There are some serious practical problems with fighting a conflict solely from the air. Take, for example, the estimates of the number of Islamic State militants that have been killed by the bombing campaign. In January 2015, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby stated that the number of IS militants killed was ‘several hundred’. In July 2015, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken estimated the figure was around 10,000. Also in July, the Pentagon estimated that it was more like 15,000, and then in October, it stated it was 20,000. What are we to make of these wildly different estimates?
The Obama administration defines ‘militant’ in a very broad sense: any male of ‘military age’ in the vicinity of the target is simply considered a militant. The reason for this very rough method of calculation is simple: the US doesn’t have many assets on the ground with which to verify who is in the target vicinity at the time.
It is clear then that the number of militants killed has been exaggerated and perhaps even wildly exaggerated. Islamic State has a very fluid organisational structure. There may be a great many people aiding Islamic State but not fighting for them. The current approach unwisely makes enemies of all these people.
The US estimates of the number of militants it has killed are made even more meaningless when we consider that no one actually knows the size of Islamic State’s force. The Syrian Human Rights Observatory estimates it has 50,000, while a senior Kurdish leader was quoted in a recent article in the Independent that it is more like 200,000.
The US and its allies have very little idea how many people they are fighting or how many of them they have killed. How are we going to defeat Islamic State when we know so little about them?
Hidden in the numbers of supposed militants killed are an untold number of civilian casualties. A New York Times article published on September 14th, states that the US government has claimed responsibility for 181 civilian deaths, however, an independent body called Air Wars, which uses a rigorous system in order to substantiate claims of casualties, puts the figure somewhere between 682 and 2104. While this may not seem like a lot of people, when it is taken in the context of the number of IS militants they claim to have killed, it is unacceptable. If we use the averages, the US has killed 10,000 militants and 1000 civilians – 1 civilian for every 10 militants.
The Assad Regime remains the elephant in the room. It is by far the most deadly party involved in the current conflict. The Syrian Human Rights Network claims that about 180,000 of the 250,000 people that have lost their lives in the last four years are victims of the Syrian government, not Islamic State.
It is testament to the extreme barbarism of Islamic State that the crimes of the Assad regime now go almost unnoticed despite the fact that it is using universally condemned weapons such as barrel bombs and sarin gas.
I have previously argued in favour of deploying a peacekeeping force in Iraq and Syria, not so that they can engage Islamic State directly, but rather to ensure the safety of the Syrian and Iraqi people. It is also the key to combating radicalisation. Even if we flatten Raqqa, we will not make Syria a safer place. Islamic State is just the latest incarnation of an ideology, and ideas cannot be fought with guns, only with the resolve and determination to do the right thing by the people whose lives have been imperiled through absolutely no fault of their own.