You can forgive the American people -- indeed, the world community -- for being a little confused about U.S. strategy in Syria. No, not because the Obama administration has been unable to convince the American public that its counter-ISIL strategy is the right course of action, or that the crucial ground component of the strategy (re-training Iraq's army and building a new moderate Syrian rebel army from the ground up) is going at a leisurely pace. Rather, confusion abounds today because U.S. officials responsible for the anti-ISIL campaign seem to be talking themselves into circles -- saying something one week, only to switch course and say something entirely different the next.
Take Kobani, the moderately-sized Syrian city several miles from the Turkish border that has been bombarded, shelled, and terrorized by the Islamic State for over a month. Earlier this month, when it looked as if Kobani's Kurdish defenders in the People's Protection Units (YPG) would fold to the Islamic State after several weeks of resistance, you could see officials across the Obama administration downplaying the town's significance to the broader campaign. Pentagon Spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby spoke from the podium and stated point blank that Kobani could fall, even with U.S. and coalition aircraft conducting airstrikes on the town's outskirts on a daily basis. On October 13, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry went a step further and stated boldly that saving Kobani, however great that would be from a humanitarian perspective, was not a critical part of defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria over the long-term."Kobani does not define the strategy for the coalition in respect to Daesh," Kerry said at the time, referring to the Islamic State by one of its many names.
Kobani is one community and it is a tragedy what is happening there. And we do not diminish that. But we have said from day one that it is going to take a period of time to bring the coalition thoroughly to the table to rebuild some of the morale and capacity of the Iraqi army. And to begin the focus of where we ought to be focusing first which is in Iraq. That is the current strategy.
Does "the current strategy" still prioritize Iraq over Syria?" Judging from the past week of U.S. air operations, it would be logical if people came to the conclusion that defending Kobani has taken preference over hitting other targets in Iraq and Syria, including but not limited to Ramadi, Fallujah, the Bayji oil refinery, Deir ez-Zor, or Raqqa. U.S. and Arab fighter and bomber aircraft have struck ISIL targets 135 times in and around the Kobani area since the terrorist group started taking dozens of Syrian Kurdish towns before accelerating movement towards the Turkish border. Take a look at a typical news release from U.S. Central Command, and it's common to see more strikes occurring in Kobani over the past week than than on any other ISIL target--six airstrikes here, eight airstrikes there. In fact, the numbers tell the story: there have been more U.S. air attacks in Kobani than on any other target in the campaign so far, according to the Pentagon's own statistics. Why engage in all of those strike operations if Kobani is not an integral part of the strategy, as John Kerry said last week?
There are several answers to that question, both of which are alarming: either U.S. officials spoke prematurely earlier in the month, or the Obama administration was attempting to minimize any embarrassment to the broader anti-ISIL campaign plan that would have resulted from an Islamic State victory during a highly-publicized battle playing out in front of news cameras around the world in real time. The first explanation points to over eagerness, while the second suggests that political considerations are at the forefront during a time of war.
Whatever the case, there is no debating the fact that thousands of Kurdish fighters and hundreds of remaining civilians in Kobani would have been slaughtered or executed were it not for the noble work being down by American and Arab pilots. As ferocious, disciplined, and motivated as the Kurds are in their defense of the city, Kobani would have fallen without the far more aggressive air campaign that the United States chose to implement over the past week.
"[W]e cannot take our eye off the prize here. It would be irresponsible of us, as well as morally very difficult, to turn your back on a community fighting ISIL, as hard as it is, at this particular moment." That was the same John Kerry who, a little over a week prior, had called the battle for Kobani a relatively minor event in the broad scheme of things.
The defense of Kobani sure looks important to the strategy now, doesn't it?