Just when Trump thought he was getting the hang of the Middle East, things start to get a tad complicated. Despite congratulating himself in Helsinki about defeating ISIS in Iraq, it seems that this was more of his own fake news.
US President Donald Trump’s forays into promoting himself on the international diplomacy circuit haven’t amounted to much. In Brussels, he claimed to have nailed down a commitment from NATO members for increased spending, when in reality, this was entirely untrue. In the UK, he told a journalist that there was no UK-US trade deal possible, then said only hours later that his own (recorded) interview was “fake news.” And at the Helsinki meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the US president looked bewildered, lost, confused like a man fazed by his surroundings.
And now Trump has a new headache in the Middle East.
In recent weeks, a number of respected journalists and commentators in Iraq are talking about how ISIS is anything but destroyed – but in fact, regrouping and on the rise.
ISIS is hitting back again
After about three years of ISIS controlling almost a third of the country, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in December 2017 against the terrorist group, as well as declaring that the war was over. Analysts though, at the time, warned that many extremists had merely gone underground or had scattered, and would return. These warnings were not taken seriously, but in recent weeks, Western journalists in Iraq are reporting an alarming return to the battlefield, which is going to give Trump a number of sleepless nights, wrangling over a conundrum he alone is unlikely to resolve.
According to the Washington Post, the battle has shifted into a central zone of Iraq with ISIS now adopting more nefarious, if not theatrical, tactics, leaving many civilians saying that the declaration of victory was premature.
“Over the past two months, dozens of people, including local government officials, tribal elders, and village chiefs, have been abducted and killed or ransomed by fighters claiming affiliation with the Islamic State,” the paper claimed recently. “Electricity infrastructure and oil pipelines have been blown up. Armed men dressed as security forces and manning fake checkpoints have hijacked trucks and robbed travellers, rendering the main Baghdad-Kirkuk highway unsafe for a period of weeks.”
It’s a horrendous account of Iraq today, with ISIS adapting to new surroundings, and according to the Post, using more and more local people to help with their heinous work. The speed also is worrying some.
“It was inevitable that the Islamic State would attempt a comeback after its crushing defeat,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi counterterrorism expert who advises the government. “They are returning faster than I anticipated. That they have returned this fast is very dangerous.”
Poor governance, lack of public infrastructure and incomprehensible levels of corruption in poor Sunni areas is helping the extremist group with its objectives – not to mention shoddy elections in May, which cast a shadow over Iran’s meddling in the melting pot of Iraqi politics. Indeed, corruption is central to all of its woes.
“It does not take much to manipulate the frustrations of the Iraqi population,” a Reuters journalist who just returned from Iraq says. “They live in a rich country blessed with oil, yet widespread smuggling from Iraq’s northern Kurdistan siphons off money that could go to the central government. In addition, Iraqis who lost their homes in the fight against IS in major Sunni-dominated towns such as Mosul and Tikrit were allowed to return only if they bribed Shi’ite-dominated ministries.”
Have a Coke, Mr. President. It’s complicated.
Such unfettered discontent following an election which some experts have claimed only had a 20 percent turnout, has created a new impetuous for an insurgency against the new establishment – with Moqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shiite cleric at the heart of it – who claims to want to defeat corruption and reduce Iran’s hegemony.
Yet recent suggestions that the US is about to pull out of Iraq could be a disaster for those seeking peace in Iraq, and play straight into the hands of ISIS.
The problem now for Trump is so much more complicated than before, when he took over what was essentially an Obama initiative in Iraq to hit ISIS in the main Sunni towns. Despite a scandalous number of innocent civilians being caught in the crossfire of a cack-handed military campaign and the grotesque war crimes carried out by Iraqi soldiers, he came out of it standing tall.
But things are so much more complicated now, chiefly due to his own idiotic, capricious policy notions in the region. His own stance against Iran for example may now confuse him and his advisers. If he doesn’t come back a second time and hit ISIS, does he leave this for Iranian elite guard fighters to do, as they did in the past? Such a move would be a PR disaster for him, as it’s widely unreported in MSM how Iran has been fighting ISIS itself for years in both Iraq and Syria. But then striking ISIS again could be seen as assisting Iranian-backed contingents within Iraq at a critical point when Sadr is trying to push them to the fringes. And who is to say that Sadr will always be a foe of Iran’s and not a friend one day? Iranian hard liners might even argue the best boost for ISIS in Iraq now would be a new scrap with US forces. Someone get the president a Coke and a lot of aspirin. The mother of all migraines is about to come on.