More U.S. special operations forces to Iraq? More U.S. troops in Syria? Stay in Afghanistan? Calm Turkey or stick with the Syrian Kurdish forces doing the fighting? Try for both?
Welcome to Trump’s foreign policy options: same as the old ones, only more so.
President-elect Trump takes office with no shortage of global conflicts. The question is what his arrival at the White House will mean for their handling. And the truth is, no one knows.
What is clear is that Syria is on fire and the war shows no signs of ending any time soon. “Assad must go” as a stated policy likely is gone, based on Trump’s recent statements about the undesirability of toppling dictators. Russia’s backing of the Syrian regime and its commitment to shaping facts on the ground has carried the day. Assad will now outlast President Barack Obama in office and may do the same with Trump. There is talk of a Syrian transition of power once the war, but no departure date looks imminent.
The most immediate question is whether Trump stays with current Obama policy or will decide to do anything more. Will he continue to have others do the fighting and pair with a hotpot of local forces to achieve the stated military objective — in this case, toppling the Islamic State, or, at the least, routing them from Raqqa? Right now U.S. forces are working alongside Syrian Kurdish militias, a fighting force U.S. special operations leaders see as effective and competent. In the process of this pairing, America is earning the ire of Turkey, which considers these forces linked to Kurdish separatists leading an insurgency against the Turkish government. Turkey has spoken plainly of its anger about America’s battlefield friends and even has raised the idea of ending U.S. access to Incirlik air base because of them.
Thus far, the U.S. has been able to quiet Turkey’s concerns, but it is unclear whether the casserole of a coalition the U.S. has assembled to fight ISIS can stay together in the run-up to a Raqqa campaign. Already Turkey is saying that it expects some changes to come when Trump takes over.
“I have the impression that a Trump administration will take Turkey’s sensitivities on this issue (Incirlik) more into account,” the Turkish presidential spokesman told French media.
For their part, special operations forces focused on the region say they do not know what exactly to expect. Right now they are planning on pushing ahead with the Raqqa campaign with the forces they have, including the Syrian Kurds. But no one I have spoken with can say with certainty what policy will be come later this year. And no one expects the Raqqa campaign to be either swift or easy.
In the meantime, the fight in Afghanistan is neither ending nor going away. Obama this week noted that “Afghanistan is still active” and, for Afghans, that is quite an understatement. Earlier this week, as Afghans took to the streets to protest ISIS, an Afghan counterterrorism official noted that the terrorist group is “present in at least 11 (of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces). Their main goal is to create sectarian divisions between the locals.”
Soon Trump will have to decide at what level to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Like his decisions on Syria, few know where he will end up given that he has spoke out both against extended American military interventions and nation-building and vowed to defeat ISIS.
Unpredictability is guaranteed. Stability, less so.