OK, What’s the Day After Plan?
Terry H. Schwadron
Oct. 18, 2017
Formal notice may still be forthcoming, but it seems clear that Raqqa, the Syrian city that has been the declared capital of an Islamic caliphate, has fallen to the American-backed Syrian and Kurdish forces. Effectively, this is the moment that ISIS loses its physical grip on northern Syria and Iraq, though obviously not the end of their terrorism, both local and exported.
The U.S. Central Command stopped short of declaring victory, according to reports, but acknowledged that 90 percent of the city is under control of the Syrian Kurds an Arabs. There were still some pockets of resistance, and many ISIS fighters had fled into the countryside.
For sure, we will be hearing trumpeting by President Trump that he, and not his predecessor, or even those on the ground, found the singular path to victory over ISIS, a military achievement that was all but assured as soon as U.S. personnel showed up with supporting aircraft and organized participating Syrian and Iraqi personnel.
But even as street celebrations were reported in Raqqa among those who lived for these years under the repressive rule of ISIS members who beheaded and assailed city resident for even the most minor offenses, the obvious question is hanging in the air: What’s Next.
Syrian Democratic Forces officers insisted to reporters by phone that they had taken control, short of mop-up operations that remain dangerous with improvised explosives booby traps and buried unexploded ammunition, all of which could take years to discover and disarm. Clearly there have been very tough battles, including house-by-house war in Mosul and other cities, and the return of oil wells and residential areas to Syrian, Kurdish and Iraqi control.
Thus, we are arriving at the moment for which candidate Trump was unceasingly critical of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sure, she could have helped rebels in Libya, but what about The Day After — why had Clinton given no direction for what should happen next, and leaving a mess from which more militants eventually could emerge. Likewise, Trump attacked former President Obama for leaving Iraq abruptly without sufficient thought about The Day After.
So, we can rightly ask: Mr. Trump, what’s the plan here?
Here is a quick look at what we have:
· Kurds and Iraqi forces were clashing in the North of Iraq, specifically over the rights of Kurds to form a separate country, or a country within a country, with control extending from Turkey (and eventually into Turkey) through the city of Kirkuk, an oil center. Predictably, Iraq as a state wants to hold onto Kirkuk and its oil as part of its overall lagging economy. Both the Kurds and the Iraqis have American backing and U.S. weapons, and the United States wants to remain neutral, according to the President, and hopes that the parties find common ground. The Kurdish view towards self-identity and separate status has been alive for decades, and threatens more violence not only with Iraq but with Turkey as well. Once again, the United States is allied with Turkey, which vows never to cede an inch to a separate Kurdish nation. It is about here in the narrative that I want to point out that if we had a full, functioning State Department and a steady hand at the tiller that we might play negotiator rather than hoping for a non-violent outcome.
· On the Syrian side of the border, we have any number of isolated and separate interests, the largest of which is the Russian-backed Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, clearly a target for removal for the United States. Trump has been far less explicit about Assad’s future than had been Obama. As things stand now, Russian troops and aircraft are poised to help Assad repel any continued anti-Assad rebellion in the country. There appears to be no U.S. plan, and Trump’s insistence on self-action without real coordination with European allies virtually guarantees Assad’s continued control in whatever remains of Syria.
· Iran’s role in all of these conflicts has been unabated, with Iranian money and support for Hezbollah fighters in Syria. Iran is playing on ethnic differences among Arab populations to oppose U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia in Syria and in the expanding conflicts in Yemen; that conflict continues to spread into the politics of the Emirates. The United States has tried to influence agreement of Saudi and several countries in the region with Bahrain, which the United States has said is a major funder of terrorism.
· ISIS itself may have ceded property in this years-long campaign for a caliphate, but actually has proved a much stronger opponent to the West by sponsoring individual acts of terrorism in Europe and the United States. It has continued to recruit localized followers in Belgium, France, Germany, Britain and the United States, using the Internet in ways that western powers cannot seem to stop.
· Finally, away from the ISIS conflict is the ever-present conflicts involving Israel and is Mideast Arab neighbors who continue to want different bad things for Israel on an ever-changing and almost country-by-country basis. Meanwhile, President Trump both supports provocative settlements policies of Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu and any possible peace plan, even those that require permanent occupation of former Arab areas of Gaza and the West Bank by Israel. And Arab rivals Fatah and Hamas are announcing they are burying any disagreement to face Israel together.
In short, as we acknowledge the good news of a defeat in Raqqa, perhaps we should be asking that fundamental question of the President: What’s the plan for The Day After?