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Trump's refugee ban and the war on ISIS
01:12 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

Aaron David Miller: Donald Trump's strategy for fighting ISIS should start by avoiding making matters worse

The administration should also be wary of aligning itself too closely with Russia on the issue, Miller says

CNN  — 

Syria may yet prove to be a painful headache for an incoming President Trump. But even if it does, it is unlikely to be as costly to his reputation and credibility as it will be to Obama’s.

Back here on Earth, the reality is that the laws of gravity in the fight against terror will make eradicating ISIS and its ilk an elusive goal. Meanwhile, some of the steps the new administration has already taken, specifically on immigration restrictions, may make an already impossible job harder still.

Aaron Miller

So, rather than raising unrealistic expectations, Trump should start by avoiding making matters worse, look for smart ways to continue the fight against ISIS, and above all, level with the American public that the fight is bound to be a long one.

More of the same?

In a national security memorandum dated January 28, Trump asked his administration to “develop a comprehensive plan to defeat ISIS,” and specifically asked the Pentagon for tougher options against ISIS within 30 days. These reportedly potentially include using artillery and attack helicopters – and even US forces – to support an assault on Raqqa, ISIS’ capital city. Other steps reportedly being contemplated include increasing use of US special forces in Syria and Iraq, directly arming Kurdish forces (a move that is likely to anger the Turks), and potentially including Turkish forces in the Raqqa operation. At the same time, Trump will need to make a decision whether to continue the CIA operation to train and arm vetted elements of the Syrian opposition, a program he criticized on the campaign trail and as President-elect.

Yet most of these steps seem to fall within the anti-ISIS template laid down by the Obama administration. That template is summarized as “by, with, and through,” and with the exception of involving more US forces in the fight (and nobody seems to be talking about large numbers) none of what’s being contemplated seems like a radical departure from the previous administration. It is therefore unlikely to lead to dramatic results.

President Trump has talked about safe zones for Syrian refugees. But it is unclear what exactly they would be designed to do, who would patrol and protect them, and how they would fit into an anti-ISIS strategy. Indeed, on balance, what Trump seems to be contemplating is doing what Obama did, just more of it. This might accelerate the timetables for major anti-ISIS offensives, but it’s unlikely to lead to the eradication of the jihadis.

Dancing with the bear has downsides

The centerpiece of Trump’s views on how to destroy ISIS clearly focus on some kind of undefined partnership with Russia. Trump seems willing to let Russian President Vladimir Putin take the lead on Syria, both in working with the Turks and the Syrian regime on a ceasefire, and perhaps also in cementing Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a permanent part of the Syrian political equation.

On paper, one would assume that such coordination would make sense. After all, Putin wants ISIS destroyed; so does Trump. So, why not pool US-Russian resources and bring to bear maximum pressure against the jihadis?

But like so many putative simple fixes, there are serious costs in cooperating with the Russians.

Russia’s indiscriminate attacks against civilians during the siege of Aleppo has led to plausible allegations of war crimes, and has demonstrated that Putin, unlike the United States, cares little about collateral damage. Identifying Washington with Putin’s support for the murderous policies of the Assad regime will only further blacken America’s name, create new Sunni jihadi recruits, alienate Sunni Arab regimes, and identify America with the pro-Shia alliance of Iran, Assad and Hezbollah.

In addition, in view of recent Russian hacking, there is good reason to worry about sharing intelligence with the Russians. With all this in mind, it is not at all clear that the military benefits of US-Russian cooperation are worth these downsides. Clearly, Putin will seek to dangle Russian cooperation against ISIS in front of Trump in hopes of getting Washington to ease sanctions. But such a quid pro quo would severely damage US interests.

Restricting Muslim immigration

Donald Trump’s new executive order on immigration, far from strengthening the fight against the jihadis, is likely to make it harder. Administration protestations to the contrary, the cumulative impact of the new restrictions will send an unmistakable signal that America wants to keep Muslims out. Overseas, this will have a deleterious impact on the fight against ISIS, particularly for Iraq (one of the seven countries on the banned list) whose forces are integral to beating ISIS in Mosul.

These new rules will also feed ISIS and jihadi propaganda and help with recruitment. And not just in the Middle East. American Muslims, a key line of defense against homegrown jihadis, will be demoralized by what they feel is a discriminatory policy, particularly the language in the executive order that talks about keeping immigrants out who don’t support America’s founding principles. This might easily be interpreted as a loyalty oath that in a worst-case situation, they fear, might be applied to their community, too.

No winning the war on terror

Fifteen years on from the 9/11 attacks, and three years into ISIS’ declared caliphate, tremendous progress has been made in weakening ISIS, killing the group’s leaders and depriving it of territory and resources. The formal ISIS caliphate is set to be destroyed. But it’s also fair to say that the jihadi enterprise – not just emanating from ISIS, but al Qaeda and its affiliates, too – has not been eradicated, and is unlikely to be.

The Middle East today is a giant petri dish affording an ideal habitat for jihadis to survive. Ungoverned spaces, crumbling Arab state authority in places like Libya and Syria, Shia dominance and exclusion and repression of Sunnis is creating a ready made grievance narrative that allows ISIS to recruit fellow Sunnis. Eradicating ISIS and other jihadi groups would require a Middle East that is stable, inclusive and reasonably well governed, something that’s just not in the cards.

In short, there’s no more winning the war against jihadi terror than there is winning the war against mental illness, drugs, crime or bigotry. Instead, rather than telling the American people that ISIS will be ended for all time, and hyping the threat to the homeland, the Trump administration should first consider avoiding actions that will make the fight against the jihadis even harder.

In practice this means it ought to avoid getting too close to the Russians and the Assad regime, that it should continue to support Syrian opposition groups and the Kurds to maintain a degree of influence on the ground, it should try to work with Turkey, and it should mount a major humanitarian effort to aid refugees and those displaced within Syria and Iraq.

Doing things like canceling the Syrian refugee program, in contrast, not only alienates the Muslim constituencies at home and abroad that the United States will need in the long fight against the jihadis, but helps undermine American values and interests.