While Donald Trump may be having trouble passing big pieces of legislation or getting his travel ban on Muslim-majority countries past the courts, the president has a lot of autonomy when it comes to how the seemingly never-ending wars in the Middle East are prosecuted. Though Trump criticized the Iraq War during the campaign, he also said he’d embrace brutal—and legally questionable—tactics against groups like ISIS, including “going after” the families of terrorists. As with a lot of Trump’s worldview, it seemed unclear what he wanted to do in the Middle East.
Two months after he took office, there’s a little more clarity: Trump has ramped up the aggression in the global war on terror, and shows no sign of slowing down. He approved a raid in Yemen by Navy SEALs that turned out to be a disastrous failure; a US airstrike against Mosul, Iraq, probably killed dozens of civilians and is being investigated; the rules of engagement in Somalia have reportedly been loosened, potentially putting civilian lives at risk; and though it sent hundreds of Marines to Syria to support anti-ISIS forces, the administration has stopped publicly announcing troop deployments.
America has been at war in in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan for most of my lifetime, but these moves seem to signal a serious escalation. To sort through what this all means, I called up Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor to ask about how Trump’s military policy differs from Obama’s.
VICE: What are the major differences between Trump’s policy in the Middle East as opposed to Obama’s?
Omar Lamrani: We’re still in very early phases of seeing what’s gonna come out of the Trump administration. In general terms, we’re not really seeing a major shift in military policy, the reason being that the Obama administration was already equally engaged in the fight to begin with. It’s not like the Trump administration can all of a sudden come up with this brilliant strategy that has not been done before—the United States has been engaged in this fight for a very long period of time, and has tried all the good options.
Where we do see a difference is in the Trump administration’s willingness to be a little bit more aggressive—or less cautious is a better way to phrase it. What we saw in the Obama administration, especially toward the end of his two terms, was the micromanagement of huge military operations in the Middle East and around the globe. Before a US military strike could happen, or before a significant special operations force raid could take place, the last decision was always gonna be on the desk of President Obama. So far what we see from the Trump administration is a far less micro-managing style. Trump doesn’t seem to be very keen on being involved in the day-to-day or the week-to-week operations, and is giving his generals much more leeway in directing the fight the way they see fit.
Obama tended to be very cautious and hesitant to allow additional forces, and he was very averse toward the risk of mission creep. That’s something that’s really removed now. We’re seeing the limits to numbers of troops being negotiated or removed, or we’re seeing additional US forces being deployed toward Iraq and Syria, we’re seeing the increased use of airstrikes, we’re seeing increased raids in Yemen and Somalia. There tends to be perhaps a different rate of involvement, but it’s still pretty much the same strategy of how you defeat ISIS as it was during the Obama administration.
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Recently Glenn Greenwald wrote an article headlined “Trump’s War on Terror Has Quickly Become as Barbaric and Savage as He Promised.” There’s also a perception among some that the Trump administration has liberated the military from already very loose rules of engagement. Do you agree with these conclusions?
It’s a controversial issue because, first of all, the Pentagon is outright denying that their rules of engagement have changed. That’s number one. Second of all, it’s really hard to know whether they’ve changed, because the Pentagon does not release the exact rules of engagement for operational security reasons. When you have an increase in forces deployed, especially when you go into these tough urban environments like Mosul, there is much more risk of civilian casualties. But I don’t think we have enough information, frankly, to contradict the Pentagon and say that the rules have actually changed.
Do you think the January 29 raid in Yemen—which resulted in the deaths of a Navy SEAL and 23 civilians, including an eight-year-old girl—is indicative of the Trump administration’s willingness to take on more risk or disregard civilian casualties?
That’s actually very different, and it’s interesting that you bring that up. When we talk about missions like the one in Yemen, that’s not about the rules of engagement, it’s more about how much risk the military is willing to take in conducting strikes. That’s something we can see is changing, and we can conclusively say that that is happening—we have have evidence from both US policy statements as well as clear evidence from the ground that US military is being more aggressive in its actions against violent extremist organizations across the Middle East.
Do you think generally Trump will ramp up operations in the Middle East?
I think that that will be true, and we’re already seeing it. In Iraq there’s been talk about removing the force limits that have been set previously by the Obama administration. Already we’re seeing increased forces. Recently 300 extra US airborne troops were sent to Mosul, and upwards of a thousand troops landed in Egypt to fight against ISIS in Raqqa. The US is deploying heavy artillery, helicopters, and gunships in large numbers. Many of these things may not have been undertaken by the Obama administration necessarily.
According to Airwars, there’s been a massive increase in civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria this month. Do you think this could have happened under Obama?
It’s entirely possible that this could have happened under Obama administration. Keep in mind that part of the reason why we may be seeing this, is the nature of the fight on the ground. In Mosul, we’re seeing close-proximity fighting, heavy fighting. Basically you’re talking about an environment where you have hundreds of thousands of civilians packed into a tight urban environment with close-quarters combat happening all the time. There is a very, very high risk factor there of a strike mission increasing civilian casualties, and that risk factor is increasing as that battle progresses deeper into the old town, where it’s very heavily built up. And keep in mind, civilian casualties have happened under the Obama administration as well.
I think it’s really dangerous to read too much into the number of civilian deaths and ascribe it purely to Trump’s decisions, or Obama’s decisions. It has more to do with the battlefield, and the evolution of the battlefield. Where we do see a difference between the two administrations is that Obama’s administration was always very concerned over mission creep. They were concerned that the more they got into Syria, the more they got into Raqqa, the harder it was going to be to extricate themselves—as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade. The Trump administration takes a bit of a different stance: OK, forget about those kinds of restrictions, we must focus on the fight, and we’ll be less concerned over the risk of mission creep.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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