Three months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the newly emerging picture of the fight against the Islamic State seems to be single-mindedly focused on military victories at the expense of more daring and complicated political talks to underpin sustainable and long-term solutions. President Trump has not yet come up with a comprehensive counter-ISIS strategy, which poses difficulties for the European Union trying to adapt its own position to shifting American priorities.
Yet, there are already indicators hinting which way President Trump is headed and the hints are not good. At the same time, more questions are emerging regarding the probability of success of President Trump’s new strategy to the Middle East. For Europeans, this should already be enough to have food for some serious thought and to ponder the areas of prioritization.
First of all, the Trump administration has loosened the rules of engagement that the Obama administration initiated already late last year but which are now more aggressively implemented. This change in policy has resulted in an upsurge in civilian casualties – according to Airwars, an organization tracking airstrikes, US-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq have killed almost 1,200 civilians so far this year. Second, the new US administration has visibly disengaged from the various political processes and shows no inclination to get involved in tackling the underlying problems feeding state collapse across the Middle East. Moreover, the White House has announced budget cuts to the State Department and USAID amounting to $26.5 billion, which will impact post-conflict reconstruction.
On top of the changes in the rules of the game, the Trump administration has launched anti-Iran sentiment, which will likely distract attention from anti-ISIS efforts as well as provoke a predictable response from Tehran. There are already reports of intensified military presence in Yemen. In Iraq, this will probably boost Iran’s efforts to tighten its grip on the country’s political and security institutions. Although the West has learned through its numerous engagements in the Middle East that the regional conflicts can only be solved through local ownership, Washington has newly called for increasing the number of US ground troops into Syria, which will likely trigger polarization.
For Europe, these developments mean that the Union must reprioritize its own activities, which will include an emphasis on the political dimension of the anti-ISIS fight in terms of greater efforts to deal with core governance issues. The EU will also have to increase ownership in terms of money and commitment as well as renew its attention to the multilateral diplomatic track needed to get key regional players aligned behind common goals. While Europeans got used to waiting for American leadership and direction, this time the US administration’s actions may not be beneficial or may not be coming at all.
‘Six Problems with Trump’s Anti-ISIS Strategy’ – Commentary by Julien Barnes-Dacey – European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
(The Commentary can be downloaded here)