You may also like
Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States, the world has closely followed his rhetoric promising to wipe the Islamic State (IS) from the face of the earth. Yet since taking office in January 2017, his approach has been increasingly hands-off, and with no sign of his promised plan that would see the extremist group destroyed in a month, he has handed more and more authority to his generals.
In May 2017, Defence Secretary and former US Marine Corps General James Mattis announced a major decentralization of authority, as battlefield commanders were delegated decision-making for the campaign to liberate the Syrian city of Raqqa from IS. An acceleration of the US campaign accompanied the move, following the deployment of US artillery to support the push by Kurdish forces to retake Raqqa. There are some 900 US forces deployed across both the Kurdish-controlled north of Syria and stationed with Free Syrian Army forces in southern Syria.
This decentralization of authority has not been without consequence. A rising civilian death toll and a more tactical approach to American policy in the Middle East point to what could be Trump’s real legacy in the region.
The US military has grappled with criticism over civilian deaths throughout its decades-long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, this seems to have become a headline issue once again. Civilian deaths have been particularly notable in both Raqqa and Mosul in Iraq, as US-led air strikes on IS positions have intensified since Trump took office. In 2016, 555 civilians were killed in US-led air strikes in Mosul. In the first three months of 2017, that figure had already reached 1,793.
However, this also coincides with a decision in the final weeks of the Obama administration to loosen targeting rules, giving commanders on the ground more autonomy to call an air strike. Regardless, independent civilian watchdogs have compared the spike in civilian deaths under the Trump administration as comparable to the worst levels of civilian deaths caused by Russia in Syria.
Since the fall of Mosul in July 2017, the capture of Raqqa has become ‘priority number one’ for the US military, although top generals have refused to put a timeline on the campaign. It took Iraqi forces more than eight months to free Mosul. More worryingly, however, in April 2017 a senior counterterrorism official in the Trump administration admitted that the White House has no long-term plan once Raqqa is freed.
Trump’s approach to military action is a marked shift from his predecessor. The Obama administration was renowned for its micro-management of the military, with White House officials regularly interfering in the minutiae of operations, much to the chagrin of commanders. This approach was rightly criticized for potentially impeding the high-stakes work of military commanders, but it was often driven by a desire to see as few civilian casualties as possible at American hands. Indeed, on Obama’s watch, the principle of ‘courageous restraint’ – which prioritizes protecting civilians over killing the enemy – was championed.
While supporters of Trump’s hands-off management approach herald the potential for quicker, more practical military decisions, critics point to the abuses in Vietnam and post-9/11 that a lack of oversight enabled.
Human Rights Watch has criticized the introduction of white phosphorus munitions into the US campaign in Syria, citing the threat to civilian populations. These artillery shells are typically used for non-lethal effect on the battlefield (for smoke screens) but burn at very high temperatures and pose grave threats to civilian populations when used in dense urban areas.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, some 70 per cent of all battlefield deaths in Syria and Iraq have occurred in cities, giving additional weight to calls for restraint in the US-backed campaign in Raqqa.
As with much of Trump’s policy platform, his own personality appears to be at the front and centre of American efforts in Syria. Presented with the long-overdue military plan to defeat IS, Trump rejected it in July 2017 for too closely resembling Barack Obama’s. Military leaders are reluctant to change the current strategy, which appears to be working.
However, these same leaders refused to rule out troop increases, and the American presence in Syria now includes special forces and artillery support in the southern desert.
As Washington cuts its ties with and support for moderate rebel groups, it seems the military goals of an America-first administration, rather than considerations of what comes after the fighting, are reigning supreme in the US’s Syria policy. Military tacticians, rather than political strategists, appear to have the upper hand. For a country that has a now-infamous record of quick victories on the battlefield but slow and painful defeats after the fighting, this is cause for concern.
Despite repeated statements from Washington that defeating IS remains its sole goal in Syria, the occupation of Raqqa and surrounding multi-ethnic territories in north-eastern Syria by US-backed Kurdish forces could spell political trouble for the country once the fighting has stopped. The US military, however, looks to benefit from new zones of influence and control in areas long out of reach.