Trump’s strategy against ISIS takes shape: The good, the bad and the ugly

It remains to be seen how Trump may or may not be restricted by complexities of contending interests abroad.

Iraqi police forces train with US-led coalition members at Basmaya base 40km south-east of Baghdad, on February 1st. (AP)


2017/02/05 Issue: 92 Page: 19


The Arab Weekly
Sabahat Khan



Dubai - During his election cam­paign, US President Don­ald Trump promised no flip-flopping against the Islamic State (ISIS) and spoke about a secret plan he had to destroy the group. Having taken of­fice on January 20th, Trump’s plan against ISIS remains a secret. His strategy, however, is slowly begin­ning to take shape.

On his first day in office, Trump’s new secretary of Defense, James Mattis, authorised 31 strikes in Syria and Iraq against ISIS targets. Since then, the United States has con­ducted numerous attacks in those countries and also against al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Media reports say Trump’s con­versations with the leaders of Rus­sia, Turkey, Britain and France have often focused around working together in the fight against ISIS, whose defeat has long been de­clared Trump’s foreign policy and national security priority.

It remains to be seen how he may or may not be restricted by the complexities of contending in­terests abroad, especially the US relationships with Russia, Turkey and its Arab Gulf partners. These relationships are complex because different stakeholders in the Syrian war cannot reach a consensus on whether it is acceptable for Syrian President Bashar Assad to continue in office as well as for officials in his regime who have allegedly been involved in illegal acts of violence against civilians.

Russian-backed efforts for peace talks have shown promise but pro­gress is fragile. Neither is it clear whether Trump will, or even can, completely disassociate the United States from support for Sunni re­bels fighting both Assad and ISIS and to Kurdish militias that are fighting ISIS but have also driven Ankara deep into Moscow’s camp.

American credibility is on the line when it comes to Syria and political retreat would complicate how it can influence wider regional devel­opments at a time when other sen­sitive regional issues are delicately poised. Yet, credibility of a certain kind seems to be of great impor­tance to Trump as he has been demonstrating the extent to which he is not swayed by opposition and resistance and has made no radical changes to his brash campaign style of leadership.

Trump’s blanket ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority coun­tries — Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Iran — to the United States and extreme vetting announced for people from Af­ghanistan and Pakistan will affect almost half a billion people. With its legality in question, critics have interpreted this as a ban on Muslim travellers and immigrants to the United States.

Western European allies of the United States felt compelled to criticise the new White House ad­ministration. A petition in Britain to ban Trump from the country only a week after he was issued an invitation for a state visit caused the British government serious em­barrassment. During her visit to the United States, British Prime Min­ister Theresa May, the first foreign leader to meet with Trump at the White House, made various stops around Washington speaking about the need to build partnerships and steer clear of unwinnable wars.

In some ways, Trump’s intensity could be said to rival that of George W. Bush following the terrorist at­tacks of September 11th, 2001, but the world is not interested in an­other crusading global war on ter­rorism intentionally or otherwise and Trump could be handing prop­aganda victories to ISIS and similar extremist groups.

In normal circumstances, tight­ening immigration and travel from high-risk areas regarding terrorism is a standard practice and the pre­rogative of sovereign governments. Indeed, many travellers, especially Muslims, have experienced diffi­culties in obtaining visas and im­migration clearance to the United States for many years. For example, the same seven Muslim countries hit with the travel ban by Trump faced targeted measures during the Obama administration when dual nationals were suspended from visa waiver programmes.

At home and abroad, Trump re­mains a controversial political fig­ure. His boldness and directness brought him to office but it will be political balance that will enable him to accomplish what he intends to and that seems under scrutiny.

Trump may not intend all he says and may not be able to say all he intends despite his self-professed detestation for political correct­ness but his style has generated an increasingly defiant opposition at home and abroad to the extent that large parts of his secret plan for ISIS may need to be revised before it can even be fully unveiled.


Sabahat Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).


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