By Bryan Bender
The Israeli military is not too impressed with President Donald Trump’s escalation against the Islamic State. That, at least, is the distinct impression I got on a recent trip to Israel, including a visit to the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan Heights that offered a unique vantage point on the hopelessly entangled anarchy that is the Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year.
From atop a network of underground bunkers dating to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, my Israeli Army escort pointed northeast to Al Quneitra, the largely abandoned Syrian city in the distance where forces of President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah are trading mortar fire with rebel fighters who control two nearby villages.
A short drive south, past cherry and apple orchards, an abandoned United Nations outpost just over the fortified border now flies the flag of the Al Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda. Farther south, past a remote Israeli drone base, nestled atop a craggy slope across the valley below is a training base for the Islamic State, which is making new inroads far from its capital of Raqqa, more than 300 miles across the desert.
“If going north or west is not an option,” explained one Israel Defense Force official, pointing toward the small ISIS training camp situated through a thatch of trees where southern Syria juts between Israel and Jordan, “they are going to go somewhere else.”
“Some are already coming here. And Jordan is very concerned about the Islamic State.”
My trip came several weeks before Trump was due to arrive in Israel on a maiden foreign trip that is focused heavily on the Islamic State, which he has vowed to “demolish and destroy.” But the assessment he receives from a close U.S. ally that has confronted Islamic militants for generations—and recently uncovered critical intelligence about an ISIS plot to use laptops to blow up airplanes—may not be what he wants to hear.
In the view of the Israeli military and intelligence units I visited over several days in late April, the U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria may be making the situation only worse. We’re radicalizing the local population and spreading the hardest-core militants to sow havoc in neighboring Lebanon—which the officers I spoke with fear may already be on the verge on collapse—and Jordan. Still others are escaping the onslaught to Europe and possibly America.
“I am not sure it will be easy to defeat ISIS, as you are claiming to do,” Army Brig. Gen. Ram Yavne, the head of the IDF’s Strategic Division, told me in Tel Aviv, expressing a level of puzzlement shared by a number of other top commanders about the U.S. military obsession with a group that they do not consider a major strategic threat.
Several officials pointed out that even the largest estimates of the number of ISIS’s fiercest adherents are on par with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.
But Trump sees it differently. He has authorized his military commanders to step up U.S. military involvement in both Iraq and Syria, including granting the Pentagon more authority to go after ISIS targets and to insert hundreds of additional American forces into Syria. As recently as Friday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis vowed to “destroy” ISIS, first by taking Raqqa and then supporting the campaign by local Arab and Kurdish forces to clear other Syrian cities along the Euphrates River, where the group has a significant presence. “We’re there to drive ISIS to its knees,” he told reporters, saying the more aggressive U.S. strategy seeks the group’s “annihilation.”
“The worst is yet to come,” one intelligence official said.
Several stressed that unlike Al Qaeda, another Sunni terrorist group that attacked the United States on 9/11, the Islamic State predicated itself not on attacking the West but revolutionizing Islam in its most rigid, violent form.
“What ISIS has been saying since the beginning—the concept of the caliphate—was ‘we need to put our house in order first and then we have time to fight’ the outside powers,” an intelligence officer at the IDF’s Northern Command base, outside the city of Safed, told me as he pored over a map of the Syrian frontier. He believes the United States has failed to understand the competing interests and constantly shifting alliances among what the IDF estimates are between 400 and 500 different groups fighting in the Syrian civil war—including underestimating the level of local support ISIS actually has.
“Take Mosul, for example. Mosul is a million-citizen city and the largest estimate said [there were] 8,000 militants. You can’t control a million-people city with 8,000 people if you don’t have some support within the population.”
In eastern Syria, where ISIS is believed to be strongest, “the population is relatively favorable to the Islamic cause—the tribes and so forth,” he added. “When you bring a Western logic into an eastern Arab mentality it doesn’t usually work out. A Western mind doesn’t really understand the nuances of Arab tribal society anywhere in the Middle East.”
During the campaign, Trump promised to “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” But the American-led military campaign against the group—like the brutal attacks committed by Assad’s forces and its Russian military allies—may simply be radicalizing a new generation of terrorists bent on attacking Western countries.
“The bombing sometimes is causing more damage than it helps,” the military intelligence officer said. “You are also perceived as one of those guys blowing things up.”
The U.S. may live to regret it.
“ISIS is much like cancer,” the intelligence officer at the IDF’s Northern Command said. “It is easy to cut the tumors off. But how do you prevent the small cancer cells from expanding? I think the caliphate is already thinking, ‘OK, what are we going to do next?’ What was ISIS doing the minute the Americans and Iraqis went into Mosul? It started exploding everything up in Iraq—about 1,000 suicide attacks in a number of months. Raqqa is probably going to fall. The same thing will happen. All the cancerous cells throughout Syria … are going to do the same and start blowing things up.”
The United States has mishandled the situation in other ways, in the view of the Israelis I spoke with. For example, U.S. efforts to train rebel fighters inside Syria to fight ISIS are widely seen as counterproductive. “The CIA [training] program goes against Assad and the Pentagon program only goes for rebels against ISIS,” the intelligence officer complained. “So what is the U.S. stance is not really clear here.”
Israeli analysts laid out several possible scenarios ahead for the Syrian civil war, including that Assad regains control of his country (not likely) and the regime grants some rebels group autonomy and economic incentives in return for coexistence (already well underway).
Bryan Bender is POLITICO’s national security editor and the author of You Are Not Forgotten.