US starts air strikes on Syria as shadowy new threat emerges

So it begins. EPA/US Navy/Roderick Eubanks

The United States has commenced major air operations against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Aircraft from bases in the Gulf, supported by air-to-air refuelling, struck a substantial range of targets in and around the city of Raqqa in northern Syria, hitting leadership sites, training facilities, munitions stores and supply lines.

The White House has stated that other states in the region are directly involved; and Pentagon sources have listed these as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain, with Qatar playing a supporting role.

The US also used drones and sea-launched cruise missiles – the latter most likely fired from a US Navy guided missile destroyer in the eastern Mediterranean.

Why has the US suddenly expanded the air war by going for the heart of the Islamic State’s power base in Raqqa? The answer almost certainly lies with what has happened in the past six weeks in the ongoing air war in Iraq.

A losing battle

There, more than 190 air strikes on close to 250 targets have done little more than blunt some of IS’s recent advances, and have conspicuously failed to stop the group from making gains elsewhere.

Indeed, as the strikes in Iraq rolled on, the news came of a major advance by IS units operating out of one of the group’s core areas of strength, Fallujah. They have finally overrun the nearby Camp Saqlawiya, an Iraqi Army base that had been under siege for a week. It is not clear how many soldiers died or were taken hostage at the base, but the numbers look likely to be in the high hundreds.

More generally, the new government of prime minister Haider al-Abadi has so far failed to convince key Sunni clans in western and north-western Iraq that it will run a more inclusive regime; as a result, clan leaders are far too suspicious to work alongside government forces.

With its surgical, incremental strategy confounded by the chaos in Iraq, the Obama administration has opted for a singularly high-risk strategy: an attempt to weaken IS by going for its core forces.

Backlash

The risks are considerable. There is already evidence that IS paramilitaries have been acting much more carefully in Iraq, integrating more closely into the urban areas rather than being caught out in the open. This has limited the potential use of air power and we can be sure that the IS leadership will have expected this sudden escalation into Syria and will have dispersed many of its militias and their supplies.

Meanwhile, IS propagandists are already at work, spreading the message that Sunni Islam is once more under attack by the “far enemy” of the US, pointing to civilian casualties as evidence.

The White House may point to its alliance with regional Sunni states, but this will simply provide fodder for IS proponents, allowing them to remind their followers that they are just as much opposed to the “near enemy” of unacceptable regimes allied to Washington. Now a known participant in the US’s “coalition of the willing”, Jordan may come under particular threat from radicals in its own backyard.

The paramilitaries fighting for IS include many highly skilled and determined young men who gained extensive combat experience against US soldiers and Marines in urban environments in Iraq, especially from 2003 to 2008. These fighters know all about being exposed to air attacks; they are highly disciplined, ruthless and determined.

The US’s actions, which will continue for days and weeks at least, will undoubtedly have an immediate effect. This may be hailed as significant progress – but real caution is required, since we can expect a thoroughly unpleasant response from the militants.

Fight the real enemy

But the media focus on IS already starting to look myopic. There are strong indications that the most dangerous threat towards Western countries comes not from IS but from a much more shadowy group based in Syria: Khorasan.

Led by a former close aide to Osama bin Laden, Muhsin al-Fadhli, Khorasan is operating out of Syria and has links with what is left of al-Qaeda in Pakistan. It’s focused much more on global Jihad, and is currently quite separate from IS.

Al-Fadhli himself is only in his mid-30s, but was linked with the al-Qaida leadership as far back as 2001; he was reportedly one of the few people to know in advance about the 9/11 attacks.

In the short term, Washington is presenting this rapidly accelerating war as a decisive action to permanently cripple IS. It may well look like a success at first – but that will almost certainly be highly misleading. In reality, the Third Iraq War, now extended into Syria, is merely in its very early stages.