By: Andrew Swick, Columnist
Photo Credit: The Washington Post
Last week marked the expiration of the Pentagon’s 30-day planning period to develop new options for the military to employ against the Islamic State (ISIS). On Monday, in a meeting of the National Security Council Principals Committee, Defense Secretary James Mattis presented several proposals resulting from this initial review. President Trump’s decision on whether to execute these plans will have major consequences—not just for Iraq and Syria, but for the military and the future of national security planning in the Trump presidency.
After a long presidential campaign in which Donald Trump repeatedly raged against the Obama’s administration’s ISIS strategy, it was unsurprising that President Trump instructed the Department of Defense (DoD) to develop new plans soon after taking office. However, rather than directing the department to first conduct a review of the existing strategy, the “administration reportedly scrapped a detailed plan left” by the Obama Administration, which focused on training and supporting Kurdish forces to take the ISIS capital in Raqqa. [i] Instead, President Trump ordered the DoD to consider new strategic options, at a time when approximately 5,700 troops were already operating in Iraq and Syria. [ii]
By all accounts, the US-led coalition for combatting ISIS made dramatic progress in weakening the militant group in the past year. As stated by a senior British general, coalition airstrikes killed more than 45,000 ISIS fighters by August of last year, while coalition air forces significantly escalated strikes on military targets in and around Raqqa. [iii] At the same time, the Iraqi Army launched its campaign to retake Mosul in October 2016 and, as of this month, “Iraqi forces have recaptured the entire eastern side of Mosul,” and have begun preparations to continue the battle into the western half across the Tigris River.[iv]
According to early reporting on the Pentagon’s proposals, the newly developed options do not radically diverge from the strategy previously pursued by the Obama Administration. Ongoing operations within Iraq would remain essentially unchanged. In Syria, on the other hand, modifications would most likely concern new arrangements of partners and allies in the fight. Specifically, one proposal reportedly seeks to arm Kurdish fighters for their campaign to retake Raqqa, a plan that “was never approved by Obama due to concerns it would deeply alienate Turkey.” [v] Furthermore, the policy the administration chooses regarding interstate cooperation against ISIS will certainly influence the nature of US-Russia relations. If the president opts to prioritize collaboration at the expense of addressing actions by the Syrian regime in the larger civil war, it will likely encourage further brazenness by President Assad and his Russian supporters.
Along with the potential realignment of alliances, the DoD’s proposals are said to include—for the first time—an option to deploy a significant number of US ground forces into Syria. While US military officials are apparently split on the decision, one of the DoD’s options details engaging US forces “around Raqqa to help push ISIS fighters out.” [vi] According to Hal Brands, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, such a plan might involve the deployment of “4,000 to 5,000 US troops…to help accelerate operations around Raqqa.” In addition, new DoD plans were expanded to deal with the “trans-regional” [vii] nature of the threat, by targeting ISIS’s international financing and recruiting efforts.[viii] Finally, any military strategy for Syria will likely include the establishment of safe zones for refugees, a key campaign tenet for President Trump, which if executed will necessitate considerable US involvement.[ix]
Aside from any novelty in the military options themselves, the DoD’s planning cycle broke new ground for the Trump administration by fostering the first major interagency process of the new presidency. As stated by a Pentagon spokesperson, the DoD’s proposals were developed “in close coordination with interagency partners,” apparently involving the Departments of State and Treasury, along with various intelligence agencies. [x] This sort of deliberative interagency decision-making process marks a potential shift in the Trump Administration, which has to this point relied on a small group of White House advisers in crafting most decisions. The administration’s decision-making process over the ISIS strategy also provides National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster with his first opportunity to effectively manage the development of strategy within the National Security Council.
Regardless of how President Trump ultimately decides to direct the campaign against ISIS, the presented options raise key issues for the administration moving forward. Depending on which option the president chooses, the US strategy may realign US relationships and the balance of power in the Middle East. Notably, the United States’ ability to collaborate with Russia, Turkey, and Kurdish forces will be considerably shaped by this strategy. The president’s choices will also have implications closer to home, as a commitment of additional ground forces in Syria will only further burden a military strained by more than fifteen years of war. Ultimately, the conditions on the ground have already been laid for the Islamic State’s eventual defeat in Iraq and Syria. The political future of Syria, US relations with regional partners, and the process for US foreign policymaking, however, will largely depend on President Trump’s imminent decisions.
[i] World Tribune, “As 30-day deadline to Pentagon for ISIS plan nears, Trump to weigh options,” World Tribune, February 24, 2017, http://www.worldtribune.com/as-30-day-deadline-to-pentagon-for-isis-plan-nears-trump-to-weigh-options.
[iii] Reuters, “ISIS fighters being killed ‘at a rate that they simply can’t sustain,’ general says,” NY Daily News, February 28, 2017, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/isis-killed-rate-sustain-general-article-1.2985093.
[iv] Mustafa Salim and Loveday Morris, “Eastern side of Mosul recaptured from Islamic State, Iraqi prime minister says,” The Washington Post, January 24, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/eastern-side-of-mosul-recaptured-from-islamic-state-iraqi-prime-minister-says/2017/01/24/af635ad6-e250-11e6-a419-eefe8eff0835_story.html.
[v] Barbara Starr, “Mattis readies possible ISIS options for Trump Pentagon visit,” CNN, January 24, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/20/politics/mattis-defense-department-transition.
[vi] Barbara Starr, “Mattis readies possible ISIS options for Trump Pentagon visit,” CNN, January 24, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/20/politics/mattis-defense-department-transition.
[vii] Reuters, “Pentagon Plan to Defeat ISIS Looks Beyond Iraq, Syria,” Newsweek, February 23, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/isis-islamic-state-pentagon-iraq-560185.
[viii] Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor, “Pentagon presenting counter-ISIS plan to White House,” The Associated Press, February 27, 2017, http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/new-anti-isis-strategy-may-mean-deeper-us-involvement-in-syria.
[ix] World Tribune, “As 30-day deadline to Pentagon for ISIS plan nears, Trump to weigh options,” World Tribune, February 24, 2017, http://www.worldtribune.com/as-30-day-deadline-to-pentagon-for-isis-plan-nears-trump-to-weigh-options.
[x] Jeff Daniels, “Pentagon delivers plan to speed up fight against Islamic State that may boost US troop presence in Syria,” CNBC, February 27, 2017, http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/27/pentagon-delivers-plan-to-speed-up-fight-against-islamic-state.html.