USA Foreign Policy

Defeating ISIS: Is Trump administration ready for the long haul?

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As members of the anti-ISIS coalition meet in Washington to coordinate measures to defeat the jihadists, a harder question may be how to prevent their return to liberated territory.

Members of Iraqi federal police walk through a destroyed train station during a battle against Islamic State militants, in Mosul, Iraq March 21, 2017.
Youssef Boudlal/Reuters
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Is it possible to defeat the Islamic State in a year? President Trump has directed the Pentagon to deliver plans to achieve that goal.

The answer may depend on how one defines “defeat.” But whether it’s a matter of months or of years, stamping out the world’s most threatening and widespread Islamist terrorist organization is likely to take much more of a long-term US commitment than the new administration has so far suggested it wants to make, some regional experts say.

It will also require more commitment from the 68 countries and international organizations of the counter-ISIS coalition meeting in Washington Wednesday.

The coalition partners will have some significant gains to celebrate, US officials and analysts say. But the rate of future progress will largely be determined by key coalition members’ ability to sort out the disputes that have hampered the fight.

Also vital to keeping a defeated ISIS down will be the development of some kind of regional understanding with key players that are not part of the US-led coalition, namely Iran and Russia.

“ISIS globally is not going to be defeated in a year, but if the goal is seeing that ISIS is no longer a territorial entity, that is certainly doable within a year,” says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.

“The question after you essentially take away any claim they have to being a ‘state,’ ” he adds, “is what [the US] will have to do and what will be needed from other players to make sure that ISIS in whatever form cannot come back.”

Conference as pep talk

ISIS is already on the verge of defeat in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and the looming US-supported campaign to rout the group from its self-declared capital in Raqqa, Syria, could be wrapped up well before the end of the year, Dr. Gartenstein-Ross says.

That would leave much smaller but still potent affiliates of the group scattered as far and wide as Libya and the Sahel in Africa to Afghanistan.

But remaining to be dealt with will be the complex and sensitive problem of ISIS’s foreign fighters returning home – and potentially to underground cells preparing to carry out terrorist attacks – to countries such as Tunisia and Egypt as well as to Western Europe.

Still, US officials are signaling they intend to use the conference as something of a pep talk to underscore the gains the coalition has already made, and from there to rev up support for what comes next.

“ISIS has now lost over 60 percent of the territory it once held here in Iraq – [and] in Iraq and Syria, coalition-enabled operations … have cleared 50,000 square kilometers of territory from ISIS. All of this liberated ground has held,” Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global counter-ISIS coalition, said at a pre-conference meeting in Baghdad earlier this month.

“Most importantly, it’s the people that we’ve helped free,” he added, noting that “coalition-enabled operations” have liberated 2.5 million people from ISIS control, including more than 1.5 million displaced people who have been able to return to their homes in Iraq.

The long view

Yet perhaps the biggest challenge for the US and the coalition it leads will be keeping the territory wrested from Islamic State from falling back into ISIS or other extremist hands.

James Jeffrey, the former US ambassador to Iraq, says the foremost challenge after the fall of ISIS will be “the 20 million Sunni Arabs who live between Baghdad and Damascus.” Key to stabilizing the area for the long term and precluding any ISIS return, he says, will be a grand regional accord that allows the reintegration of Sunni populations into Iraq’s and Syria’s Shiite-dominated political structures.

But such an accord would require a US presence in both Iraq and Syria for some period of time, Ambassador Jeffrey says, as well as some degree of entente between the US and regional power Iran – two prerequisites the Trump administration may not be ready to accept.

“You’ve got to get the basic political-diplomatic-security dynamics of the region under control before you can try to have a solution to integrate these [Sunni Arab] people,” he says – before adding, “I’m not so sure the US government is there.”

In the short term, the US does appear to be preparing to play a more proactive role in the upcoming battle to evict ISIS from Raqqa, as seen in the recent deployments of hundreds of Marines and additional special forces to assist in the imminent fight. But the Pentagon’s revised plan for Raqqa rules out using US forces on the front lines of the campaign, and that means the US still has to work out who will conduct the ground war.

Eye on the sidelines

That’s where this week’s counter-ISIS coalition conference comes in. No one expects any details of the Raqqa battle to be announced at the gathering, but analysts say important clues as to who will lead the fighting could come from the conference sidelines.

How will Turkey and Syrian Kurds figure in the Raqqa campaign? Will there be any signs of accommodation between those two key players, both of which experts say could make or break the Raqqa fight?

“I’d be watching what goes on behind the scenes at the conference, with Turkey in particular,” says Gartenstein-Ross. “What indications might we get about a role for Kurdish elements” in the battle?

Moreover, US officials say the conference, which was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s initiative, will also be an opportunity for the State Department to drum up stronger coalition partner commitments – and for Mr. Tillerson to communicate to US partners the stronger importance Mr. Trump and his administration are putting on international burden-sharing in US-led efforts like the counter-ISIS campaign.

That emphasis was front and center in the State Department’s announcement of the two-day conference, which said a key goal of the gathering would be to “accelerate international efforts to defeat ISIS in the remaining areas it holds in Iraq and Syria and maximize pressure on its branches, affiliates, and networks.”

State Department officials note that a coalition gathering in Washington in July, in the run-up to the commencement of the Mosul battle, drummed up about $2 billion in various kinds of support. They are hoping for a similar indication of support for the Raqqa battle from this week’s conference.

Tillerson’s trip to Russia

At the same time, however, experts continue to emphasize that it won’t be just the coalition but key non-coalition actors that will also determine the course of the counter-ISIS fight.

Recognition of that may be one reason Secretary Tillerson plans to visit Russia soon after this week’s coalition conference.

Yet as important as Russia may be to the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria, the long-term prospects of keeping ISIS from roaring back in some form in both Syria and Iraq will be dim without some understanding with Iran.

And reaching that point will first require, more than any coalition actions, firm signals from the US that it intends to remain in both Syria and Iraq after ISIS’s fall, says Jeffrey, now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.

“First of all, we’ll need to make it clear we will stay on in Syria.… We will be maintaining ‘lily pads’ [of military presence] in both Syria and Iraq,” Jeffrey says. “That’s when you talk to Iran. It’s the only way this is going to work.”

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