President Trump said he would let his generals manage the fight against the Islamic State. And so far, he’s done that.
The U.S. and its coalition partners carried out more than 5,000 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq combined in August. That’s the highest monthly figure since the air campaign began three years ago.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, with the Council on Foreign Relations, visited the front line of the Syrian war last month in Raqqa, where the U.S. and its allies are pounding the Islamic State in its last major stronghold.
“What we saw in Raqqa was absolute devastation. And we met families who fled ISIS and got caught in the coalition airstrikes,” said Lemmon.
She said the stories she heard from civilians were harrowing. One woman who was eight months pregnant was leading her 2-year-old daughter and her ailing husband out of the city to escape the fighting.
“I asked her what she thought of the coalition airstrikes and she said, ‘Anything if it gets rid of ISIS. If that’s what it takes, then so be it.’ But it’s really terrifying to see what civilians are facing,” Lemmon said.
The U.S. campaign in Syria has parallels in Iraq. The Americans and their partners pushed ISIS out of its last major city, Mosul, back in July.
So all these military advances raise the question: What happens after ISIS is defeated on the battlefield?
Trump made a number of pledges regarding the wars he inherited in Iraq and Syria, as well as Afghanistan: more airstrikes against Islamist radicals. More freedom for U.S. military commanders to act. And no more nation-building.
Check, check and check.
But that’s all part of the military mission. What about the political plan to resolve these wars?
“The issue here is we ain’t got no strategy that ties everything together,” said retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a prominent military historian and a professor emeritus at Boston University.
Bacevich served in Vietnam. His son was also an Army officer and was killed in Iraq. Bacevich has been a staunch critic of military missions that don’t have a clearly defined political goal.
“I think there’s no question the Trump administration is engaged in military escalation,” Bacevich said. “What’s absent is a strategy, any clear understanding of how additional military effort is going to produce a political outcome.”
This has been a recurring problem for the U.S. in the Middle East, and it long precedes Trump. The U.S. military has repeatedly made gains on the battlefield, only to see them lost without a coherent political solution afterward.
Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy in the battle against ISIS, said the U.S. won’t be walking away in Syria.
“Where U.S. military and coalition forces are helping to liberate areas from ISIS, we do feel we have a responsibility to focus on the follow-through with stabilization,” he said. That would include “de-mining, rubble removal, water and electricity. The basics.”
McGurk spoke in New York last Friday following meetings at the United Nations. His remarks focused on humanitarian and development issues, not on the larger political questions.
In both Syria and Iraq, the U.S. has partnered with Kurdish fighters who have been extremely effective on the battlefield and want that to translate into a greater political role.
Yet Syrian President Bashar Assad also has his eye on territory the Kurds have taken from ISIS. The Syrian military and the Kurdish forces have been advancing on opposite side of the Euphrates River and are getting extremely close.
“When you go to Syria, nobody in these areas wants the Damascus government to return,” McGurk said.
And in Iraq, the Kurds on Monday voted in favor of a referendum calling for independence from the rest of Iraq. The U.S. and Iraqi governments both oppose this move.
“The referendum just carries an awful lot of risks. And that’s not something the United States can control,” McGurk said.
So while the military fight against ISIS may be moving to its final stages, the new political challenges in Iraq and Syria are just beginning.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gmyre1.