Two weeks on, how effective are the Syria strikes?

Kurdish military leaders say U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS are simply not working

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On Tuesday, the northern Syrian town of Ayn al-Arab, known as Kobane in Kurdish, appeared close to falling after a three-week battle between local Kurdish units and better-equipped fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Sources inside the city said its defences had been breached and gun battles were spreading from street to street.

Kurdish military leaders say U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS are simply not working. Meanwhile, more than 130,000 people have sought refuge in Turkey, and events in Kobane threaten to derail the peace agreement between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Two weeks on from the start of coalition attacks in Syria, these realities have cast doubt over the efficacy of U.S. foreign policy in reducing or even containing regional chaos caused by ISIS. Criticism has not only been levelled at the failure of intervention to alter the tide of the battle, but also at its potential to engender sympathy for ISIS among civilians and elements of the armed opposition.

Since the start of U.S.-led airstrikes on Sept. 22, numerous rebel groups that receive military aid from Washington have criticized the campaign. Sakhr al-Makhadhi, a British-Arab journalist and Syria analyst, said targeting Jabhat al-Nusra has caused dismay.

“Although Nusra is aligned with Al-Qaeda, they’ve condemned ISIS,” he said. “Hitting Nusra doesn’t help in the battle against ISIS, but the United States may think that targeting them serves wider U.S. interests. I wonder if the United States shot itself in the foot on that one.”

Civilian suffering

Criticism has also been voiced by civil organizations. The Syrian Civil Defence, a network of volunteer search-and-rescue teams composed of members of local communities, has been pledged more than $10 million in U.S. aid. However, on Oct. 1 Raed Salah, head of the SCD in Idlib, said civilian suffering in Syria had increased since the start of U.S.-led airstrikes.

There have been more airstrikes in Raqqa than in Kobane or Idlib. Strikes in ISIS’s de-facto home province have targeted a command centre, oil refineries and arms depots. A civilian is said to have been killed in an attack on a plastic factory on Sept. 28.

“There’ve been over 100 airstrikes in Raqqa province, but less than 100 ISIS fighters have been killed,” a member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, an activist group that has remained in the city documenting human rights abuses, told Al Arabiya News. “Their fighters are now sleeping inside civilian homes, as many as 15 in one house. They’re using civilians as human shields.”

Analysts say coalition attacks in Syria carry a greater risk of civilian casualties than in Iraq. Kirk H Sowell, principal of Utensis Risk Services, a Middle East-focused political risk firm, said ISIS “is more embedded with the population in Syria since they’ve had much more time there. There’s no Iraqi city in which they’re entrenched as well as in Raqqa.”

Ahmed, a former internet cafe owner, told Al Arabiya News from Raqqa that even before coalition airstrikes began, families from the city had left in fear. “They left to stay outside the city or travelled to Turkey,” he said. “Fuel prices were the first affected, and because the city’s economy depends on fuel, prices on almost everything then began to rise.”

Prices and revenue

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says numerous provinces in Syria have seen spikes in fuel prices of 50-100% since the start of airstrikes in Syria. U.S. Central Command says airstrikes to date have eliminated around 8,000 barrels per day of ISIS’s oil-production capacity.

However, David Butter, an energy expert and associate fellow at Chatham House, said while targeting oil refineries could limit ISIS’s battlefield and governance capabilities, the group was not solely reliant on oil revenues.

“ISIS has accumulated funds for some time from a variety of activities - extortion / taxation in Iraq, sales of land to tribes in Syria and Iraq, windfall gains (especially military equipment), hostage ransom, and funds brought by Gulf-backed groups that have joined ISIS,” said Butter.

He added that targeting oil refineries would inevitably contribute to fuel shortages. This could “cause problems for households in winter, and for farmers. ISIS may also use this for propaganda, blaming local hardship on the United States.”

Ahmed expressed hope that U.S.-led airstrikes could weaken ISIS’s position in Raqqa. He said they had at least led to the group exercising more leniency, noticeable in the release of some prisoners from jail, and less frequent public punishments. However, members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said Washington had made a grave mistake by not intervening against the Syrian regime.

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said for Syrians, the regime “is the worst enemy, and its ability to fly aircraft and drop barrel bombs on civilian areas is what people perceive as the biggest threat.” He added that while airstrikes had forced ISIS underground in Raqqa and neighboring Deir Ezzor province, this “barely matters” since the group is by far the dominant force in such areas.

With further airstrikes expected, fuel prices soaring and winter approaching, civilians in Raqqa lack cause to celebrate. “Now with ISIS, the Assad regime and international airstrikes, people have three reasons to be scared, to not leave the house,” said a member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. “This year, for the people of Raqqa there was no Eid.”

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