Doyle: To defeat ISIS, Trump will have to learn not just to act tough, but to embrace Muslims and respect Islam
In the Middle East, leaders are lining up to be friends
Editor’s Note: Chris Doyle is the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, a London-based NGO. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.
It’s been nearly a year since Donald Trump announced that as president, he would impose a “total and complete ban” on Muslims entering the United States until officials had figured out “what the hell was going on.” He wants to make defeating ISIS a priority, so I wonder how far President-elect Trump has gotten with this.
Can a Trump-led United States crush ISIS while maintaining the divisive, anti-Muslim rhetoric of his campaign? The signs are far from positive, as the President-elect surrounds himself with anti-Muslim figures such as Steve Bannon, Frank Gaffney, Kris Kobach and Walid Phares. Plans for a register of Muslim immigrants in the US must be ditched along with talk of a ban.
ISIS views Trump’s win as a golden recruiting opportunity. Hatred of Muslims, in its experience, leads to more followers: the greater the sense of alienation from the existing world order, the better its prospects. In a popularity contest between ISIS and a Muslim-banning Trump, ISIS leaders will fancy their chances.
If Trump is serious about defeating ISIS, he has to reach out to Muslims. He claimed that he loves “the Muslims” and that he had at least 20 Muslim friends. Well, he will need many more – and fast. Only with the support of Muslim communities will ISIS be defeated. There is no other way.
What should be statements of the obvious are worth repeating. Of the 1.7 billion Muslims on the planet, ISIS could only muster numbers in the tens-of-thousands of fighters in Syria and Iraq. Most Muslims loathe ISIS, and numerically, Muslims are the biggest victims of ISIS.
Why did ISIS hate the Syrian refugees? Because they chose to flee everywhere except to ISIS’ domain – and above all to Europe. They risked their lives to go to countries where their rights would be respected, not trampled upon. This is why Donald Trump’s “No Entry” sign is so damaging. The United States must be on the side of Muslims, not the violent extremists who abuse them.
Trump’s priority must be to ensure there is a clear differentiation between Muslims and ISIS, befriending the former to defeat the latter. He should start domestically by condemning attacks on mosques and Muslims.
He also has to choose his allies wisely. Russia has barely touched ISIS in Syria so Vladimir Putin cannot be relied upon.
In the Middle East, leaders are lining up to be friends. The Egyptian and Turkish leaders are overjoyed at Trump’s victory, as is the Syrian regime. Trump is seen as someone who will not interfere in the internal affairs of states, even if their human rights records are far from pretty. He is no Neo-con.
But Trump must question what role regime failures played in creating the breeding ground for ISIS. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has barely fought ISIS and has released scores of hardline Islamists from his jails. Assad failed Syria. Fairer governance, less corruption and respect for human rights should be key demands Trump makes of his allies to beat ISIS – not something he can do credibly if the US reverts to using torture even worse than water-boarding.
His America-first strategy will rub up against Arab aspirations. His increasingly pro-Israel narrative risks further alienating the rest of the Islamic World, not least if he does move the US Embassy to Jerusalem or just treats settlements as a “zoning” issue, as his friend Sarah Palin sees it.
And if Trump is detested on the streets of Cairo and Damascus, the regimes will become nervous about hugging him too close, at least in public. Conversely, if he befriends such regimes too closely as they abuse human rights, Trump will have no chance in winning over any public support.
Trump also has to progress beyond his “bomb the s*** out of them” approach to ISIS and develop a rounded strategy involving both hard and soft power.
The US has been bombing ISIS from the air for two years, but it has been ground forces that have been vital. In ideological warfare the US and its allies lag far behind so ISIS can survive and resurface in other war zones.
Finally, Trump must understand that conflict propels ISIS. If he looks at the map, these extremist groups proliferate in the heat of conflict from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen to Libya. These conflicts arose for many reasons, not least that the repressive regimes alienated their populations. He prides himself on being a dealmaker, and in the Middle East many deals are needed.
Trump is not an instinctive interventionist, so he may be averse to kick-starting more wars. This, in theory, bodes well, given the US’ grim recent history. Yet if Trump rips up the Iran deal, as he threatens to do, he risks igniting the most serious regional flare-up yet.
To defeat ISIS, Trump will have to learn not just to act tough, but to embrace Muslims and respect Islam. The alternative is to make enemies of nearly a quarter of the globe’s population.