SYRIA – In the wake of Friday’s deadly terror attack in Paris and the confirmed bombing of a Russian airliner, Russia and France are pounding the Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa as, while the number of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS still dwarves all others combined, America appears to be in a slap fight while others are punching hard, say military experts.
U.S. rules of engagement and the overarching desire to minimize collateral damage are holding back the true force of U.S. air power, while Paris and Moscow have taken off the gloves following the bombing of a Russian airliner and Friday’s horrific attacks in the French capital, according to one retired four-star general.
As of Tuesday, the U.S. has launched 8,243 airstrikes against ISIS targets, including 2,841 in Syria, according to the Pentagon.
“Our air campaign in Syria and Iraq has never been what it should be,” said Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army and a Fox News contributor. “We’ve had incredible restrictions on what we call rules of engagement so, as a result, it takes layers to get approval for a target, it takes too much time, the enemy gets away on us, we’re not really going after the right targets.”
On Sunday, France began bombing key targets in Raqqa, Syria — the capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate — in retaliation for coordinated terror attacks that killed at least 129 people in Paris on Friday injured about 350. After receiving intelligence from the U.S., the French military said it independently hit command and recruitment centers, an ammunition storage base and one of the terror network’s training camps in Raqqa — and it released video of the moment French fighter jets took off from bases in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Russian planes and missiles, meanwhile, attacked ISIS strongholds in the de facto capital overnight Tuesday, while the Kremlin announced an ISIS bomb was responsible for last month’s Russian passenger jet crash that killed all 224 people on board. Twelve Russian long-range bombers including supersonic Tu-22M “Backfires” flew from a base in Mozdok, Russia, near the border of Georgia and Azerbijan, and launched cruise missiles inside Syria against ISIS targets in Raqqa shortly after midnight, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the mission.
“Our air campaign in Syria and Iraq has never been what it should be.”
– Gen. Jack Keane, retired four-star general and former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.
While France and Russia tout their aggressive air campaign, the U.S. has carried out 95 percent of the airstrikes in Syria since the coalition air campaign against Islamic State militants began in August 2014. But the U.S. rules of engagement greatly restrict combat missions, say former military officials, because ISIS immerses its members in civilian populations making them virtual safe havens for terrorist operations.
“I think the French went after a lot of targets that we would not hit and I’m convinced the Russians are doing the same thing,” said Keane, while noting the ISIS targets are not “out in the middle of a desert totally exposed.”
“What ISIS has done — because they know our rules of engagement – every function and critical node they have is tucked in some place with the population,” he told Fox News.
“All that said, we have the capability, with our target planners, to be able to hit that target and not hurt civilians. We have proven it over and over again,” he said. “Too many restrictions. I’m hoping we will remove those restrictions now.”
Retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, however, said it’s unrealistic to expect to win a war without civilian deaths and advocated a plan that would “flatten Raqqa.”
“The rules of engagement imposed upon our fliers are no civilian death and limit collateral damage,” said Peters, a Fox News contributor.
“President Obama, who approved these rules of engagement, has no understanding of history, no understanding of warfare,” Peters said. “Obama believes in this illusion that you can somehow wage clean war. But you can’t have a standard of no civilian casualties and expect to win like that. It never has and it never will.”
U.S. warplanes took out 100 tanker trucks used to transport oil that help the militant group earn tens of millions of dollars each month, an American military spokesman said Monday.
“The purpose of the strike was to help cripple ISIL’s oil distribution capabilities, which will reduce their ability to fund their military operations,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said, using the White House’s preferred name for Islamic State.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Central Command announced another 17 airstrikes by the American-led coalition, including attacks on several ISIS buildings in Al Hasakah, Syria, sniper positions and a weapons cache near Mosul.
President Obama on Monday rejected calls for a shift in U.S. strategy against ISIS, saying his Republican critics who want to send ground troops into the volatile region are “talking as if they’re tough,” but fail to understand the potentially grave consequences.
“The strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work,” Obama said in a news conference wrapping up a two-day summit of world leaders in Turkey. “It’s going to take time.”
Obama has deployed more than 3,000 U.S. troops to Iraq to assist local security forces, and he recently announced plans to send 50 special operations forces to Syria. But he’s vowed to avoid the kind of large-scale ground combat that U.S. troops engaged in for years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The president appeared emotional as he spoke of the consequences of war, referencing the injured troops he visits at Walter Reed, a military hospital near the White House.
“Some of those are people I’ve ordered into battle,” he said.
He said the U.S. would have to be prepared for a permanent occupation in Syria or Iraq if he sent in ground forces.
“What happens when there’s a terrorist attack generated from Yemen?” Obama asked. “Do we then send more troops into there? Or Libya, perhaps? Or if there’s a terrorist network that’s operating anywhere else — in North Africa, or in Southeast Asia?”
Former military officers, like Peters, however, said they do not believe the president’s strategy is a winning one.
“If you are not willing to do everything it takes to win, you will lose, especially if you are facing an enemy who will do anything to win,” he said. “His argument yesterday was since we can’t do everything, we shouldn’t do anything. That’s faulty logic.”