Skip to main content

Smoke rises over Sinjar, northern Iraq from oil fires set by Islamic State militants as Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, launch a major assault on Nov. 12, 2015.Bram Janssen/The Associated Press

The revolutionary words of La Marseillaise became a real call to arms this past weekend for France and its allies in the wake of Friday's deadly terror attacks in Paris.

Not surprisingly, French President François Hollande said he wanted to "punish" the militant Sunni movement known as Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, by ordering the bombing of targets in the occupied Syrian city of Raqqa, capital of the group's "caliphate."

At the same time, U.S. forces attacked a convoy of some 300 trucks preparing to carry Islamic State oil to black markets outside the country. Mindful of civilian casualties that had discouraged such a U.S. attack until now, two F-15 warplanes first dropped leaflets at the target area telling the drivers to flee from their rigs. The French gave no such warning.

U.S. President Barack Obama said he would intensify the bombing campaign against IS positions in Syria and Iraq, though he would not deploy any U.S. ground troops other than the 50 members of special forces he authorized two weeks ago to "assist" locals fighting IS forces.

As popular a recourse as bombing seems to be, it is not clear that's the best way to punish Islamic State, let alone defeat it.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reached that conclusion. Though Canadian fighter jets continued to attack IS targets in Iraq on the weekend, Mr. Trudeau reaffirmed his government's commitment to end Canadian bombing in Syria and Iraq.

"One of the things that Canadians have expressed certainly over the past months and within the election that they wanted to see a ceasing of the bombing mission," he explained.

"Bombing on its own has never been very successful in defeating one's enemy," says Alastair Crooke, a former MI6 operative and author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution. "It does surprisingly little damage when you bomb from afar," he said. "ISIS [a common acronym for Islamic State] can pretty easily survive such attacks by going underground or dispersing among the population."

Most Western militaries, he added, don't like to bomb populated areas. "They don't want to cause a lot of collateral damage."

"The Russians," he said, "have the answer."

Beyond powerful bombing runs that do kill civilians, "a lot of their assaults are conducted by helicopter gunships flying between 50 and 150 metres above the ground," said Mr. Crooke who spent several years in Afghanistan during the Soviet war there. "That's the only way you can pinpoint your target."

That type of operation carries enormous risk to the attackers, he acknowledged, and they fire flares to divert any shoulder-launched missiles fired at them.

Another risk from Western bombing in Syria, notes Matthew Henman, head of IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, is that it may well lead to greater support for Islamic State in the Muslim community and a surge of new recruits.

Islamic State wants "to boost its narrative of an apocalyptic confrontation" with the godless West, Mr. Henman says, and to show "the weakness and cowardice of Western powers in not committing their own troops on the ground despite being directly attacked."

Indeed the only really successful bombing campaign in recent times was in the breakaway Serbian territory of Kosovo in 1999, where it took 10 weeks of intensive NATO bombing to force a Serbian surrender. And that required a decade-long occupation by some 40,000 troops in a territory the size of Cape Breton Island to keep the peace.

Sending in ground troops is essential to succeed in a mission such as dealing with Islamic State, says Charles Dunlap Jr., director of Duke University's Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, and a former judge advocate-general. But, he emphasized, "before we put another young American in harm's way on the ground, we ought to subject ISIS to the full might of U.S. and allied air power," even at the price of collateral damage.

"No one is suggesting not abiding by the law of war," he insisted, "but overly restrictive rules of engagement allow ISIS to avoid the kind of air-delivered devastation that would actually operate to save more civilians over time."

"President Obama's desire to avoid civilian casualties is laudable from both a moral and a practical standpoint," wrote Frederick Kagan, a military historian and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington on Monday. "But the President has gone too far in precluding all targets with any risk of civilian casualties."

Mr. Kagan also argues that as many as 10,000 U.S. troops, mostly special forces, need to be deployed to Iraq in support of operations to take back the cities of Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul from Islamic State.

"Iranian-controlled militias and political figures will oppose any such U.S. deployment," he predicts, "probably by attacking the U.S. embassy and other American targets in Iraq.

"We must accept that likelihood and prepare for it by maintaining the forces and capabilities necessary to counterattack against them within Iraq," he concludes.

With a report from Paul Koring in Washington

Interact with The Globe