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Tuesday, October 07, 2014 

The war against IS: going just swell.

Compared to the previous execution videos released by Islamic State, their fourth "message to America and its allies" was almost apologetic in tone, as though even they realised the murder of Alan Henning was a step too far.  Gone was the more obscene bombast that had accompanied the killings of James Foley, Stephen Sotloff and David Haines, the lengthier forced testimonies from the men blaming their deaths on Western leaders, with Henning made to say just a couple of lines on the parliamentary vote that authorised British attacks on IS in Iraq.  He also looked calmer, not terrified as he obviously was in the Haines video.  Perhaps he was resigned to his fate, or perhaps this wasn't the first time IS had made him give a statement to camera, on the previous occasions not following through.

Lasting not so much as 90 seconds, the video gave every indication of being hurriedly produced.  The location clearly wasn't the same as it had been in all the previous videos, it wasn't as well lit, the British jihadi (I'm refusing from now on to refer to him in the same way as the rest of the UK media have decided to) was neither as menacing, coherent or arrogant in his speech.  The only things remaining much the same were the execution, the quick fading out, displaying of Henning's lifeless body and then parading of the next likely victim.  Jihadis have and always will invent specious, quasi-religious justifications for the murder of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but even the hardcore will have struggled internally to convince themselves killing Henning was necessary: a man who travelled to Syria purely to help the very people IS claims to be defending, his life and compassion will be remembered long after his killer's banal hatred is consigned to history.

If there are crumbs of comfort to be taken from such an act of unconscionable cruelty, it's that even prior to the murder itself there had been an outpouring of condemnation from all sides, and the video itself suggests the airstrikes on the IS capital of Raqqa have already had an effect.  Elsewhere the war on IS doesn't appear to be going as planned, not that it's ever been apparent there is something resembling a plan.  In northern Iraq airstrikes, combined with the aiding/arming of the peshmerga, have stopped IS from advancing further.  This though seems to have been at the price of IS turning its attention both further south, with reports of IS consolidating its hold on territory in Anbar province, while more attention is being paid to the siege of Kobani on the Syria/Turkey border.

The same doom-laden predictions of an imminent massacre, of betrayal at the hands of the Americans and Turks, of demands for heavy weaponry to match that which IS took from the Iraqi army, all have been heard before and are now being aired yet again.  There is some truth in these latter complaints: the War Nerd points out IS took the small border crossing of Jarabulus (and in the usual grandiose fashion, declared it an emirate), 25km from Kobani in June 2013, long enough ago for all sides to have acted or prepared for just this eventuality.  It also speaks of the relative weakness of IS that it's taken over a year for the group to move the short distance from Jarabulus and try capturing the next obvious large settlement.  At work are the divided loyalties of President Erodgan's Turkish state: it doesn't especially want Kobani to fall to IS, but it doesn't want to empower the Kurds either, not least when the militias fighting IS are either allied with or directly connected with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), still designated as a terrorist group despite the long-term ceasefire agreed last year.  Until recently the Turkish border with Syria was all but wide open, allowing foreigners to join up with the rebel grouping of their choosing with relative impunity; now it's closed, especially to those wanting to reinforce the Kurdish militias.

Turkey's role in the Syrian civil war has long been opaque, as demonstrated by leaked recordings which suggested the military could have been preparing a so-called "false flag" attack on the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, in a bid to justify intervening in the country.  Erodgan today continued to demand a two-pronged strategy, to defeat both IS and Assad simultaneously, without explaining how this could possibly be achieved, only that air power alone couldn't do it.  Many Kurds for their part believe IS has received support directly from Turkey, while the Americans are understandably fuming at how a NATO member state has done little beyond place heavy weaponry along the border, despite Turkey's parliament at the weekend voting to support intervention.

For all the insults thrown at IS, including from the esteemed likes of the War Nerd, it's adapted quickly to the forces now ranged against it.  Partly this is down to how many of its fighters are relative veterans, either from Iraq or battling Assad, and so aren't strangers to being attacked from the air.  They've learned to dig in, scatter when they hear jets or blend in with the population.  The airstrikes have disrupted their ability to operate completely in the open for sure, but not to the point where it means they can't still take new ground.  Already we have the likes of Jonathan Powell urging everyone not to rule out talking to our new enemy, and he makes quite a few salient points.  Strangely, Powell doesn't so much as mention talking to Assad, something that would make far more sense and which even his former boss suggested was inevitable earlier in the year.  Powell it seems is more Blairite now than ever: not prepared to jaw-jaw with dictators when we could war-war instead, but perfectly happy to talk with the most brutal of armed groups.  One could bring up how Powell and Blair's war effectively created IS, but that would be frightfully rude.

Everyone knows IS can't be defeated through just air power.  At the same time, no one wants to admit they're wrong, and have been for the past few years.  For either Obama or Cameron to send ground forces (as opposed to special forces or military "advisers", both of whom are and have been operating in Syria and Iraq for some time now) in would be to go against their twin strategies of drawing down and back from prolonged, costly deployments in the Middle East.  To even reach a temporary accommodation with Assad would be a propaganda coup for the "illegitimate" gasser of women and children, and outrage the Saudis and Qataris whom are still keen on their proxy war against Iran.  To admit the Free Syrian Army doesn't exist and probably couldn't be trained in 8 years, let alone 8 months to a standard where it could take on IS would remove the one remaining illusion of influence we have on the ground. 

We could, of course, have chosen not to intervene; we could have told the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis and all the other funders of IS and al-Nusra in no uncertain terms how they were risking the seeming advances made in Iraq; we could have pushed far harder for a peace settlement before the power of the Islamists became too great; we could have done almost everything over the past decade connected with Syria and Iraq differently.  In the same way, "boots on the ground" intervention is just a matter of time.  It's not that we haven't learned anything, it's not that we haven't had a choice, it's just that not repeating the same mistakes over and over is too difficult by half.

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