US, Germany vow to continue fight against ISIS at Munich conference

Pentagon chief envisions “bigger and stronger” coalition against ISIS.
Friday 15/02/2019
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen and US Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan shake hands during the annual Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on February 15. (Reuters)
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen and US Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan shake hands during the annual Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on February 15. (Reuters)

MUNICH – Acting US Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan said the United States wants to support the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) extremist group in regions other than Iraq and Syria.

Speaking on the first day of the Munich Security Conference on February 15, Shanahan pointed to Afghanistan, the Philippines and the Sahel region as places where the militant group had gained a foothold and needed to be curbed.

“I, for one, envision an even bigger and stronger coalition going forward — one that has evolved to meet the global threat posed by ISIS’s offshoots and its murderous ideology,” he said. It needs to look beyond Syria and Iraq to face the militants’ broader threat in other parts of the world including Afghanistan and the Philippines, he said.

Shanahan said that, even after the US troop withdrawal from Syria, the US would continue to support its partners in the region in the battle against ISIS. The US has about 2,000 troops in Syria and about 5,200 in Iraq.

“While the time for US troops on the ground in northeast Syria winds down, the United States remains committed to our coalition’s cause, the permanent defeat of ISIS, both in the Middle East and beyond,” Shanahan said in remarks to reporters.

Shanahan said the US will “continue to support our local partners’ ability to stand up to the remnants of ISIS,” but he did not explain how that will be done.

“Together, we have eliminated the group’s hold over 99 percent of the territory it once claimed as part of its so-called caliphate,” he said. “We have ensured ISIS no longer holds the innocent people of Syria or Iraq in its murderous iron fist.”

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the nature of the threat emanating from ISIS is changing now that it has lost most of its territory in Iraq and Syria.

“The fact remains that the face of ISIS is currently changing, that it is going underground and building networks there that are part of a global organisational structure,” von der Leyen said.

Von der Leyen launched the Munich conference alongside her British counterpart, Gavin Williamson, with some 30 heads of state and government and 90 government ministers planning to attend.

Before his departure for Munich, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the conference would serve as an opportunity to demonstrate Germany’s commitment to international cooperation.

“We know that national self-determination is only possible against the backdrop of international coordination,” Maas said. “I will therefore campaign for doubling down on our commitment to the international order.”

Also ahead of the conference, von der Leyen said she wanted to avoid another altercation with the United States over Germany’s defence spending.

Germany has been under pressure from the US and other NATO members to increase its military spending to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) in line with a target agreed by NATO members in 2014.

“The demands … are justified. We must do more in the alliance which serves our protection,” von der Leyen told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, adding that Germany had already increased its military spending by 36% in the last six years.

The topics expected to dominate the conference include the state of trans-Atlantic relations, increasing tensions between Russia and the West and the conflicts in the Middle East.

Europe must prepare itself for an “arms race” and new geopolitical challenges, conference head Wolfgang Ischinger said ahead of the event.

“We Europeans had better prepare ourselves when it comes to foreign, security and defence policy,” Ischinger told German public broadcaster ZDF, adding that Europe had long suffered from the delusion that it is surrounded by friends and allies.

The Russian delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, was expected to discuss security issues concerning Eurasia and the Middle East, and efforts to finally sign a World War II peace treaty with Japan, state media reported.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said it does not expect official talks with the US delegation. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, along with top-level diplomats from China, will also be attending the conference. 

During a Middle East peace conference in Warsaw a day earlier, US Vice President Mike Pence accused Britain, France and Germany of trying to “break” American sanctions on Iran and called on them to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. Trump pulled out of the deal and the US re-imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran.

Pence’s unusually tough words for allies Germany, France and Britain, in Warsaw, reflect Washington’s strategy of isolating Iran, in remarks that were likely to further strain transatlantic relations.

Speaking at NATO before Pence’s comments, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said the US and the EU had “different views” on the Iran nuclear deal and said upholding it was critical to European security because it prevented Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.

European countries say they share Washington’s concerns about Iran’s involvement in wars in Yemen and Syria but add that withdrawing from the nuclear deal was a mistake, and have promised to try to salvage the deal as long as Iran continues to abide by it. In practice, European companies have accepted new US sanctions on Iran and abandoned plans to invest there.

France, Germany and Britain have agreed on a new channel for non-dollar trade with Iran to avert US sanctions. That will likely take months to open, however, and is expected to be used only for smaller trade such as humanitarian products or food.

(AW and agencies)