained more territory in Syria in recent months, she explained, snatching up land from ISIS was never on the US’s agenda. The airstrikes were more about setting up the Iraqi government and security forces for success—to make sure “ISIL cannot move freely between Iraq and Syria,” she says. Therefore, America’s strategic goals in Syria appear to have always have been tangential: to improve the situation in Iraq, rather than begin to reclaim ISIS lands in Syria for its people, who are already wearied from a war with their own leader, President Bashar al-Assad.
That may soon change. Last week, the Pentagon announced that it would be sending up to 1,000 soldiers to Syria to help train a force of moderate rebels. According to the defense official, the US and its allies don’t have the same kind of partners in Syria as we do with the Iraqi forces right now. These moderate rebels would ideally fill that hole, though recruitment hasn’t started yet, and moderate rebels in Syria are notoriously hard to find. In the meantime, the airstrikes in Kobani will continue. “It is safe to say that we will continue to conduct airstrikes as targets present themselves in Syria,” the official says.