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Officials warn of long fight against ISIS as airstrikes hit oil refineries

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Posted at 7:04 AM, Sep 26, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-26 07:04:22-04

(CNN) – The phrase has been repeated so often that it could become a mantra in Washington: It’s going to be a long fight against ISIS.

This week, the Pentagon intoned it again.

“I think we are in this for a matter of years,” spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said on Thursday. “We are steeling ourselves for that period of time.”

The United States and its coalition partners have been quick with airstrikes, dropping tons of ordnance on ISIS targets. On Friday, the British parliament will vote on whether to join them.

They’re having some effect, experts say, but on the ground, headway against the Islamist extremists is far from view.

In Syria, marshaling an effective ground partner against the terrorists, who have a victorious track record there, has only begun. In Iraq, the military has been plagued by debacles.

Yet the United States says the ISIS threat must be vanquished.

“The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, now poses a profound and unique threat to the entire world,” Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in an editorial in The Boston Globe on Friday.

From the air in Syria

On Thursday, airstrikes hit ISIS in the pocketbook, smashing oil refineries in remote locations in eastern Syria.

Mobile refineries generate up to $2 million a day for ISIS.

The U.S. military was still assessing the damage to the refineries by the airstrikes, Kirby said. The attacks are focused on the “infrastructure around the refineries,” meaning the ability of ISIS to produce oil, he said.

Airstrikes have also disrupted ISIS safe havens on the ground, such as the northern town of Raqqa, said military analyst (Ret.) Lt. Col. James Resse.

On the ground in Syria

But ISIS’ command structure is adapting to the attacks, said CNN military analyst (Ret.) U.S. Army Col. Peter Mansoor. It is dispersing, and leaders are now “mixed in with the civilian population.”

“So, it’s unlikely these airstrikes have crippled ISIS,” he said.

There are also questions about just how much impact the destruction of the refineries will have on ISIS, which analysts have said has access to billions of dollars.

Kerry also underlined financial wherewithal of ISIS.

“The Islamic State controls more territory than Al Qaeda ever has, which means it has access to money on an unprecedented scale to finance its mayhem,” he wrote.

On Thursday, more than 20 Syrian rebel commanders, including members of Christian opposition groups, signed off on an agreement to unite in the fight against ISIS and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

U.S. officials helped broker the deal made in Turkey days after Congress signed off on President Barack Obama’s call to arm and train moderate rebels to fight ISIS.

It may, at this stage, be only a symbolic gesture given that their groups are already fighting alongside each other against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and ISIS.

So far, they have proven little match for either.

And they would like to draw the U.S.-led coalition into battle against al-Assad, expanding their airstrikes against the regime, which is allied with Russia.

From the air in Iraq

U.S. airstrikes against ISIS began in Iraq, after the group swept through the country’s north, then, this summer, encroaching on the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil.

The Islamist extremists, known for mass executions and beheadings of anyone not in line with their fanatical beliefs, threatened a massacre against ethnic minority Yazidis. It was the last straw for the Obama administration, and the bombs began to fall on ISIS in early August.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters helped drive the extremists back and secure positions on the ground.

Strikes have since targeted ISIS throughout the swaths it holds.

“We’ve been able to blunt the momentum of ISIS in Iraq,” said CNN military analyst Reese. They are no longer storming toward Baghdad.

On Thursday, French warplanes hit four ISIS warehouses near Fallujah, which were believed to house military equipment.

On the ground in Iraq

But a near massacre close by highlights the lack of matching might on the ground.

Over the weekend, ISIS crushed the Iraqi Sejar military base just east of Fallujah, killing at least 113 troops, according to Iraqi officials. The fate of 78 others is unknown.

ISIS claimed to have killed nearly 300 Iraqi troops in the onslaught. It also reported destroying 65 Iraqi military vehicles, including 41 Humvees, and seizing 37 others.

Surviving Iraqi soldiers said their pleas for backup went unanswered by military commanders for hours. They were left stranded, they said in an online video.

Iraqi officials said they had tried to support them but failed.

It’s an ISIS tactic that has worked well against Iraqi forces, analyst Resse said. “ISIS is smart enough to isolate that FOB (Forward Operating Base), and they start to engage them in a fight, until the Iraqis run out of ammunition, they run out of food.”

It works, because the Iraqi army is so disjointed, he said.

“There is no leadership in the Iraqi army right now,” said (Ret.) Lt. Col. Rick Francona (Ret.) “The people who are playing the price are the soldiers in the trenches.”

Iraqi soldiers have been known before to abandon their weapons and run, giving ISIS and opportunity to collect them, Reese said.

ISIS’ aggressive and dedicated

ISIS has a decided advantage over Iraqi troops, said Bill Roggio — the editor of the Long War Journal, which provides information and analysis on terrorists and efforts to combat them.

“It’s a level of commitment the Iraqi forces don’t display,” he said. “You can’t coach aggressiveness.”

“ISIS has managed to defeat Iraqi troops, Syrian troops, other anti-government fighters in Syria, “and they’ve done it all at the same time.”

The group is also good at recruiting, motivating young men and women around the world to join them, including hundreds from the United States and Europe. It has also called on lone wolf actors to carry out terror strikes in the West.

On Friday, the Spanish Interior Ministry said Spanish and Moroccan police arrested nine men suspected of links to ISIS. A Spanish national, who headed up the cell, was arrested in Spain’s Melilla enclave, which is connected to Morocco’s north coast.

Moroccan police detained eight Moroccan nationals on Moroccan territory.

Resse and Francona agree that to make Iraq’s army more effective, U.S. Special Forces would have to replace its command structure that is melting away.

“The problem with that is, that is the definition of boots on the ground,” Francona said.

And President Obama has promised there would be no U.S. boots on the ground.