Air strikes - more questions than results

Footage released by Russia's Defence Ministry on Tuesday shows a Russian Tupolev Tu-95MS bomber dropping a bomb in Syria in retaliation against those responsible for blowing up a Russian airliner over Egypt.
Footage released by Russia's Defence Ministry on Tuesday shows a Russian Tupolev Tu-95MS bomber dropping a bomb in Syria in retaliation against those responsible for blowing up a Russian airliner over Egypt.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT • First France and then Russia answered Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks on their citizens with a strategy of direct reprisal: intensified air strike campaigns on Raqqa, the militants' de facto capital within Syria, meant to eliminate the group's leadership and resources.

But on Tuesday in the early hours of those new campaigns, there seemed to be more questions than decisive results. Chief among them: Why, if there were confirmed ISIS targets that could be hit without killing civilians, were they not hit more heavily long ago? And what, in fact, was being hit?

More broadly, the Raqqa air strikes are renewing a debate about how effective such attacks can be in defeating or containing ISIS, without more commitment to measures like drying up its financial support, combating its ideology or - what outside forces on all sides so far appear to have ruled out - conducting a ground assault.

Several people in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, who have been able to make contact with relatives in Raqqa, say the recent French air strikes - a barrage of about 30 on Sunday night and seven more on Monday - did not kill any civilians.

But neither did they inflict serious military damage, those people said. More French air strikes, reaching 25 to 30, struck Raqqa late on Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group in Britain. Many of the strikes hit deserted areas that had already been struck; casualties were reported in addition to property damage, the group said.

Meanwhile, Russia's military on Tuesday doubled the number of air strikes it was carrying out in Syria.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that powerful Tu-22, Tu-95 and Tu-160 long-range bombers had been used to strike targets around Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.

In addition, Russia conducted 34 cruise missile strikes that hit Idlib and Aleppo regions. Russia planned 127 sorties on 206 targets in the first 24 hours of the new campaign, Mr Shoigu said.

The air strikes have killed at least 33 ISIS militants in Raqqa over the past three days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday.

Although the United States has conducted spot strikes within Raqqa, like the one said to have killed the ISIS media figure known as Jihadi John, American officials say concern about the large civilian population remaining in the city has precluded heavier bombing.

But if the world is wedded to a military solution, it is likely to come at a high cost in human lives. Some Russian and Israeli experts argue that an effective military approach would have to meet brutality with brutality. It could not, they say, be waged only from the air.

NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2015, with the headline 'Air strikes - more questions than results'. Print Edition | Subscribe