US and allies talk of post-ISIS future, but have no plan
Washington - The United States and its allies say military victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) is close, but have not come up with a concrete plan to deal with the aftermath.
This week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hosted a meeting with the 68 member states of the global coalition against ISIS. After the meeting, he made a statement praising military advances against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria and underlining the need to prepare for the day after the group has been defeated on the battlefield.
“Soon, our efforts in Iraq and Syria will enter a new phase defined by transition from major military operations to stabilisation,” Tillerson said at the gathering in Washington, his first major international conference since taking office last month. “We will pursue regional diplomatic solutions for the underlying political and sectarian disputes that helped ISIS to flourish,” he said.
But there were no details of how such solutions might be achieved. Three major players — Syria, Russia and Iran — were not represented at the conference in Washington. Tillerson called for “interim zones of stability” to shelter civilians but did not spell out where those protection areas could be set up. Both the Syrian and the Russian governments have said they are against the creation of safe zones on Syrian territory.
The conference came as ISIS was on the defensive in the Iraqi city of Mosul and in northern Syria, where American-backed fighters have been training for an attack on Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS’s caliphate. According to the conference statement, jihadists have lost 60% of the Iraqi territory they conquered when their fighters stormed through eastern Syria and western Iraq in 2014.
Iraq, a crucial US partner in the fight against ISIS, is calling for more economic help to ensure areas where ISIS has been defeated can be stabilised. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who met US President Donald Trump before the ISIS conference, said the new US administration was ready to step up support for Baghdad’s fight against the militants, but warned that long-term economic and financial assistance to rebuild shattered Iraqi cities was key to a stable future.
“I think they’re prepared to do more to fight terrorism and be more engaged,” Abadi said after meeting Trump in the White House. The meeting was the first the Iraqi leader had with the new US president, who promised to swiftly defeat ISIS during the election campaign last year.
Abadi made it clear that he did not think there was a quick fix to the problem. “Committing troops is one thing,” the prime minister said in a speech after his meeting with Trump at the United States Institute of Peace, a non-partisan Washington think-tank created by the US Congress. “Fighting terrorism is another thing. You don’t defeat terrorism by fighting it militarily. There are better ways,” Abadi said.
He said he would like “more funds” to bring services and stable conditions to people in areas from which ISIS had been driven out. This strategy was crucial to winning over Sunni Iraqis after ISIS was gone, Abadi said.
Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East programmes at the Institute of Peace, said Abadi was hoping for US assistance in training Iraqi troops and for US military help in logistical and intelligence support. “Abadi thinks American troops on the ground are not necessary,” Hamasaeed said.
Economic help was also on Abadi’s mind in Washington. Given that Iraq’s economy is almost entirely dependent on oil exports and is suffering in an era of low oil prices, the prime minister is hoping that the US and its Western allies will step up their financial efforts.
Some participants in the Washington conference voiced disappointment about the absence of a strategy that they had hoped would be presented by the Trump administration. “I was hoping for more specifics,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said, according to news reports.
CNN quoted a senior Arab diplomat as saying that “right now it’s about short-term tactical moves”. The diplomat added that a comprehensive strategy would have to also take into account Iran, which is seen as a major threat by Sunni Arab countries.
One of the difficulties in arriving at a major strategy is that conditions in the region do not allow for a one-size-fits-all solution. “There’s the need, there’s what the US and its allies are able and willing to do, and then there’s reality,” Hamasaeed said.
In Iraq, the United States and its allies can build on an internationally recognised government and the UN-administered Funding Facility for Immediate Stabilisation to channel money into projects such as restoring basic services to people in areas where ISIS has been defeated.
But in Syria, the ongoing fighting, the widespread international rejection of the government in Damascus and a lack of consensus among allies mean that talk of stabilisation is premature at best. In northern Syria, Turkey is competing for control with Syrian Kurds, another important US partner.
Those difficulties are becoming more pronounced as the anti- ISIS alliance is preparing an attack on Raqqa. “If you push ISIS out of Raqqa, then what happens?” Hamasaeed asked. “This is a big problem.”