Trump washing his hands of Islamic State won't solve the problem

Trump washing his hands of Islamic State won't solve the problem
Comment: Trump claims IS is over, but is also calling on regional powers to take up the fight without US support, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
20 Sep, 2019
Trump reiterated his intention to end US involvement in the fight against IS [Getty]
US President Donald Trump has once again reiterated his intention to end US involvement in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in favour of regional powers taking on a greater role. He intends to wash his hands of the fight against the group, which, contrary to his claims, is far from defeated. 

"At a certain point Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, they are going to have to fight their battles too," Trump said, before insisting that the self-styled IS caliphate is now "wiped out".

"But at a certain point, all of these countries, where ISIS is around… are going to have to fight them," he added.

"Because do we want to stay there another 19 years? I don't think so."

Trump's mention of "19 years" in the region is curious in light of the fact the US retained a sizeable military presence in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf region, for over a decade before 2000. 

In reality, the US' commitment to the fight against IS has been far smaller than past American wars in the region, thanks in no small part to assistance from regional allies.

Washington deployed well over 100,000 troops during the lengthy Iraq war (2003-11) in which approximately 4,500 lost their lives.

In stark contrast, the United States deployed under 10,000 troops in both Iraq and Syria throughout the five year campaign against IS, fewer than 20 of them have been killed.

Local US allies have made tremendous sacrifices to destroy the IS caliphate

During the anti-IS campaign the US relied primarily on large numbers of airstrikes and small numbers of special forces in support of ground offensives by Kurdish and Iraqi, Syrian and other local forces, who bore the overwhelming brunt of the casualties in that campaign.

It should go without saying that this was a far cry from the American experience during the Iraq war, which was far costlier in terms of both lives and capital.

Trump's insistence that the self-styled IS caliphate is "100 percent" defeated is true. The Syrian town of Baghouz was captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in March, marking the end of the caliphate's territorial control.

However, though its physical caliphate may be gone, IS is far from defeated. It is still active in both Syria and Iraq and could destabilise these countries for years to come if not properly confronted.

"Despite losing its territorial 'caliphate', the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was re-surging in Syria," warned the Pentagon's new inspector general's report, which covers the period April 1 to June 30.

Furthermore, the partial withdrawal of an already small force of 2,000 US troops from Syria this year "has already impacted the fight against the remnants of ISIS, making it harder to advise local allies on the ground and depriving the US of the ability to monitor areas that are described as potential recruiting zones that would allow the group to replenish its ranks."

In other words, relinquishing the modest but decisive US support to regional allies, who have been doing most of the close-quarters fighting and dying, could needlessly allow IS to rebound and pose a major threat to the region and beyond. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who admitted he hasn't read this important report, weakly insisted that: "I'm sure it's the case that there's pockets where they've [IS] become a little stronger. I can assure you there are places where it's become weaker as well."

Trump alarmed many last December when he announced and imminent and complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria. He insisted that regional forces should take full responsibility for combating and destroying IS.

He also briefly floated the idea that Turkey "should be able to easily take care of whatever remains" of the group.

However, Ankara has been more preoccupied with fighting the US-allied Kurdish-led forces in Syria that have done the most in that country to combat IS. They sacrificed 11,000 men and women to destroy the so-called caliphate.

Had Trump gone ahead and withdrawn all US troops from northeast Syria eight months ago, Turkey would likely have seized the opportunity to live up to its threats to attack the Syrian Kurdish-led fighters.

That would have bogged down and possibly neutralised the most effective force in Syria against IS, giving that group a chance to recover and reorganise.

He also briefly floated the idea that Turkey 'should be able to easily take care of whatever remains' of the group

In neighbouring Iraq, former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that IS was defeated in the country back in December 2017. Since then, however, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and state militias have launched several operations against IS sleeper cells across the country over the past 18 months. 

Continued US support for these operations - namely supporting airstrikes and training Iraqi troops, especially for counter-insurgency operations - is crucial for maintaining pressure on IS and countering its dangerous activities.

It's still unclear exactly how many of Iraq's Special Operations Forces (ISOF) soldiers were killed in the carnage of the 9-month battle to reclaim Mosul - the largest urban centre IS ever captured - but the death toll was likely very high.

Though its physical caliphate may be gone, IS is far from defeated

Baghdad failed to rebuild the ISOF after the Mosul battle. This is important since these troops were key to routing IS from Iraqi cities and will be key for future counterinsurgency operations against the more elusive and violent non-state actor IS has reverted to.

Trump may allege that regional powers aren't pulling their weight in the fight against IS. This may be true in some cases, but local US allies have certainly made tremendous sacrifices to destroy the IS caliphate. Had they not done so, the US would have had to commit many more resources and endure a far higher number of casualties.

If Trump, who once said nobody would be tougher on IS than him, chooses to completely withdraw support for these allies anytime soon, he risks needlessly undermining their ongoing fight against IS, something that would benefit nobody other than that tyrannical organisation.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.