Trump really could crush Isis. But what happens next could be worse
by Paul Wood (feat. Rolf Holmboe)
February 16, 2017
These are the last days of the ‘caliphate’. The place Isis made their capital, Raqqa, in Syria, is encircled and cut off. They have already lost half of Mosul in Iraq, their largest city. Really, what did they expect? This was inevitable from the moment Isis declared war on everyone not in Isis. Defeat was even foreseen by one of the group’s leading thinkers, Abu al-Farouq al-Masri. ‘Announcing enmity to the world will strangle the caliphate in its cradle,’ he said last year. ‘This will bury our project alive.’ Al Masri (the ‘Egyptian’) is or was an elderly cleric and he was delivering a sermon in Raqqa meant as a warning to the leadership. Their strategy would achieve nothing but the ‘immolation’ of the Islamic State’s warriors. ‘Prison is more beloved to me than seeing them destroyed in battles of attrition we could avoid,’ he said. He may have been taken at his word. He later disappeared, probably into one of the Islamic State’s notorious jails.
Donald Trump would agree with al-Masri’s prediction. He came into office impatient to finish off the jihadis. As the country star Toby Keith sang at the inauguration, the new President nodding along: ‘You’ll be sorry that you messed with the US of A. Cos we‘ll put a boot in your ass. It’s the American way.’ During the primaries, Trump repeatedly claimed to have a secret, ‘absol-utely foolproof’ plan to defeat Isis. This, it turns out, consists of telling the Pentagon to come up with something. The Department of Defense has been given 30 days to fill in the blank space under the heading ‘Secret Foolproof Plan’. The presidential order says: ‘The Plan shall include a comprehensive strategy and plans for the defeat of Isis.’
It happens that President Obama left behind a detailed plan, one to take Raqqa. It has spawned a very Washington row. One of Obama’s national security team told me they had prepared a ‘four- or five-page memo’ on the plan for Trump’s staff, along with a ‘voluminous bundle’ of background material. ‘When they looked at it, their reaction was, “This is too complicated. The President won’t understand it.” ’ Obama’s people leaked to the New York Times that President Trump could read only short documents ‘with lots of pictures’. Trump’s people leaked to the Washington Post that ‘Obama’s approach was so risk-averse it was almost certain to fail…Obama sweated the smallest details of US military operations, often to the point of inaction.’
The defense secretary, General Mattis, is examining the Obama plan. Its most important provision calls for the Kurdish forces besieging Raqqa to be armed by the United States. This would enrage Turkey, which fears the emergence of a Kurdish state more than the survival of Isis. The Kurdish militia in Syria, the YPG, is close to the Kurdish militia in Turkey, the PKK (some would say they are the same thing). Turkey, the US (and Britain) all classify the PKK as a terrorist organisation. In fighting Isis, the US is backing two opposing sides in a regional conflict, the Turks and the Kurds. Obama’s preferred solution was to let the Turkish army take Raqqa — but the Turkish army is still 120 miles away. Ankara’s promises of troops have come to nothing so many times that US officials call these forces ‘Turkish unicorns’. President Trump may have to arm the Kurds.
The alternative would be American ground forces. If that seems unthinkable, someone at the Department of Defense may be thinking it. A source — outside the Pentagon but talking to the military planners — told me the use of American tanks and infantry was being considered to break Raqqa’s defences. There is no official confirmation of that and, if true, it would be politically explosive. Far more likely is another option apparently under consideration: sending in more special forces and giving them more freedom to operate. There are currently some 200 Navy Seals and Army Delta Force troops helping the Kurds and a smaller Arab contingent.
During the election, candidate Trump promised: ‘Isis will be gone… and they’ll be gone quickly. Believe me.’ President Trump, a senior civil servant told me, wants ‘a big win over Isis within 90 days’. The official feared this meant ‘carpet bombing’ Raqqa and Mosul. Trump has given people reason to think this. ‘Isis… I would bomb the shit out of ‘em,’ he told a rally in Fort Dodge, Iowa, during the primaries. ‘I would just bomb those suckers.’ This became a consistent Trump campaign theme. One result of the Mattis review might be to relax the rules of engagement governing airstrikes.
A retired US Air Force general, David Deptula, told me that the military would not want (and the laws of war would not allow) indiscriminate bombing. But he said Obama had authorised only ‘anaemic’ air strikes against Isis. ‘The Islamic State could have been crushed in a matter of weeks in 2014,’ he said. ‘The biggest mistake and the greatest gift President Obama gave to Isis was two years’ worth of time to carry on killing.’ He hoped Trump would now order a ‘comprehensive air campaign’. Operation Desert Storm, which liberated Kuwait in 1991, had taken only 43 days from start to finish. ‘We can negate the Islamic State just as rapidly.’
Even before any change to the rules of engagement, the US-led coalition against Isis may now be killing more civilians than Russia. The British monitoring group Airwars says that last month at least 254 civilians and as many as 358 died in coalition attacks. During the same period, Russian bombing is said to have killed 65 non-combatants. The coalition is, however, fighting in Iraq and Syria, while the Russians are only in Syria. At the same time, Isis continues to kill people. The underground opposition group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said that while coalition bombs resulted in 16 ‘martyrs’ in and around the town last month, Isis executed 14 people.
The bombing is having an effect on Isis. The bridges over the Euphrates in Raqqa have been destroyed by what locals say are B52s flying overhead. Isis fighters are hemmed in. If they want to leave, they may have to swim. Meanwhile, President Trump’s staff have been drafting an order for Guantanamo Bay to be used for Isis prisoners. The main body of Isis fighters will no doubt still try to break out, heading to Palmyra or Deir Azzour to the south. They might eventually attempt to melt away into the Iraqi desert, hiding out there as al-Qaeda did during the American occupation. But many members of Isis in Raqqa are from Raqqa. People who know the place say it was enthusiastically for the Syrian regime when the regime was in charge — and loyal to Isis when it was on the rise. The local sheikhs and their followers change allegiances according to what suits their interests. They were more than happy with life in the ‘Islamic State’.
Others paid the price. In a camp in Iraq, I once met a 50-year-old Yazidi woman who told me how she had been held in slavery by a member of Isis in Syria. She was decades too old to be a sex-slave, she told me, but the man and his wife were delighted to have a domestic servant. His family was poor. The man didn’t even own a car, only a motorbike. Having their own slave was a wonderful luxury. When she fell ill with cancer, and became too sick to work, they rang her relatives and said she could be freed for $50,000. Her relatives did not have even $500, so the man and his wife turned her out of the house to die.
This story is important because what comes after Isis might be more Sunni militants. Other Salafi – or fundamentalist – groups are already mopping up Isis defectors. This means there will be no reckoning for the Sunnis who supported Isis, no trials, no Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Anyway, Sunnis think they are the victims. Rolf Holmboe, a former Danish ambassador to Syria, told me it was ‘a big affront to the Sunni mentality’ that the Shia, the Kurds, the Assad regime, Russia, and other foreign countries would emerge the beneficiaries of the Islamic State’s downfall. ‘It would have been preferable if moderate Sunni groups had defeated Isis,’ he said. ‘The sense of grievance in the Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq is not lessened by the fall of Isis — it’s growing. The Sunni insurgency is not going away.’
What of the foreign fighters who came to join Isis in their thousands? Holmboe’s sources bring him news from the Danish citizens fighting for Isis, a mixture of ethnic Danes and immigrants. They all felt stuck in the shrinking caliphate because the way back to Europe was closed at the Turkish border. Nine of ten who did make it back to Denmark were no threat, he said. But some — the one in ten — were being instructed to smuggle themselves back ‘for operations’. ‘There could obviously be an upsurge in terror attacks in Europe and in the western world as revenge for the fall of the caliphate.’ Hundreds of British Muslims joined Isis too. When the caliphate is finally smashed to pieces, some of them will be coming home.
Though the physical caliphate might fall, Holmboe, said, the ‘virtual caliphate’ would remain. A document is circulating among Isis members through text messages and Twitter. Titled ‘The caliphate will not perish,’ it is a series of morale-boosting declarations by Isis leaders, living and dead. It was found by the researcher Aymenn al-Tamimi, who also obtained the sermon by the dissident cleric in Raqqa. ‘They remain defiant,’ he said of Isis. ‘Their message is that Islamic State will always exist as long as there’s the will to fight.’
In ‘The caliphate will not perish’ a member of the Isis Shura Council boasts that Muslims born in the US will become an army of conquest. ‘They are getting ready for the battle in their homeland. Today the caliphate is in Iraq and Syria. Tomorrow, it will be in the White House.’ The clash of civilisations is as important an idea to the Islamic State as to the Trump administration. Such boasting is absurd, but the fall of the Isis by the hand of America will be the ‘just cause’ for a new generation of jihadis. The end of the physical territory of the caliphate will not be the end of the idea of the ‘Islamic State’. That might be just as dangerous.