President Donald Trump talked a tough game against ISIS during the election campaign. Defeating the Islamist terror group that has inflicted widespread carnage on the people of Iraq and Syria became the focal point of his foreign policy speeches.
Candidate Trump promised to implement his own “secret plan” to obliterate ISIS militants. (Undeniable shades of Richard Nixon.) The details were to be kept under wraps, he said, because he didn’t want the terrorists to know what to expect.
“I have a simple message for them. Their days are numbered. I won’t tell them where, and I won’t tell them how,” Trump said. “We have to be unpredictable.” All anyone really knew was that he planned to “bomb the shit out of them” and that his secret plan would be “foolproof” and “absolute” in its effectiveness.
There was also something about Exxon and the other “great oil companies” coming into those Middle Eastern nations to “rig it” and “take the oil” — which would amount to a war crime. Not that Trump seemed to care. It wouldn’t be stealing, he said, it would simply be “reimbursement” for the costs of U.S. military efforts in the region. No doubt Iraq and Syria would be totally on board with that kind of “reimbursement.”
Trump was so confident in his ability to defeat ISIS that he told a crowd of supporters in Fort Dodge, Iowa, that he knew “more about ISIS than the generals do.”
Evidently, defeating ISIS has not been as simple as Trump envisioned. But, as bombastic as his rhetoric on Iraq and Syria was, when it came down to it, Trump was right about one thing. If ISIS was to be defeated, there would be little point in the U.S. fighting against both ISIS militants and other actors who shared the same goal of defeating them. Meaning, of course, Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Russia wants to get rid of ISIS as much as we do, if not more, because they don’t want ‘em coming into Russia — let Russia fight ISIS if they wanna fight ‘em,” Trump told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
It would be illogical, he added, to continue giving support to anti-Assad opposition rebel groups in Syria when “we have no idea who they are.” It’s happened before, he said. “We back a certain side and that side turns out to be a total catastrophe.”
Believe it or not, he was right about that. Some experts have concluded that nearly every anti-Assad opposition group is committed to ruling by sharia law. Recently, Jenan Moussa, a freelance reporter for Arabic Al Aan TV, sent three undercover sources into the Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib. Moussa noted in the resulting documentary that it was almost impossible for journalists to enter this opposition-held province because they were likely to be kidnapped, murdered or both.
What Moussa’s sources found in Idlib was disturbing. The so-called moderate rebels were nowhere to be found and al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate was “very much in control.” Even in areas long considered in the West to be controlled by moderates, al-Qaida slogans covered the walls.
After the heinous attack at Manchester Arena last week, Trump called out the attackers as “evil losers” and reiterated that the “wicked ideology” of ISIS must be obliterated.
The problem is, there are a few gaping holes in Trump’s plan to defeat ISIS, whatever it is.
The first hole is the obvious one: Bombing the Middle East in support of certain groups or governments does not stop terrorism in the West. In fact, it seems the opposite is true: The more the U.S. and its allies bomb — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria — the greater the destabilization in the region, and the higher the likelihood of terror blowback in the West.
The alternative to bombing ISIS, however, is not bombing ISIS, and that’s a non-starter. From the West's point of view, this conflict has become a vicious cycle from which there is seemingly no escape. This leads us to the second hole in Trump’s plan to go after the group: His allies. Even if unrelenting bombing were likely to solve anything, Trump is trusting the wrong people.
The president seems to have completely forgotten everything he once said about the situation in Syria. This shouldn’t come as a shock, given that Candidate Trump and President Trump have turned out to be two very different people.
Take Saudi Arabia. For decades, Riyadh has promoted the same Wahhabist ideology that ISIS itself follows. The monarchy has actively funded Islamic extremism in British mosques and in numerous other Western nations. In 2015, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel strayed from the usual script when he said openly that Wahhabi mosques “all over the world” are financed by Saudi Arabia and that it must be made clear to Riyadh that “the time of looking away is over.”
Trump appeared to be at least somewhat clued in on Riyadh’s double game during the campaign. During an interview on "Fox & Friends," he asked the hosts: “Who blew up the World Trade Center? It wasn't the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents."
He also called out Hillary Clinton on Facebook for taking money from the Saudis: "Saudi Arabia and many of the countries that gave vast amounts of money to the Clinton Foundation want women as slaves and to kill gays. Hillary must return all money from such countries!"
Then there was the time Trump directly accused Riyadh of funding the world's most notorious terror group: “ISIS is making millions of dollars a week from oil. They’re also getting money from Saudi Arabia. Can you believe it?”
That claim was backed up by none other than Clinton herself in an email to campaign manager John Podesta, in which she wrote: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isil [i.e., ISIS] and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
This makes Trump’s pally behavior in Riyadh last week all the more stomach-churning and hypocritical. It turns out that taking money from the Saudis is totally fine if it’s a $110 billion arms deal that fills the coffers of Lockheed Martin and Raytheon — and, shhh, don’t mention the irony of attending a summit on curbing religious extremism in a country where women are not permitted to leave the house without a guardian and where you can be publicly beheaded for taking part in peaceful anti-government protests. All in the name of religion, of course.
Then there’s NATO member Turkey — another supposed anti-ISIS partner that has been accused of providing “tacit political, economic, and even military support” for the terror group. The reality is, Riyadh and Ankara — two of Trump’s so-called allies in the fight against the barbaric terror group -- share a more important common goal: toppling Assad’s secular regime and installing more friendly leaders who share their conservative Islamist ideology. They remain perfectly comfortable with using ISIS militants to help achieve that goal. Pointing this out is not to absolve Assad of his crimes, but to leave it unsaid is to ignore a major part of the reason why the fight against ISIS has been less effective than it could be if the political will to cut off the group’s supply lines were really there.
If Assad is taken out, by whatever means, the power vacuum that opens up in Syria will add further fuel to the fire of a war that is already complicated enough. Multiple jihadist groups will scramble for power. More waves of refugees will flood into Europe. It will be Libya all over again. To think any of this will help defeat ISIS or quell terrorism in the West is delusional.
Speaking of Libya, Salman Abedi, the alleged Manchester attacker, spent three weeks in the country — a hotbed for ISIS since NATO’s misguided "humanitarian intervention" in 2011 went badly south — before launching his suicide-bomb attack only days after his return to Britain.
Trump still talks tough on ISIS, but the reality is that he has no cards up his sleeve. Partnering with Saudi Arabia and Turkey to defeat ISIS is like trying to fight fire with fire. Trump never had a "secret plan" to annihilate the group -- and the "evil losers" aren't going anywhere.