Trump’s Syria Intervention: A Winnable War?
The Trump-era wars are already upon us and escalating says Lindsey German
Donald Trump’s keenness to only involve the US in wars that it can win (as opposed to all the wars that it has engaged in over recent decades) may run counter to his actual policy. For, despite the claims by Trump and his supporters that he would not be following the hawkish Hillary Clinton into further Middle East interventions, he has actually sent 1000 US troops into Syria in recent weeks, and now looks set to send another 1000.
This is all, of course, without any recourse to Congress let alone to international diplomacy or law, all of which are no doubt deemed to get in the way of his executive actions. Trump dresses this up as part of his strategy to defeat Islamic terrorism in the Middle East. The deployment of the original troops was to help with the siege of Raqqa, the last major IS stronghold in Syria. This operation, however, is on the side of the Kurds, who have long been fighting IS in the region, and whose are bitterly opposed by the Turkish government, an ostensible ally of the US and fellow Nato member.
The US is keen to intervene to prevent the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies from gaining the initiative in the area, following the fall of Aleppo last year. While under Obama the US was reluctant to put its own troops on the ground (apart from covert special forces) and preferred to fund parts of the Syrian opposition plus rely on its Middle East allies to do the same and more, now Trump is signalling a more direct approach. He has lifted the cap imposed by Obama on the number of troops to be sent to Syria and Iraq and is looking to involve other Middle East states more directly in fighting there. This week, he met the Saudi defence minister, and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, met the Saudi and UAE foreign ministers in Washington.
So as well as the already around 1000 US troops - including special forces, marines and rangers - preparing to besiege Raqqa, more are to be sent in. The new troops would come from the 82nd Airborne which has 2,500 troops heading for Kuwait, and from the over 2000 marines now sailing towards the Middle East. These troops could be involved in conventional fighting much like they are in the Iraqi city of Mosul, the site of extensive bombing in recent weeks. However, IS in Mosul has proved a much tougher nut to crack than the US and its allies predicted when the onslaught began some months ago.
It may well be similar in Raqqa - or there may be other problems. The US is talking about possibly embedding troops alongside the Kurdish and Syrian opposition forces. The reaction of the various players - including Turkey which is demanding that the US break with the Kurdish YPG - as well as Russia and Syria, is likely to be less than enthusiastic. Conflict between Turkey and the US has already grown following last summer’s failed Turkish coup.
Recent fighting in Manbij, a town fairly close to Raqqa won from ISIS, demonstrates some of the problems.
According to the Washington Post:
‘Photographs and videos posted on social media in recent days have shown convoys of U.S. troops…. heading through the northern Syrian countryside flying big Stars and Stripes flags. They have taken up positions in the villages north and west of Manbij, where U.S.-allied Arab forces backed by Kurds have been fighting for more than a week against U.S.-allied Arab forces backed by Turkey, according to U.S. and local officials.’ According to a Pentagon source this public show is to keep both sides ‘focused on the common enemy, which is ISIS.’
These conflicts are less about the current fighting and more about which forces will control Syria in the months and years to come. It is clear that in this IS is not the only or even the main enemy of the US or of the other powers involved.
Trump’s proclaimed fight against Islamic terrorism is likely to develop into a war with troops on the ground - a war likely to prove as unwinnable as all those previous ones he wants to leave behind.