TSG IntelBrief: Quagmire in the Air
May 11, 2015

Quagmire in the Air

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Bottom Line Up Front:
• The Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen has gone on for 48 days before an expected five-day ceasefire begins tomorrow; the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State has gone on for 277 days with no end in sight

• Neither campaign has achieved its stated goal, though the campaign against the Islamic State has blunted its rapid expansion; the Houthis have actually seized more territory in Yemen since the airstrikes began in late March

• Seen as a way of avoiding lengthy and costly ground entanglements, airstrikes have the nasty tendency to  become quagmires in the air, with rapidly diminishing returns and escalating humanitarian costs

• Airstrikes against insurgent, rebel, or terrorist groups that operate and hide among civilian populations quickly run out of obvious military targets and soon resort to bombing targets of dubious value and harming and alienating the very civilian populations they claim to save.

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Two ongoing military air campaigns are showing the limits of a tactic used too often in the absence of effective strategies. The appeal of airstrikes, from the side of the bombers though not the bombed, is that it appears to be a way to achieve military goals without entanglement in lengthy and dangerous ground operations. However, the U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and the Saudi-led airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen are not achieving their stated goals, and in the case of Yemen, are actually proving counterproductive.

Bombing campaigns against rebels or terrorists in poor countries tend to have immediate short-term gains but quickly bog down into the very type of fighting the airstrikes are supposed to replace; a war of attrition with high civilian casualties. The Saudi campaign began on March 25, and was intended to greatly diminish the Houthi rebel movement and pave the way for the return of ousted president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. In the 48 days since then, the Houthis have actually increased the territory in which they have varying degrees of control, to include the port city of Aden, far from their strongholds in the north. While the Houthis have certainly been hurt, so have Yemeni civilians, with 1,400 deaths and counting, and over 300,000 people displaced in a country unable to cope with such a humanitarian catastrophe.

With diminishing returns from the airstrikes, the Saudi government has arranged for a five-day cease fire to allow humanitarian aid into the desperate country. Houthi rebels have agreed to the cease fire but each side appears ready to react quickly to any perceived violation by the other. The failure of the airstrikes to deliver as promised has generated negative publicity for the Saudi coalition and a fear that the war might widen among the Saudi population that was expecting a quick and bloodless victory. In addition to the civilian casualties, the airstrikes have destroyed even more of the country’s infrastructure, which was already in sad shape. The repeated airstrikes against the Sana’a airport that will limit the delivery of badly needed aid has generated intense negative public reaction. Likewise, the airstrikes on the 1,100 year-old Shi’a Imam al-Hadi mosque in Sa’dah generated a fierce backlash against the coalition that purports to be saving the Yemenis from such sectarianism.

For its part, the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State has blunted the group’s momentum but the group still is able to launch assaults against civilian centers in both countries. It has even managed to retake parts of the Bayji refinery, where airstrikes have obvious limitations. The U.S. has spent $2.1 billion on its nine-month air campaign, which is about half of what the U.S. government spent in international humanitarian aid throughout 2014.

The issue is that the realities on the ground do not change at the speed of the jet fighters. As in Yemen, the air campaign in Iraq and Syria long ran out of easy and obvious targets of significant military value, and are now stuck in an expensive holding pattern looking for targets of opportunity that keep the group from expanding while seeking to avoid civilian casualties. Inevitably, despite the care taken, the air campaign has from time to time ended up hurting some of the people it is trying to save. At the same time, the Islamic State is looking to maximize civilian casualites from airstrikes to help turn the population against the coalition. Over 3,700 airstrikes have weakened the Islamic State’s ability to move en masse and in the open, but they have done little to dislodge the group from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa. Trying to resolve deep-seated and complex conflicts from several thousand feet can all too easily lead to quagmires of the air. Change has to come from the ground for it to take root.

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