US and allies talk of post-ISIS future, but have no plan

Sunday 26/03/2017
New phase. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) passes behind Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as he walks to the podium to address the Meeting of the Ministers of the Global Coalition on the Defeat of ISIS, on March 22nd. (AP)

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.”