To Crush ISIS, Will Trump Send U.S. Troops Into Syria?
Trump has made some overblown promises. "Quickly" wiping out the Islamic State might be the biggest.
President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to deliver a swift victory over the Islamic State, and has long ridiculed as weak and halfhearted the Obama administration’s effort against the terror group.
Of all of Trump’s extravagant and vague campaign rhetoric, from doubling economic growth to resuscitating the coal industry to making Mexico pay for a border wall, his promise to quickly crush the Islamic State could be the biggest stretch of all.
Current and former military officers say Trump could make good on his promises of “quickly” defeating the Islamic State only if he sent in an overwhelming force of U.S. ground troops, a politically risky option that could plunge the United States into another fraught, open-ended occupation in the Middle East.
Though Trump campaigned on the idea of reducing U.S. commitments overseas, such a ground force has surprising traction inside the administration: Michael Flynn, tapped for national security advisor, has openly flirted with the idea.
The retired U.S. Army general and intelligence officer has suggested wider military action is required to tackle what he deems an “existential” threat, one he compares to the adversaries America faced in World War II and the Cold War.
“The sad fact is that we have to put troops on the ground. We won’t succeed against this enemy with airstrikes alone,” Flynn told Der Spiegel in 2015.
After he was forced out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 and before joining the Trump team, Flynn drafted a plan that called for sending U.S. forces into the Syrian city of Raqqa, the last territorial bastion of the Islamic State, sources familiar with the proposal told Foreign Policy.
The details of that blueprint remain unclear. But in the 2015 interview with Der Spiegel, the retired general suggested a multinational occupation of Syria by the United States, Russia, and other powers — resembling the international peacekeeping force that deployed to the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
“We can learn some lessons from the Balkans. Strategically, I envision a breakup of the Middle East crisis area into sectors in the way we did back then, with certain nations taking responsibility for these sectors,” Flynn said, adding: “The United States could take one sector, Russia as well and the Europeans another one. The Arabs must be involved in that sort of military operation, as well, and must be part of every sector.”
Since Trump’s upset victory in November, Flynn hasn’t indicated if he still favors a major escalation of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria. The Trump transition team did not respond to FP queries on the issue.
And it’s unclear whether Flynn would be able to convince the next president, who campaigned on a platform that promised no more “nation building,” that such a bold and high-risk approach is needed.
Trump himself has sent mixed signals on sending troops into the fight. In July, he said he would have “very few troops on the ground.” But in March, Trump said he would heed the advice of senior military officers to decide how many troops would be required, saying, “I’m hearing numbers of 20,000 to 30,000.” He later backed off those numbers but has kept up pledges to defeat the Islamic State “soundly and quickly.”
If Trump chooses to send in thousands of U.S. troops, he would likely find support from some of his biggest critics in the Republican Party. In late 2015, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have never shied away from breaking ranks with Trump on a host of issues, urged dispatching up to 20,000 troops to act as advisors to help turn the tide against the Islamic State.
U.S. commanders and diplomats tend to be wary of any proposal for a large American contingent swooping in to spearhead a ground battle, because it would require permanent bases, with a foreign occupation force again policing Arab cities and towns. The eight-year U.S. occupation of Iraq proved an unmitigated disaster, fueling an insurgency that eventually gave rise to the Islamic State. American military commanders and diplomats came away vowing to avoid a repeat of that experience.
Without a large U.S. combat force, rolling back Islamic State militants from territory they seized in 2014 has proven to be a slog. American warplanes dropped 24,000 bombs in Iraq and Syria in 2016, while special operations forces bolstered Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters that often lack the equipment or the training to move at a fast pace.
Still, despite the frustrations of the slow-moving campaign, the Islamic State has lost more than half the territory it captured two years ago, and American commanders claim to have killed as many as 50,000 Islamic State fighters. The group is struggling to fend off a major assault led by Iraqi Army forces in Mosul that has steadily tightened the noose around Islamic State fighters there since October. U.S. and Iraqi officers say it’s only a matter of time — perhaps within a month— before the militants are forced out of Mosul. That will set the stage for a pivotal battle against the Islamic State, which will aim to knock the group out of its last urban stronghold — Raqqa in eastern Syria.
President Barack Obama has long walked a tightrope on the role of U.S. troops in the fight against the Islamic State, insisting that no American combat troops would be sent to Iraq or Syria. But time and again he has expanded the U.S. military contingent in Iraq, putting advisors in harm’s way and sending artillery units to lend firepower to the fight. He has deployed hundreds of special operations forces to carry out pinprick raids on Islamic State leadership, and to embed on the front lines with Kurdish and Iraqi government forces.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon acknowledged that there were 450 U.S. troops in and around Mosul mentoring Iraqi forces, a doubling of the U.S. bootprint in the fight launched in October to liberate the city. That comes on top of the 300 additional troops Obama approved for deployment to Syria in December, bringing the American contingent there to around 500 commandos. There are a total of about 6,000 U.S. troops now deployed in Iraq as advisors.
That gradualist approach has riled critics.
“If we had done that from the get-go we would have gotten to the point we are at now in six to eight months — not two years,” said Steve Bucci, a former U.S. Army special operations officer. The delay allowed an extremist “super virus” to spread, said Bucci, now a nonresident fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
For all of Trump’s quick-victory rhetoric, it’s precisely that incremental approach that’s likely to continue — unless he opts for drastic action involving tens of thousands of ground forces.
“The low-hanging fruit has been picked,” said Peter Mansoor, Gen. David Petraeus’s deputy during the “surge” in Iraq in 2007-2008 and now an Ohio State history professor.
The Obama administration already has sent in military advisors, “it has ramped up airstrikes, loosened the rules of engagement, supported the Kurds, and gone after the Islamic State’s financial assets,” Mansoor told FP.
“All those things are working. They’re working slowly, but they’re working.”
Once he enters the White House on Jan. 20, Trump will face the same challenge that has vexed the Obama administration — finding a partner on the ground that can battle the Islamic State and secure and hold territory without alienating the local Sunni population.
“The primary obstacle since the beginning of the U.S. campaign has been identifying adequate ground forces who can fight [the Islamic State] without U.S. forces on the ground,” said Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War. But given the time and resources necessary to build a credible ground force that can retake a city, “it’s unclear that it’s possible to defeat ISIS with a partner strategy.”
Any forces entering Raqqa would be in for a hard, close-quarters urban fight, the kind that has vexed U.S.-trained Iraq commandos in Ramadi, Fallujah, and now Mosul. When 10,000 U.S. Marines led by Gen. James Mattis — now Trump’s nominee for defense secretary — stormed Fallujah in November 2004, they suffered 95 killed and about 450 wounded in weeks of brutal house-to-house fighting. Once the United States pulled out of Iraq in 2011, Islamic State militants seized it back in 2014.
Cafarella points out that the butcher’s bill in eastern Aleppo was even worse. “The Iranian-led forces took thousands of casualties” in and around the city, she said.
But Trump is wary of partners. Trump said he doesn’t trust the mainly Kurdish, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces pushing toward Raqqa, and few believe there are enough fighters in their ranks to force the Islamic State out of the city. It’s unlikely “Trump will jeopardize his newfound friendship with Vladimir Putin to support rebels in northern Syria that he doesn’t trust anyway,” Mansoor said.
That could mean outsourcing Raqqa to other forces, such as Russian aircraft, Iranian militias, and Syrian troops, though that would likely mean an unpalatable civilian carnage. Instead of a small U.S.-armed rebel force moving on the city, it’s much more likely that Russian and Iranian-backed fighters will “isolate the city and starve it out, like a medieval siege,” Mansoor said.
That happened in Aleppo. Russian and Syrian aircraft reduced eastern Aleppo to rubble throughout 2016; only in December did the last rebels and civilians clamber onto government buses, headed for camps.
Perhaps more worrisome for the Trump administration, battlefield victories over the Islamic State won’t be the endgame. Even if the United States succeeds in crushing the group in its urban strongholds in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State will still hold the Euphrates river valley. And Islamic State veterans and those inspired by the group can always fall back on guerrilla and terrorist tactics.
The group’s propagandists have for months pushed the idea of leaving the urban strongholds and returning to its desert roots. While the Islamic State and its affiliates have lost territory in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, and Afghanistan over the past year, the extremists have managed to carry out or inspire violent attacks from Baghdad to Brussels — and Jakarta to Orlando, Florida.
“There’s been some success on the military side, but I think there’s been much less success in dealing with some of the more serious grievances that have provided an opportunity for ISIS to operate,” said Seth Jones, a former senior advisor to U.S. special operations forces and now a fellow at the Rand Corp.
The issue is particularly acute in Iraq, where a mostly Shiite army is fighting to liberate the Sunni city of Mosul, just as it has in Fallujah and Ramadi. The Shiite-led government in Baghdad has done little to alleviate the concerns of disaffected Sunnis — the very issue that helped drive some Sunnis into the arms of al Qaeda and the Islamic State in the first place. And the group’s ability to recover from battlefield defeats to inspire terror attacks on civilians remains an ever-present threat, whatever happens in Mosul or Raqqa.
“ISIS has been defeated a lot of times,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The question isn’t whether you defeat ISIS, it’s whether you let ISIS come back in three years’ time.”
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce