A B-52 Stratofortress refuels on Feb. 15 during missions against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Senior Airman Jordan Castelan / Via US Air Force
WASHINGTON — For months on the campaign trail, Donald Trump accused the Obama administration of failing to aggressively fight ISIS, falsely claiming at one point that his predecessor as US president founded the jihadi group and vowing to "bomb the shit" out of it.
But as his national security team wraps up a monthlong rethink of the ISIS war, President Trump's strategy is beginning to look a lot like the Obama strategy he once disparaged.
The Pentagon’s plan — due to be delivered to Trump on Monday — still involves a US-led airstrike campaign to shape the battlefield, as well as a dependence on local troops to fight the terror group with support of the US military, which will guide airstrikes, provide intelligence, and back local commanders, current and former defense officials told BuzzFeed News.
The proposed changes appear largely to expand strategies the US is already using against the militant group. The Pentagon plan is expected to include at least three recommendations, including a push for roughly 1,000 US troops on the ground in Syria whose role will be largely the same as the US forces now supporting Iraqis in the battle for Mosul. That is, they would advise and support local troops as they march into ISIS territory, a defense official told BuzzFeed News. Most of the troops would be based at a military installation north of Raqqa, ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital in Syria.
“The instinct of the Pentagon, State Department, and Central Command is to say, ‘Here are some of the options: You could widen the aperture, deploy more forces,” said Andrew Exum, a former Pentagon official. “But overall it’s going to look like the Obama strategy. From the point of the view of the military, the strategy is working.”
On Jan. 28, Trump gave the Pentagon 30 days to come up with a new strategy to hasten the defeat of ISIS. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hinted at the strategy to be put forth in a Thursday appearance at the Brookings Institution. When asked if US troops could be deployed to Syria, the chairman said a "full range of options" would be presented to the president.
The options are intended to, in part, offer a "clear outline” of “the consequences, the opportunity [and] the risks associated with each one of the options that we presented," Dunford said.
During the campaign, Trump was harshly critical of the US strategy against ISIS, promising a secret plan to accelerate the group's defeat.
He has since emphasized the fight against ISIS as his top foreign-policy goal. “Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority,” the White House has said.
The Trump administration’s options appear to acknowledge that the Obama administration’s military strategy has been largely successful. ISIS has lost 60% of the territories it controlled at its 2014 peak in Iraq and 30% of its Syrian territories.
One of the biggest unknowns is whether these strategy tweaks will prove tough or drastic enough for Trump. And it comes with many other unknowns. The US military is training Arab fighters to go into Raqqa, but those forces alone likely can’t take the city without the help of either Kurdish and Turkish fighters.
US soldiers near an Iraqi army base on the outskirts of Mosul in November.
Thomas Coex / AFP / Getty Images
An increase in US troops could further inflame anti-American groups across the Middle East who have long accused Washington of seeking to dominate the region, sentiments already aggravated by Trump’s ban on visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries and his repeated calls to seize Iraq’s oil as spoils of war.
It's also unclear that the Kurds are willing to lead the fight for Raqqa, a city that lies outside the territory they’ve traditionally dominated. Any fight to retake ISIS’s capital promises to be long and exhausting, if the battle for ISIS’s Iraqi capital, Mosul, is any example. Iraq's best forces have suffered heavy losses in a months-long block-by-block fight. So far Iraqi forces have reclaimed only half the city, Iraq’s second-largest.
The US military has been training local Arab militias to eventually hold Raqqa, but it is unclear how capable those Arab-dominated forces are, and whether they could take on Raqqa without Kurdish help.
In addition to sending ground troops, US officials are looking at loosening their rules for conducting airstrikes, a cornerstone of the war on ISIS, the defense official said. Under the Obama administration, there were strict limits to try to prevent civilian casualties. But both local allies and some within the US military have complained that the rules were so strict and time-consuming to meet that it led to lost opportunities.
The risks of adopting more aggressive airstrikes in Syria, a nation where the US military has no local government backing, are already complicating the fight against ISIS in Raqqa, where the US has launched a months-long airstrike campaign to shape the battlefield for an eventual offensive to take the city. According to Airwars.org, this year US airstrikes in Raqqa have killed or injured scores of civilians.
Even as the coalition makes gains on the battlefield, however, ISIS continues to spread its propaganda online and win recruits who launch attacks abroad, as well as threaten areas from which it was dislodged as it regroups in the desert.
But the US and its local and international allies have rolled back, stifled, and degraded ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces, stripping ISIS of urban strongholds in Syria, Iraq and Libya — while keeping US casualties to a minimum. Five US military personnel have died fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS’s battlefield defeats have cost it precious resources. The group’s loss of oil fields and the taxes it imposed on subjects, as well as effective international counter–money-laundering efforts, have halved its revenue from an estimated $1.9 billion to an estimated $870 million, according to a report by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence. “With current trends continuing, the Islamic State’s ‘business model’ will soon fail,” said the report.
“The US and local partners are certainly having short-term success,” said Robert Ford, a former US diplomat who served as envoy to Syria and deputy ambassador to Iraq. “They’ve taken territory back. They’ve put a crimp in its finances. ISIS had to change its entire narrative.”
The victories aren’t pretty. It took Syrian rebels backed by Turkish ground forces and US aircraft six months of grueling conflict before they were able to enter and nearly seize control al-Bab over the last two days. Five dozen Turkish soldiers and as many as 400 Syrian rebels, along with hundreds of civilians, were killed.
But the Trump administration’s focus on the military plan ignores the phenomenon of ISIS attacks abroad and the one element of the current strategy that has been a failure: political reconciliation between various actors whose grievances were exploited by the jihadi group. Opponents and supporters of Syria’s Assad remain at war, with Syria’s Kurds carving out an enclave resented by the country’s majority Arabs and NATO ally Turkey. And Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds remain hostile to each other and have yet to resolve longstanding political grievances.
“You’d be really hard-pressed to point to political success,” said Ford. “The military side of this is very easy to fix but the political, social, and economic dimension is very difficult to fix. It’s not something a series of drone strikes could address.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump said he was willing to work with Assad and Russia to eliminate the ISIS threat, a major departure from the Obama administration which said both needed to leave Syria. During a March debate, Trump suggested it could take as many as 30,000 troops to defeat ISIS but didn't specify whether they had to be American.
"I would listen to the generals," he said during the debate.