The meeting of 68 allies in the fight against ISIS in Washington is focused on the next steps in the defeat of ISIS. In the last year, significant gains have been made against the terrorist organization, including regaining territory previously controlled by the group.
“While many challenges remain, ISIS is cornered in Mosul and increasingly isolated in Raqqa, (two ISI strongholds in Iraq and Syria)” according to a U.S. State Department bulletin. “This ministerial meeting is a key moment to set ISIS on a lasting and irreversible path to defeat.”
During the meeting, key priorities were discussed and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged that it was time to review and “accelerate the campaign for the lasting defeat of ISIS.” Part of his comments included outlining four countermeasures, which include staying ahead of ISIS, using in-country counterterrorism and law enforcement operations, greater intelligence agencies in and among coalition members, and combating a warped interpretation of Islam by breaking ISIS’ ability to spread its messages and recruit online.
“The meeting was an opportunity to highlight the vision of His Majesty the King to fight the terrorist threat,” said Morocco Minister Delegate of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Nasser Bourita. “It is a multidimensional approach that includes preventive and repressive aspects.”
Notably absent from the meeting were Russia and Iran, two key players in the region, particularly in the civil war within the borders of Syria.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented on the meeting, noting, “While dozens of countries continue to discuss battling Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), Russia is fighting it, day and night, every day.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry responded by saying that Moscow was not surprised at its lack of an invitation, as it had not been a part of the U.S.-led coalition and has not participated in this format in the past.
Yet, Peskov also noted that success in this fight will be impossible without Russia’s participation. “It is impossible to achieve success in the fight against ISIS without the widest possible international cooperation,” said Peskov.
In late January, President Trump had ordered various agencies to draft a plan for defeating ISIS. The U.S. has since deployed additional ground troops in Iraq and Syria, which seems to be a signal that a long-promised siege of Raqqa may be set to begin. However, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted in an earlier interview that the conflict in the region cannot be addressed without dealing with ISIS. He has acknowledged that this is likely to be a three-stage process, which includes a military campaign, followed by a transition phase, and then a stability program.
Another issue is the potential power vacuum that could occur in the region, as well as the humanitarian needs of Iraq and Syria. As they develop that plan for the ongoing fight with ISIS, the coalition recognizes that a power vacuum could be exploited by Iran and Russia.
“The day after Raqqa falls is going to be the moment that Iran moves to try to oust the United States from the region,” said Senator Marco Rubio told the Washington Examiner in February.
Iran’s current role in the region is contributing to the instability. The Iranian regime is currently backing Assad in Syria with Russia, while the U.S.-led coalition is fighting ISIS and has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is a Kurdish-led group of militias.
In a statement from SDF, they indicated that the U.S. coalition has air-dropped U.S. and SDF forces near the town of Tabqa in Raqqa province, with the aim to capture the strategic area of al-Tabqa and curb Syrian government advances in that direction. If this operation is successful, it could cut ISIS off from the western approaches to Raqqa.
“What we’re seeing right now is a race to Raqqa. Which forces are going to try to take on ISIL in that pivotal city? Is it going to be Syrian forces backed by Russia and Iran, or is it going to be U.S. forces? Another big question is what role is Turkey going to play in all of this?” said Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane.
The discussions at the coalition meeting also focused on how to rebuild and ways to tackle ISIS operations in Libya and elsewhere. Clearly, the international community is backing a fight against ISIS, but what to do afterwards remains on the drawing board.