(The Guardian newspaper ) From what we know so far, Donald Trump’s foreign policy as president of the United States will cut back the “costly US engagements” in the Middle East. Institution and state-building initiatives will be reduced, if not ended entirely. The war on Isis will continue, but mostly from the skies through continued, perhaps intensified, airstrikes on targets in Iraq and Syria. And his administration is likely to negotiate a deal with the Assad regime and its patrons in Russia.
All this could bring an end to the so-called caliphate but will not “crush” Isis itself. Isis was born from conflict and will survive the barrage of bombs coming its way. Without US stabilisation efforts and focus on the rule of law and good governance in post-conflict zones, Isis (along with a plethora of other militant groups in the region) will continue to find the space and resources to mobilise and, therefore, threaten US interests.
The Middle East Trump faces is very different to the one that confronted his predecessors. The region’s state-centric order has been undermined – states have either collapsed or have been severely compromised; it is armed groups and violent non-state actors that are increasingly dominating political and security structures, rather than the conventional armed forces that once existed and reported to the regimes with which the US historically cooperated.
Isis may no longer govern territory in the way it did over the past two years, but it will almost certainly continue to enjoy the space to rebuild and reorganise. And what would follow Isis is unclear. Under pressure, the group may splinter into different groups or – alternatively, amalgamate with other jihadi movements to present a concerted and unified front.
Unless Trump plans to sit down and negotiate with armed groups in the region, his only viable option is to help establish credible, respected and legitimate political structures in Syria and Iraq. It is capacity-building that stabilises countries, revitalises local economies and brings in foreign investment to help rehabilitate destroyed towns and cities, and ensures that jihadi and other militant groups are unable to swell their ranks with the weak and impoverished.
Globalisation and the mobilising capacity of social media means it is no longer plausible to speak of remote threats.
Short-term fixes may contain Isis but will not contain the group’s transnational threat. Globalisation and the mobilising capacity of social media means it is no longer plausible to speak of remote threats. Defeating groups like Isis and eliminating the threat of jihadi groups requires not just wining the war but also winning the peace.
Granted, the US has invested heavily in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and with disastrous costs. However, while there is no appetite for and no logical reason to deploy tens of thousands of US military personnel again, that does not mean there has to be a shift to the other extreme.
There are significant interactions between the humanitarian and security components of the war on Isis. Stabilisation enables a stronger security environment and political stability, which enables the alleviation of humanitarian crises. US engagement in recent months, for instance, has helped alleviate ethnic and sectarian tensions between Iraq’s rival factions and can be replicated in Syria.
The Assad regime may have to be part of a settlement to the conflict, but that does not mean giving that regime, Russia and Iran carte blanche. It is Assad and his regime’s actions that have enabled Isis to become what it is today. It has killed hundreds of thousands in comparison to the several thousand that Isis has. With or without a deal, there are at least 100,000 Syrian fighters dedicated to overthrowing the regime.
The notion of handing over responsibility for regional and international security to Russia, to the despots and authoritarian regimes that Trump believes will be “good at fighting terrorism” has dangerous security implications for the US and the international community at large. It shifts the balance of power in the region further in favour of America’s rivals, and provides them with increased leverage in respect of conflicts and disputes outside of the Middle East.
What is to prevent Russia from using its increased influence in the Middle East against US interests in Europe or in the Asia-Pacific? What is to prevent China capitalising on a significantly altered security framework and the uncertainties it brings? Trump will need to be far more creative and ambitious. It is good governance and stabilisation efforts, alongside a military strategy, that will prevent Isis re-emerging – not an inward looking America that, as much it tries, cannot protect itself from transnational threats by disconnecting from the interconnected world we live in.