At the gathering in Washington of the U.S. and 68 of its allies in the fight against ISIS, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made it clear that defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria is the top goal of the U.S.
“I recognize there are many pressing challenges in the Middle East, but defeating ISIS is the United States’ number one goal in the region,” said Tillerman in his opening remarks for the two-day summit. “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. We must continue to keep our focus on the most urgent matter at hand.”
He also claimed that U.S.-backed forces are closing in on the jihadists in Syria and Iraq, as well as declaring that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death was imminent. He noted that nearly all of al-Baghdadi’s deputies are dead, including those who masterminded the attacks in Brussels and Paris.
Part of the U.S. strategic plan is to increase pressure on the group, while at the same time creating zones of stability to assist refugees in returning home, which is key to the next phase of the battle with ISIS. European diplomats are also expecting that Washington will affirm its commitment to a longer-term plan for securing the region after battlefield victory is completed. However, he did not elaborate on where these zones would be located or how they would be secured. Yet his language suggested potential no-fly zones. The Obama administration had resisted these in the past, arguing that they would tie up too many aircraft and military resources.
So far, President Trump has stuck primarily to the strategy of his predecessor, which centers on U.S.-led or guided forces carrying out surveillance and strikes on militant targets, while training and equipping local forces to conduct ground combat and hold territory once it has been taken back from ISIS. However, commanders now have greater leeway in terms of battlefield decisions.
Others believe that this additional freedom could mean greater civilian deaths, as in the January raid in Yemen that killed a Navy Seal and several women and children.
In compliance with President Trump’s order for a revised plan in 30 days, last month the Pentagon gave him an initial draft of its revised ISIS plan. According to Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis, this will be used to inform diplomatic discussions and feedback from the coalition would be integrated.
President Trump’s budget includes a 28% slash of the State Department’s budget for diplomacy and foreign aid, suggesting the U.S. will be offering fewer resources for the post-conflict stabilization.
“The United States will do its part,” said Tillerman during his opening comments, “But circumstances on the ground require more from all of you. I ask each country to examine how it can best support stabilization efforts,” indicating that the U.S. is going to expect more resources from its allies in the future.
“Pursuing policies that promote economic growth and job creation are also key to countering alienation and reducing the allure of extremism. Creating a stable governance environment and competitive economies is critical to attracting the private sector investment necessary for driving economic prosperity and job opportunities,” said Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop.
During the night, U.S. helicopters carried nearly 500 Syrian fighters for the first time behind the militants’ defensive lines near the Tabqa Dam, about 25 miles west of Raqqah, the militants’ self-declared capital and one of its crucial strongholds, according to the Pentagon.
“Hard-fought victories in Syria and Iraq have swung momentum in our coalition’s favor, but we must intensify our efforts and solidify our gains in the next phase of the counter-ISIS fight,” said Tillerson. He also indicated that the U.S. is not committing to an open-ended presence in Syria.
“We will continue to facilitate the return of people to their homes and work with the local political leadership,” said Tillerman. “They will provide stable and fair governance, rebuild infrastructure and provide essential services.”
While there are concerns regarding stability in Iraq, the larger issue is Syria, where Russia and Iran have joined the fight in support of Assad. Iran has also been training troops and sending them into Syria, thus forming militias that appear to counter coalition progress with ISIS. The U.S. and its allies are opposed to Assad and have focused on their fight with ISIS and its allies. This has led to a multi-sided situation in Syria and critical issues regarding refugees and the destruction of key infrastructure.
Other leaders from the Middle East region have noted that Iran’s role in the region needs to be curbed to achieve stability, something that Tillerman did not address. Others have noted Iran’s inability to respect the sovereignty of other nations within the region.