By Josh Jacobs
Not too long ago, Ted Cruz became enamored with quipping something like “We will carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!” Unsurprisingly, this sparked a firestorm of criticism, since the comments appeared to indicate an enthusiasm for either the use of either nuclear weapons or the area bombing of Syrian cities. In the last few months, Cruz has responded to his critics with a more measured definition of what exactly he means:
“You want to know what carpet bombing is? It’s what we did in the first Persian Gulf war; 1,100 air attacks a day, saturation bombing that utterly destroyed the enemy. Right now, Barack Obama is launching between 15 and 30 air attacks a day.”
Taken at face value, this appears to be a valid criticism of our coalition strategy in Syria. After all, if the United States could bring so much power to bear against Saddam Hussein, why preclude using even a fraction of that against ISIS? As appealing as this reasoning seems, however, it just does not hold up to scrutiny. The military situation the US is facing in Syria could not be more different from that which it faced in Iraq in 1990.
In 1991, the United States shouldered the task of nearly completely dismantling and destroying — in the most humane possible way — a modern, gigantic, and conventionally deployed military force. Iraq had assembled more than 700,000 troops in an arc stretching from Kuwait to the Jordanian border. These were not haphazardly deployed militia, but corps-sized military formations accompanied by gigantic logistics trains, support infrastructure, and a complex system of entrenchments. Furthermore, this military machine was augmented by a sophisticated air defense grid, which encompassed some 16,000 surface-to-air missiles (SAM) spread across hundreds of batteries and 7,500 anti-aircraft-artillery (AAA) emplacements.
It is precisely because this awesome assembly of power was so openly and nakedly deployed in an act of aggression that the massive application of allied airpower was so effective. The Iraqi military wasn’t exactly hiding — it was forward deployed to the borders of Saudi Arabia and easily identifiable by satellite imagery and aerial reconnaissance. The sheer size of its forces made concealment of anything but essential equipment infeasible. This applied not only to Iraqi ground forces, but also to the colossal network of military infrastructure that kept the Iraqi war machine running: its radar installations, air bases, SAM batteries, AAA emplacements, fuel depots, barracks, motor pools, etc.
The target-rich environment the coalition was presented with in Iraq must be negatively compared to the situation in Syria. With an estimated 30,000-50,000 fighters spread across Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State is a fraction of the size of the Saddam-era Iraqi military machine. And this is precisely the problem. The Islamic State and its militant affiliates do not maintain large and identifiable formations that can be easily discerned and targeted.
The war in Syria and Iraq has been primarily a war of major towns and cities, a war in which the Islamic State does not need to move regiments, brigades, or divisions to fight and win. Lightly-armed columns, often indistinguishable from civilian transport — or even more frequently, moving on foot, surreptitiously enter these urban zones and join the fight. For example: the force that inflicted so many casualties in the Iraqi military in Ramadi was only estimated to consist of some 1,700-2,000 fighters, and in the final days only a few hundred.
Whenever the Islamic State has altered its tactics and presented the US with a clear target it has suffered catastrophically. The seminal ‘Siege of Kobani’ is a classic example of where the Islamic State attempted to seize a fortified position in the face of determined US air support. The result was disastrous for ISIS: the loss of nearly 2,000 militants, the destruction of large quantities of equipment, and a Kurdish counter-attack that retook all the ground which had been seized by ISIS to that point.
However, the Islamic State has not exactly been keen to present coalition-targeting teams with those kinds of windfalls. As a result, the United States has been forced to scour for potential targets of opportunity while relying on surrogates to engage the Islamic State on the ground in the small skirmishes and firefights that characterize much of the violence in Syria.
One thing the US has been keen to avoid is putting itself into the role of either engaging in close-air-support (CAS) missions in densely populated urban areas like Aleppo, or risking major strategic strikes in the hearts of cities like Raqqah. Despite what Cruz’s comments might imply the United States was in fact very cautious in it’s approach to Iraqi urban areas during the Gulf War. Indeed some of the most enduring controversies from that war resulted from coalition airstrikes in these areas; such as the Amiriyah shelter bombing that killed 408 civilians in the vicinity of Baghdad.
Unfortunately, the Islamic State has both entrenched and dispersed itself across the cityscapes of Mosul, Raqqah, Fallujah, etc. Under these circumstances it simply isn’t feasible to expect that every building, house, parking lot, or other structure associated with the Islamic State can be accurately identified and targeted. After all, the goal of the coalition campaign is to defeat the Islamic State, not bury the people it rules under a pile of rubble.
Given these facts, it is unreasonable to hearken back to Desert Storm and expect a comparable kind of operation. Drawing this distinction isn’t simple military pedantry — it speaks volumes about the seriousness of a candidate’s willingness to engage in complex foreign policy questions. Because if the massive cudgel of US airpower, always easy to sell to voters, isn’t sufficient to defeat the Islamic State, would Ted Cruz be willing to go further? How much further? Does it involve ground troops? Does it involve aligning with Russia? Support for a Turkish-Arab Coalition? Throwing in the towel? Those are the kinds of specifics the voters deserve to hear.