Anti-ISIS meeting: How can the coalition boost Syria and Iraq gains?

The talks had primarily focused on contingencies for the immediate aftermath once ISIS is defeated in Mosul

Sigurd Neubauer

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US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hosted on Wednesday counterparts and senior military leaders from more than 30 nations at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C. to discuss the next steps in the fight against ISIS, including how the US-led coalition can liberate the Iraqi and Syrian cities of Mosul and Raqqa.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi attended the meeting as well.

Prince Mohammed, who also serves as the kingdom’s defense minister, announced last December the launch of an international military coalition comprised of 34 Muslim-majority countries dedicated to fight terrorism.

Since 2014, Saudi Arabia has been part of the US-led coalition which officially has 65 members. Prince Mohammed’s presence, along with other international defense chiefs, underscores the widespread international support for the US-led coalition’s quest to restore stability to this fragile part of the Middle East.

In addition to President Barack Obama’s recent decision to dispatch 560 US troops to support the Iraqi security forces in their offensive to retake Mosul, Carter announced Wednesday that coalition members are making new contributions as well.

“France is sending the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle back to the region to carry out airstrikes… Australia will expand its training of Iraqi police and border guards, and the United Kingdom recently announced that it would deploy more personnel to Iraq, including trainers and engineers,” Carter said in a statement.

He added that the talks had primarily focused on contingencies for the immediate aftermath once ISIS is defeated in Mosul, which include stabilization and reconstruction plans and concern that the stabilization and governance effort will lag behind the military campaign.

“Making sure there's no such lag must be a significant strategic priority for us… We discussed it today, and it will be an important focus of our conversation tomorrow at the State Department with our foreign ministry counterparts,” Carter explained.

The geopolitical battle

Amid regional uncertainties, efforts to accelerate the US-Russian brokered UN peace process to end the Syrian conflict becomes increasingly urgent for Europe to help stem the massive tie of desperate refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The latest ISIS-claimed terrorist attack carried out by an Afghan migrant in Germany adds to the high-stakes diplomatic battle to ensure that Turkey remains a viable – and trusted partner - for Washington and its European allies in order to prevent the region from disintegrating further.

Prior to the Turkey’s failed coup, President Erdogan successfully mended strained relations with both Russia and Israel as part of an effort to enhance regional stability.

Within this multi-layered game of chess, the future of Syria and most notably the role of Bashar al-Assad are bound to once again take center stage: Securing Assad’s future may become the necessary, although difficult compromise that Erdogan may have to make in order to build on his reconciliation efforts with Russia and Israel as his government is bound to face unprecedented tensions with Washington over its purge of thousands of military and government officials over the fallout of the failed military coup.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry was hosting a separate conference at the State Department on Wednesday to try to raise at least $2 billion from donor nations to help Iraq. The UN estimates that there are currently 10 million Iraqis in need of assistance and that number is likely to exceed 13 million by year’s end.

“This is a cause that truly deserves a firm and generous commitment from everybody,” Kerry said.

According to the Associated Press, the money will go to humanitarian aid for displaced people as well as recently liberated communities and the people returning to them and support medium-to long-term reconstruction and development assistance.

Territorial gains

Also on the agenda at the Washington talks was the issue of territorial gains against ISIS.

According to the IHS Conflict Monitor, territory held by ISIS has shrunk 12% this year, with losses in both western Iraq and northern Syria.

More specifically, ISIS controls roughly 68,300 square kilometers of Iraq and Syria compared to 78,000 square kilometers at the beginning of the year.

"We are succeeding on the ground in Iraq and Syria but we have a lot of work to do," said Brett McGurk, the president's special representative to the counter-ISIS coalition. "This is an enormous challenge that will be with us for years to come."

Also speaking in Washington, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called on its allies to join in decisive strikes against ISIS-held territories.

“France is not a country that goes to war for pleasure, but sometimes wars are imposed on us,” Le Drian said. “This is the case today.”

He also said the Middle East territories under the control of ISIS must be reclaimed.

“This territorial loss should allow us to hit directly to the propaganda machine of ISIS, which makes it possible to mobilize people with weak minds or fanatics who are incited to take terrorist actions,” Le Drian said. “Their only objective is to kill people and terrorize [countries] even in totally disorganized way.”

Unfortunately for all parties, time is not on their side. The political uncertainty over the various high-stakes diplomatic battles Washington, Brussels, Moscow and Ankara face to defeat regional extremist groups is becoming increasingly urgent as self-declared ISIS sympathizers are carrying out lone wolf attacks on a seemingly weekly basis.

The recent spike in ISIS-claimed terrorist attacks are only contributing to the political and social anxiety witnessed across the United States and Europe, which in turn has contributed to toxic political environments on both sides of the Atlantic.

These factors are bound to impact the UN peace process on Syria, especially if Russia and Israel are about to play an increasingly important role within this high-profile - and unpredictable - geopolitical game.

Sigurd Neubauer is a Non-Resident Fellow at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @SigiMideast