Trump administration’s message to anti-ISIS coalition sounds familiar


2017/04/16 Issue: 102 Page: 17


The Arab Weekly
Gregory Aftandilian



Despite sharply criticising former US President Barack Obama’s policy on the Islamic State (ISIS) during the election campaign, President Donald Trump has hardly strayed from his anti-ISIS strategy.

During a meeting with the 68-member anti-ISIS coalition in Washington, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined a familiar-sounding policy, calling the fight against ISIS the top priority and was careful not to offend Muslim sensibilities.

He emphasised that ISIS’s ideology was “a warped interpre­tation of Islam that threatens all of our people” and underscored remarks by Jordanian King Abdullah II, who called ISIS’s ideas and actions “a blatant violation of my faith.”

Like the Obama administration, Tillerson called on the anti-ISIS coalition to take up more of the burden, noting that the United States has footed 75% of the military bill and 25% of the humanitarian costs.

Circumstances on the ground, he said, “require more from all of you.”

US estimates indicate that at least $2 billion will be needed for stabilisation and reconstruction this year.

Tillerson said that progress has been made in curtailing the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS, blocking the organisation’s finances and countering its propa­ganda efforts in the cyber-sphere. As was noted by many of the conference’s participants, these measures all begun under the Obama administration. Tillerson implied they would continue under Trump.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders apparently found the message reassuring, saying it is “important that the new [Trump] administration supports” such efforts.

Recently, attention has been directed mostly at Syria’s side of the ISIS equation, as there seems to be an ongoing military assault on ISIS’s self-declared capital of Raqqa in the east. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, how­ever, took time during the meeting to remind the interna­tional community of his own country’s struggle against ISIS.

Abadi praised his military for its efforts and sacrifices in taking on ISIS and noted recent battlefield successes. He assured that victory over ISIS in Mosul is “imminent” and that all segments of Iraqi society are opposed to the extremist group.

In Washington, Abadi report­edly told US Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina and chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee for state, foreign operations and related programmes, that the reconstruction of two provinces, Anbar and Nineveh — where Mosul is located — would cost about $50 billion. Given Iraq’s lack of financial resources caused by a drop in oil prices and high public-sector spending for civil service salaries and military expenditures, it is unclear where the money will come from.

One possibility is that Trump’s administration will lean on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with which it has cultivated close ties, to foot part of the bill. However, the US administration might turn to Europe, where countries might not be as generous. European countries are spending billions of euros on caring for refugees and have not taken well to Trump’s plans to substantially cut US foreign aid.

Tillerson did not provide many details of the US military’s anti-ISIS efforts, , disappointing some at the Washington meeting. However, leaks to the media indicate that Trump’s administra­tion is apparently pursuing a ramped-up version of the Obama plan. The revised plan involves bringing an additional 1,000 troops to Syria — some of whom would provide closer support to anti-ISIS forces in their push on Raqqa — and giving US military commanders more leeway to plan operations without a prolonged review process at the Pentagon and in Washington.

This strategy can be seen in the recent effort to overtake a dam west of Raqqa, where US Marine Corps howitzers, US Army Apache attack helicopters and warplanes and US helicopters were involved in carrying anti-ISIS fighters, sources cited by the New York Times said. While US special forces have continued to advise Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces, they have not been involved in direct combat as they were during the Obama administration.

This tempered approach has been accepted by many in Congress, even hawks such as Senator John McCain, R-Arizona and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who said he saw no need for US troops in Syria to engage in ground combat to take Raqqa and that Syrian anti-ISIS forces “can do” the job.

Trump’s April 6 strike against the Syrian government-controlled airbase that was allegedly used to launch a chemical weapons attack on civilians along with Tillerson’s comments that Assad’s rule “is coming to an end” and his tougher words on Russia have provoked much international commentary about whether a real shift in US-Syria policy is in the offing. However, Tillerson still held out cooperation with Russia on Syria, stating publicly that “Russia can be a part of that future” of helping the Syrian people and “play an important role” if it wishes.

Besides using air strikes in response to Syrian chemical attacks, Trump’s key area of divergence from Obama’s policy is what Tillerson described as plans for “interim zones of stability” for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Tiller­son said these zones would be established “through ceasefires, to allow refugees to return home.” The location of the zones and how they would be established remains unclear. They would presumably require US air assets for protection.

This particular policy is still in its infancy. US Army Colonel Joseph Scrocca, spokesman for the anti-ISIS military coalition, said the US military had not received orders to establish such zones.


Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.


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