Fight against besieged Islamic State approaches endgame in Iraq and Syria – but Trump still has no strategy
Intense debate is under way within the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House over the way forward
US-backed forces in Syria have entered the most heavily fortified area of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Islamic State (IS), in what a US official says is a “key milestone” in the war against the jihadist force.
Success in Raqqa and major advances by US-backed forces in Mosul, a second IS stronghold in Iraq, represent a powerful double blow to the violent extremist group. But even as the endgame for IS in Iraq and Syria looms, the administration of US President Donald Trump still has yet to outline its strategy for what comes next – the epic task of trying to stabilise the region while keeping any Islamist resurgence at bay.
The US Central Command said in a statement on Tuesday that coalition forces supported an advance by Syrian Democratic Forces fighters “into the most heavily fortified portion of Raqqa by opening two small gaps in the Rafiqah Wall that surrounds the Old City.”
The SDF have spent months closing in on the IS bastion and entered the city’s east and west for the first time last month. According to the coalition, some 2,500 IS jihadists are defending the city.
IS overran Raqqa in 2014, turning it into the de facto capital of its self-declared “caliphate”. The city was the scene of some of the group’s worst atrocities, including public beheadings. The United Nations warns that up to 100,000 civilians are still trapped in the city.
US-backed Iraqi forces meanwhile appear within days of ejecting the last few hundred IS fighters from their redoubt in the crowded warren of Mosul’s Old City.
US commanders are confident that the forces they back will vanquish the militant group from its self-declared caliphate after three years of fighting.
But the White House has yet to define strategy for the next step in the struggle, including key decisions about safe zones, reconstruction, nascent governance, alleviation of sectarian tensions and commitment of US troops.
Nor has the Trump administration set policy for how it will confront forces from Iran and Russia, the two outside powers that arguably gained the most in the bitter conflict – and that now are hoping to collect the spoils and expand their influence.
Iran, in particular, is pushing to secure a land corridor from its western border across Iraq and Syria and up to Lebanon, where it supports Hezbollah militants, giving it a far larger foothold in the turbulent region.
“Right now everyone is positioned” for routing IS “without having the rules of the road,” said Michael Yaffe, a former State Department envoy for the Middle East who is now vice-president of the Middle East and Africa centre at the US Institute of Peace. “That’s a dangerous situation.”
The risk of a broader confrontation was clear in recent weeks when a US F/A-18 shot down a Syrian fighter jet for the first time in the multisided six-year war, provoking an angry response from Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
US warplanes also destroyed two Iranian-made drone aircraft, although it’s unclear who was flying them. The Pentagon said all the attacks were in self-defence as the aircraft approached or fired on American forces or US-backed Syrian fighters.
“What I worry about is the muddled mess scenario,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior State Department official who now heads the Middle East Security Programme at the non-partisan Centre for a New American Security. “When you start shooting down planes and running into each other, it quickly goes up the escalation ladder.”
The clashes occurred in eastern Syria, where Syrian forces backed by Russia and Iranian ones are pushing against US special operations forces and US-backed Syrian opposition fighters trying to break IS’s hold on the Euphrates River valley south of Raqqa and into Iraq.
Except for a few towns, IS still controls the remote area, and US officials fear the militants could regroup there and plan future attacks. Many of the group’s leaders and operatives have taken shelter in Deir-ez-Zor province.
As a candidate, Trump promised to announce in his first month in office a new strategy for defeating IS. As president, he has promised for more than a month to hold a news conference to discuss the effort.
He has yet to do either. But an intense debate is under way among the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House over the way forward. At least in public, Defence Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster have signalled different priorities.
The Pentagon argues that it aims to defeat only IS and has no intention of being pulled into a conflict with Iran. Mattis, who is wary of what he calls “mission creep,” has advocated “de-confliction” zones that would essentially divvy up Syria and keep competing forces apart.
“We just refuse to get drawn in to a fight there in the Syria civil war,” he told reporters June 26 on a visit to Europe for Nato meetings.
Mattis acknowledged that military planning and operations have grown more difficult in eastern Syria because of the proximity of Syrian, Iranian and Russian forces on one side, and US troops and American-backed militias on the other.
“You’ve got to really play this thing very carefully, and the closer we get, the more complex it gets,” he said.
Two days later, McMaster offered a different perspective. He called the war against IS “one part of a much broader campaign” aimed at blocking transnational terrorist groups from taking root.
Speaking at the Centre for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, he argued that Iran is a disruptive force and suggested US policy in the post-IS era will focus increasingly on isolating Tehran and preventing it from expanding its influence.
Hawks in the White House are eager to block or rein in Iran, while the State Department and the Pentagon are trying to apply the brakes to avoid a direct confrontation, one official involved in the debate said.
“Is eastern Syria where the Trump administration wants to draw the line on Iran?” asked Robert S. Ford, who left Syria in 2014 as the last US ambassador there. “The question for the administration is how to confront Iran in eastern Syria, and is that the right place?”
Equally unclear is whether the White House will back Assad, whose hold on power now seems all but assured. Unlike the Obama administration, Trump has not called on the Syrian autocrat to hand power to a transition government or made a major diplomatic effort to persuade warring parties into negotiations.
“I’ve seen no evidence that they’ve given much thought to how you would bring the Syria conflict to resolution and how you would achieve a durable ceasefire,” said Ford, now a fellow at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse