American-backed ground forces are poised to recapture Mosul in Iraq and Raqqah in Syria, the Islamic State’s de facto capitals. But while U.S. commanders are confident they soon will vanquish the militant group from its self-declared caliphate after three years of fighting, Washington has not defined a strategy in the next step for stabilizing the region.
The Trump administration faces key decisions about safe zones, reconstruction, governmental control in the area, easing sectarian tensions and commitment of U.S. troops among other considerations.
Nor has the Trump administration set policy for how it will confront forces from Iran and Russia, the two outside powers that arguably gained the most in the bitter conflict — and that now are hoping to collect the spoils and expand their influence.
Iran, in particular, is pushing to secure a land corridor from its western border across Iraq and Syria and up to Lebanon, where it supports Hezbollah militants, giving it a far larger foothold in the turbulent region.
“Right now everyone is positioned” for routing Islamic State “without having the rules of the road,” said Michael Yaffe, a former State Department envoy for the Middle East who is now vice president of the Middle East and Africa center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “That’s a dangerous situation.”
The risk of a broader confrontation was clear in recent weeks when a U.S. F/A-18 shot down a Syrian fighter jet for the first time in the multi-sided six-year war, provoking an angry response from Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar Assad.
U.S. warplanes also destroyed two Iranian-made drone aircraft, although it’s not clear who was flying them. The Pentagon said all the attacks were in self-defense as the aircraft approached or fired on American forces or U.S.-backed Syrian fighters.
“What I worry about is the muddled mess scenario,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior State Department official who now heads the Middle East program at the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security. “When you start shooting down planes and running into each other, it quickly goes up the escalation ladder.”
U.S. commanders say thousands of American troops should stay in Iraq to bolster the Iraqi army, which collapsed and fled when the militants first arrived on pickup trucks in 2014, three years after President Obama withdrew most U.S. troops from the country.
A tougher challenge lies in Syria, where the U.S. military has not been invited by the government and has no large fixed bases. The Pentagon has deployed hundreds of special operations forces and conventional troops to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab rebel groups that oppose Assad.
If the U.S. military pulls out, it could give a green light to Assad and Iran’s forces to turn their firepower on the U.S.-backed militias, potentially a nightmare scenario.
Pressure is growing on Capitol Hill for the White House to articulate a longer-term strategy for when the Islamic State threat has been neutralized.
Routing the Islamic State out of those countries is the first step but there are other concerns once that is accomplished. Hezbollah which has sided with Assad’s forces in the civil war is emboldened now and is pushing to escalate the war by attacking Israel. There will be no easy answers for Washington as peace and stability in the region will be very hard to come by.
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