Once again the world has underestimated the strength and viciousness of Isis. The group has always retaliated against any attack by targeting civilians and killing them in a way that ensures maximum publicity. This happened most recently in Turkey on 10 October when Isis suicide bombers killed 102 people attending a pro-Kurdish peace demonstration. In Kobani in Syria at the end of June, Isis suicide squads avenged recent military defeats by the Syrian Kurds by murdering at least 220 men, women and children. In Iraq, the leader of the Albu Nimr tribe told this newspaper how 864 of his tribesmen had been killed over the previous year for resisting Isis advances.
It was always likely that Isis would retaliate against the Russian air campaign in Syria that is targeting its forces and al-Qaeda clones such as the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. But the carefully planned destruction of a Russian plane with 224 people on board by a bomb on 31 October has presented Western governments and media with a publicity problem. They had been relentlessly pursuing a propaganda line that the Russian air strikes in Syria have avoided hitting Isis and are almost entirely directed against “moderate” or “Western-backed” Syrian opposition forces seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. The fact that Syrian armed opposition in north-west Syria is dominated by al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham is seldom mentioned.
Isis evidently does not have any doubts about the Russian air strikes being aimed at itself and cannot have done so since the raids started on 30 September, because an operation such as getting a bomb on to a plane at Sharm el Sheikh airport would take weeks to set up. There is a further misunderstanding about the Russian attacks on Isis and other salafi-jihadi armed groups in Syria. They are much heavier than anything being carried out by the US-led coalition, with 59 Russian strikes on one day recently compared to the US launching just nine.
There is a limitation on the use of US air power in Syria which may not be immediately evident, even to those who study communiqués issued by the US defence department. Of nine strikes on 6 November, three are described as being near Hawl, an Arab town in north-east Syria where the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are fighting Isis. Two strikes were near Hasakah, also in north-east Syria and, again apparently, in support of the YPG. The remaining four were near Abu Kamal, near the Iraqi border, said to be an Isis “crude oil collection point”.
This is in keeping with the US air campaign’s almost exclusive focus in Syria on helping the Syrian Kurds in fighting Isis, and also attacking Isis-controlled oil facilities in north-east Syria. There are seldom any attacks on Isis when it is engaged in fighting the Syrian army because this might be interpreted as keeping Assad in power in Damascus. But this does not make much sense because American and British policy is meant to be to remove Assad, but keep the Syrian state in being. This would be unlike Iraq in 2003 when the US-led invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein, but destroyed the Iraqi state in the process and opened the door to a Sunni insurgency and the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
It would therefore make sense, and have made sense over the last year, for the US air force to attack Isis when it is advancing against the Syrian army. It is this army which is the most important institution of the Syrian state, and if Washington and allies such as the British do not want to repeat the disastrous fiasco of their intervention in Iraq, they should support it when fighting Isis.
Again, sensible policy decisions are blocked by a view of the situation on the ground in Syria that is largely shaped by sloganeering and propaganda. In this case, the Syrian opposition claim is that the Syrian army has never seriously fought Isis and, indeed, is complicit in its growth and expansion. This view has been widely credited, though it is demonstrably false because Isis has repeatedly fought and usually defeated the Syrian army in eastern Syria. It captured Palmyra in May and has since advanced to within a few miles of the crucial north-south M5 highway linking Damascus to Homs. For a few days recently, it cut the last government-held road into Aleppo before being driven back by the Syrian army supported by Russian air strikes.
There are several other points about the US-led air campaign. First, it has failed in its purpose of containing Isis, since its fighters are still advancing in Syria and are holding cities such as Ramadi, Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq which they have captured since the start of 2014. This is despite 7,871 air strikes of which the US has conducted 6,164, with 2,578 of these in Syria. Non-US air forces participating in the operation, part of that great anti-Isis coalition of 65 nations so often commended by the US ambassador to the UK, have carried out just 142 strikes in Syria. The Arab air forces are apparently now busy bombing Yemen.
For those with good eyesight, there is another figure in small print in the US defence department’s daily report on “Inherent Resolve” which is worth thinking about. It says that “as of Nov 3, US and partner nation aircraft have flown an estimated 61,288 sorties in support of operations in Iraq and Syria”. In other words, only 10 per cent of sorties are finding targets, showing that, even taking into account reconnaissance and refuelling flights, Isis is difficult to find, as would be expected in an experienced and well-organised guerrilla force. Effectiveness in attacking it depends on good intelligence, which in turn can only come from a competent partner on the ground capable of identifying targets and swiftly passing on this information to aircraft overhead.
All attention at the moment is on the Isis bomb on a Russian plane, claimed four times by Isis though some still doubt that the group is responsible. But a much less dramatic event may have greater long-term impact on the course of the civil war in Syria and Iraq. This is the victory of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the parliamentary elections on 1 November, a victory welcomed with effusive messages by no fewer than 15 different non-Isis armed opposition groups in Syria. Prominent among those congratulating President Erdogan is the Army of Conquest, which captured much of Idlib province earlier in the year and 90 per cent of whose fighters reportedly come from al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.
Metin Gurcan, writing in the online magazine al-Monitor, points out that the Army of Conquest says in a statement that Erdogan and the AKP government have never abandoned their support for the Syrian revolution, despite domestic and foreign pressure. Mr Gurcan cites a well-informed Turkish authority saying many of these Syrian opposition “groups are trying to sign non-hostility pacts with Isis” – pacts that say they will not fight Isis unless attacked by them. Governments pretending to distinguish between “moderate opposition” and Isis in Syria should keep this in mind.