Considering the unprecedented obstacles President Trump is facing from various quarters in his attempts to devise a coherent foreign policy strategy (see my column in the September issue of Chronicles), the apparent success of his anti-ISIS approach thus far is both surprising and encouraging. It shows that realist pragmatism yields results.
Over the past six months the U.S.-led coalition and its allies have taken over close to a third of territory previously controlled by the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. This mainstream media-unacknowledged success was entirely due to the new approach taken by President Trump and his administration. In Mosul the battle is finally over, after nine months of arduous urban fighting. Across the border in Raqqa, close to one half of the militants’ capital is in the hands of a nominal Kurdish-Arab coalition—in reality mostly Syrian Kurds—known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Two important changes have made success possible. In contrast to its predecessors’ approach, the Trump administration has allowed field commanders much greater autonomy of action in forging local alliances. In Syria, the old mantra “Bashar must go!” is no longer the ever-present political restraint on military effectiveness. Cooperation and coordination with the Russians on the ground is unaffected, for now, by the Russophobic hysteria inside the Beltway. The quest for “moderate” resisters is over, acknowledging the fact that they do not exist: the CIA has discontinued its program of arming and training anti-Assad rebels in Syria which was launched under Obama in 2013. That program carried the danger of mission-creep in a multifaceted civil war in a country of little consequence to America’s strategic interests.
Of equal importance is the introduction of the tactic of “annihilation.” The focus is on anti-ISIS ground forces surrounding jihadists in their fortified positions so that they cannot escape and fight another day. In the past Iraqi forces were able to regain control of major urban areas by leaving an escape route open. In early April 2015 Tikrit was thus regained with little fighting, but the IS operational strength was not significantly diminished. This did not happen in Mosul, though the cost in civilian suffering was predictably high: the Iraqi army was able to close the cauldron last fall, and kept it tight until the end. The tactic of annihilation has prevented the fighters from regrouping to capture new territory or regain lost ground. A detailed HIS Conflict Monitor report published last June indicated that IS had lost close to two-thirds of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria in January 2015.
Reducing IS-controlled area to the borderlands between Iraq and to northern Syria east of the Euphrates is a significant development. Western analysts tend to underestimate the importance of territory for the jihadist core. Following the example of their prophet, who established his theocratic statelet in Medina after the Hijrah, Sunni militants see control over land as a key prerequisite for the establishment of the “caliphate.” Cyberspace is extensively used means of indoctrination, and virtual networks of self-starters are constantly developed, but tangible territory inhabited by people remains the basis of legitimacy. Without land, without cities and villages to control and tax, the notion of “caliphate” loses credibility.
Trump’s decentralization of decision-making and new rules of engagement have yielded tangible operational dividends. It is unclear, however, what will happen once Raqqa and other jihadist strongholds succumb to the fighting Kurds. (In Syria, other elements of the “coalition” are irrelevant or non-existant.)
There are, on conservative estimates, 50,000 seasoned IS fighters in the field, including over ten thousand foreign volunteers—mostly from the Islamic diaspora in Western Europe. Some of them may become guerrillas engaging in underground resistance and (eventually) seeking rapprochement with al-Qaeda. Another segment—unable or unwilling to return home to Europe, Australia, the U.S. or wherever—will become “free agents,” roaming the greater Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa for the next theater of choice, and offering to their local hosts a heady brew of front-line combat experience and implacable fanaticism.
The “returnees” are a special problem. They may provide various Islamic diaspora networks in Western Europe with the discipline, ideological focus, and know-how they lack. There is no consensus within the European Union on the meaning of “foreign fighter,” let alone on the legal safeguards against temporarily disengaged but not permanently demobilized jihadist. French, German and British passports will be used to gain reentry, with potentially catastrophic consequences. Politically correct media will clamor for “peaceful reintegration” of the veterans.
Without a clear post-IS strategy in place, current operational successes will be short-lived and meaningless. One key element of that strategy is the need to accept Bashar al-Assad’s continued control of Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, and the coastline. Another is to refrain from nation-(re)building. Syria is utterly irrelevant to this country’s security, prosperity and well-being. President Trump should proclaim victory over ISIS—the claim will be real, unlike George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech—and disengage from all things Syrian, completely and permanently.
[Image: By Tasnim News [CC BY-SA 4.0]]