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“We have a very strong plan, but we cannot talk about it,” US President Donald Trump told the Associated Press (AP) on 21 April 2017, in response to a question about the details of the so-called ‘IS plan’. With US troops still struggling to oust Islamic State from the Iraqi city of Mosul, Trump’s policy on IS in Syria remains unclear.
Earlier that month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “the first priority is the defeat of IS” and only then President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. He added: “By defeating IS and removing their caliphate from their control, we’ve now eliminated at least or minimized a particular threat not just to the United States, but to the whole stability in the region. Once the IS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria.”
It is clear that defeating IS is a priority for Trump, as it was for his predecessor Barack Obama. What is unclear are the details of any plan or policy to achieve this, and Trump’s responses on Syria have been unexpected, to say the least.
While still on the campaign trail, Trump expressed disdain for promoting regime change and nation-building abroad, leading commentators to speculate that he would only work with Russia in order to defeat terrorist groups such as IS but not go after the Syrian regime. On 25 July 2016, he declared: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of IS?”. A year earlier, he said, “We have to have a great military – a strong military, have to take care of our vets, big league – but we have to focus on ourselves.”
Once in office, the president appeared to be sticking to his words. On 31 March 2017, the White House Press Secretary Sean Spencer indicated indirectly that the US was shifting its focus from al-Assad in order to tackle IS. “With respect to [al-Assad], there is a political reality that we have to accept. The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq, and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of IS, is foremost among those priorities.”
But the suspected chemical attack on 4 April 2017 in the northern rebel-held area of Khan Sheikhoun upset Trump to such an extent that, three days later, he ordered the US military to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a government airfield. It was the first time a US administration had taken military action against the Syrian regime, yet Trump confimed on 11 April 2017 that “we are not going into Syria”.
Concerning IS, it is clear that, for now, Trump is not deviating from Obama’s policy, meaning the ongoing coalition air campaign and Operation Euphrates Wrath, in which the coalition is supporting local, Kurdish-led partner forces working to surround and isolate the Syrian city of Raqqa, IS’ self-declared capital.
“The Trump administration’s policy on the Islamic State isn’t hugely different from Obama’s,” Sam Heller, writer and non-resident fellow at the Washington DC-based The Century Foundation, told Fanack. “It’s the rest of Syria – everything around the Islamic State – where it seems like Trump might depart from Obama.”
He added: “The Trump administration is still in the middle of a review of US Syria policy, and I don’t think it’s unusual for that to run long. Obviously, the Syrian war is a thorny problem set for the United States, and it’s not easy to match realistic means to US objectives. There’s just very little clarity right now, frankly. The Trump administration seems committed to defeating the Islamic State and walking back America’s stated commitment to regime change in Syria, but a lot of the rest has yet to take shape. It’s not as if the Islamic State can be viewed in isolation from other local dynamics, things like political grievance and oppression that can’t be bombed or killed.”
Drawing a comparison between Obama’s and Trump’s policies, Frederic C. Hof, former US special advisor for transition in Syria and now director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said, “The new administration seems to have no illusions about the al-Assad regime and its connection to Iran and to the explicitly terrorist Hezbollah. Yet it is, for the moment, ‘all about IS’, and policy answers to broader questions about Syria likely must await the onset of a coherent and productive interagency process.”
For now, nothing is certain, as Heller explained: “What comes next is unclear. Raqqa is a challenge, both politically and militarily, and the Islamic State’s Deir ez-Zor heartland presents even fewer good options.”
Another issue for the US emerged on 25 April 2017 when Turkey launched air strikes on suspected Kurdish rebel positions in Syria and Iraq. The Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), said that 20 of its fighters were killed and 18 wounded in the strikes in Karachok, in Syria’s northeastern Hassakeh province. The Syrian Democratic Forces, founded by the YPG in October 2015, were created at America’s request after helping the YPG to defeat IS in Kobane, a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria, in March 2015. At the same time, the US is allied with Turkey through NATO, an alliance that has created tensions with Syrian Kurds who have been targeted by Turkish air strikes since 2016.
Again, the US reaction did not wait to react to these attacks through a statement released by the Pentagon after the Turkish strikes. “These air strikes were not approved by the [Global Coalition to Counter IS] and led to the unfortunate loss of life of our partner forces in the fight against IS, including the Kurdish Peshmerga,” said Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that US support of these groups “must come to an end” and threatened further action against Syrian Kurds. However, the US views the YPG as the most effective partner to fight IS in Syria.
“Given the extraordinarily complex battle space in these areas, it is vital that Turkey and all partners in the defeat-IS effort coordinate their actions closely as we work together to maintain maximum pressure on IS and ensure the safety of all coalition personnel,” Rankine-Galloway said.