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U.S. Struggles To Turn The Tide In War Against IS

Washington (AFP) — After more than two months of air strikes, a U.S.-led coalition has prevented the fall of a northern Syrian town to Islamic State jihadists but is still struggling to halt the group’s advances on other fronts, experts say.

Since the air war on the IS militants began on August 8, the United States and its allies have few concrete successes to point to as the IS group has continued to roll ahead in western Iraq and tighten its grip elsewhere.

But U.S. officials insist it is too early to draw conclusions, and that a methodical effort will eventually bear fruit, as Iraqi and Kurdish forces build in strength.

“We’re in the first couple of minutes of the ball game,” said one senior officer at U.S. Central Command, which oversees the air campaign.

Senior U.S. administration officials and military commanders acknowledged in recent days the Iraqi army is months away from any sustained counter-offensive that could roll back the IS from its strongholds in Iraq’s western and northern provinces.

And despite ambitious plans for Iraq’s Sunni tribes to join the fight, most of the tribal leaders are sitting on the fence, waiting to see if the new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi will break with the sectarian politics of his predecessor, officials said.

In the Syrian border town of Kobane, U.S. officials are cautiously optimistic that Kurdish fighters — backed by U.S. air raids — have fended off a relentless push by the IS militants to seize control of the area.

By keeping the town from falling — at least for the moment — the Americans avoided handing the IS a potential propaganda coup in a battle that has drawn intense media attention.

But the fight remains a stalemate and the Kurds’ desperate appeals for help — and Turkey’s cool response — have highlighted the deep divisions that plague the anti-IS coalition, experts said.

— Tenuous Coalition —

The U.S. strategy’s goals “cannot be realized because the interests of the different partners are diametrically opposed,” said French General Vincent Desportes, professor of strategy at Sciences-PO in Paris.

The fragile coalition offers a contrast to the 1991 Gulf War, when the United States was able to forge common ground with Arab and European allies, he said.

“In 1991 something was achieved because the Americans succeeded in aligning with the Gulf States,” he told AFP.

Turkey’s role has been a constant source of tension. And the United States has underestimated Ankara’s determination to avoid any action that would empower the Kurds, analysts say.

At the same time, Turkey and Arab governments are frustrated with Washington’s reluctance to directly confront the Syrian regime.

European allies have treaded cautiously as well, signing up for air strikes in Iraq while abstaining from bombing the IS in Syria.

The goals of the war are still only vaguely defined and coalition members cannot agree on them, said a French official.

“There are a series of political problems that have repercussions for the military plan,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

The initial objective of the war effort was to use air strikes to build a “firewall” that would stop the IS militants’ progress, buying the coalition time to rebuild the Iraqi army and eventually launch counter-attacks.

– Ground gained, after strikes –

But after more than 630 air raids in Syria and Iraq, the IS has continued to gain ground — particularly in western Anbar province — and threaten other key fronts in the north.

The United States “has found that the Iraqi military forces are even weaker than it is original assessments indicated …,” according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

The scale of the air war has paled compared to the NATO intervention in Libya and some other campaigns, sparking accusations of a half-hearted effort.

Retired U.S. Air Force commander David Deptula complained the air campaign is nothing more than a “drizzle” and that only a “thunderstorm” will suffice.

To strike a genuine blow at the IS group, analysts say President Barack Obama will have to ramp up the air raids and send U.S. military advisers with local forces into combat, to ensure bombs hit their mark and that operations succeed.

U.S. officers say the pace of the strikes has been limited in partly because commanders want to avoid civilian casualties and because Iraqi forces are not yet able to stage large-scale assaults.

They cite a successful operation in August when a mostly Kurdish force took back control of Mosul dam as an encouraging sign, proving local troops were capable of complicated missions.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby insisted there will be more successes like the one at Mosul dam: “What I can tell you is we believe the strategy is working; that the policy is sound, the coalition continues to gain both momentum and strength.”

AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic

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U.S. Intensifies Airstrikes Near Syrian City Of Kobani, But Is Not Working With Militia

By W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau

For a second day, U.S. and Arab allies pounded Islamic State strongholds near Kobani, a Syrian border city on the brink of falling to the militants.
Warplanes belonging to the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates carried out six strikes Tuesday and Wednesday near the besieged town. The attacks were in addition to five strikes that took place the day before.
But U.S. officials cautioned that airstrikes were of limited effectiveness in defending the town.
The Islamic State militants are “not going to go away tomorrow, and Kobani may fall,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Wednesday on CNN. “We can’t predict whether it will or it won’t. There will be other towns that they will threaten and there will be other towns that they take. It’s going to take a little bit of time.”
Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, has been facing an onslaught from three sides since last month, forcing some 130,000 mostly Kurdish Syrians to flee to neighboring Turkey.
The area has been one of the most active fronts in Syria in recent days. The secular Kurdish militia, known as the Popular Protection Units, are defending the town against militants of the Islamic State, a radical Sunni militia.
Kirby said that although the U.S. military carried out 11 airstrikes in the region over the last two days, it is not in communication with the Kurdish militia in Kobani.
“We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria,” he said. “It’s just a fact. I can’t change that.”
Despite the lack of communication, the military is confident that airstrikes are hitting Islamic State strongholds in the region, Kirby said.
“We’re very careful and very discriminate about what we hit from the air, and again, we believe we have been effective,” he said. “We know we’re hitting what we’re aiming at.”
Taking Kobani would mark a symbolic victory for the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL, who control a vast swath of land across northern Syria and northern and western Iraq from its declared capital of Raqqa in Syria.
Turkish lawmakers recently authorized the country’s army, one of the region’s strongest, to push into neighboring Syria and Iraq to fight the militants. But the army has not moved in on Kobani, whose Kurdish defenders are allied with Turkey’s longtime nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
Islamic State militants, advancing along several fronts in northern Syria, have reportedly overrun more than two dozen mostly Kurdish villages, prompting terrified Kobani residents to abandon their homes out of fear of ethnic cleansing.
Pro-Kurdish protests broke out Monday throughout Turkey in response to the militants’ advance on Kobani. The events turned deadly Wednesday as four people died in demonstrations, bringing to the total death toll to 18, according to Turkey’s Anatolian News Agency.
“Many people died at these incidents,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus was quoted as saying to press during a visit to Macedonia, referring to the protests. “Those who pushed Turkey into such chaos, what problem do they plan to solve with that method?”
At the United Nations, the world body’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called on the international community to defend Kobani.
“The world, all of us, will regret deeply if ISIS is able to take over a city which has defended itself with courage but is close to not being able to do so,” de Mistura said in a statement. “We need to act now.”
The U.S. began bombing Islamic State targets near the city on Sept. 27, but carried out only eight airstrikes before this week.
The six strikes near Kobani that took place Tuesday and Wednesday destroyed four Islamic State armed vehicles, two artillery pieces and an armored personnel carrier, according to U.S. Central Command. There were three other strikes against the militants elsewhere in Syria.
Separately, officials said that American, British and Dutch forces used fighter jets and armed drones to conduct five airstrikes against the Islamic State in neighboring Iraq, where the U.S.-led campaign against the militants began on Aug. 8.

AFP Photo/Aris Messinis

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Backed By Strikes, Kurds Battle To Defend Key Syria Town

Mursitpinar (Turkey) — Kurdish fighters backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes were locked in a fierce battle Wednesday to prevent a key Syrian border town from falling into the hands of jihadists.

The heavy clashes in Ain al-Arab on the border with Turkey — a crucial recent battleground in the fight against the Islamic State group — left at least 10 people dead overnight, monitors said.

Kurdish forces have been on the retreat for more than two weeks in the face of a jihadist assault on the town that sent tens of thousands of refugees streaming across the border.

With IS fighters less than three kilometers (two miles) from the town, the U.S.-led coalition carried out at least five air strikes on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based monitoring group said the strikes hit IS fronts south and southeast of the town, known as Kobane by the Kurds, where at least nine Kurdish fighters and one IS militant were killed in overnight fighting.

Ain al-Arab would be a key prize for IS, giving it unbroken control of a long stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border.

The U.S.-led coalition of Western and Arab allies is providing air support to local forces in their ground war against IS, an extremist Sunni Muslim group that has seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.

The U.S. launched strikes in Iraq in August and has been joined by Western allies. Last week, Washington and Arab states also began hitting IS targets in Syria.

In Iraq, Kurdish fighters were advancing against IS militants on three fronts, with support from British and U.S. air strikes.

Backed by 11 coalition strikes, Kurdish forces went on the offensive on Tuesday in the town of Rabia on the Syrian border, north of jihadist-controlled second city Mosul, and south of oil hub Kirkuk, commanders said.

– Pentagon appeals for patience –

The Pentagon meanwhile appealed for patience, warning that there would be no quick and easy end to the fighting.

“No one should be lulled into a false sense of security by accurate air strikes,” Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, told reporters.

“We will not, we cannot bomb them into obscurity.”

A long-term effort will be needed to train and arm Syrian rebel forces and strengthen Iraq’s army, he said.

He said “military action alone will not win this effort”.

The U.S. Marine Corps plans to deploy 2,300 troops to the Middle East for a new “special purpose marine air ground task force” designed to quickly respond to crises in the volatile region, Kirby added.

The idea for the task force originated before the U.S. air strikes against the Islamic State group and is not related “to the ongoing operations in Iraq,” he said.

NATO member Turkey, after months of caution in the fight against IS, has decided to harden its policy, and the government asked parliament Tuesday to authorize military action against IS in Iraq and Syria.

Lawmakers are due to debate a motion Thursday that Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said would “meet all the demands and eliminate the risks and threats”.

Turkey has remained tight-lipped about what its intervention will entail, but Arinc indicated the parliamentary mandate will be kept as broad as possible to allow the government freedom to decide.

Australia announced that its military jets were joining the U.S.-led air campaign in neighboring Iraq in a support capacity, a day after Britain carried out its first strikes on IS targets there.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has described IS as an “apocalyptic death cult” said the aircraft would provide reconnaissance and refueling support only for now.

“We have not yet made a final decision to commit our forces to combat but Australian aircraft from today will start flying over Iraq in support of allied operations,” Abbott told parliament.

“Ours are support operations, not strike missions. Australian air strikes await final clearances from the Iraqi government and a further decision by our own.”

Britain said its jets had destroyed an IS convoy west of Baghdad on Wednesday in their second strikes on the jihadists in Iraq in as many days.

On Tuesday, British warplanes destroyed an IS heavy weapons post and a machine gun-mounted vehicle in the country’s first air strikes against the group in Iraq.

AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic

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Turkey Struggles With Internal Violence As It Looks Toward Europe

Turkey has often been seen as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, and recent events have further complicated this identity.

The country has been a candidate for entry into the European Union since 1999, but many within Europe argue that it does not match the so-called European culture. Whereas Europe has been grappling with increasing diversity — as shown by the French burqa debacle — Turkey is 99.8 percent Muslim. Religion and culture shouldn’t be the main qualifications for entry into the EU, but these characteristics have certainly made Turkey’s acceptance a more difficult journey.

Now, more than a decade into its EU candidacy, Turkey is trying to deal with domestic challenges while portraying a more Westernized image to Europe. The treatment of the Kurdish people, who comprise about 18 percent of Turkey’s population, has long been a human rights concern, and their calls for greater autonomy have recently erupted into violence: Kurdish rebels have intensified their attacks since July, resulting in the deaths of more than 30 Turkish soldiers. In response to the deaths of seven more soldiers Wednesday, the military has launched a ground offensive in the predominantly Kurdish Hakkari province.

The attacks, including roadside bombs and automatic rifle fire, have been coordinated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a group fighting for more rights and independence that is considered a terrorist organization by the EU and United States. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict since 1984, with periodic increases in bloodshed. According to the AP:

Dismayed that attacks are continuing during the holy month of Ramadan, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week also hinted at tougher military action against the rebels after the end of the month of piety for Muslims, saying Turkey is at the end of its tether.

Some news reports speculated that Turkey is considering renewed cross border incursions into northern Iraq where the PKK maintains bases. Turkey has frequently launched air strikes or sent soldiers across the border to fight the rebels.

The conflict is not only hurting Turkey internally: it’s also making the country seem more similar to its Middle Eastern neighbors than to Europe. The more Turkey has to grapple with ethnic violence, the less likely it will join the EU soon.

Then again, with the persistent economic woes in the Eurozone, perhaps both Turkey and her Western neighbors are content with the status quo.