Listening to his campaign rhetoric, the last thing you would expect Donald Trump to do as president would be to escalate a ground war in the Middle East. He won the Republican nomination last year by campaigning against both George W. Bush's war in Iraq and Barack Obama's war in Libya.
But as Trump's young presidency has shown, many of the candidate's foreign policy positions are not as firmly held as his supporters had hoped. It's not just that Trump struck the Syrian regime after last week's chemical weapons attack on rebels outside of Damascus. It's not just his recent reversals on Chinese currency manipulation and the NATO alliance. The president's biggest foreign policy surprise may be yet to come.
Senior White House and administration officials tell me Trump's national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, has been quietly pressing his colleagues to question the underlying assumptions of a draft war plan against the Islamic State that would maintain only a light U.S. ground troop presence in Syria. McMaster's critics inside the administration say he wants to send tens of thousands of ground troops to the Euphrates River Valley. His supporters insist he is only trying to facilitate a better interagency process to develop Trump's new strategy to defeat the self-described caliphate that controls territory in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. special operations forces and some conventional forces have been in Iraq and Syria since 2014, when Obama reversed course and ordered a new air campaign against the Islamic State. But so far, the U.S. presence on the ground has been much smaller and quieter than more traditional military campaigns, particularly for Syria. It's the difference between boots on the ground and slippers on the ground.
Trump himself has been on different sides of this issue. He promised during his campaign that he would develop a plan to destroy the Islamic State. At times during the campaign he said he favored sending ground troops to Syria to accomplish this task. More recently, Trump told Fox Business this week that that would not be his approach to fighting the Syrian regime: "We're not going into Syria," he said.
McMaster himself has found resistance to a more robust ground troop presence in Syria. In two meetings since the end of February of Trump's national security cabinet, known as the principals' committee, Trump's top advisers have failed to reach consensus on the Islamic State strategy. The White House and administration officials say Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and General Joseph Votel, who is in charge of U.S. Central Command, oppose sending more conventional forces into Syria. Meanwhile, White House senior strategist Stephen Bannon has derided McMaster to his colleagues as trying to start a new Iraq War, according to these sources.
Because Trump's national security cabinet has not reached consensus, the Islamic State war plan is now being debated at the policy coordinating committee, the interagency group hosted at the State Department of subject matter experts that prepares issues for the principals' committee and deputies' committee, after which a question reaches the president's desk for a decision.
The genesis of this debate starts with one of Trump's first actions as president, when he told the Pentagon to develop a strategy to defeat the Islamic State. Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, opposed sending conventional forces into a complicated war zone, where they would be targets of al-Qaida, the Islamic State, Iran and Russia. In Flynn's brief tenure, he supported a deal with Russia to work together against the Islamic State and al-Qaida's Syria affiliate, similar to a bargain Obama's secretary of state, John Kerry's tried and failed to seal with Moscow.
Inside the Pentagon, military leaders favor a more robust version of Obama's strategy against the Islamic State. This has been a combination of airstrikes and special operations forces that train and support local forces. Military leaders favor lifting restrictive rules of engagement for U.S. special operations forces and using more close air support, like attack helicopters, in future operations against the Islamic State capital in Raqqa.
McMaster, however, is skeptical of this approach. To start, it relies primarily on Syrian Kurdish militias to conquer and hold Arab-majority territory. Jack Keane, a retired four-star Army general who is close to McMaster, acknowledged to me this week that the Kurdish forces have been willing to fight the Islamic State, whereas Arab militias have primarily fought against the Assad regime.
"Our special operations guys believe rightfully so that this was a proven force that could fight," Keane said of the Kurdish fighters. "While this makes sense tactically, it doesn't make sense strategically. Those are Arab lands, and the Arabs are not going to put up with Syrian Kurds retaking Arab lands. Whenever you select a military option, you have got to determine what political end state will this support. Regrettably this option puts us back to the drawing board."
There are other reasons that relying too much on the Kurds in Syria presents problems. The U.S. Air Force relies on Turkey's Incirlik Air Base to launch bombing raids over Islamic State positions in Syria. The Turks consider the Syrian Kurdish forces to be allies of Kurdish separatists within Turkey and have complained that Obama was effectively arming militias with weapons that would be turned on their own government. (Turkey's own president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cynically declared war on his own Kurdish population in 2016, exacerbating these tensions.)
Keane, who said he was not speaking for McMaster, told me he favored a plan to begin a military operation along the Euphrates River Valley. "A better option is to start the operation in the southeast along the Euphrates River Valley, establish a U.S. base of operations, work with our Sunni Arab coalition partners, who have made repeated offers to help us against the regime and also ISIS. We have turned those down during the Obama administration." Keane added that U.S. conventional forces would be the anchor of that initial push, which he said would most likely require around 10,000 U.S. conventional forces, with an expectation that Arab allies in the region would provide more troops to the U.S.-led effort.
"The president wants to defeat ISIS, he wants to win, what he needs is a U.S.-led conventional coalition ground force that can take Raqqa and clean out the Euphrates River Valley of ISIS all the way to the Iraq border," Keane said. "Handwringing about U.S. ground troops in Syria was a fetish of the Obama administration. Time to look honestly at a winning military strategy."
White House and administration officials familiar with the current debate tell me there is no consensus on how many troops to send to Syria and Iraq. Two sources told me one plan would envision sending up to 50,000 troops. Blogger and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich wrote on April 9 that McMaster wanted 150,000 ground troops for Syria, but U.S. officials I spoke with said that number was wildly inflated and no such plan has been under consideration.
In public, the tightlipped McMaster has not revealed support for conventional ground forces in Syria. But on Sunday in an interview with Fox News, McMaster gave some insights into his thinking on the broader strategy against the Islamic State. "We are conducting very effective operations alongside our partners in Syria and in Iraq to defeat ISIS, to destroy ISIS and reestablish control of that territory, control of those populations, protect those populations, allow refugees to come back, begin reconstruction," he said.
That's significant. Obama never said the goal of the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria was to defeat the Islamic State, let alone to protect the population from the group and begin reconstruction. Those aims are much closer to the goals of George W. Bush's surge strategy for Iraq at the end of his second term, under which U.S. conventional forces embedded with the Iraqi army would "clear, hold and build" areas that once belonged to al Qaeda's franchise.
McMaster himself is no stranger to the surge. As a young colonel serving in Iraq, he was one of the first military officers to form a successful alliance with local forces, in Tal Afair, to defeat the predecessor to the Islamic State, al-Qaida in Iraq. During the Iraq War, McMaster became one of the closest advisers to David Petraeus, the four-star general who led the counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq that defeated al-Qaida in Iraq -- and brought about a temporary, uneasy peace there.
That peace unraveled after Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. Obama himself never apologized for that decision, even though he had to send special operations forces back to Iraq in the summer of 2014 after the Islamic State captured Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. He argued that U.S. forces in Iraq would have been caught up inside a civil war had they stayed.
The cadre of former military advisers to Petraeus took a different view. They argued that America's abandonment of Iraq gave the Shiite majority there a license to pursue a sectarian agenda that provided a political and military opening for the Islamic State. An active U.S. presence in Iraq would have restrained those sectarian forces.
One of those advisers was H.R. McMaster. It's now up to Trump to decide whether to test the Petraeus camp's theory or try to defeat the Islamic State with a light footprint in Syria. Put another way, Trump must decide whether he wants to wage Bush's war or continue Obama's.