Six problems with Trump’s anti-ISIS strategy

The emerging picture is of an administration single-mindedly focused on inflicting military defeats, at the expense of the more complicated political dimensions needed to underpin sustainable solutions.

Nearly three months after assuming power President Trump has not yet laid out his promised counter-ISIS strategy. For European partners seeking to adapt their own positions to shifting US priorities, this is posing increasing difficulties. At last week’s counter-ISIS summit in Washington D.C., the French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, voiced his frustration at not having been provided more details on the administration’s approach to the looming battle for Raqqa.

But there are already enough indicators to give a sense of where President Trump is headed. The signs are not good. A number of consequential shifts are becoming apparent which raise serious question marks about the likely long-term effectiveness of the Trump approach. For Europeans states, this should already be having serious consequences on their thinking and areas of prioritisation.

1.Looser rules of engagement

The Trump administration is pushing looser rules of engagement in a bid to get the US military to take the fight to ISIS more forcefully. The policy shift, elements of which were first agreed by President Obama late last year but which are now being more aggressively implemented by the new administration, has resulted in a dramatic upsurge in civilian casualties. According to Airwars, an organization tracking airstrikes, US-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have killed up to 1,200 civilians so far in March. This has been accompanied by increased casualties in Yemen. While this approach allows the US military to launch counter-ISIS strikes more freely, it is likely to be self-defeating in terms of feeding local resentment and amplifying the ISIS narrative. It has long been taken as a given that winning the hearts and minds of the local community is key to successful counter-insurgency operations but this shift suggests the coalition may be headed in exactly the opposite direction.

2.Little attention on governance issues

ISIS emerged and flourished as a direct result of the political struggles that pushed Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen into civil war. The group has exploited conflict conditions and vacuums of state authority to plant its flag across the region. Without political agreements that tame levels of violence and restore governance services there is no hope of a sustainable degradation of the group’s capabilities. While John Kerry devoted considerable effort to mediation efforts throughout the region, the Trump administration has visibly disengaged from the various political processes and shows no inclination to get involved in addressing the underlying problems feeding state collapse across the region.

The White House’s budget cuts to the State Department and USAID – amounting to $26.5 billion – will also impact resource allocation to post-conflict stabilisation efforts, not just in the immediate aftermath of ISIS rule, but perhaps more importantly in the years ahead when attention fades but ongoing support remains crucial. The key to winning the peace against ISIS and preventing new mutations of extremism is fixing the local politics and providing avenues for local regeneration, including in the economic sphere. Mosul and Raqqa will, in particular, need significant investment of effort and energy. Despite US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s acknowledgement at last week’s summit of the need for long-term stabilisation efforts, the numbers tell a different story.                                                                                                                                                            

3.Rising tensions with Iran

The Trump administration is driven by a visceral anti-Iran sentiment. This stems partly from the experiences of several of the administration’s senior security figures in Iraq over the past 14 years, and partly from the desire to differentiate from Obama’s policy of engagement, seen by some as too accommodating.  An escalation against Tehran will both distract attention from anti-ISIS efforts as well as provoke a predictable response. There are already reports of increased Iranian military presence in Yemen in response to a strengthening US position, while in Iraq this approach is likely to intensify Tehran’s efforts to strengthen its grip on the country’s political and security institutions. Iran is clearly a problematic regional actor which has played a direct role in fuelling the grievance underlying the rise of ISIS, but heightened confrontation is unlikely to deliver constructive results. 

4.Troops on the ground in Syria

The repeated failure of Western interventions in the Middle East over the past 15 years make clear that regional fights must ultimately be won by local actors, and the centrality of local ownership has been a cornerstone of anti-ISIS effort in recent years. Now, however, President Trump is looking at putting a significant number of US ground troops into Syria (with some government options in Washington calling for tens of thousands of US troops) to complement the few hundred special forces that are already there. This is a strategy that may deliver immediate results in terms of improving capacity, targeting and effectiveness but is likely doomed to longer-term failure. Western troops (Trump could well call on European allies to contribute to this operation) will likely act as polarising rather than stabilising agents, and will face a longer term escalatory pull given the immense challenges, overlapping conflicts and lack of US focus on the core political dynamics needed for an effective withdrawal.

5.Safe zones

President Trump wants to show that he can deliver immediate results to stop migration flows, and is strongly pushing the idea of ISIS-free “interim zones of stability”, to which refugees can return. These areas will not be safe, nor offer sustainable living conditions, and there are real concerns that they will be used to force refugees back into Syria against their will. Previous Pentagon estimates have suggested a need for up to 30,000 troops to safely secure such areas. This is exactly the type of mission that Western troops are ill-equipped to implement, as demonstrated by the inability of hundreds of thousands of US soldiers to bring stability to neighbouring Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Moreover, US ground troops will likely remain primarily focused on taking the fight to ISIS rather than providing protection from other forms of conflict, whether it be intra-rebel fighting or attempts by Damascus to seize back ground. Efforts to subcontract the management of these zones to the likes of Turkey, meanwhile, will leave local populations subject to Ankara’s political whims and its prioritisation of the anti-Kurdish fight.

6.Empowerment of the anti-Muslim Brotherhood alliance

Trump has not yet designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, but indications suggest that this could be forthcoming. This will likely be seized upon by a number of regional states, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to justify and possibly intensify their own repression of the group. A continued refusal to engage with more moderate Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood risks a further narrowing of the available space for political expression across the region, in so doing undermining a group that in some countries represents a bulwark against extremism. This could push some of its supporters to embrace the need for more violent methods espoused by the likes of ISIS.

What does this mean for Europe?

Taken together this presents a picture of an administration single-mindedly focused on inflicting military defeats on ISIS at the expense of the more complicated and longer-term political and diplomatic dimensions needed to underpin sustainable solutions. Europe is going to need to try and fill these gaps if the counter-ISIS fight is going to deliver meaningful progress, instead of fuelling the very conditions and grievances that gave rise to the group in the first place.

Towards this end, European states should already be reprioritising their own activities. At a minimum this is going to need: 1) a stepped-up focus on the political dimension of the anti-ISIS fight in terms of greater efforts to resolve core governance issues; 2) increased ownership, in terms of both money and long term commitment, of post-conflict stabilisation efforts once ISIS is defeated; and 3) a renewed focus on the multilateral diplomatic track needed to get key regional actors aligned behind common goals.

Europeans are accustomed to waiting for US leadership and direction, but under President Trump that may not be coming, nor beneficial.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

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