The end is nigh for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
To be sure, ISIS affiliates in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, and elsewhere will remain dangerous. And its fighters and sympathizers will continue to launch terror attacks in Europe and the United States for years to come. But the writing is on the wall for the supposed caliphate itself. In Iraq, Kurdish fighters, government forces, and allied Shiite militias have nearly retaken Mosul and have ejected the Sunni extremist forces from most of the territory they occupied in 2014. Across the border in Syria, Kurdish forces and anti-Assad rebels backed by the United States have the ISIS “capital” of Raqqa nearly surrounded. With its oil revenues plummeting, its finances in tatters, and the influx of new foreign fighters reduced by as much as 90 percent over the past year, nothing can save ISIS now.
Well, almost nothing.
That’s because President Donald Trump could yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. His ham-handed Muslim ban has already provided a propaganda windfall for ISIS, while alienating American allies on the ground in the region. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric toward Iran, expanded military operations in Yemen, and possible further U.S. strikes against the Assad regime in Damascus are occurring even as American troops find themselves on the same side as Tehran-backed militias in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s apparent unwillingness to cross the Erdogan government in Turkey over American support for Kurdish forces for the final push on Raqqa means more U.S. servicemen and women will be fighting and dying instead.
That Donald Trump would be the beneficiary of the Obama administration’s progress against ISIS was clear within days of his assuming the presidency. As Andrew Exum, who served in the Pentagon’s Middle East shop in 2015 and 2016 put it in mid-February, “Donald Trump will defeat ISIS and it will be mostly due to the work of his predecessor.”
The dysfunction at the highest levels of the American government right now obscures a dramatic reality: Donald Trump is going to defeat the Islamic State, and Americans need to be fine with that.
Even the grudging Exum certainly had little problem with giving credit where it isn’t due because “defeating the Islamic State is a national good that should be bigger than politics.” Reflecting on the dire situation in early 2015, he wrote that “if we could figure out a way to apply pressure to the group from multiple directions and cut off its key supply routes, that would create real dilemmas for them. And so that’s what we did.” Two years later, Exum concluded:
One by one, cities and towns under the control of the Islamic State started falling. Because we were fighting with local partners, it was messier than if we had done it ourselves. The destruction to Ramadi and Fallujah, in particular, was breathtaking. And it took longer than it would have taken if U.S. forces had been in the lead. But it was also a lot less expensive, and only five U.S. servicemen were killed in the process —compared with almost 5,000 over the course of the earlier war in Iraq.
And the success of the campaign was going to be more sustainable than that of our earlier efforts, we told ourselves, because Iraqis and Syrians were owning the fight—at tremendous human cost, I must add—and thus owning the victory.
This was the war President Trump inherited from President Obama.
The fall of the Islamic State is going to happen on this president’s watch despite the staggering dysfunction Exum fretted about. Candidate Trump, after all, didn’t merely promise to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS and commit war crimes including killing suspected terrorists’ families. Throughout the fall of 2016 and even after taking the oath of office, Trump called U.S. and Iraqi leaders “stupid” and “a group of losers” for telegraphing the offensive against Mosul all involved knew was coming. As he tweeted on October 23:
The attack on Mosul is turning out to be a total disaster. We gave them months of notice. U.S. is looking so dumb.
On the eve of the election that would elevate him to the White House, Donald Trump delivered an even more stunning attack on the Mosul operation:
"Who benefits by us getting Mosul? You know it's going to benefit Iran. We're not going to benefit. Because Iran is taking over Iraq."
Iran, of course, was the big winner the moment U.S. invaded Iraq and opened the sectarian Pandora’s box with ouster of Saddam Hussein. Iranian influence and the grievances of the Sunni minority only grew under President Bush’s hand-picked strong man in Baghdad, Shiite partisan Nouri al-Maliki. But the Obama administration worked hard to position Maliki’s successor as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi pivoted toward the compromise and national unity absent during the rise of ISIS. The rebuilding of the Iraqi security forces, bolstered by the integration of Shiite militias, has been and remains a delicate balancing act. But with the rollback of the Islamic State from Fallujah, Ramadi, and now Mosul, that fragile coalition seemed to be holding together under Abadi’s leadership.
But with his draconian Muslim ban targeting seven nations in the Middle East and North Africa including Iraq, President Trump almost immediately put that progress at risk. It wasn’t just the case, as former translator Ali Salam put it, “You have let us down, Trump, and wasted all our hopes and future.” And it didn’t just reinforce the idea that Trump was only interested in taking Iraq’s oil (a claim Defense Secretary James Mattis was forced to personally reject while in Baghdad). In early February, Captain Abdul Saami al-Aziz fighting with Iraqi counterterrorism forces in Mosul called Trump’s first executive order “an insult to their dignity.” His comrade in arms Captain Ahmed Adnan al-Musawe was blunter still about the temporary ban on his countrymen coming to the United States:
“If America doesn’t want Iraqis because we are all terrorists, then America should send its sons back to Iraq to fight the terrorists themselves.”
It’s no wonder ISIS called Trump’s move “the blessed ban.”
Within days, the Iraqi parliament voted to ask the government to Americans from entering the country. Moktada al-Sadr, whose militia fighters battled U.S. forces for years and are now in the fight against the Islamic State, similarly declared Americans should be banned from the country. That retaliation did not happen, as Prime Minister Abadi rejected that approach even before the Trump administration took Iraq off its black list of predominantly Muslim countries.
To be sure, Trump’s Muslim ban—and its predictable backlash—represents a major departure from President Obama’s strategy to degrade and defeat ISIS. But in most other respects, little else has changed so far. The president-elect, after all, has not delivered on his promise to unveil a new plan from “my generals” within 30 days of Inauguration Day. As Kimberly Dozier (“Who Invented Trump’s ISIS Plan? Obama.”) put it on February 27:
Trump ordered up a whole new plan to beat ISIS. Instead he got a rough sketch that strongly resembles what was drawn up under Obama.
As the New York Times portrayed the scene when the secretary of state met in Washington with representatives of the 68-nation anti-ISIS coalition in March, “Trump’s ISIS plan, as described by Tillerson, sounds like Obama’s.”
One clear difference is Trump’s much higher tolerance for civilian casualties. Having given CENTCOM commanders much broader authorization regarding tactics, targets, and weaponry, the “collateral damage” among civilians in Iraq and Syria has quickly escalated on Trump’s watch. In late March, two U.S. air strikes in Raqqa province reportedly killed dozens. Just days later, American aircraft called in to support Iraqi forces in Mosul accidentally hit a civilian structure, with up to 200 lives lost. After temporarily halting offensive operations in Mosul, U.S. and Iraqi commanders agreed their tactics would need to change. As NPR reported on April 5:
The Iraqi commander coordinating the battle tells NPR the Iraqi military will slow an offensive pushing into the crowded old district of the city to try to minimize civilian casualties. The new tactics will mean fewer U.S. and Iraqi air strikes.
"We agreed among the commanders to not depend on the air strikes because that means we will maybe lose a lot of people," says Maj. Gen. Najm Abdullah al-Jabouri, head of the Ninevah Operations Command.
But the biggest change brought by Team Trump involves perhaps the thorniest problem facing the United States in guiding its coalition to victory against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As Exum summed it up the challenge the Obama administration bequeathed to its successor:
We never figured out a way to re-take Raqqa, for example, without arming and equipping the Kurdish militias so toxic to our NATO allies in Turkey...
If the Trump administration wants to continue the momentum against the Islamic State without committing more U.S. troops, it will likely need to arm the Syrian Kurds to a greater degree than America has done so far. While the only truly cohesive local force operating against the Islamic State in Syria—that is, if one doesn’t count Lebanese Hezbollah as local—the Syrian Kurds do not have the kind of equipment necessary to breach the defenses surrounding Raqqa at an acceptable human cost. Giving them more equipment, though, as several former Obama administration officials have recommended, will cause some serious pain in U.S.-Turkish relations. [Emphasis added.]
But so far, President Trump and his national security team seem to have prioritized avoiding serious pain with Turkey above all else. As the Washington Post reported on February 2, “Obama’s White House worked for months on a plan to seize Raqqa. Trump’s team took a brief look and decided not to pull the trigger.” To be sure, as former Obama deputy secretary of state Antony Blinked explained, Syria’s neighbor and NATO ally Turkey “passionately opposes any American support to the Syrian Kurds, especially the protection units” because of the militia’s link to the P.K.K., “a terrorist group that has plagued Turkey for decades.” But the new Trump Team’s opposition to Obama’s approach was more adamant than would have been expected from a new party in the White House:
On Jan. 17, just three days before the transfer of power, Obama directed his national security adviser to hand over to the Trump team a paper detailing the plan to arm the Kurds, including talking points that President Trump could use to explain the move to Turkey’s president, who officials knew would be furious. The Turks viewed the Kurdish fighters as terrorists and their No. 1 enemy.
Obama hoped that his last-minute preparations would clear the way for Trump to authorize a swift assault on the Islamic State’s most important stronghold, where U.S. intelligence officials say militants are plotting attacks outside Syria.
Instead of running with the plan, Trump’s national security team deemed it wholly insufficient and swiftly tossed it.
To the incoming Trump administration, Obama’s approach was so incremental and risk-averse that it was almost certain to fail. “They provided the information, but we found huge gaps in it,” said a senior Trump administration official who reviewed the document. “It was poor staff work.”
And just who might that Trump administration official have been? By all indications, it was short-lived Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. That would be the same Michael Flynn who would retroactively register as a foreign agent acting on behalf of Turkey. As Nicholas Schmidle wrote in The New Yorker last month:
The Flynn Intel Group’s contract with Alptekin was terminated in November, though Turkey’s interests may have remained on Flynn’s mind. A few days before Trump assumed office, Flynn spoke with Susan Rice, Obama’s national-security adviser, to discuss her team’s ongoing initiatives against ISIS. An element of their plan for taking Raqqa, ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital, entailed aligning militarily with the Y.P.G., an armed Kurdish group that the Turkish government regards as terrorists. According to the Washington Post, Flynn told Rice not to commit to that plan. “Don’t approve it,” Flynn said. “We’ll make the decision.” Once Trump took office, the plan was put on hold.
While the arming of the Y.P.G. and the final assault on Raqqa appear to have been put on hold, President Trump’s warming relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hasn’t been. By mid-February, the New York Times reported, Erdogan remained silent on Trump’s Muslim ban for a simple reason. “Hopes are very high in Ankara that Turkey-U.S. relations will be much better under a Trump administration than the previous administration.”
“Now we have all the prospects of a fresh start,” Ilnur Cevik, a senior adviser to Mr. Erdogan, said during an interview at the presidential palace in Ankara, the Turkish capital. “We have an opening with Mr. Trump” …
“What we’re seeing on the ground is that Trump has stopped the plan,” Mr. Cevik said, referring to the Obama administration’s plan to arm the Syrian Kurds for the offensive on Raqqa. He was meeting with a New York Times journalist as Mr. Pompeo spoke to Mr. Erdogan in another part of the president’s palace. “Turkey has received information that this is the case.”
Whether President Trump has decided to accede to Ankara’s demands remains to be seen. But so far, the signs are not good. He has already dispatched 400 more American troops to Syria, with more likely to follow soon. In late February, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of the United States Central Command, explained, “I am very concerned about maintaining momentum.” It could be that we take on a larger burden ourselves,” he added. “That’s an option.” An option, that is, which would mean a longer timeline and more U.S. casualties in order to keep President Erdogan happy.
And right now, Erdogan must be very happy with Trump. After all, in the wake of last week’s referendum vastly expanding his power at the expense of Turkey’s democratic institutions, Erdogan received a congratulatory call from the U.S. president, the only NATO leader to do so. As it turned out, that’s not all Trump and Erdogan discussed:
President Trump and President Erdogan also discussed the counter-ISIS campaign and the need to cooperate against all groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends.
Presumably, among those groups are the Kurdish fighters Erdogan wants to ensure don’t get heavier weaponry from the United States.
The confusion and delays from the Trump administration can only benefit the Islamic State. But these aren’t the factors that could enhance the longevity of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ISIS followers. President Trump risks becoming distracted—and American forces overstretched—as the United States appears set to ramp up its intervention in Yemen, send reinforcements to Afghanistan, and launch new strikes against the Assad regime. Worse still, U.S. military action against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and Assad’s forces in Syria could undermine support by the Baghdad government and its Shiite militia allies in the fight against the Islamic State. And with his support from Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad isn’t going anywhere, a fact that will make ejecting ISIS from regime-controlled Deir el-Zour even more complicated. All the while, the Trump departments of State and Defense remain badly understaffed. And the mixed messages on regime change in Syria, the Iranian nuclear program, and so much more are leaving allies and adversaries concerned and confused.
Well, maybe not all adversaries. As a spokesman for ISIS warned Americans earlier this month, “You are being run by an idiot who does not know what Syria or Iraq or Islam is.” And right now, that idiot is their last, best hope.