Foreign Relations & International Law

U.S. May Deploy More Troops to Syria, Iran’s Presidential Campaign Season Begins, and Experts Warn against U.S. Escalation in Yemen

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, April 25, 2017, 11:43 AM

Trump Says Fighting Islamic State in Syria May Require More U.S. Troops

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Trump Says Fighting Islamic State in Syria May Require More U.S. Troops

In an interview with the Associated Press on his first 100 days in office, President Donald Trump declined to discuss details of his plan for defeating the Islamic State but said it would involve the deployment of more U.S. troops. Regarding the plan itself, Trump said he was wary of saying too much, returning to a talking point from his stump speeches about giving away the element of surprise. “We are still fighting Mosul,” he said to explain not discussing his strategy. “You know why? Because they [the Islamic State] were prepared. If we would have gone in and just done it, it would have been over three months ago.” But Trump said his plan would likely involve more U.S. troops. “It could be an increase, then an increase. But not many more,” he told the AP. “I want to do the job, but not many more.”

Trump’s concerns about giving away the element of surprise are ridiculous. The broad strokes of the plan to push the Islamic State out of its population centers in Mosul and Raqqa are already proceeding, largely along the lines set out by the Obama administration. U.S.-backed rebels in Syria are continuing efforts to isolate Raqqa. Previous reporting suggested that a more aggressive push toward the city would come after the Turkish constitutional referendum that took place on April 16, and Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria, said recently that he expects the fight to be underway by the start of the summer. The Islamic State knows what’s coming, and has been fortifying the city and also preparing to fall back to Deir Ezzour. The Wall Street Journal reported the Islamic State’s contingency planning in December. This isn’t D-Day; everyone knows an offensive to retake Raqqa is coming, especially the Islamic State.

The one point of clarification that Trump provided is that the offensive will require additional troops, likely in more incremental deployments. That could involve the 2,500 U.S. paratroopers recently sent to Kuwait that Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson said would be “postured there to do all things Mosul, Raqqa, all in between.” There are currently approximately 900 U.S. troops in Syria, including roughly 500 Special Forces working closely with Syrian rebels and 400 Marines providing artillery support.

This isn’t D-Day; everyone knows an offensive to retake Raqqa is coming, especially the Islamic State.

The discussion of further U.S. troop deployments reinforces persistent concerns about mission creep. Those concerns are warranted—especially given how vague plans are for restoring governance and security after the Islamic State has been pushed out of Raqqa. Trump may have campaigned as an isolationist, but he has surrounded himself with advisors like National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who rose through the ranks fighting the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. And there is every indication that eastern Syria will be a counterinsurgency environment as the Islamic State shifts from holding territory to guerrilla and terrorist tactics. Counterinsurgency strategy is notoriously open-ended and requires large commitments of forces; the influential Counterinsurgency Field Manual developed by Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Col. John Nagl during the Iraq war calls for a minimum of 20 troops per 1,000 residents in the area of operations. Critics of McMaster within the administration have claimed that he has advocated sending “tens of thousands of ground troops” to reinforce the fight against the Islamic State. It’s unclear how many troops the United States is willing to contribute, but it’s doubtful that the Syrian Democratic Forces has the manpower or training to implement a counterinsurgency strategy without more U.S. forces.

Iran Announces Slate of Candidates for Election

Iran’s Guardian Council announced the six candidates that will be allowed to compete in the country’s presidential election. The roster looks good for the incumbent candidate, President Hassan Rouhani, who will be running for a second term. He faces little challenge from fellow reformist candidates; one of the other candidates is his own vice president, who has said he is only running in support of Rouhani. Among the opposition candidates, the hardline vote will likely be split between the popular mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. With the announcement of the candidates, the country has now begun its mercifully brief campaign season, which will last until elections are held on May 19.

Rouhani will not face a challenge from former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite his application to run this year. Ahmadinejad’s decision to register for candidacy was a surprise to many—Khamenei himself had warned him not to last year—but, as Brookings’ Suzanne Maloney wrote, it could have been a play to improve the chances of his deputy, Hamid Baghaei, making it to the ballot. In the end, neither Ahmadinejad or Baghaei made the Guardian Council’s cut. The two men issued a public letter on Sunday saying they would not endorse any candidate.

Over the next month, Rouhani will have to defend the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which has not delivered on expectations in Iran for a strong economic recovery and is coming under increasing criticism from the Trump administration. Speaking at a press conference with the Italian prime minister last week, Trump said Iran is “not living up to the spirit of the agreement” and complained that the deal should never have been signed. When asked by the AP if he thinks the United States will stay in the agreement, Trump said, “It's possible that we won't.”

Experts Warn Against Planned U.S. Escalation in Yemen

The Yemeni military, backed by the Saudi-led intervention force, is preparing to launch its attack on the port city of Hodeida soon. “President Hadi has rejected many calls to put off the offensive. Soldiers are ready to attack the city, but waiting for the green light from the president,” Major Mohsen Khasrouf, an official in the Yemeni military, told Gulf News. U.S. officials have signaled that they could play a larger role in the offensive.

Rights groups have warned that the battle for Hodeida could push Yemen into a widespread famine. Others have warned that it will sink the United States deeper into an unwinnable war.

That has experts concerned for a slew of reasons. Rights groups have warned that the battle for Hodeida could push Yemen into a widespread famine. Others have warned that it will sink the United States deeper into an unwinnable war. “The conflict in Yemen...showcases the many flawed assumptions of U.S. policy in the broader Middle East, from a hyper-exaggerated focus on sectarianism to the fatal tendency to internationalize otherwise local conflicts,” Kevin L. Schwartz wrote last week for War on the Rocks. He argues that U.S. support for the Saudi intervention has made the United States “a willing and accepting party to the sectarian justifications guiding the Saudi mission” and that the war has created “a feedback loop of sectarianism.”

There’s also the issue that, even if the war succeeds in restoring the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the United States will have only succeeded in reinstating another unreliable counterterrorism partner as the head of state of one of the Middle East’s most terrorism-plagued nations. Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted by during the Arab Spring, was dogged by suspicion and accusations that he was quietly supporting elements of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, even while he was giving the United States authority to carry out strikes against the group; in recent years, he has realigned himself with the Houthis. Now Hadi has mobilized groups with ties to AQAP and the Islamic State in his fight against the Houthi-Saleh axis. “Despite years of US airstrikes, al-Qaeda is so fully integrated into local power structures and political life that it’s hard for those fighting the Houthis not to rely on its fighters. This suggests that a military approach alone will do little to diminish AQAP’s grip in Yemen,” Just Security’s Kate Brannen writes.

It will also take more than a military approach to end the civil war, Katherine Zimmerman of AEI’s Critical Threats Project has argued. “The U.S. must simultaneously pressure the al Houthis to accept a reasonable offer of negotiations and, ultimately, peace,” she wrote in February. “America must push partners to focus on defeating AQAP and ISIS rather than cutting temporary deals for support against the al Houthis—as Hadi has in central Yemen—or simply ignoring their presence on the battlefield. And the U.S. must lead the efforts to broker resolutions to the myriad of local conflicts that would otherwise quickly collapse any national-level settlement.”

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare. He is also an instructor at the Naval War College and a PhD candidate at Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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