TIME Military

No Can Do: The Pentagon Explains Why It Can’t Save a Syrian Town

An allied air strike hits a hill in Kobani Wednesday near where ISIS fighters had planted their flag.
An allied air strike hits a hill in Kobani Wednesday near where ISIS fighters had planted their flag. Aris Messinis— AFP/Getty Images

Limits of air power and lack of allies on the ground doom Kobani

The U.S. military’s motto often seems to be “Can-do!” But the motto at Wednesday’s Pentagon briefing might as well have been “Can-dor”.

That’s because, as the building readied for a visit by President Obama, its spokesman made clear there is little the U.S. military can do to save the more than 200,000 people fighting for their lives in the Syrian town of Kobani, just south of the Turkish border.

It’s strange, as the U.S. war in Afghanistan enters its 14th year, that the U.S. public has this abiding faith that there is nothing the U.S. military cannot do. But it cannot defeat the jihadist fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria as they storm Kobani, Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

“Time matters here,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon. That means that while the U.S. and its allies can do little for Kobanis now, they believe they will be able to help them later.

Kurdish leaders in Kobani fear a massacre if ISIS overruns Kobani. But the Pentagon seems unconcerned. “I know of no plans for a humanitarian relief mission in Kobani,” Kirby said. “Many of the residents have already fled.”

The U.S. has been restricted in its ability to battle ISIS for two reasons: it waited for months before taking action, and then—per Obama’s orders—it decided not to commit any U.S. ground troops to the fight. Even a small number of them on the ground in Syria and Iraq could be a major help in improving the lethality of air strikes.

Kirby’s comments about the reach of U.S. military power no doubt echoed what Obama heard later in the day when he met with the nation’s military leaders, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Army General Lloyd Austin, who as head of U.S. Central Command is leading the fight against ISIS.

“There is a broad-based consensus, not just in the region but among nations of the world, that [ISIS] is a threat to world peace, security and order,” Obama said at the Pentagon. “Their barbaric behavior has to be dealt with.”

But the Pentagon spokesman took pains to explain that the limits of air power and the lack of allies on the ground in and around Kobani likely doom it to fall to ISIS. “Airstrikes alone are not going to do, not going to fix this, not going to save the town of Kobani—we know that,” he said. “We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria.”

The bombing in and around Kobani, while stepped up in recent days, is modest in scope. That, in part, is due to the fact that there are so few targets. “I’m counting 11 strikes just in the last two days,” Kirby said.

“It’s not like we’ve ignored the crisis around this town of Kobani,” he added. “We have hit some dynamic targets, smaller tactical targets there. And we do believe that they have had an effect on [ISIS] in and around that town. [ISIS] does not own Kobani right now.”

Kirby, a Navy surface warfare officer, explained what attacks from the sky can do on their own. “Airpower can have an initial effect on forcing them out of an area or denying them structure, whether it’s hard buildings, or the infrastructure of governance that they have, or revenue,” Kirby said. “You can deny some of that temporarily from the air, but it’s not going to be the long-term fix. The long-term fix is… going to be competent ground forces that can retake territory from them.” That’s more than a year away.

Sure, the U.S. could send in forces that could stop the onslaught, but it’s doubtful that Congress—or the public—would agree with such a move. They were spoiled by 1991’s Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, when a 43-day air campaign was followed by a four-day romp by U.S. ground troops. About 25,000 Iraqis died in the U.S.-led campaign to push them out of Kuwait, compared to 148 U.S. troops.

There’s only one real solution to the problems posed by ISIS, Kirby suggested. “What really has to happen, long term, is good governance in Iraq and good governance in Syria,” he said. “There is an element of strategic patience here that I think everybody needs to consider, all of us, all of you, the American people, everybody.”

Unlike faith in their military, however, strategic patience—or any kind of patience, for that matter—has never been an American trait.

TIME Military

Pentagon to Brief Obama on Grim Battle Against Jihadists

Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani, Oct. 8, 2014.
Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani, Oct. 8, 2014. Umit Bektas—Reuters

Commanders to tell Commander-in-Chief about tough fight to keep key Syrian border town out of ISIS hands

President Barack Obama is heading to the Pentagon Wednesday afternoon for an update on the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and he’s not going to like what he hears. The key Syrian town of Kobani is likely to fall to ISIS fighters in coming days, senior U.S. military officials will tell Obama—and there’s not a whole lot the U.S. and its allies can do to halt the ISIS victory or the expected bloodbath following its collapse.

“We’re not expecting any change to our strategy as a result of today’s meeting,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said Wednesday afternoon shortly before the 3 p.m. ET session. “This is going to be a long, difficult struggle.”

An air offensive to protect Kobani from being overrun by ISIS totters on the verge of failure. Stepped-up allied air strikes and Kurdish defenders, armed with only small arms, are fighting up to 9,000 jihadists outfitted with tanks and rockets. But it seems to be too little, too late as ISIS’s black flags rose above an eastern neighborhood Monday and remained flying Wednesday. Kurdish officials have warned that ISIS militants would kill thousands if they prevail.

The fight for Kobani is a key test of a U.S. military strategy limited to air strikes, while its local allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria are proving ineffective or non-existent. Turkish troops with tanks are simply watching from across the border as the battle for nearby Kobani rages. Nearly half of the area’s 400,000 residents have fled to Turkey. U.S. officials are angry that Turkey, a NATO ally, has refused to do more to avert a slaughter, they say largely because of its bloody history with the Kurds. American officials are heading to Ankara to urge Turkish officials to do more.

The second piece of the U.S. strategy is training up to 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels a year to fight ISIS on the ground. But that’s a long-term gambit with no guarantee of success, because many of the rebels are more interested in fighting their three-year old civil war against Syrian strongman Bashar Assad than ISIS.

For now, the jihadists are doing their best to frustrate air strikes by abandoning key outposts and breaking into smaller units. They have given up little ground. The terrorist fighters are moving into civilian areas where they know the U.S. and its allies will not bomb—especially without hard intelligence from on-the-ground scouts they trust. Obama has refused to dispatch such spotters as part of his ban on U.S. ground troops in the conflict.

Obama will be meeting with Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has told Congress he will ask Obama to dispatch U.S. ground troops—especially forward air controllers to call in air strikes—if Dempsey thinks it’s required. Kirby said the Pentagon would not be making such a request of Obama during Wednesday’s meeting.

The growing U.S. frustration has been evident as the U.S. ordered AH-64 Apache helicopters into action beginning Oct. 5 against militant targets in western Iraq. The low-and-slow gunship is better than a jet bomber for attacking moving targets. But that capability also makes its two crewmembers more vulnerable to ground fire. ISIS has shot down a pair of Iraqi choppers in recent days, killing all four pilots aboard.

TIME isis

U.S. Air Strikes Can’t Stop ISIS in the Fight for Kobani

Smoke rises from the city centre of the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobani by the Kurds, as seen from the Turkish-Syrian border during heavy fighting, in the southeastern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, on Oct. 7, 2014.
Smoke rises from the city centre of the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobani by the Kurds, as seen from the Turkish-Syrian border during heavy fighting, in the southeastern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, on Oct. 7, 2014. Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images

The key town is in danger of being lost to the militant group ISIS

By sunset today, the black flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was flying on the edge of Kobani, a strategically important Syrian-Kurdish town on the Turkish border. Despite President Barack Obama’s pledge to destroy ISIS — and the ongoing air campaign that has followed that promise — the extremist group seems poised to take this town and solidify their control over a swath of the Syrian-Turkish border.

“ISIS is attacking from three sides and they are pushing into the city. We are fighting back,” said Ojlan Esso, a spokesman for the Kurdish forces in Kobani by phone. The sound of mortars hitting the city echoed in the background of the call before the line went dead.

For more than three weeks Kurdish fighters have been fending off ISIS and calling for air strikes, better weapons and for Turkey to allow Kurdish fighters to cross the border and join them in fight in Kobani. They’ve only gotten the strikes so far, courtesy of the U.S.-led coalition, and that hasn’t been enough to stop the militants’ advance.

“They’ve definitely been too few and far between to disrupt the ISIS offensive in the area,” said Jenny Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Washington, D.C.–based Institute for the Study of War. Taking Kobani will not just be a blow to the Kurdish fighters there but a strategic gain for ISIS, broadening their control in Syria and connecting key areas under their burgeoning caliphate’s power.

Many Kurds in Kobani are angry that assistance didn’t come to the besieged city weeks ago. “I saw several air strikes today, but they should have taken place before ISIS entered Kobani,” said Abdul Azziz, a Kurdish resident from the city.

The ISIS attack on Kobani is in line with its efficient approach to combat — strategically targeting areas the group knows will have difficulty fighting back. The Syrian Kurds have a precarious relationship with the country’s opposition rebels, while Turkey has blocked weapons, supplies and fighters from entering Kobani because of Ankara’s long-standing feud with Kurdish groups.

America isn’t having any more success. So far the U.S.-led operation in Syria has focused on damaging ISIS infrastructure, targeting convoys and checkpoints instead of front-line positions and active battle sites. In part, this is because the U.S. is not coordinating with the forces fighting on the ground in Syria. In the case of Kobani, Kurdish leaders have said that they need air strikes on strategic positions where the militants are advancing.

But as the bombing has taken its toll on ISIS convoys and checkpoints, the militant group has begun limiting large movements in open daylight, making it more difficult to hit their units. “These strikes have forced ISIS to shift some of its tactics, and this shift in tactics actually increases the difficulty in acquiring target sets,” says Cafarella.

More precise strikes are impossible for now — the U.S. lacks the intelligence networks to hit key targets, says Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, who focuses on Syria and U.S. policy in the Levant region. “You have to get these networks set up so they can feed you with this sort of information.”

It’s not just Syrian Kurds who are complaining about the impotence of the strikes. Even the moderate Syrian rebel groups that have been picked for training and weapons distribution by the U.S. have begun criticizing the early strikes in Syria, arguing that they will not be effective as long as the U.S. fails to work with fighters on the ground.

“The strikes are just not coordinated with ground objectives in mind,” said Tabler. “Concerning Syria, I can’t define a strategy there. I can’t see what it is.”

While the U.S.-led strikes against ISIS in Syria have targeted the group’s financial infrastructure and warring capability it is not having much effect on the many front lines between the militants, and both these Kurdish fighters in Kobani and the Free Syrian Army groups the U.S. talks about backing.

But even in Iraq, where the U.S. is coordinating with both the Iraqi national army and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, ISIS is still making gains in some areas. “You notice [ISIS] is advancing outside of Baghdad,” said Tabler. “So it’s hard to argue that the strikes are working to halt ISIS’s advance.”

If Kobani falls into the hands of ISIS, it may not only provide a new supply route into the caliphate and strategic territorial control, but also demonstrate that the U.S. is far from defeating the militant group

TIME National Security

The FBI Wants Your Help IDing American ISIS Fighters

Federal Bureau of Investigation

“No piece of information is too small"

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has called on members of the public to help identify fellow citizens who have left or are planning to leave the United States in order to join militant jihadi groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS.

“We need the public’s assistance in identifying U.S. persons going to fight overseas with terrorist groups or who are returning home from fighting overseas,” said Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division said in a statement.

In addition to launching an online tip form, the agency released an edited ISIS video which shows a masked man fluently switching between English and Arabic. “We’re hoping that someone might recognize this individual and provide us with key pieces of information,” Steinbach said. “No piece of information is too small.”

The national outreach campaign comes on the heels of a targeted campaign in Minneapolis where agents distributed business cards to community leaders asking for tips about anybody with travel plans to foreign countries where they might join in armed combat.

TIME Terrorism

4 Arrested in U.K. Anti-Terror Raids, Stun Gun Fired

(LONDON) — London police have arrested four suspected Islamic terrorists in several raids throughout the British capital.

Police said Tuesday that officers fired a stun gun at one 21-year-old suspect, but he did not need medical treatment. The four suspects are aged 20 and 21.

Police say they were arrested on suspicion of preparing or instigating acts of terrorism.

The suspects remain in custody, and homes and vehicles in west and central London are being searched as part of what police called an ongoing investigation into Islamic-related terrorism.

The terror threat in the U.K. was recently raised to “severe” because of the increase in the number of Britons traveling to Syria to join up with the Islamic State group.

The government has said the militant group plans to strike targets inside Britain.

TIME National Security

Chicago Teen Arrested for Trying to Join ISIS

The FBI intercepted him at O'Hare as he was allegedly on his way to join the militant group

A Chicago teenager was arrested at O’Hare International Airport over the weekend while allegedly attempting to go to Turkey to join the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), officials said Monday.

Mohammed Hamzah Khan, 19, was arrested by the FBI before he boarded a flight to Vienna on his way to Istanbul, and has been charged with one count of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization, according to a criminal complaint filed Monday by the Department of Justice. Khan is a U.S. citizen.

While he was at the airport, the FBI executed a search warrant at Khan’s family home and found handwritten documents expressing support for ISIS and a desire to fight along side the group, according to the criminal complaint filed in federal court. The documents included travel plans, drawings of the ISIS flag and flags of other known terrorist organizations, and a page that included writing in Arabic that, using another name for ISIS, said: “Islamic State in Iraq and Levant. Here to stay. We are the lions of war [unintelligible.] My nation, the dawn has emerged.”

Law enforcement also found a letter written to Khan’s parents that appeared to explain his thinking. He told them not to contact the authorities, that he was intending to “migrate” to ISIS “now that it has been established,” and that he was upset that his taxes were being used to kill his “Muslim brothers and sisters.”

Khan was in federal court Monday and was ordered held at least until a detention hearing on Oct. 9, the Associated Press reports. If convicted of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization, Khan could face up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

TIME Military

Jihadist Bullets Are Often Made in the USA

These four rifle cartridges were made in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 at the U.S.-government owned Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, Mo., before falling into ISIS hands, according to a new report. CAR

Survey of cartridges in the field reveals ISIS militants are using ammo sourced from China, the former Soviet Union — and the U.S.

Not only are the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) tooling around their new “state” in U.S.-built vehicles recently plundered from the Iraqi army, but many of the bullets they’re firing come from the U.S. as well.

The news suggests just how fluid the battlefield straddling Iraq and Syria has become—and how efforts by other nations to help both beleaguered states can boomerang as their ammo often falls into enemy hands.

A private arms-tracing group vacuumed up more than 1,700 ISIS rounds in the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq and Syria from July 22 to Aug. 15. Nearly one of every five examined by experts from the independent Conflict Armament Research was manufactured in the U.S., according to a report released Monday by the group.

ISIS “forces appear to have acquired a large part of their current arsenal from stocks seized from, or abandoned by, Iraqi defence and security forces,” said the London-based CAR, a nonprofit research organization funded by the European Union. “The U.S. gifted much of this materiel to Iraq.”

CAR used stampings on the bottom of the cartridges—almost like fingerprints—to track their source.

Here’s where the cartridges collected by researchers were manufactured. CAR

The variety and age of the ammo used by ISIS fighters shows they have multiple means of supply. “China, the Soviet Union/Russian Federation, and the United States (US) are the top three manufacturing states represented in the sample,” CAR reported. “Ammunition in service with Iraqi and Syrian defence forces is also significant in the sample.”

CAR documented more than 300 U.S.-manufactured cartridges used by ISIS, mostly made between 2000 and 2010. Russian ammo was much newer—“as little as seven months from manufacture in Russia to capture from [ISIS] forces in Syria,” the group says. “Syrian defence forces are a plausible source of this ammunition.” At the other end of the timetable, CAR found a single Soviet cartridge dating back to 1945, the last year of World War II.

Most of the cartridges recovered in Syria were 30 years old and of Chinese and Soviet manufacture. “By contrast, the sample of ammunition recovered in Iraq is mainly U.S.-manufactured and comprises 5.56 x 45 mm cartridges,” CAR’s 16-page field report said. That’s the type “used in U.S.-supplied M16 and M4 assault rifles of the Iraqi defence and security forces.”

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 6

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Diversity in recruitment – not residency restrictions – is the best way to build a police force that reflects the community where it works.

By Batya Ungar-Sargon and Andrew Flowers in FiveThirtyEight

2. To save Libya, western powers need to abandon the ‘war on terror’ framework and convince factions there to negotiate.

By Mattia Toaldo in the European Council on Foreign Relations

3. Cricket protein requires 20% fewer resources than beef protein. Are bugs the next big thing?

By Katie Van Syckle in Bloomberg Businessweek

4. China’s fluid definition of terrorism – often changing at the convenience of the country’s leaders – keeps the nation from being an effective partner against ISIS.

By Richard Bernstein, Ely Ratner, Jeffrey Payne, James Palmer, and Fu Hualing in ChinaFile

5. Modern pro sports commissioners are CEOs, not stewards of a public good. Split the commissioner job in two.

By Will Leitch in New York Magazine

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Terrorism

American ISIS Hostage: ‘I’m Pretty Scared to Die’

Islamic State Hostage Peter Kassig
This undated photo provided by Kassig Family shows Peter Kassig standing in front of a truck filled with supplies for Syrian refugees. AP

An Army Ranger-turned-aid worker held hostage by ISIS militants in Syria admitted to his parents he was “pretty scared to die” but also urged them to “seek refuge and comfort” from his humanitarian work.

Abdul-Rahman Kassig — who was born Peter but changed his name when he converted to Islam last year — wrote in a letter received by his parents on June 2 he was “praying every day” in captivity but was “not angry.” He added: “I am in a dogmatically complicated situation here, but I am at peace with my belief.”

Excerpts from his heartfelt letter were released in a statement late Sunday by his parents…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Military

Greasing the Skids of War: Rethinking the Carter Doctrine

Obama Speaks At Disabled Veterans Memorial Dedication
President Obama speaks Sunday at a new memorial in Washington dedicated to disabled veterans. Pool / Getty Images

After 34 years—and 14 conflicts around the Middle East—it's time to wean the U.S. off Persian Gulf oil

As the U.S.-led war in Syria enters its third week, Americans can be excused for believing their nation has been shooting up the Middle East forever.

But they’d be wrong. It’s only been going on, off and on, since 34 years ago. That’s when, shortly after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter told Moscow—and anyone else who might be listening—that Washington was willing to go to war to keep the Persian Gulf’s petroleum tap open and fueling the U.S. economy.

“The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: it contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil,” Carter said in his final State of the Union address on Jan. 23, 1980.

“The Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow,” he continued. “Let our position be absolutely clear: an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

So here we are, a generation later: the Soviets are out of Afghanistan, and America is in.

And even though the fight in Afghanistan is the nation’s longest war—and gets longer every day—it’s only one of many Islamic hotspots the U.S. has struck since Carter put down his Middle East marker. Former Army officer Andrew Bacevich, now at Columbia University, rattled them off Sunday in a column in the Washington Post:

Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria.

Bacevich writes:

As America’s efforts to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ Islamic State militants extend into Syria, Iraq War III has seamlessly morphed into Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV. That is, Syria has become at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded or occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have killed or been killed. And that’s just since 1980.

President Obama acknowledged the toll Sunday, when he spoke at the dedication of the new American Veterans Disabled for Life memorial near the Capitol. “Let’s never rush into war, because it is America’s sons and daughters who bear the scars of war for the rest of their lives,” he said at the memorial, which honors the nation’s 4 million disabled vets. “Let us only send them into harm’s way when it’s absolutely necessary.” Perhaps there was a whiff of hindsight in his words.

But it may be foresight to revisit Carter’s declaration. While the hunger for oil remains relentless, the U.S. is far more energy independent today than it was in 1980. That should allow the U.S. to ease its addiction to Persian Gulf oil, which too often has served to grease the skids of war.

“This July the United States replaced Saudi Arabia as the world’s No. 1 oil producer,” Arthur Herman of the Hudson Institute wrote last month in National Review, “and virtually every industry study indicates that the trend will continue through the next two decades and beyond.” Much of the U.S. gain is due to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a production method that now accounts for roughly a third of U.S. oil and gas production.

Adds Herman:

The Islamic State’s use of captured Iraqi oil wells to pay for its murderous atrocities is just the latest and most blatant example of the oil-into-terrorism dynamic that’s ruled the Middle East for decades—and all, ironically, under the protective umbrella of American arms. Just keeping the region’s shipping lanes, including the Strait of Hormuz, open to tanker traffic costs the Pentagon on average $50 billion a year—a service that earns us the undying enmity of populations in that region even as their governments take our protection for granted.

Actually, U.S. taxpayers have spent close to $10 trillion to keep oil flowing to the world from Persian Gulf, based on a 2010 analysis from Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Princeton University.

Imagine if a slice of that had instead been invested to speed up U.S. energy independence. Wars would surely still unfold in the Middle East—as they will likely do so for generations—but it’d be bracing to watch them from the sidelines, for a change.

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