The 68-nation US-led coalition against the Islamic State group will meet in Washington on Wednesday to accelerate efforts to destroy the remaining jihadist strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
US President Donald Trump has ordered his generals to come up with an accelerated strategy to “eradicate” the group’s so-called caliphate, and allied ministers are keen to hear more.
And it is also an occasion for Trump’s discreet new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to emerge from the shadows and stamp his authority on the diplomatic side of the joint effort.
But eyebrows have been raised by Trump’s plan to slash 28 percent from the State Department’s budget for diplomacy and foreign aid, suggesting fewer resources for post-conflict stabilization.
European diplomats told AFP that they expect reassurances from Washington that it remains committed to a longer-term plan to secure the region after a battlefield victory.
The day-long ministerial-level discussion at the State Department will also help plan for the political aftermath of the battles for the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqa in Syria.
– ‘Killing Daesh’ –
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in Washington just ahead of the talks, and said victory against IS was within sight, if only the allies stick together.
“We are killing Daesh. We are proving that Daesh can be killed, can be eliminated,” Abadi told an invited audience at the US Institute for Peace, using the group’s Arabic acronym.
“We can do it not only in Iraq but in the region. I am encouraging our allies and our friends to stay focused. We shouldn’t lose focus, we shouldn’t give Daesh a second chance.”
Shortly after taking office in late January, Trump gave the Pentagon 30 days to review progress in the anti-IS fight and develop a comprehensive plan to “totally obliterate” the group.
On the campaign trail, the combative candidate frequently bemoaned how long it was taking then president Barack Obama to get the job done — and he claimed to have a secret plan to finish IS.
But he never offered any details and so far has largely stuck with Obama’s strategy.
This centers on US-led or guided forces carrying out continual surveillance and strikes on jihadist targets, while training and equipping local forces to conduct ground combat and hold seized terrain.
Still, Trump has made some notable tweaks, including granting commanders broader authority to make battlefield decisions.
Military officers had complained of micromanagement by the Obama White House, but critics worry the military may now lean toward actions with a greater likelihood of civilian deaths, such as a botched January raid in Yemen that ended up killing a Navy SEAL and multiple women and children.
On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed that it was investigating allegations that a strike it launched on a suspected Al-Qaeda target near a mosque in northern Syria killed dozens of civilians.
Last month, the Pentagon gave Trump an initial draft of its revised anti-IS plan.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said the document would “inform” Wednesday’s diplomatic discussions, and that feedback from coalition partners would go back into the plan.
– Heavy casualties –
On October 17 last year, Iraqi troops — backed by coalition air power, special forces and artillery — launched an offensive to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group’s so-called caliphate.
By February 19 they had cleared the East bank of the Tigris and had begun to push into jihadist strongholds on the West. They have suffered heavy casualties but continue to progress.
Meanwhile, the jihadists’ “capital” in Syria is increasingly isolated, but planning for its recapture has been complicated by the diplomatic and political situation in the country.
The Pentagon is backing an alliance of local Kurdish and Arab militias to take the city, but Turkey has its own rebel force in the region and Russia is backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Turkey regards the YPG — the Kurdish component of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces — as a front for the “terrorist” Kurdish separatist PKK and opposes arming it for the offensive.
The United States, however, does not want to commit too many of its own troops to the fight — despite plans to more than double its own 850-strong contingent in the country and add artillery units.
How this plays out in the months to come will also be under discussion in Washington, with Tillerson attempting to maintain support for the US vision among the mainly Western and Arab partners.