Baker Institute experts: Islamic State is down but not out

As president, Donald Trump has continued — and intensified — the military effort against the Islamic State begun under President Barack Obama. The physical caliphate may be on the verge of extinction, but ISIS and jihadist movements as a terrorist threat remain very much alive and pose a major challenge, according to a new issue brief by experts at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Credit: University

“Trump Policy in the Middle East: ISIS” was co-authored by Joe Barnes, a foreign-policy expert and the Bonner Means Baker Fellow at the institute, and Robert Barron, policy assistant to the Baker Institute director.

In 2017, Trump’s policy achieved a signal victory: The caliphate declared by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 has largely been defeated on the battlefield, the authors said. “With last October’s fall of the Syrian city of Raqqa — ISIS’ unofficial capital — the Islamic State, which once stretched over vast swaths of Iraq and Syria, has been reduced to a handful of enclaves manned by a few thousand battered fighters,” they wrote.

By the time Trump became president in January 2017, the tide had already turned decisively against ISIS, the authors said. “Obama may have underestimated ISIS before the seizure of Mosul; he notoriously dismissed it as the ‘JV team’ less than six months before the organization routed the Iraqi army and took control of the city,” they wrote. “But by the end of Obama’s term, the United States had long since made defeating ISIS militarily a top priority and committed substantial military resources to degrading and destroying the organization.”

Moving forward, there is no sign of any change in the United States’ broad approach to jihadist terrorism (which includes allies beyond the region, notably in Europe), the authors said. In addition to direct military action, this approach includes intelligence sharing, coordination among law enforcement and cooperation to stem the flow of funds to terrorist organizations.

“Addressing the deeper causes of jihadist extremism — weak states, inadequate economic performance, alienated Sunni populations — remains beyond our reach, though the United States can help on the margins, in places like Iraq, through fostering more inclusive political systems,” the authors wrote.

“Complicating this effort is what many consider to be the anti-Muslim bias of Trump himself and some of his administration’s policies — notably the travel ban on certain Muslim countries. We should not overestimate the impact of such rhetoric and policies on ISIS and similar organizations; after all, the anti-U.S. views of jihadist terrorist groups long predate Trump’s assumption of office. But a widely held belief that the president of the United States holds a personal animus against Islam is surely unhelpful in sustaining support among the vast majority of Muslims who oppose terrorism.”

In conclusion, the defeat of ISIS on the battlefield may be cause for celebration, the authors wrote. “But the organization remains a significant threat in the region and beyond,” they said. “Moreover, the movement of which it is part — jihadist terrorism — represents a major challenge, not just across the Muslim world, but in places as far-flung as the United States, Western Europe and even Oceania. Not least, the defeat of the physical caliphate still leaves the Middle East a region in turmoil, with the Syrian civil war a major focus of instability.”

This brief on the Trump administration’s approach to the battle against ISIS is the first of a three-part series on America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Subsequent reports will examine U.S. policy in Syria and the intensified competition between Iran and traditional U.S. partners in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel.

“These issues do not, of course, exhaust the challenges that the United States faces in the Middle East; we do not, for instance, address the perennial challenge of the Arab-Israeli dispute,” the authors wrote. “But the three areas do, we believe, represent a useful start in assessing the Trump administration’s policies toward the Middle East.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.