During the campaign, Donald Trump vowed: “We are going to convey my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS. We have no choice.”
Those 30 days have passed (Tuesday is day 67 of the presidency) and it’s not clear if the Trump administration has actually adopted any such plan. At the very least, it is intensifying the plan that the Obama administration had in place in ways that are, on the whole, welcome, even if they also carry greater risks.
In both Syria and Iraq, the Pentagon is sending more soldiers—400 more to Syria to help take Raqqa, 200 more to Iraq to help take Mosul. For the first time, the U.S. has also used its helicopters to airlift hundreds of Syrian militia fighters from the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces in a bold attempt to seize control of the Tabqa Dam and a nearby air base west of Raqqa.
“In a significant commitment of American forces,” the New York Times noted, “American helicopters ferried fighters across enemy lines while Marine Corps howitzers, Army Apache attack helicopters, and American warplanes provided firepower for the operation. Army surface-to-surface Himars rockets, which are based in northern Syria, are also part of the mission. American Special Operations forces were advising the Syrian fighters on the ground, although a military spokesman said they were not involved in direct, front-line combat.”
At the same time, the pace of American airstrikes has intensified and the willingness of commanders to risk civilian casualties has increased. Reports of civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes in west Mosul are increasing. Those air strikes are welcomed by hard-pressed Iraqi forces but carry the risk of sparking a backlash among civilians. It is not clear if the Trump administration has relaxed the (classified) rules of engagement for U.S. forces or if this is simply the result of more U.S. advisers and Special Operations Forces being in close proximity to a dangerous urban battle. There is always greater leeway for air strikes when Americans are in “contact” with the enemy.
Either way, it is obvious that are fewer qualms in this administration about the use of force and that authority for critical decisions has been delegated downward to the commanders in the field. This is a welcome break from the micromanagement of the Obama White House, where the president himself would routinely get involved in making minor tactical decisions.
The administration is also ramping up on another front, extending more assistance to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as they battle the Iranian-backed Houthi movement and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. The Wall Street Journal reported: “American support now includes greater intelligence and logistical support for the militaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates… The Trump administration also is moving to resume the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia, which were frozen during the final months of the Obama administration due to concerns about the rising numbers of civilian fatalities in Yemen.”
As in Iraq and Syria, so in Yemen, there are risks attached to the new strategy. It is far from clear that the Saudis and Emiratis have a political game plan to establish a stable and secure outcome in Yemen, and it is quite possible that their sometimes blundering offensive will only generate more support for the Houthis and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the increased aid in Yemen makes sense in order to prevent Iran from dominating yet another Arab state, using the Houthis as it uses Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Over at Foreign Policy, the estimable Kori Schake argued that these adjustments aren’t mere tweaks—that they represent a significant “departure from the Obama approach.” I wouldn’t go quite so far as of yet, especially because Trump is not implementing his signature campaign promise of cooperating with Russia to battle ISIS in Syria—much less moving to take Iraq’s oil, as he has repeatedly threatened to do.
But these are welcome indications of the greater risk-taking that will be necessary to accelerate the decimation of ISIS and to shape the post-ISIS landscape of the Middle East. In this area, at least, it appears that seasoned war-fighters such as Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster are calling the shots, and they are getting to roll out some of the ideas they were chafing to implement during the Obama years, without being saddled with some of Trump’s more dubious brainstorms. The major test is still to come, however: Will President Trump approve a long-term American military presence of the kind that will be needed to counter Iranian influence and to help prevent the emergence of ISIS 2.0?