As ISIS rolled towards Kobani, did Obama squander an opportunity to degrade it?

As John discusses in the post just below this one, ISIS is fighting its way into Kobani, a large Kurdish city on Syria’s border with Turkey. If ISIS takes Kobani, it will have achieved another major victory and created another humanitarian disaster.

As John also notes, U.S. air strikes have failed to halt ISIS’s march on Kobani, and it may be that air strikes could not have done so. Ordinarily, it takes an army to defeat an army, and the Kurdish fighters defending Kobanai may not constitute that sort of an army.

But it’s still appropriate to ask whether Obama’s air campaign against ISIS as it moved towards Kobani was all it should have been. What should it have been? It seems to me that a good faith strategy of relying on air strikes to degrade ISIS would entail the aggressive, virtually around-the-clock use of air power against the advancing ISIS forces.

We knew that ISIS was headed to Kobani — Admiral Kirby, the Defense Department’s spokesman, has been talking about this danger for days. We knew that to reach Kobani, ISIS forces had to move through wide open territory (there are no jungles in Northern Syria). And we knew that once ISIS reached Kobani, sustained bombing would be a much less practical option given the desire to limit collateral damage and avoid bombing Turkish soil.

In short, ISIS’s advance towards Kobani presented an excellent opportunity for us to degrade its army through the use of air power, provided we were proactive. ISIS might succeed in taking Kobani anyway, but not, I would think, without sustaining major loses.

Did Obama administration take advantage of this opportunity to degrade ISIS? Not according to the reports I’ve seen. Here’s what CNN says:

ISIS managed to close in on Kobani despite airstrikes by the United States and allied forces over the weekend and on Monday. The most recent airstrikes took out two fighting positions near Kobani and two tanks near Raqqa, as well as two small ISIS units, two mortar positions and a building in Iraq, the U.S. military said Monday.

Over the weekend, allied airstrikes destroyed two ISIS tanks, a bulldozer and another ISIS vehicle, U.S. Central Command said. Two airstrikes hit a large ISIS unit and destroyed six firing positions, the U.S. military said.

In total, then, we took out eight “fighting positions,” four tanks, one “large” ISIS unit, two small units, two mortar positions, one building, a bulldozer, and another vehicle. Not very impressive.

CNN continues:

A senior defense official said Monday to expect more airstrikes against ISIS targets in the Kobani area. But that’s easier said than done.

Another senior military official said many ISIS targets in Kobani are too close to the Turkish border or Kurdish forces to strike.

Sure. But why weren’t there more air strikes earlier?

Perhaps other reporting will show that our air attacks were more substantial than what the military has revealed so far. Or perhaps we will learn that a more aggressive, more constant assault on ISIS from the air was not feasible. But as of now, it appears that the air attacks were sporadic and that a substantial opportunity to degrade ISIS (to the extent that it can be degraded from the air) was squandered.

If so, this would be consistent with our concern that Obama’s “war” against ISIS may represent no more than an unserious attempt to “check a box” for political purposes before the upcoming election.

In any event, Obama’s decision not to deploy ground troops makes his “war” on ISIS problematic enough. If, in addition, his air campaign is to be half-hearted, the effort becomes a bad joke.

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