The Trump Administration vs. ISIS: Will this new strategy work

With this week’s uptick of the Trump administration rhetoric against North Korea, it’s critical our country’s national security apparatus keep its attention on our top foe, ISIS. Since this month, the new administration has sought to be proactively military in many fronts. And, as global analysts were still trying to understand the ramifications of recent U.S. airstrikes in Syria, news broke of a fresh assault on ISIS operatives in Afghanistan. This wasn’t just a routine military power move, but the first-ever known use of an MOAB, otherwise known as the “mother of all bombs.” With this strike, President Trump sent a strong message of decisiveness, and yet, as with every move that he makes, he leaves in his wake a critically divided country.

For instance, the majority of those who voted for Trump did so on the promise of ‘America First,’ a renewed focus on the American working class, and a definitive end to all foreign U.S. intervention. Meanwhile, his opponents cited his lack of empathy towards immigrants, refugees, and foreigners, especially those of Muslim backgrounds. Trump’s Middle East foreign policy approach has been problematic, to say the least, and this latest move has left all sides confused and confounded. But what does this unprecedented change in Trump’s Syria strategy actually translate to on the ground?

In order to answer this question, we need to be able to visualize how this decision plays into the United States’ long game strategy. Of course, the only problem  is that no one is really quite sure what that long game might be or whether Trump even has one, despite his campaign claims of a secret plan to defeat ISIS “very, very quickly,” and his statements  that “containing the spread of radical Islam must be a major foreign policy goal of the United States and indeed the world.”

Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine a scenario where the U.S. swiftly and effectively terminates this threat. This is primarily because governments, often blinded by their bureaucratic nature and limitations, are ill-fitted to tackle the complex set of issues that come with attempting to eradicate a problem as multi-faceted as radicalization. Couple these inherent limitations with an administration that is profoundly uniformed and uninterested in nuance, and we can safely assume that no real solutions will be coming our way anytime soon.

A major mistake that most make when attempting to “defeat ISIS” is that they adopt a tunnel vision approach, becoming too engrossed with eradicating Daesh’s physical presence in Syria and elsewhere. What they fail to realise is that ISIS is a symptom of a much larger problem, and not the problem itself. While military advances will most definitely hurt Daesh financially and strategically, they will ultimately fail to stamp out their extremist roots, instead engaging in a vicious cycle of military muscle and terror attacks.

Consequently, what we need now is for global forces to focus their energies toward debilitating the branch of ISIS that, in our view, is the primary threat: the manifestation of ISIS-inspired ideology that has permeated, through the medium of ever-advancing technology, the very fabric of Western societies. Even in the event that we defeat Daesh territorially, this virtual strain of ISIS will come back to haunt us again and again.

What makes this breed of extremist ideology so incredibly dangerous is that it sanctions those individuals who have a predisposed tendency towards radicalization to commit low-tech, high-impact terror attacks, independently of Daesh or its physical presence. This is the kind of extremist ideology that sees the British extremist, Khalid Masood, ramming a car into pedestrians outside the UK Parliament, or an Omar Mateen shooting and killing 49 people inside a club in Orlando, or a married couple attempting to bomb an office Christmas party in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people.

ISIS likely didn’t send these people over to the West to commit these acts—they did this of their own volition. The FBI describes these perpetrators as homegrown violent extremists. And not only will this kind of homegrown terrorism continue to occur despite Daesh’s physical termination, it is likely to flourish as ISIS doubles down on their remaining factions in retaliation. Furthermore, the emergence of new self-starters, sometimes with direct and often times with indirect connections to ISIS, has high probability that this will be an emerging trend for the foreseeable future.

In light of all this, does President Trump’s vague Syria strategy give the impression that it might do anything to help curb the spread of ISIS? In short, no. But might it help stabilize the region? If we play our cards right, possibly. Not everything is Iraq, and controlled military action does not automatically entail regime change and nor does it have to.

America’s primary goal in the Middle East should be to build enough pressure on key players—Assad, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah respectively—in order for them to come to some semblance of a power-sharing treaty. Only once some form of stability is reached should strategically removing ISIS from the region become a priority. Presently, dealing with a complex regional power struggle while simultaneously clashing with ISIS on the side might land the U.S. in a messy situation, and may actually play right into the hands of Assad by taking the problem of ISIS off his plate.

Territorially, ISIS appears to be nearing its natural death, but as the ‘Caliphate’ collapses and ISIS enters a new mutation, we must be realistic about where the true threat to our security and stability lies. It doesn’t lie in the material or territorial gains of ISIS on Syrian or Iraqi land, but in the hearts and minds of vulnerable young Muslim men and women the world over, and this is where we must strike it down.

Whatever the Trump Administration ends up doing, they must ensure that their actions, military or otherwise, do not end up creating a power vacuum that could be easily manipulated by an Assad v2.0. Of course, in the long game strategy, we absolutely want to obliterate Daesh’s physical presence. But for now, let’s do what our new President claims he does best: deals.

Muhammad Fraser-Rahim is the Executive Director (North America) at Quilliam International and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.