By John Ubaldi
A week after being sworn in as president, Donald Trump issued an executive order instructing Secretary of Defense James Mattis to develop a strategy within 30 days to defeat ISIS.
On Monday, the Pentagon followed through and presented their top-secret plan to the president.
“This is going to be a comprehensive whole of government plan that’s going to address not only the core ISIS in Iraq and Syria issue, but it’s going to address the other areas where ISIS has sprung up,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said of the plan. “And it will include all manner of things, diplomacy, and information, intelligence.”
Commenting on the Trump order, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said last Thursday, “We’ve been given a task to go to the president with options to accelerate the defeat of ISIS specifically, but also obviously other violent extremist groups as well. So we will go to him with a full range of options from which he can choose.”
Whatever options were presented in the classified Pentagon proposal, the United States must understand that ISIS is a real threat. But the Islamic State is only one part of a complex set of threats Islamic extremism poses to the U.S.
War Unleashes Unintended Consequences
The U.S. needs to remember the axiom articulated by Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in his famous military treatise, “On War.” Von Clausewitz said, “No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.”
Defeating ISIS is one part of the strategy. However, we cannot solely look at the threat ISIS poses in Iraq and Syria without also looking at the complex situation on the ground throughout the Middle East. All are intertwined in various and different ways.
Obama’s Failed ISIS Strategy
The Obama administration’s ISIS strategy was predicated on the minimalist approach. The guiding theory was to not do anything that would disrupt U.S. rapprochement with Iran and maintain Obama’s nuclear agreement with Tehran.
This reluctance to disturb the state of Iran-U.S. relations is why President Obama failed to back Iran’s “Green Movement” in 2009. It is also why he walked back his famous “red line” ultimatum with regard to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013. Because of Obama’s failed Middle East strategy, Trump is left with few options. But whatever decision Trump and Mattis make will have secondary effects.
The Middle East’s Complex Problems
The Trump administration has to understand that it’s easy to defeat ISIS on the battlefield. However, what will replace the Islamic State? How do you deal with other major internal divisions, such as Arab vs. Kurd, Sunni vs. Shiite and the struggle of secular vs. violent Islamist extremists?
The U.S. also has to consider not only what strategy it pursues in Syria and Iraq, but also how a new strategy would impact outside actors who have their own strategic interests at play. These strategic interests are definitely not aligned with the United States.
Competing Powers in the Region
The U.S. will have to deal with Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Foreign policy decisions will affect Moscow and Tehran, which have their own strategic objectives.
Whatever strategy Trump pursues, he will have to contend with Russia. Moscow is trying to reestablish itself as a global superpower and bring back the multipolar world so prevalent during the Cold War. This Russia wants to further degrade the standing of the United States and Europe.
Iran’s sole aim is to further establish itself as a dominant regional power and expel the U.S. from the region. This goal would undermine the Sunni power structure and Saudi Arabia.
The Institute for the Study of War reports that Russia and Iran will continue their mutual convergence. Iran is not close to its goal of regional hegemony – a position that would likely raise concern in Moscow.
Also, Russia is not close to achieving parity with the U.S. and NATO. Russia and Iran will likely continue their close partnership until one or the other comes within striking distance of its goals, a condition unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future.
As Sun Tzu Said, Know Your Enemy
In his famous military treatise, “The Art of War,” Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu wrote: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
In other words, whatever strategy the Trump administration decides upon, Trump must first understand the strategic aims of the power brokers in the region.
What Are Russia’s and Iran’s Goals?
Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime implicitly against all opponents but for different reasons.
Iran needs President Bashar al-Assad in Syria or at least a friendly Syrian government. That will allow Iran to support Lebanese Shiite terror organization Hezbollah in its perpetual fight against Israel. The disastrous U.S. pullout from Iraq in 2011 allowed Tehran to control the Iraqi government in Baghdad and use it as a transit point to move weapons and troops into Syria and Lebanon.
Russia’s sole aim in the Syrian civil war is to guarantee long-term access to its military bases at Tartus and Latakia. From these bases, Russia can challenge the United States and NATO in the Mediterranean region.
Turkey’s strategy is to establish Turkish economic, cultural and military dominance over the Middle East, a goal opposed by both Russia and Iran. Ankara was angered by coalition support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Whatever Trump believes about working with Russia to defeat ISIS, he must realize that Moscow’s true objective is to limit U.S. influence in the Middle East region, including Afghanistan.
The Obama administration’s Middle East strategy leaves Trump with few discernible options. But he is now the president and the buck stops with him. Let’s see what course he takes.