The Corner

National Security & Defense

Trump Looks Set to Escalate the Fight Against ISIS

After more than two years of slow-motion war against ISIS in Syria — a long fight that allowed the world’s largest terrorist organization to maintain city-sized safe havens in the Middle East — it looks increasingly like the Trump administration is ready to get far more aggressive:

The U.S. military has drawn up early plans that would deploy up to 1,000 more troops into northern Syria in the coming weeks, expanding the American presence in the country ahead of the offensive on the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, according to U.S. defense officials familiar with the matter.

The deployment, if approved by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and President Trump, would potentially double the number of U.S. forces in Syria and increase the potential for direct U.S. combat involvement in a conflict that has been characterized by confusion and competing priorities among disparate forces.


The new Syria deployments are set to occur in tandem with a likely White House decision that would officially abolish the troop caps that were put in place for U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria by the Obama administration. The number of troops in Iraq and Syria were officially capped by the previous administration at about 5,000 and 500, respectively. Military commanders have said in the past that the caps have split up units for the sake of keeping troop numbers low.

“If the caps were removed, it would allow us to fight as we train,” said the defense official who discussed the potential surge. “Military doctrine promotes agility, and it would help us respond as conditions dictate.”

I’ve said this before, but from a national-security perspective, the fight on the ground in Syria and Iraq is far, far more important than anything that happens in court regarding the Trump administration travel ban. This is partly because of ISIS’s own deliberate, strategic decision to break with al-Qaeda and implement a strategy that depends on taking and holding ground. Here’s an important reminder of the distinctions from Graeme Wood’s seminal 2015 piece, “What ISIS Really Wants.”

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.) [Emphasis added.]

It was ISIS’s ability to govern territory that helped fire the imagination of potential jihadists in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and beyond. There, at last, was a real “nation” they could move to. There was a real jihadist army they could join. They weren’t hiding in the shadows, they were running cities, and they were proving the strength of ISIS’s religious message every day. ISIS, for its part, could use the resources of its quasi-state to train fighters, direct terror campaigns, and implement its own vision of Islamic rule.

Crushing ISIS means more than just defeating a terrorist army, it means dealing a staggering blow to a previously compelling jihadist idea. It means crushing the morale of thousands of jihadists and potential jihadists. As much as we need the best possible vetting and border controls, we need to attack jihadism at its source even more.

We’ll soon see if Trump approves the Pentagon’s new plan, and it should be made very clear that the plan isn’t without considerable risks of its own — including getting entangled in costly and dangerous ground-combat operations — but ISIS is edging closer to the decisive battle with its infidel enemies it claims that it wants. I don’t believe that battle will have the outcome ISIS desires.

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