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Missing the mark

Sep 25,2014 - Last updated at Sep 25,2014

The recent bold air strikes in Syria capped what has been a staggering track record in Washington’s two-weeks-old war against the Islamic State.

Since US President Barack Obama’s declaration of war on the jihadist movement on September 10, IS has captured 60 villages in northern Syria, driven over 130,000 Kurds into northern Turkey, graphically beheaded Westerners and called on its fighters to target civilians in all states allied against the group, ranging from France to Jordan.

In response, the much-hailed coalition against IS carried out a limited French air strike in northern Iraq, which reportedly killed 90 IS fighters, and Tuesday’s bold air raids, which reportedly killed over 50 jihadists and destroyed weapons silos in Syria.

The limited air strikes were a surprise, but the newly formed coalition, and the region, will need much more than air power to tackle IS.

As part of its highly publicised war against IS, the US is counting on the resources and security apparatuses of nieghbouring states, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to beat back the movement’s spread.

In a bid to combat IS on the ground, Washington turned to the allies, turned persona non grata in the Free Syrian Army, vowing to provide the rebel army the vital military and logistics support it had withheld for the better of two years as they were trying to fight the Assad regime.

The US has reportedly also turned to the Iraqi Sunni opposition, looking to organise and arm thousands of tribesmen and former Baathists, after ignoring the plight of Iraqi Sunnis suffering under the Nouri Al Maliki government for nearly a year.

Yet despite its bold declarations and the formation of a broad coalition, developments in Iraq and Syria proved that a war-by-proxy and missile strikes are not enough to dismantle IS, or even push it back.

To date, the air strikes have been unable to disrupt the group’s flow of fighters and arms between Iraq and Syria.

Despite the threat of renewed air raids, the offensive has failed to even slow the group’s advances in northern Syria and north of Mosul, with IS extending its territory by 15 per cent in both countries since the launch of the coalition on September 11.

Without a fully-trained, cohesive military presence on the ground, the coalition proved unable to secure towns and villages vacated by IS or extend humanitarian corridors to reach the over 200,000 people displaced by the jihadist group in Iraq and Syria over the past two months.

Even if the air strikes prove effective in driving IS from its strongholds such as Mosul and Raqqa, the US and its allies have yet to produce a trusted military or political force to fill the vacuum and provide an alternative to Syrians and Iraqis who have lost faith in their respected governments.

Washington’s proxies in the war against IS have a long way to go before even being considered part of the conversation.

The Free Syrian Army has a poor track record as a policing force and is too embroiled in its three-year struggle against the Assad regime to provide security and prevent the jihadist movement’s return.

Iraqi Sunni tribes and Baathists do not enjoy the broad support of average Iraqis, needed to act as a governing force.

Kurdish militias, despite being stalwart allies to the West, would be an unacceptable choice to enforce the rule of law in Arab towns and villages.

More importantly, despite scrambling F-16 and F-22 fighter jets, the US-led coalition has been completely outmanoeuvred on another front: the propaganda war.

IS succeeded to conquer towns and villages across Iraq and Syria not just by the sword, but with its message.

It offered hope to disenfranchised communities, to combat injustice and root out corruption. To Sunni populations across Syria and Iraq, IS offered empowerment.

That is one message too powerful for any Tomahawk missile to destroy, alone.

Despite boasting a wide coalition, Washington has yet to reach out to local populations under IS rule and address the grievances that led so many to welcome the jihadist group’s arrival in the first place: injustice, lack of security, unemployment and abuse by government forces.

To defeat IS, the US-led coalition must win back the narrative and offer hope to the thousands of young men and women who would fill the IS’ ranks.

Until Washington and its allies commit their full resources to a struggle both on the ground and for the hearts and minds of Sunni civilians, the war against IS will be nothing but an uphill battle.

That is one struggle no coalition, no matter how broad or how strong, can sustain.

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