Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Beirut (AFP) - Islamic State jihadists advanced Monday to within five kilometres (three miles) of the key Kurdish town of Ain al-Arab on Syria's border with Turkey, a monitor said.
- Islamic State jihadists 'close in on Syria Kurd town' AFP
- 18 IS jihadists killed fighting Syria Kurds: monitor AFP
- IS fighters close in on Syria border town as thousands flee AFP
- Air strikes in Syria hit Islamic State-held areas near Turkey: monitor Reuters
- US-led strikes hit jihadists closing on Syria border town AFP
"They are five kilometres to the south and southeast of Kobane," said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, using the Kurdish name for Ain al-Arab.
"It is the closest distance IS has come so far," he added.
As they advanced, the jihadists fired a volley of at least 15 rockets, hitting the centre of Ain al-Arab for the first time and killing at least one person, Abdel Rahman said.
"It's the most violent bombardment of the town," he said.
Additional rockets also slammed into the Syrian-Turkish border area, he added, an account confirmed by an AFP photographer on the Turkish side of the frontier.
The photographer said at least one mortar shell had landed on Turkish territory near the Mursitpinar border post, a day after fire from Syrian territory hit the Turkish border town of Suruc, injuring three.
IS militants launched a bid to capture Ain al-Arab nearly two weeks ago, and have since captured 67 villages surrounding the town.
The fighting has prompted at least 160,000 people to flee across the border into Turkey, and the group's advances have continued despite several strikes by a US-led coalition around the town.
Ain al-Arab is Syria's third-largest Kurdish town and would be a key prize for IS, allowing its fighters to complete their control over a long stretch of the Syrian border with Turkey.
Why UK warplanes are struggling to find targets in Iraq
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After the parliamentary vote in favour of taking action against Islamic State militants, a phoney war has kicked off.
RAF Tornados have now conducted at least five missions over Iraq, and returned five times with their bombs intact.
Why, after more than a month of British reconnaissance flights, access to allied intelligence and intense fighting on the ground does Britain appear to be struggling to find targets?
First, Britain's legally and politically-driven decision to strike only in Iraq, and not Syria, means we cannot strike Islamic State's (IS) main political and economic infrastructure in northern and eastern Syria, nor participate in the much-belated effort to relieve Syrian Kurds in the town of Kobane.
The contrast between intensive US-led bombing across Syria on the one hand and anticlimactic British sorties in Iraq on the other will have been apparent to all.
Second, the nature of targets differs between the two countries. In Syria, the US and its Arab allies struck mostly at fixed sites, such as IS-held military bases, command hubs, oil facilities and gas plants.
In Iraq, the US - and more recently, France - has been striking tactical battlefield targets, including massed units of IS fighters and their vehicles, often in close co-ordination with Kurdish ground forces.
On Friday and Saturday, for instance, the coalition destroyed an airfield, a garrison and a training camp in Syria but only four armoured vehicles and a "fighting position" in Iraq.
More than 92% of all airstrikes since August have targeted vehicles, overwhelmingly in Iraq. These Iraqi targets are often smaller, easier to conceal and more mobile than their Syrian counterparts - and therefore much harder to identify, track and destroy.
In choosing to stick to Iraq, Britain has signed up for an operationally more difficult mission. Moreover, IS has had a long time to prepare for airstrikes and will have spent the past month dispersing and concealing its forces, having learnt lessons from the first wave of US airstrikes that began in August.
Indeed, it is easy to get it wrong even with immobile targets. On Monday morning, the coalition reportedly struck a base that was abandoned by IS several months ago.
And so while British aircraft might previously have identified an IS unit or building in a particular location, the coalition will have to find them again.
Third, these targeting challenges mean that airstrikes often require so-called forward air controllers - personnel on the ground who can precisely designate a target for aircraft. Three years ago in Libya, for instance, SAS forces helped guide Nato airstrikes onto Libyan military targets.
Although British and allied special forces have been present in Iraq for more than a month, it is possible they are only now taking a more aggressive posture, deeper inside Iraq, after parliamentary authorisation.
Fourth, the government's sensitivity to civilian casualties is likely to be exceptionally high, both because of domestic political concerns and concern over pushing Iraqi Sunnis further into the arms of IS.
The coalition will be aware that misplaced strikes will risk Arab military participation in the coalition, help recruitment to IS, and undermine the broader political effort - peeling Sunnis away from IS.
This largely rules out early strikes inside IS-held cities, at least until the intelligence picture develops further and local ground forces are in a better position to take advantage. It also means Britain will be loath to drop bombs on congested battlefields, where they run the risk of killing allied forces - Kurds or Iraqi soldiers - rather than jihadists.
Fifth, Britain's coverage will be relatively limited, given that we have only devoted six Tornado jets to the mission - the same number as Belgium, and fewer than Denmark or Australia.
This small contribution is itself a reflection of our shrinking air force, which only has seven combat-capable squadrons compared to more than four times this number 25 years ago.
Eight Tornadoes are already deployed in Afghanistan. Even adding in Britain's surveillance aircraft, this pales in comparison with the array of firepower the US has deployed, including drones, cruise missiles and five different types of combat-capable aircraft.
Eventually, probably within days, Britain will conduct an airstrike. But these targeting challenges speak to a deeper issue: Airpower alone, without effective and co-ordinated ground forces, is a very limited instrument, even with months of careful intelligence collection and total control of the skies.
Nearly two months after the US first began airstrikes in Iraq, IS continues to advance.
To give only one example. Within the last two weeks the group has been able to conduct a five-day siege against an Iraqi Army camp north of Falluja, eventually massacring between 100 and 500 soldiers.
Such incidents will recur and it will be hard for Western nations to explain why, after all the political noise, there are no quick military solutions.
But the coalition has accepted this will be a long war, measured in months or years rather than weeks. They therefore see no rush to blow things up - slow and steady, rather than shock and awe.
Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.