Tuesday, February 10, 2015

I'll Pat My Own Back: Kurds On The Offensive Out of Kobani

As predicted, the Kurds are on full offensive after retaking Kobani.

They've taken back a bit over 1/3 of the villages around Kobani at this point, and are looking to round out all 350 or so.

Many of the villages themselves aren't particularly strategically important to ISIS, so the Kurds sometimes face limited resistance. They're getting the most resistance to the west, as Manbij (the larger town to the west) and the Tishrin bridge (to the south) are critical for ISIS to be able to resupply Aleppo from ar-Raqqah.

As far as total land area, the Kurds appear to have made modest progress so far...

But let's compare to Jan 27th--a mere 14 days ago.

I predict that in another two weeks, the Kurds will have taken back the Tall Abyad crossing, enabling them to link up with other Kurd forces in the east, reinforcing their more modest progress (but note that it is indeed positive progress; ISIS may be retreating from this area and consolidating).

This operation is, of course, being heavily supported by US airstrikes to soften each advance. It's not clear to me whether the US is able to take advantage of retreating ISIS units to hit them in open field when they retreat, but the US and Kurds have so far been very well-coordinated. The Kurds may also be more tolerant of civilian casualties from military action and less likely to be upset with the US for strikes that have collateral damage.

Jordan has also gotten deeply involved, beginning its revenge campaign against ISIS. The effort has been tremendous: 56 strikes were carried out in the first 3 days against barracks, weapons depots, fuel depots, and training centers. Jordan, after declaring "this is just the beginning," has certainly carried out more since then, even utilizing UAE fighter-bombers in the effort. Likely they are working on targets somewhat further from the action as it would be a bit tougher for them to coordinate with the Kurds as well as the US and hit targets with an equal amount of precision (both in timing and location).

Jordan makes the possibly-outrageous claim that it has killed 7,000 fighters and eliminated 20% of ISIS' capability. I am skeptical specifically because I would be surprised that the first 4 months of air campaign (with over 3,000 attack sorties) would have left that much low-hanging fruit.

But even if these numbers are inflated (and I don't know that they are), it's causing massive mayhem and disruption for ISIS, and it will struggle to effectively reinforce forces near Kobani and even those in northern Iraq--much less counter-attack--as the Kurdish assault from Kobani continues and the Iraqi offensive (with Iraqi army regulars, allied militias, and Kurdish fighters) towards Mosul begins in a few weeks.

Jordan's blistering response and moral leadership in the fight against ISIS also opens the political door for NATO to take a bigger role--frequent bombings over both Iraq and Syria are becoming the norm, and we can expect the US to try to repeat its Libya strategy of softening targets and harassing/eliminating heavy weapons (tanks, artillery, gun emplacements, etc) as the local ground forces push forward.

Things are looking somewhat hopeful for Iraq and northern Syria, but the fight will be far from over. Ar-Raqqah is still immune from takeover, as no force currently exists that can muster the forces to take it (again, the Syrian regulars and rebels are too busy fighting each other), and even if it does fall, we've learned from both Libya and Iraq that winning the war is only the beginning of bringing peace.

It's also worth noting that Jordan's response has been so decisive--and its population so supportive of the action--that ISIS' strategy to bring Jordan deeper into the war may be backfiring tremendously.
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