With the liberation of Mosul and now Tal Afar from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), the strategy of former US President Barack Obama finally bears fruit. In Syria as well, ISIS finds itself with its back against the wall as Kurdish-led PYD and SDF forces make their way through Raqqa and close in on (along with Assad regime forces from another direction) Deir ez-Zor.
Obama’s strategy against ISIS, as with many of his policies, centered on a cautious, methodical approach. Washington under Mr. Obama carefully cultivated as many allies as possible for the fight, including mutually antagonistic ones like the Syrian Kurds and Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia and others. He avoided placing significant numbers of American troops into the fight, thereby denying ISIS the propaganda war against the Crusaders it yearned for. With local allies, unrelenting but careful air strikes and patience, Mr. Obama laid the noose around ISIS and left his successor the comparatively easy job of maintaining pressure on it to pull it tight.
With ISIS being rapidly erased from the map, current US President Trump may now face a trickier challenge than his predecessor. Just as removing Saddam from power in Iraq turned out to be the easy part compared to reconstituting the country, what comes after ISIS poses more intractable problems.
The government in Baghdad shows almost no signs of making good on promises to share power with Sunnis and Kurds. Although Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi may well be willing, he lacks the power to bring the rest of the Shiite leaders around him on board with such an approach. The kind of Iraqi governance that created ISIS will thus likely breed more problems of a similar nature.
At the same time, Kurdish patience with Baghdad — given that supporting Abadi in August 2014 was pedaled to the Kurds as “One last try to make Iraq work” — seems to have come to an end. The Kurdish referendum on independence scheduled for September 25 should thus come as a surprise to no one.
With ISIS defanged, Iran can also be expected to redouble its efforts to expand its influence westwards all the way to the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aden. With Tehran’s shadow looming large over Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and even Sana’a, the Iranian crescent appears to waxing rather than waning.
In Syria, the civil war goes on although the pace of carnage appears to have slowed down somewhat. As the Assad regime reasserts control in more and more areas of the country, Washington will have to decide whether or not they are prepared to acquiesce to an Assad victory. Given all that they have invested in Assad, such an outcome would also prove a Russian and Iranian victory.
Turkey, meanwhile, has for all intents and purposes ceased to be Western or democratic. The commander of NATO’s second largest army revels in anti-western tirades, places coup suspects in pre-trial detention that can now last up to seven years before they see a judge, threatens European “allies” every second day, indulges in Islamist rhetoric and conspiracy theories, and brooks no internal dissent from any quarter. Turkish-backed forces fire on American-Kurdish patrols in parts of Syria, and President Erdogan no longer speaks of overthrowing Assad but instead focuses on his wish to erase the Syrian Kurds from his southern border.
These are all problems that, unlike ISIS, the Obama administration did not prove willing to ever really address. The Obama administration’s willful blindness and muteness facilitated Turkey’s march towards fascism, wishful thinking failed to contain Iran, complete neglect allowed Iraq to go off the rails and stay there, and prudence to the point of folly prevented Washington from supporting moderate Syrian Sunni Arab rebels early enough, while they still existed.
The Trump administration therefore, faces some difficult choices now. The threat that ISIS posed to America pales in comparison to an expansionist and revisionist Iran in control of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. An anti-Western and increasingly Islamist Turkey should not be counted upon to help in this, as such an antidote may prove worse than the poison.
Under such conditions, the world will soon see if Mr. Trump is the great strategist and Machiavellian thinker he claims to be. If he is, he will have to take bolder action than his careful predecessor. He might start by thinking more about what American support for Kurdish independence from Iraq would do to Iranian plans in the area. Or he could ask himself what American support for autonomy in PYD/SDF-held parts of Syria might do to check both Assad and Iran. In either case, Washington need not worry that empowered Kurdish forces will breed anti-American Islamism similar to what occurs in Iran, the Arab world or today’s Turkey.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.