This week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Washington hosted a meeting of foreign ministers and senior leaders of anti-ISIS coalition members (officially known as the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS). This was the first wide-format meeting of the coalition since December 2014. Representatives of 68 countries attended.
This is the first meeting of the coalition since the election of Donald Trump as well. And, it provided details of future White House policy for the region.
The ongoing offensives to push ISIS out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and seize Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital city in Syria, were key topics behind closed doors at the summit.
In his speech at the meeting, Tillerson said, “The expansion of ISIS has necessitated a large-scale military response, and our offensive measures are reclaiming areas in Iraq and Syria in which ISIS has had a large and destructive footprint. Our end goal in this phase is the regional elimination of ISIS through military force. The military power of the coalition will remain where this fraudulent caliphate has existed in order to set the conditions for a full recovery from the tyranny of ISIS. Under President Trump’s leadership and with the strength of this historic coalition, our common enemy will remain under intense pressure.”
The Iraqi army, in coordination with Iraqi Kurdish and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), launched the offensive against Mosul in October, and has surrounded and retaken most of the city. They have been aided by a U.S.-led air campaign and supported by U.S. advisers, trainers, and special operations forces.
Defeating ISIS in Syria is likely to be much more difficult than in Iraq because of the lack of reliable U.S. partners on the ground. Washington has been working with Syrian Kurdish militias, which have been effective military forces, but they are handicapped by the fact that they are feared and resented in the predominantly Arab areas that ISIS controls.
Although, Turkey considers them to be terrorists, the Kurds were represented at the meeting. Just as interesting, neither Russia nor Iran was invited.
The future of the war on ISIS is taking place. Trump has received the classified report from the Pentagon on how they recommended the White House conduct the campaign. It seems we are seeing the first stage of this strategy as the Pentagon recently deployed several hundred Army rangers and Marines to Syria to bolster Syrian rebel groups and provide artillery support to help them defeat ISIS. This is in addition to an estimated 500 American special operations personnel already in Syria.
The Trump administration’s revised plans for seizing Raqqa reportedly call for an enhanced U.S. military role, including the deployment of additional U.S. special operations forces, artillery, and attack helicopters.
This was followed up this week when the US-led coalition air lifted allied Syrian fighters near Raqqa in a surprise attempt to cut off the jihadists’ main route out. The operation secured the strategic Tabqa dam across the Euphrates River and isolated the capital of ISIS from the rest of the group’s territory in Syria. Five helicopters supported by five fighter jets, dropped dozens of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters near the northern town of Shurfa on Wednesday afternoon, according to local media reports.
This is far different from the Obama strategy which relied on air assets and Special Forces. Both pilots and Special Forces soldiers take years and millions of dollars to train. During the last few years, overreliance on them caused serious retention problems as they were overworked. There was also the deterioration of aircraft, which were forced to continue air ops even after necessary maintenance was required.
What is known so far from the Trump strategy ( not announced yet) is to rely more on conventional forces temporarily inserted into critical battles. For instance, US artillery is air mobile, can put more ordinance on target faster and for less cost. It also has a faster response time than aircraft. In addition, US Marines are stationed onboard ship and don’t have to rely upon an ally’s air base.
Expect to see more use of small, airmobile units to provide the tactical advantage in critical battles.
Of course another aspect of the meeting was to solicit additional support from the coalition countries. Although left out of public announcements, there was pressure put on GCC nations. There is considerable pressure on them to help establish “Interim Zones of Stability” in Syria.
Speaking at summit, Tillerson said the U.S. would set up “interim zones of stability” without elaborating on the specifics, such as where they would be located or how they would be secured. Coalition officials told Foreign Policy that the interim zones referred to territory recaptured from the Islamic State across vast swaths of Iraq and Syria that would be held by a yet-to-be determined mix of Turkish, Kurdish and Western forces. But the plan has faced criticism from U.S. allies and humanitarian organizations with legal and ethical concerns about forcing refugees back into a conflict zone. “We were never close to favoring this solution,” Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva, whose country is a member of the coalition, told FP.
The Post War Period
As the coalition sees a decline in the ability of ISIS, there is a growing sense that future conflicts in the region have to be avoided with a rigorous post-war relief. This was where most of Tillerson’s speech focused.
There was a focus on intelligences gathering that will preclude ISIS from growing elsewhere. Tillerson said, “We know military strength will stop ISIS on a battlefield, but it is the combined strength of our coalition that will be the final blow to ISIS. In order to stay ahead of a global outbreak, we must all adopt the following countermeasures: First, continue to persist with in-country counterterrorism and law enforcement operations. All of us must maintain pressure on ISIS’s networks within our own countries and take decisive law enforcement action to stop its growth. ISIS is connected across every continent, and we must work to break every link in its chain. INTERPOL is the newest member of our coalition and is critical to closing all routes through which ISIS terrorists seek to travel and threaten our homelands.
Second, we need greater intelligence and information sharing within our own domestic intelligence agencies and among our nations. Our information sharing as a coalition has prevented a number of attacks, and this must expand and accelerate regardless of departmental or international rivalries. One example of this is West African nations who have put aside national differences to combat Boko Haram. Let us build on this good example.”
Tillerson also looked at the attempt to bring peace to the region. He said, “Soon, our efforts in Iraq and Syria will enter a new phase defined by transition from major military operations to stabilization. In this transition to the stabilization phase, our coalition will continue to clear land mines and return water and electricity – the basic elements that permit people to return to their homes. We will pursue regional diplomatic solutions for the underlying political and sectarian disputes that helped ISIS to flourish. The coalition and future partners will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to affected communities as necessary.
We appreciate the work of the UN-managed Funding Facility for Immediate Stabilization, which has helped Iraq return home over half a million displaced persons in Anbar province alone. Continuing coalition support for police training will be essential, as will be coalition support for demining and clearing hazardous materials.”
Although much of this sounds nice in the scope of an international meeting, how much will actually take place is another question. Money for infrastructure often gets forgotten at the end of the war.
However, the key take away from the meeting is that although Special Forces raids and air strikes will continue, don’t be surprised if small units of American and allied forces pop up at some unexpected spot aiming to turn the tide of battle.
Another significant development, under questioning from the Senate, Defense Secretary James Mattis said he supports the idea of keeping a residual American military force in Iraq after the current battle for Mosul is complete. The city is seen as ISIS’ last significant stronghold in the country. SecDef Mattis's said: I believe it's in our national interest that we keep Iraqi security forces in a position to keep our mutual enemies on their back foot, Mattis told lawmakers Wednesday. And Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. echoed that sentiment, noting that the Iraqi security forces will need that kind of support for years to come.
Military Times: Both also signaled support for additional U.S. assistance for again rebuilding infrastructure in the war-torn country, which Iraqi government officials have estimated at $50 billion in coming years.
Mattis, again: It's going to be an international effort; it should not be carried fully by the American taxpayer. But we should certainly be part of it.