It is hard to see how the direction of the Trump administration’s policy toward defeating ISIS can have a positive outcome.
During the presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump criticized President Obama as being “out of touch” with what it would take to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He promised to unveil his “secret” and “foolproof” plan to “quickly defeat ISIS.” Now, after arriving in the Oval Office, he is discovering that the situation is much more complicated than he anticipated and the old political axiom that “promises made in the heat of a campaign are retrievable” applies in this case.
From its onset six years ago, the Syrian Civil War quickly became a bloody conflict among numerous disparate rebel groups, with differing agendas and objectives, and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. As the years have passed, various outside forces, governmental and non-governmental, have intervened on behalf of their favored faction, thus prolonging the conflict and increasing the number of casualties and refugees.
While the United States searched in vain for “moderate” rebel groups to support, Iran and Hezbollah intervened on behalf of the Syrian government and managed to stabilize the military situation and to make it clear that the Syrian government was not going to fall. In September 2015, Russia intervened at the request of the Syrian government. Russian airpower and advanced weaponry quickly changed the military balance and gradually the Syrian government has reclaimed territory lost to the rebel forces and ISIS. The success of the Russians and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has significantly complicated the positions of the other states supporting the rebels and ISIS. This is the situation that the Trump administration is trying to deal with.
In northern Syria, the Kurdish People’s Defense Force (YPG), backed by the United States and in cooperation with the SAA, is engaged in a three-way struggle against ISIS and Turkey, a member of NATO. As the YPG and the SAA, with U.S. and Russian support, close in on Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State, Turkey, fearing the establishment of an independent Kurdistan allied with Kurdish rebels inside of Turkey, is pushing back. Turkey has made vague promises about retaking Raqqa, but without a major role for YPG forces, there is no chance that the Raqqa operation can succeed absent a significant U.S. force commitment. The United States has recently deployed over 1,000 ground forces in support of the YPG, a move that the Syrian government has condemned as an invasion and vowed to resist.
In southern Syria, an area that has been relatively stable, Israel, a U.S. ally, has taken advantage of the fluid situation to attack Hezbollah and Syrian government forces. This has opened the door for ISIS and jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda to regain lost ground and re-establish a presence on the Jordanian border. Jordan, also an American ally, sees this as a major security threat that may require military intervention in coordination with the SAA.
At this stage, it appears that that the Trump administration has delegated decision making concerning the force levels, strategy, and tactics required to “quickly defeat ISIS” to military commanders on the ground. This approach, devoid of any diplomatic concerns or input, runs a major risk of unintended adverse consequences. President Trump has announced a 68-nation summit on defeating ISIS; however, Iran and Russia, the most effective forces fighting ISIS, have not been invited. It is hard to see how this can have a positive outcome. Perhaps Trump’s task force can develop a coherent plan, but in the end, Obama’s approach of minimizing America’s footprint in this complex and multifaceted conflict may turn out to be the best of a bunch of bad choices.
Also published on Foreign Policy Journal