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War Against Isis: US Strategy in Tatters as Militants March on
American-led air attacks are failing. Jihadis are close to taking Kobani, in Syria – and in Iraq western Baghdad is now under serious threat
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America’s plans to fight Islamic State are in ruins as the militant group’s fighters come close to capturing Kobani and have inflicted a heavy defeat on the Iraqi army west of Baghdad.

The US-led air attacks launched against Islamic State (also known as Isis) on 8 August in Iraq and 23 September in Syria have not worked. President Obama’s plan to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State has not even begun to achieve success. In both Syria and Iraq, Isis is expanding its control rather than contracting.

Isis reinforcements have been rushing towards Kobani in the past few days to ensure that they win a decisive victory over the Syrian Kurdish town’s remaining defenders. The group is willing to take heavy casualties in street fighting and from air attacks in order to add to the string of victories it has won in the four months since its forces captured Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, on 10 June. Part of the strength of the fundamentalist movement is a sense that there is something inevitable and divinely inspired about its victories, whether it is against superior numbers in Mosul or US airpower at Kobani.

In the face of a likely Isis victory at Kobani, senior US officials have been trying to explain away the failure to save the Syrian Kurds in the town, probably Isis’s toughest opponents in Syria. “Our focus in Syria is in degrading the capacity of [Isis] at its core to project power, to command itself, to sustain itself, to resource itself,” said US Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, in a typical piece of waffle designed to mask defeat. “The tragic reality is that in the course of doing that there are going to be places like Kobani where we may or may not be able to fight effectively.”

Unfortunately for the US, Kobani isn’t the only place air strikes are failing to stop Isis. In an offensive in Iraq launched on 2 October but little reported in the outside world, Isis has captured almost all the cities and towns it did not already hold in Anbar province, a vast area in western Iraq that makes up a quarter of the country. It has captured Hit, Kubaisa and Ramadi, the provincial capital, which it had long fought for. Other cities, towns and bases on or close to the Euphrates River west of Baghdad fell in a few days, often after little resistance by the Iraqi Army which showed itself to be as dysfunctional as in the past, even when backed by US air strikes.

Today, only the city of Haditha and two bases, Al-Assad military base near Hit, and Camp Mazrah outside Fallujah, are still in Iraqi government hands. Joel Wing, in his study –”Iraq’s Security Forces Collapse as The Islamic State Takes Control of Most of Anbar Province” – concludes: “This was a huge victory as it gives the insurgents virtual control over Anbar and poses a serious threat to western Baghdad”.

The battle for Anbar, which was at the heart of the Sunni rebellion against the US occupation after 2003, is almost over and has ended with a decisive victory for Isis. It took large parts of Anbar in January and government counter-attacks failed dismally with some 5,000 casualties in the first six months of the year. About half the province’s 1.5 million population has fled and become refugees. The next Isis target may be the Sunni enclaves in western Baghdad, starting with Abu Ghraib on the outskirts but leading right to the centre of the capital.

The Iraqi government and its foreign allies are drawing comfort, there having been some advances against Isis in the centre and north of the country. But north and north-east of Baghdad the successes have not been won by the Iraqi army but by highly sectarian Shia militias which do not distinguish between Isis and the rest of the Sunni population. They speak openly of getting rid of Sunni in mixed provinces such as Diyala where they have advanced. The result is that Sunni in Iraq have no alternative but to stick with Isis or flee, if they want to survive. The same is true north-west of Mosul on the border with Syria, where Iraqi Kurdish forces, aided by US air attacks, have retaken the important border crossing of Rabia, but only one Sunni Arab remained in the town. Ethnic and sectarian cleansing has become the norm in the war in both Iraq and Syria.

The US’s failure to save Kobani, if it falls, will be a political as well as military disaster. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the loss of the beleaguered town are even more significant than the inability so far of air strikes to stop Isis taking 40 per cent of it. At the start of the bombing in Syria, President Obama boasted of putting together a coalition of Sunni powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to oppose Isis, but these all have different agendas to the US in which destroying IS is not the first priority. The Sunni Arab monarchies may not like Isis, which threatens the political status quo, but, as one Iraqi observer put it, “they like the fact that Isis creates more problems for the Shia than it does for them”.

Of the countries supposedly uniting against Isis, by the far most important is Turkey because it shares a 510-mile border with Syria across which rebels of all sorts, including Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, have previously passed with ease. This year the Turks have tightened border security, but since its successes in the summer Isis no longer needs sanctuary, supplies and volunteers from outside to the degree it once did.


In the course of the past week it has become clear that Turkey considers the Syrian Kurd political and military organisations, the PYD and YPG, as posing a greater threat to it than the Islamic fundamentalists. Moreover, the PYD is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.

Ever since Syrian government forces withdrew from the Syrian Kurdish enclaves or cantons on the border with Turkey in July 2012, Ankara has feared the impact of self-governing Syrian Kurds on its own 15 million-strong Kurdish population.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would prefer Isis to control Kobani, not the PYD. When five PYD members, who had been fighting Isis at Kobani, were picked up by the Turkish army as they crossed the border last week they were denounced as “separatist terrorists”.

Turkey is demanding a high price from the US for its co-operation in attacking Isis, such as a Turkish-controlled buffer zone inside Syria where Syrian refugees are to live and anti-Assad rebels are to be trained. Mr Erdogan would like a no-fly zone which will also be directed against the government in Damascus since Isis has no air force. If implemented the plan would mean Turkey, backed by the US, would enter the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels, though the anti-Assad forces are dominated by Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate.

It is worth keeping in mind that Turkey’s actions in Syria since 2011 have been a self-defeating blend of hubris and miscalculation. At the start of the uprising, it could have held the balance between the government and its opponents. Instead, it supported the militarisation of the crisis, backed the jihadis and assumed Assad would soon be defeated. This did not happen and what had been a popular uprising became dominated by sectarian warlords who flourished in conditions created by Turkey. Mr Erdogan is assuming he can disregard the rage of the Turkish Kurds at what they see as his complicity with Isis against the Syrian Kurds. This fury is already deep, with 33 dead, and is likely to get a great deal worse if Kobani falls.

Why doesn’t Ankara worry more about the collapse of the peace process with the PKK that has maintained a ceasefire since 2013? It may believe that the PKK is too heavily involved in fighting Isis in Syria that it cannot go back to war with the government in Turkey. On the other hand, if Turkey does join the civil war in Syria against Assad, a crucial ally of Iran, then Iranian leaders have said that “Turkey will pay a price”. This probably means that Iran will covertly support an armed Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. Saddam Hussein made a somewhat similar mistake to Mr Erdogan when he invaded Iran in 1980, thus leading Iran to reignite the Kurdish rebellion that Baghdad had crushed through an agreement with the Shah in 1975. Turkish military intervention in Syria might not end the war there, but it may well spread the fighting to Turkey.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS, Syria, Turkey 
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  1. Kiza says:

    We need to appreciate that there is no going back for Turkey and Erdogan. They have been working very intensely on government change in the neighbouring country – Syria, for four years now. It is easy for the US to appoint puppet regimes far away from home. But when you try do the same to your very important neighbour, it is a fight to extinction. Either Assad or Erdogan will have to be hanged, just like Sadham. Turkey will never stop wanting to control most of Syria, it wants to divide Syria with Israel into huge, so called “buffer zones” which will morph into occupied territories similar to Palestine. Both Turkey and Israel have especially strong interest in passing gas pipelines through Syria. There is just too much money and ruthlessness involved by these vultures for peace to be reached.

    The US is just going through motions of attacking ISIS, whilst the true goal is Assad. Just more war and war and war.

  2. Don Nash says: • Website

    Redraw the Iraq geo-political map and leave it alone. The Bushco boys own this cock up lock, stock, and barrel. Iraq is broken and can’t be fixed not even by Super Obama.

  3. rod1963 says:

    There is no war on ISIS. What we have is kabuki theater for the low info, sport watching masses back home.

    Beyond that the Kurds are everyone’s favorite whipping boy. The Kurds sit on major Iraqi oil deposits that Turkey and Iran want, besides both are enemies of Kurdish nationalism. Qatar wants a NG pipeline through Syria to Turkey and then into Europe to destroy Putin’s European NG monopoly(probably at our behest since we want to topple Putin’s regime).

    It’s Machiavellian politics wrapped up in a Sunni package and served with a side of natural gas and crude.

    Now the amusing thing in all this is that the Saudi and Qatari royalty bankrolling ISIS think they can control them. For now they can, but once they gain more power and military success they will become a direct threat to the Gulf oil states and KSA. The royalists know this too. They saw how fast the Iraqi army imploded when confronted by ISIS. I have no doubt that KSA’s army of rented Pakistanis would either defect or flee should they confront ISIS.

  4. Anon • Disclaimer says:

    The air strikes appear to be purely pro forma. If Obama were really interested, B-52’s would be dropping thousands of bombs a day instead of the dozen or so being deposited against a handful of ISIS targets. The problem isn’t Turkey. It’s Obama. Given the minimal commitment of air assets, it’s clear Obama wants ISIS to win. Why that is the case, you’ll have to ask him. The old saw is that nobody really knows why people do what they do. That goes double for Obama.

  5. I’ve always thought the U.S. plan was “keep them fighting and never let anyone win.” Seems to me it’s working about the same as it always has.

    • Replies: @Chiron
  6. Joe Hill says:

    The real war is between the US and everybody else. While Turkey, Iran, and Qatar all covet their neighbor’s oil, the US is busy trying to keep it off limits to everybody. World oil prices are dropping, and Our Dear Leaders don’t like that one bit.

    While most Americans seem to think all these wars are about cheap oil, that is exactly opposite of the real goal. There’s little profit in cheap oil. So what if poor people like me can’t afford heat. So what if we freeze. There’s plenty more where we came from.

    • Replies: @Simon in London
  7. Chiron says:

    Regime change and stabilization wasn’t the Zionist Neocon goal in Iraq, they want the total destruction of any organized country.

  8. Art says:

    Sorry folks, but it is bait and switch time for the American people and the world – the bate is ISIS the switch is to Assad and all the non-Sunni peoples of the Middle East. The will of the American people won out stopping a US war in Syria – we stopped Obama and AIPAC once – so a new boogeyman was created – ISIS.

    The real target is the Alawite, the Kurds, the Druze, the Christians, and the Shea of the ME.

    The targeters are Israel, AIPAC, and the Sunni elite. Turkey, Saudi, the royal kingdoms, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, AIPAC – all want a puppet Sunni leader in Syria.

    Think about it! When ISIS prevails over Assad – its leadership will be assassinated and a puppet installed loyal to Israel just like in Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. ISIS is the perfect shill – a beheading here, a beheading there, and within days the US wants war and all the firebrand Sunni fodder around the world come running to spill their blood – wow, now that is a twofer!

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    {The real target is the Alawite, the Kurds, the Druze, the Christians, and the Shea of the ME}

    I cannot believe how ignorant people are. The embedded ‘journalist’ of this paper is in the service of the Western intelligence services where is spreading the lies of Washington to hide the main reason behind all these wars. ISIS/ISIL, contrary to lies of the embedded ‘journalist’ has been constructed by US/Israel to create destabilization through terror and bring both ignorant Americans and westerners to submission. These ignorant people have been FOOLED by Photo shopped beheading and brutality of US/Israel constructed terrorists ISIL/ISIS. How many times these people can be fooled and brought on board to implement their strategic PLOT against Muslims. According to the events of the past 12 years, unlimited times and still they can be fooled.

    All these terror are for partition of the regional states and ERECTION OF ‘Kurdistan’. The FAKE ‘holocaust’ of Kurds is to erect a second Israel in the region. If you want to help people in the region YOU should expose these war criminals, Zionist stooges and their proxy, Erdogan and Goul in Turkey and the embedded ‘journalist’ who are spreading the lies of these war criminals at different sites. Turkey has been given the role of middle whore to realize execute this plot against Muslim for the interest of Israel and US and has been brought to the table to help this transaction.
    As you see, the embedded ‘journalist’ has always given support for the erection of ‘kurdistan’ , always painted the kurds, who have been spying for Israel since 1050s, as ‘victims’, has spread the lies of the western intelligence services in one paper after the other.
    All these killings are taking place to erect ‘kurdistan’. The Kurds are pawns of Israel and US to topple regional government including Assad. Don’t believe FAKE ‘holocaust’ of kurds, unless you are dumb, not able to think and analyze.

    • Replies: @Ozymandias
  10. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Don’t believe the content of this paper, where does not have the facts but the propaganda of washington – tel aviv and Britain. Don’t be a fool. Read the following:

    The green light for the use of ISIS brigades to carve up Iraq, widen the Syria conflict into a greater Middle East war and to throw Iran off-balance was given behind closed doors at the Atlantic Council meeting in Turkey, in November 2013, told a source close to Saudi – Lebanese billionaire Saad Hariri, adding that the U.S. Embassy in Ankara is the operation’s headquarter.

    Cooperation of Kurdish leaders with ISIL/ISIS, the US constructed terrorists, to partition Iraq and Syria for erection of ‘kurdistan’:
    Who is behind ISIS:

  11. dmaak112 says:

    Although he mentions it in his book, Mr. Cockburn fails to mention the role that Saudi Arabia and their oil sheik buddies have in the disaster that is Syria. Prior to the March 2011 orchestrated revolt, none of these problems–resurgence of al-Qaeda and its offshoots, the collapse of Iraq, return of US forces to Iraq, the explosion of jihadists as seen in ISIS, etc. We allied to some of the most reactionary and religious oriented states in the area–Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Turkey, etc. These countries have fed the radicals and turned what was suppose to be a democratic/secular revolt against Bashar al-Asad into a sectarian war. Our “friends” do not really care about ISIS–Sunni extremism doesn’t frighten these Sunni kings. They are willing to see the deaths of tens of thousands as long as it weakens Iran. In comments on this story, no one mention that thirteen of the nineteen terrorists that attack us on September 11 were Saudis. No one mention that our intelligence agencies have documentation of our oil buddies involvement in supporting terrorism. When Biden bent his knee to ask forgiveness from the Saudis, it should have sicken every American. The price we are paying for these “allies” in dead, wounded and debt is too high. We are on the wrong side in the Iran-Saudi Arabia struggle.

  12. bossel says:

    Funny to read all those experts who know much more about this conflict than cockburn. Esp. funny to see those conflicting conspiracy theories which are of course the one & only absolute truth.

  13. @Anonymous

    “ISIS/ISIL, …has been constructed by US/Israel to create destabilization through terror and bring both ignorant Americans and westerners to submission.”

    How’s that working out?

  14. @Joe Hill

    “The real war is between the US and everybody else.”

    From what I can see the US is allied with Turkey, Israel, and the Gulf Arabs, and is opposing Iran-Syria-Hezbollah. But the US also sympathises with the charming & PR-friendly Kurds, and is supposed to be supporting the Shia Iran-allied democratic regime it installed in Iraq, which creates an ungodly mess. Islamic State is fighting against the enemies of Israel – Syria & Hezbollah – which the US wants – but is also fighting against the Iraqi Shia and the Kurds, which the US doesn’t want. Hence the token opposition to IS.

    It is however true that everyone in the Middle East outside Israel now hates and fears the US (Israel has a milder dislike and some apprehension mixed with contempt), and that this hate/fear is a big driver for them. The US is probably hated more by some of its allies, notably Saudi Arabia, than by some of its enemies such as Syria – the US is a cultural threat to religious-fascist KSA in a way it was not to secular modernist Syria.

    • Replies: @Pacific
  15. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Dear Mr. Cockburn:

    I’m the son of a US soldier who was wounded in the so called Korean War, which was a questionable affair at best. My father was a victim of PTSD that came on because of his combat experience. Now he is 88 and a dementia victim.

    If the West cannot come to a decision that intervention in the Middle East is insanity…then I propose the following:

    I urge you to have your own children proceed immediately to enlist in the armed forces of your nation…is it the British Army?

    The real issue is to persuade the so-called US allies to actually do something substantial instead of sending a few planes or a few companies…. have a cuppa while the Yanks do it all.

    I know UK desk jockeys like you find it easy to write a piece about US strategy not working. So, why not do something. You know best of course. Your kids in the army would be a start. Let them come home maimed or dead. Watch “Oh What A Lovely War” directed by Sir Richard Attenborough if you are lacking sufficient grit.

    Let me know how it goes, chappie.

    My best to you all.

  16. Pacific says:

    Turkey is the only capable force to remove ISIS…..

    But if Turkey fails then this ISIS problem is coming to EU……

  17. Pacific says:
    @Simon in London

    If the USA wants to play Turkey it needs to do as it is told against the Kurds and Israel.

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