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World

Air Campaign Against ISIS Continues As Rebels Look To Regroup

ARUN RATH, HOST:

For nearly a week now, airstrikes by the U.S. and its allies have pounded targets in Syria. The goal is to weaken the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled across the Turkish border in the past week. Yesterday, the Obama administration said it was considering establishing a no-fly zone along the border in an attempt to protect civilians. We'll talk in a moment about how the strikes are affecting the fight against ISIS in Iraq. But first, we go to NPR's Middle East correspondent Deborah Amos, who's just back from the border. Hi, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Hi.

RATH: So Deb, earlier this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the airstrikes were targeting the financial heart of ISIS - oil refineries. How is the strategy affecting ISIS's progress on the ground?

AMOS: You know, the momentum against ISIS is building, but so far it really hasn't slowed them down. And in one particular fight you can see it, and that's in the town of Kobani. It's on the Syrian-Turkish border. I talked to one Syrian activist. His son is fighting there. And he called and said dad, I might die here. The fight points to some of the contradictions of the U.S. airstrikes. You know, the fighters have been begging for strikes. ISIS is less than six miles from town. Now finally today, for the first time, there were strikes. A reporter tweeting from Kobani wrote a few hours ago that it has silenced some artillery positions, but one cannon is still shelling. At the same time, the government-controlled news agency in Damascus had a very curious tweet from a nightclub, advertising the last roof party of the season. Damascus is portraying itself as the normal partner for this war against ISIS. At the same time, they are barrel-bombing neighborhoods in rebel positions in the North. So what you have is Damascus bombing some of the rebel groups that were vetted by the United States and given weapons.

RATH: Now, you've spoken with some of the civilians, the Syrian civilians there in Turkey. How do they feel about the U.S.-led airstrikes?

AMOS: You know, Syrians inside Syria protested against these airstrikes on Friday. They are focused on barrel bombs dropped by the regime. I spent some time tonight with an activist and a writer. His name is Yassin Haj Saleh and he's often called the conscience of the revolution. He wrote this piece called "We Are Trapped Between Three Monsters: The Regime, ISIS And The U.S." He is concerned that the Assad regime will take advantage of what is happening with these strikes. They continue to strike at the rebels. He says that U.S. intervention isn't about justice for these terrible crimes of the regime. It's about one particular group that the United States is after. And they are concerned that everything they fought for in the last three years simply goes under the table as the world focuses on ISIS.

RATH: NPR's Deb Amos in Istanbul. Deb, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you.

RATH: And NPR's Leila Fadel is in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. Leila, the airstrikes there have been going on much longer. And they started partly in reaction to ISIS targeting the ethnic Yazidi minority in Sinjar. Is there any progress toward retaking that region?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, what the airstrikes in Iraq really have done here, they've blunted ISIS advances in northern Iraq. But it really hasn't rolled them back. So they're still pretty much in control in the Sinjar area, in the city of Mosul, parts of Anbar, really a third of this country. They're holding hostage women and children from that ethno-religious minority - the Yazidi community. So the airstrikes have stopped them from advancing in certain areas, but it's not really wresting control from them.

RATH: When ISIS first swept into Iraq, it seemed that many Iraqi Sunnis tentatively embraced them as better than a central Iraqi government that had sidelined them. Are you seeing a change in how the Sunnis are viewing ISIS?

FADEL: Yeah, you are. It's been months now that they've had to live under ISIS. And at first, ISIS gave a face that they were better than this Iraqi government, that they would treat the civilians better. But now you're seeing brutal killings in the street, public executions. And so a lot of the Sunni community is starting to say well, I guess this is a huge danger. We need the world to fight them. Now that doesn't mean everybody has turned and the concerns over this government have changed. There's just - it's just become untenable in certain areas. And they are looking for a quick solution.

RATH: And now the political situation's changed. There's a new prime minister in Baghdad. Also, a new coalition - a growing coalition - that President Obama hoped would help in the fight against ISIS. What has been the role though of the Iraqi military in this?

FADEL: Well, the Iraqi military has really disintegrated in the face of ISIS. Just last week, we saw in Anbar province in an area called Saqlawiyah, outside of Fallujah, they were starved out. They ran out of ammunition. Baghdad didn't get them anymore. And ISIS totally took that division headquarters.

This is not an army that can really move offensively if airstrikes create a pathway. In the Sunni-Arab communities, tribal leaders there are saying we need to fight ourselves. People have a little bit more faith in this new prime minister. But as one Sunni leader told me this week, we've been living on promises so far. We haven't seen any change yet. And so they're a bit skeptical of Baghdad, still skeptical of this Iraqi army. And so those who are willing to fight want to fight themselves, not depend on Baghdad.

RATH: NPR's Leila Fadel in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. Leila, thank you.

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