Like Obama, Only Worse Trump's Ill Thought-Out Battle Against Islamic State

The current U.S. strategy for fighting the Islamic State isn't working. On the contrary, the poorly planned approach is preparing fertile ground for the terrorist organization's later return.

Iraqi Special Forces soldier in Mosul

Iraqi Special Forces soldier in Mosul

An Editorial by

The idea was to send out a strong message: The Free World stands together in the fight against Islamic State (IS). Which is why representatives from 68 countries met for an anti-IS coalition summit in Washington on March 22.

Since that meeting, though, things have been oddly quiet. Few announcements have been made and, above all, there is no plan. Some participants complained afterward that the meeting had been poorly planned. But how could it have been? In January, almost the entire leadership of the U.S. State Department resigned and President Donald Trump has yet to replace them.

Meanwhile, a growing number of reports have emerged of U.S. bombings in both Syria and Iraq in which dozens of civilians are believed to have been killed. On March 17 in Mosul, up to 200 people are thought to have lost their lives. Such is the result of Trump's announcement that would give the military greater latitude: More bombs are now falling, but there is still no plan in place for how to defeat the terrorists following the predictable fall of the Islamic State-held cities Mosul and Raqqa.

The organization that came to be known as Islamic State was already destroyed once before under a different name. That was prior to 2010. But it experienced rebirth and there is concern that another resurrection could be in its future. The "caliphate," the territory currently controlled by IS, will soon fall. But fertile soil is already being prepared for the next monster, an "Islamic State 2.0," which will likely return to operating underground. And one reason for this, beyond their mere cruelty, is that many of the groups in the anti-IS coalition are actually hostile to one another and are likely to resume fighting following the victory over IS.

Trump, who had actually wanted to do things completely differently than his predecessor, is now continuing Barack Obama's Middle East policy. Except that he is doing a worse job of it. He is pursuing all sorts of goals that contradict each other. First, in Syria, he wants to fight IS side-by-side with Russia and, by extension, Iran. Second, in Yemen, Trump has identified Iran as the primary enemy and wants to increase support for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in their bombing campaign against the Shiite Houthi rebels. Trump's reasoning: Iran must be contained. But the better place to do that would be Syria, given that Iran's Revolutionary Guard is organizing the ground war for dictator Bashar Assad.

Third, the U.S. is providing air support to the Shiite militia advance into Mosul. These militias have already established their first bases in the liberated eastern half of the city under Iranian leadership after driving hundreds of thousands of Sunnis out of the provinces, killing thousands and razing entire villages.

No Plan, No Logic, No Nothing

There is no plan, no logic, no nothing -- at least not on the part of the Americans. Even under the aegis of Obama, it was unclear which goals the U.S. was pursuing in the midst of the murderous upheavals taking place in the Arab World. IS, which Obama dismissed as a group of amateurs at the beginning of 2014, would be declared the world's greatest enemy only three-quarters of a year later. Instead of fundamentally considering the global threats that could emerge from the ignored war in Syria, Washington only wanted to intervene in a way that wouldn't require much of an intervention. Islamic State was to be fought, but nothing else was to be touched. So the Pentagon's emissaries told the rebels it would be best if they pointed their guns at Islamic State and nothing else.

But that didn't work. Instead, the flexible Kurdish troops aligned with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which operates with the same leadership and command structures as YPG in Syria, offered in 2015 to fulfill the Americans' wishes. From then on, they received weapons and air support and were praised in Washington as a strong fighting force. That, in turn, encouraged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to resume the war against PKK and to invade Syria. Now the U.S. special forces are in the bizarre situation of having to prevent their two allies from fighting each other along the path to Raqqa.

The primary driver behind Islamic State's rise isn't first and foremost the power of its radical ideology. It thrives on anarchic conditions and the cruelty of its local opponents, which provides IS with a core constituency, Sunni Muslims. It wouldn't be difficult to defeat IS if you could pull that rug of support out from under them -- if Sunnis living in the areas between Raqqa and Mosul had the choice of living in peace without having to fear Assad's bombs in Syria or the Shiite militias in Iraq. To make that possible, however, the West needs a clear vision that goes beyond short-term military victories and focuses on the root causes of the civil war between Sunnis and Shiites in the region.

What we are seeing instead is countries bombing without strategy from the air and, on the ground, an ever-increasing number of parties to the war who are officially opposed to IS but which are, in fact, fighting for their own goals. And that means a golden age for IS. It's not for nothing that its official motto is "lasting and expanding."


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pwells1066 04/05/2017
The writer says "the West needs a clear vision that goes beyond short-term military victories and focuses on the root causes of the civil war between Sunnis and Shiites in the region." That clear vision has not been found since the year 632 when Mohammed died and, I reckon that if the Muslims can't find the answer, then the liberal secular elites of the West are unlikely to do so. This is not a counsel of despair but rather a pointe3r to a decision we must make and from which we can then make logical strategies to ensure the conflict is contained within their own territories. This may mean restricting entry only to those Muslims who can demonstrate a full commitment to the mores, norms and loyalties to western democracy. Everyone else should be left where they are in order to contribute to the resolution of what is, essentially, a problem of their own making. Muslims residing in the West who palpably want to disrupt our societies must be deported to those places where they are able to more fully cooperate with like minded folk to the resolution of the question posed by your correspondent.
Alexis de Pleshcoy 04/06/2017
2. In for the long run
In an informed article the author captures the multifaceted dilemmas facing practically the whole world. It all started a long time ago; on a foundation of imperial collapse, imperial rivalries, economic collapse religion has always been a potent mass mobilization weapon, exploding in an interconnected globalized world. I would emphasize that the idea of a universal caliphate is very old, and its last incarnation was dismantled in 1924 when Ataturk transferred the powers of the (Ottoman) Caliphate to the Turkish Parliament. That Caliphate was the Ottoman Empire, and it was part of the great powers games. In 1853 the Sultan launched Jihad against the Russian Orthodox infidels and the British and French peoples immediately joined; the supreme sacrifice of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854 was a Jihadi act (not that those who did the dying had the slightest clue, typical Western obedience). Then came NSA Zbygniew Brzezinski who called again for holly war against the Russian Soviet infidels in 1980 (Afghanistan, Khyber Pass): "We know of their (mujahedeen) deep belief in God, and we are confident that their struggle will succeed. That land over there is yours. You will go back to it one day, because your fight will prevail and you'll have your homes and your mosques back again, because your cause is right and God is on your side." Then came the partition of Yugoslavia along ethnic and religious lines; and later came Srebrenica. The present variation is actually IS/Caliphate 2.0, it lived online from the very beginning. The great advertising companies, Facebook and Google will keep it alive for eons to come, and new recruits will radicalize themselves on the Internet on smart phones and communicating with encrypted messaging. Not clear how much they would buy from the target advertising presented to them, but Facebook and Google will make money on this. There is also an economic foundation – lack of economic perspectives for large sectors of the population, as well as a large young population. They will have to compete with robots and in many Arab countries cheap imported labor; the fall of the oil price will also kick in at one point. Along these lines it is very difficult for anybody to come up with a long term strategy. On a tactical level it is also almost impossible to reconcile the desire of the Kurds to get a state (which should have been theirs in 1920) with the existing states. Christianity never reverted the 1054 Schism, how is it expected from the Sunni and Shia to reconcile? One step in the right direction would be to shutdown social media on the Internet, but good luck trying! So we are in for the long run.
nsmith 04/06/2017
Just for the record. You are operating under the wrong assumption if you actually believe Donald Trump thinks about anything.....anything besides enriching himself, that is. While many may be quick to jump to the conclusion that President Obama did "nothing" as far as U.S. involvement in Syria is concerned, they are also the ones who lack the insight into realizing just how foreboding the situation there is -- and the potential it has of escalating into a full-blown world war. Those now counting on Donald Trump to enter the fray with a show of U.S. firepower, are the same ones who will be cringing in the background in fear of being called to the front. There is no plan to take on ISIS. There is no plan to save Syria from itself, nor what should be done in the aftermath. There's nothing "great" about this. And nothing about this will make America great again.
sailor 04/07/2017
4. War
Dear Der Spiegel, Did you really expect anything to come out of a meeting of 68 countries on ISIS? Seriously? And what in the world could the leaders of Obama's State Department contribute to this subject? They were Obama's picks and look where that got the US and the world in the last eight years regarding terrorism and other problems in the world. They are no loss and they are the last ones any sane person would go to for advice on how to defeat ISIS. Besides, if the Democrats would stop obstructing the nomination process in the Senate, Trump would have had his people in there by now. It took eight years for Obama to make this mess. Trump has been in office less that three months. Could you give him a minute to solve all the problems, domestic and foreign that Obama created, maybe? Here is another idea for you. If you don't like this mess and, as you seem to think, you have all the answers, how about you, Ms. Merkel and Germany go show the US and the world how you win the fight against ISIS, the terrorists, Assad and Iran and secure a peace? Please, be our guests, Have at it. We in the US are just a tad tired of it and become even more tired of it when we read shallow and supercilious editorials like this one. While a few other countries have assisted in this fight, you have contributed almost nothing. Go ahead. Show us all how it is done. Oh, and don't kill a single civilian while you are fighting ISIS who hides and fights among civilians. Deal?
afrikaneer 04/08/2017
5. The Second Coming
The relentless hate and suffering in Syria is as tragic as the unwillingness of the Int'l community to confront the evils propelling this horrific war. In retrospect, the no-fly-zone suggested by Senator Graham and McCain was the best opportunity to save hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilian lives and may have also averted the mass migration that is now besetting Europe. The criticism leveled against Mr. Trump foreign policy can also be said about the EU as well. The potent message of this article however, is that ISIS or a modification of it will comeback to haunt the West again. The next uprising is in the offing. The Jihadis will find a way to break the code and mass produce a missile capable of counteracting tanks and air power; this time around the outcome in the battle field may be a different story. The second coming may start in another populous Muslin Egypt. The Egyptian President policies and repression on his own people have set into motion a smarter revolution ( but may not be less bloody). Some Western leaders wish General el-Sisi would expand even more the standard of his brutality. The EU however, should go in the opposite direction, .....enough killings already!- The EU should open its capital markets directly to Egyptians living in poor communities and encourage business creation; help with education and technical training are steps in the right direction. This approach is not a wasted investment as many will claim, but an insurance policy against a future event (second coming) that may change the essence of the European continent as we know it today. The West captive capital has been reserved only for emerging or developed economies and it is time to change course; it is one of the reasons the Spring revolution spread long and wide in the Arab world. The key ingredient of this approach is dealing directly with the customers. It is not economic aid to the el-Sisi administration, but similar to low interest commercial loans which have to be repaid. The most interesting part of this prospective policy is that the EU doesn't have to ask nobody's opinion to implement it.
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