Anti-ISIS Ops in Syria and Iraq at a Standstill, Waiting for Trump
The conventional wisdom in Washington, Moscow and Middle East capitals was that the US-led Iraqi-Kurdish-Shiite offensive to retake Mosul and the impending coalition operation on Raqqa were timed to accomplish the expulsion of the Islamic State from its main Iraqi and Syrian strongholds before Barack Obama’s departure. They were designed to become the centerpiece of his legacy, as DEBKA Weekly reported in previous issues.
Obama, along with knowledgeable intelligence and military circles in the region, including Islamic State, took it for granted that Hillary Clinton would succeed him in the White House and she would carry on where he left off.
But Donald Trump’s unforeseen election as next US president stunned and upended that plan, deflated the prime movers in those conflicts and tossed them into uncharted terrain.
It has left the Pentagon and the US Central Command chiefs at a loss on how to proceed. The forces, which for more than three weeks, focused on searching and clearing areas liberated from ISIS around Mosul, have come to a standstill. No one in Baghdad, Irbil, Tehran or Ankara has any notion of the new US president’s plans for the offensive.
Only last week, they all heard him hammering US leaders for the way it was planned. At a campaign event in Florida, Trump said he was convinced the offensive led by Iraqi military was launched for “political reasons.”
“Whatever happened to the element of surprise, right?” he thundered. “What a group of losers, we have. And now it’s a very tough battle.”
He went on to declare: “We need different thinking in this country, folks, they should have kept their mouths shut,” he said. He then asked a most telling rhetorical question: “Who benefits by us getting Mosul.”
Would this prove to be Trump’s exit line for the Mosul offensive?
The impression conveyed by the soon-to-president elect was that he believes the Mosul operation to have been misguided and botched, and the efforts invested by the Obama administration, Iraq, Iran (through its Shiite proxies) and the Kurdish militia for evicting ISIS from the city to be a waste of time.
Even worse, Trump appeared to be convinced that there is nothing to be gained militarily from a long, complicated ground war against ISIS, because after the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, the jihadists would just withdraw to the desert and continue to attack those cities from there.
Obama’s presidential directive set December 20 as the deadline for the Mosul offensive to end. But it is already obvious that this timeline is unrealistic. So, one way or another, this hot potato will drop in the future president’s lap.
In internal discussions before the elections, the Republican candidate’s defense advisers weighed the option of special operations forces executing lighting assassination strikes targeting high-profile ISIS figures at their command centers and hideouts, as a means of disabling their fighting machine.
The team taking part in those sessions included Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee; Jim Talent, a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Military Readiness and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; and Gen. Michael Flynn, former Defense Intelligence Agency director.
However, this kind of operation, they concluded, could not take off any time soon. First, a special US unit would have to be trained and prepared; Trump would have to assume office as President, appoint a defense secretary and give the order for this tactic to be introduced.
It would also have to fit in with the new administration’s broader policy positions. Revision of the anti-ISIS war tactics in Syria and Iraq would necessitate coordination with the powers already in place, i.e. Russia and Iran, and therefore derive from the incoming president’s overall strategy in relation to those two governments.
Will Trump decide to go along with the Obama policy of assenting to the Russian-Iranian political and military partnership in the Middle East? Or will he try to separate the two allies by offering to collaborate with Putin on other issues?
All these questions are liable to remain unanswered until such time as Donald Trump is well ensconced in the White House -that is, not before early spring 2017.