Trump’s international counterterrorism: Middle East and Africa

US regional priorities include weakening Iran, protecting Israel and curbing the impact of international terrorism. These interests will therefore shape their involvement and approach to the conflicts. This means increased military and financial backing of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations reinforces its “Sunni allies in proxy battles in Syria, Yemen and Iraq,” with the hope of defeating Iranian Shia allies militarily and strategically.

The US is engaged in counterterrorism operations (military and strategic) in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Europe and Latin America, having inherited these from the preceding administrations. Since 2014, US military personnel have been involved in Operation Inherent Resolve, working on the ground in Iraq and Syria to reclaim territory held by Islamic State. The US approach in Syria and Iraq has involved a relatively backseat role, supporting and coordinating local troops on the ground.

Upon taking office, however, President Trump ramped up counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa. He authorised parts of Yemen and Somalia to be temporarily designated as ‘battlefield zones,’ which “dismantle[d] Obama-era constraints intended to prevent civilian deaths from […] counter terrorism missions outside conventional war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq.” The status of ‘battlefield zones’ removes the constraints imposed in 2013 by the Obama administration, and allows for the application of looser rules to conduct air raids, ground strikes or drone attacks.

The implications of further protracted military interventions — such as the 400 marines deployed in March 2017 to Syria, the 300 Paratroopers to Iraq and the 59 Tomahawk Cruise missiles onto Syria’s Shayrat Airbase — are yet to be seen. Furthermore, Trump’s decision to strike the Syrian regime in response to Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attack on the civilians of Idlib does not necessarily indicate a large departure from existing US. On the surface, the gesture implies a strategic shift, but the fact that minimal damage was done to the site, and that Russia was warned prior to the attack, suggests it was mostly a deterrent rather than a strategic shift from the US.

Nevertheless, these bold moves indicate that Trump has played his cards: he is resolute to make good on his promise to ‘wipe out terrorism’ through military means. However, Trump’s ‘risk-ready’ approach may be interpreted as careless. The air strikes and Special Operations raid in Yemen ended in disaster with an American commando killed, as well as a number of local civilians. According to military officials, limited intelligence and inadequate preparation were the underlying causes for the failed operation.

The implication of deepening military engagement is problematic for four reasons — with far larger consequences than defeating ‘terrorists’ militarily. Firstly, escalating American military involvement in Yemen and Somalia — where two lethal terrorist organisations are active — risks weapons from allied forces falling into the wrong hands. Secondly, an escalated conflict may “potentially kill militants who are not part of the enemy,” which could be detrimental for developments with locals on the ground. Third, an increased US military involvement will result in greater expectations for the US to lead post-conflict negotiations and develop infrastructure. Fourth, under the new guidelines, the US military will be able to “reduce constraints on the use of force” which calls into question the value placed on civilian lives. Additionally, further integration in Yemen, risks being drawn deeper into the entangled web of proxy wars in the region, with implications wider than the existing conflict.

Although Trump appears to have taken a more hands-on approach than Obama, it does not necessarily mean that he has a broader, long-term strategy regarding foreign policy in the regions. The implications of boots on the ground should be met with caution. Experience suggests that military operations alone will not end the conflict. “Somalia’s civil war has refused to burn itself out, despite a lack of major power sponsors,” and on the other hand, Syria and Yemen’s civil wars are raging notwithstanding the impact of external influences. A central challenge to the strategy of ‘liberating’ Raqqa and Mosul, and one that requires careful consideration, is the question of post-conflict governance. In the case of Raqqa, a hypothetical coalition government of Syrians and Kurds is concerning for neighbouring Turkey. In Mosul, the Sunni majority population is unwilling to acquiesce to Shi’ite governance. The post-conflict negotiation period will be equally — if not more — instrumental in shaping the future for these nations and to creating conditions of stability and security.

The domestic counterterrorism sphere may also be affected by broadened battlefield zones, and deeper military activity in these nations. Whilst the two battlefields may seem separate, they are in fact intertwined. A key recruitment factor for terrorist organisations — particularly Al Qaeda and Islamic State — stems from perceived Western aggression and indiscriminate killing of innocent Muslim citizens across the world. Military action that has resulted in Muslim civilian deaths has been a vital grievance that has motivated the Salafi-jihadi movement to engage in, what they believe, a legitimate battle against their oppressors. Charismatic figures in Yemen (e.g. Anwar al-Awlaki), Somalia, Syria and Iraq have disseminated this rhetoric far and wide, to engage individuals from all over the world to take on the Western aggressors in their home nations and by fighting on the ground within the battlefield.