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How Effectively Is The West Striking Back At ISIS?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's examine how effectively the West strikes back at ISIS. French planes bombed in the Islamic State's self-declared capital, Raaqa, this week. The U.S. gave them a list of targets. And that raised a question for Anne Barnard of The New York Times.

ANNE BARNARD: If the United States had 20 or 30 targets ready to go that are confirmed ISIS targets that could be hit without hitting civilians, then why didn't they hit them a long time ago? Why did they just give them to the French after the Paris attacks?

INSKEEP: Lack of intelligence has limited U.S. strikes, suggesting that targets left over for France might not have been valuable. From Beirut, Anne Barnard is seeking intelligence on what the French hit.

BARNARD: It's really difficult to determine these things with any certainty because in Raaqa, first of all, most journalists at all haven't been able to go there for a couple of years now because of the extreme risk from the Islamic State. There is an extreme risk even for citizens who reveal information to journalists. So people want to be anonymous. It's hard to verify their claims. We report it just the way we do everything else in parts of Syria that we can't access, which is through long-standing contacts, you know, friends of friends, relatives of people that we can interview in person who have just talked to those people on the phone.

INSKEEP: And what kinds of information are you getting then, as the French have begun these additional airstrikes?

BARNARD: Well, what we've heard so far is that a lot of the strikes have fallen in areas which are known ISIS facilities or former ISIS facilities. But areas that are former military bases or former factories or other types of industrial-type settings where the strikes can hit the territory of the institution without necessarily causing much damage - so in other words, a strike that hits the legitimate ISIS target perhaps but may not cause damage. At the same time, towards the end of the night last night, there - there was a report from - from an NGO that monitors the conflict, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said that there were some casualties and some ISIS facilities hit. But there were no details there. And we haven't confirmed that independently. So in other words, it's hard to tell whether they are hitting anything that really makes a dent in ISIS.

INSKEEP: As best as you can determine as a reporter, given the limits of information, what kinds of airstrikes, over the past weeks and months, actually have made a measurable difference against ISIS?

BARNARD: Some leaders have been killed. There was the raid which captured Abu Sayyaf, which was said to recover some important documents and intelligence. There have been hits on the oil infrastructure. Now, that doesn't have a conclusive effect on their ability to produce fuel, but it does - it is a setback. The issue is that many times we see the list of airstrikes every day, and they're hitting one motorcycle or one truck and, you know, is it worth it?

INSKEEP: Military thinkers have commonly said that airstrikes are more effective when they're combined with some kind of ground force. The ground force forces the enemy out into the open to fight, and then they can be destroyed from the air. Have airstrikes been more effective when there is some kind of ground force, Kurdish forces or something else?

BARNARD: It's obvious that airstrikes are more effective when teams with ground forces. But that's exactly the problem in Syria. First of all, there is no unified international agreement on how to fight ISIS on the ground. Russia would like the ground partner to be the Syrian army. And the United States and Arab allies would like it to be Western-backed forces, whether they're Kurds or other opposition forces. In reality, there's no ground force that single-handedly can do the job. There just isn't.

INSKEEP: Anne Barnard of The New York Times, thanks very much.

BARNARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.