6 March 2017

To annihilate ISIS, Trump will have to cross Putin

By Benny Avni

So how’s President Trump doing on his promise to defeat ISIS? Well, it’s complicated.

In Iraq, for now, the United States is mostly drawing on the existing strategy left behind by President Barack Obama, which is finally showing some good results: There’ll be more blood, but ISIS will soon be out of Mosul, where the Islamist terror group initially showed the world that it’s no “JV team.”

But Trump’s promise was more ambitious, and since the election he instructed the Pentagon to draw new plans to “totally obliterate ISIS.”

And to do that, a deeper US involvement in Syria is needed. As long as the self-declared Islamic State controls Raqqa, Syria, its capital, declaring victory over the terrorist group will sound hollow.

And beating ISIS in Syria’s a bit more complicated, diplomatically and strategically, than doing so in Iraq.

Obama’s refusal to enforce his infamous Syrian “red line” in effect announced the United States would sit out the half-decade civil war there. Others rushed in to fill the vacuum.

Start with Russia. Obama’s balk made President Vladimir Putin Syria’s kingmaker. Russia became our supposed “partner” in the war on terror, and took the lead in the Syrian theater, even though defeating ISIS never really was the Kremlin’s top goal.

Instead, Russia entered the fray to save Syria’s blood-soaked President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow deputized Iran as a proxy, which opened the door for the mullahs to send their own proxies — Hezbollah and other Shiite fighters, including Afghani veterans — to serve as cannon fodder.

In response, the region’s Sunnis got off the sidelines — our allies, the Kurds; their nemesis, the Turks, a NATO ally; the Saudis and other Gulfies.

So now that Syria’s so crowded, how can the United States elbow its way in? Cautiously, says the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano.

“Once the [ISIS] black flag is down in Raqqa, our goals in Syria should be very limited,” says Carafano, who advised Trump’s transition team on national security. Limited, as in assuring no new flood of refugees. Or preventing Hezbollah and Iran from gaining a foothold on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, right across from Israel.

Iran’s presence on the Golan is a no-no, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Trump in their recent meeting. According to several sources, Trump agreed.

But the Iranians won’t. “The US should be careful and Israel should grieve,” says Esmail Qaani, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces, the group charged with exporting the Iranian revolution.

In a recent speech, translated from the Farsi by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Saeed Ghasseminejad, Qaani added that for the “resistance” (Iran and its proxies), Syria is just the beginning. “Our end goal is to govern the whole world,” he said.

That may sound overly ambitious, but when further translated from the Farsi it sounds more like: by all means, hit our competitors, the Sunni terrorists of ISIS, but keep clear of our proxy Shiite terrorists.

Meanwhile, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war has deepened its strategic ties to Iran. Driving a wedge between the two would be a boon to US national security, but it’s also unlikely at the moment.

Trump’s detractors say the new president and Putin are uncomfortably close. But they should fear not: Any bromance is likely to fizzle once Trump realizes just how much the two countries’ strategic imperatives diverge. Remember how Obama told then-President Dmitry Medvedev that after his 2012 reelection, he’ll have “more flexibility” in his dealings with Putin? Yeah, that didn’t happen either.

So, true, deeper involvement in Syria won’t be pretty or uncomplicated. But defeating ISIS won’t be possible without it. The Pentagon is said to be close to completing its plans, and let’s hope those will be more vigorous, imaginative and unpredictable (Trump’s favorite strategy) than the ones that so far led us to — at best — a stalemate.

The world longs for US-led victories. So do most Americans. Defeating ISIS in Syria, while dealing Iran a setback, would be a good start. This is one election promise that’s worth keeping.

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