The recent meeting in Antalya between the US, Russian, and Turkish chiefs of staff kindled unequivocal hopes that a united front would finally materialize to advance the struggle against the terrorist Islamic State (IS). However, leaked information from the US later showed that the plan to fight IS that the Pentagon had drafted for President Trump did not include such aims.
Analysts who were able to familiarize themselves with the document attest that the substance of the plan is not significantly different from the plans drafted by the Obama administration. Only a slight increase is called for in the intensity of the air strikes, plus an expansion in the assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which consist primarily of Kurds. The widely publicized deployment of several hundred American troops into the neighborhood of Manbij is intended more to warn local Kurds against «excessive» rapprochement with Damascus than to help achieve military objectives on the front lines against IS. One wonders: does this represent Trump’s definitive abandonment of his campaign promises to cooperate with Moscow in the fight against terrorism, or is there still some hope of salvaging that prospect?
There are probably two main reasons why the new American administration is now thinking twice about joint actions with Russia in an area in which the two countries could theoretically begin to normalize their relations.
The first reason is the atmosphere of paranoia about «Kremlin infiltration» into every nook and cranny of American life. Now that reputable news outlets have started condemning Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security advisor, for failing to disclose the fact that a Russian student asked him a question at a public university seminar, this means that the conductor has just announced the last stop before the train leaves for Loony Town. One can add to this the fear of Trump’s inner circle that once he has shared with Putin the laurels of the victory over IS in Syria, the American president will lose the political dividends he so needs.
The second reason has to do with the approach to the US role in multilateral wars. American strategists have always been fond of Sun Tzu’s truism from The Art of War, which states that «the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; the overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field». This was evident in two world wars, when the American army only landed in Europe once the outcome of the confrontation was preordained and it was time to get busy divvying up the spoils.
A similar picture is emerging in the Middle Eastern theater of military operations against IS. The areas under terrorist control are steadily shrinking. For all intents and purposes IS is no longer capable of major offensives. Their recent recapture of Palmyra was short-lived and seemed more like a raid than a planned operation. As a result, the government army «pulverized» great numbers of the terrorists’ forces there and made a big advance toward the east. The terrorists have found all their supply routes blocked, and would-be reinforcements from other countries can no longer make their way in from Turkey. The criminal business model of oil smuggling has been crippled. There is not enough cash left to pay for mercenaries. The only way in for fresh forces is through Iraq, but even there IS is on the wane. The fall of Mosul is not far off.
In light of these developments, it has clearly grown more tempting for American politicians and generals to show up at the last minute, proclaim their decisive role in achieving victory, and dictate the terms of the peace. One goal is to enlist America’s SDF allies to help seize the IS «capital,» Raqqa, after which they can claim to be the biggest contributor to the caliphate’s resounding defeat.
Such a strategy, however, seems short-sighted and dangerous. IS militants are well known to be fanatical fighters who cling desperately to the areas they hold, and fragmented actions against them will only result in even greater losses for all their opponents, as well as the Syrian population. In and of itself, the capture of Raqqa will resolve nothing, because that city is currently on the periphery of any military operations, plus the terrorist faction’s administrative bureaucracy pulled out of there long ago. The biggest battles during the final stage of the war with IS are likely to erupt around Deir ez-Zor, toward which the government army is relentlessly forcing its way through the desert with the support of Russia’s Aerospace Defense Forces.
It is also possible that faced with a decisive defeat, IS fighters will make good on their threat to blow up the dams on the Euphrates. In that case, there is the danger that the Iraqi city of Basra, located downstream with a population of three million, will be totally inundated. Since most of its inhabitants are Shiites, Sunni fanatics from IS have deemed the city «fully deserving of punishment by Allah». The gravity of the situation is clear from the fact that the Syrian government continually implores the Western coalition to refrain at all costs from bombing either the dams on the Euphrates or the bridges across this river. Quick, coordinated actions by Russian and American special ops forces might be needed in order to prevent a tragedy, which could prove difficult if no preliminary teamwork has smoothed the path in advance.
The most unexpected surprises might occur. For example, it cannot be ruled out that IS factions displaced from Iraq and Syria might maneuver toward Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They have already done something similar during a sudden surge toward Mosul. Life is rough in those countries, and there are plenty who are willing to side with IS. The armies of the Persian Gulf states are well armed, but the actual combat readiness of the Saudi government troops has been exposed by the painful military losses being repeatedly inflicted on them by barefoot Houthis in Yemen. IS has always had its eye on the big prize of Mecca and Medina, and that group might begin its desperate march in that direction, having accused the royal dynasty of betraying the «cause of Islam». There’s a good reason that Jordan’s King Abdullah II is one of the staunchest supporters of unifying all the forces in the fight against IS. However, he is not currently one of the Americans’ top negotiating partners when it comes to resolving the crisis in Syria.
It is also unclear what Washington will do after IS is routed in Syria, since the Kurds are its biggest source of support in that country. After all, in return for their services the Kurds will expect the US to at least back their claim to more local autonomy under a federal system, but perhaps they are even hoping to get a thumbs-up on their ultimate goal – independence. If the US recognizes the Kurds’ right to such changes, that would seriously damage – or even completely rupture – its relationship with Ankara and Baghdad, which would certainly be intolerable to Washington. But if the US does not honor their claims, that would surely antagonize the Kurds, who would then be forced to negotiate their future directly with Damascus. Should that happen, the US risks being shut out of the problem-solving on Syria.
In general, the situation is such that American interests are being poorly served by US attempts to muddle through in Syria without Russian assistance. And domestic criticism of Trump will only intensify if his unilateral strategy in Syria fails. Trump’s detractors will also grumble over the prospect of cooperation with Russia, but that is the only option that can guarantee total victory over IS, after which many of those critics would have to bite their tongues. After all, winners don’t have to defend themselves.