WASHINGTON (AP) — With U.S.-backed Iraqi forces battling to retake Mosul, officials from the 68-nation coalition fighting the Islamic State group are looking for ways to increase the pressure as planning intensifies on the next objective, dislodging the extremists from their self-declared capital in Syria.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were hosting Iraq’s prime minister and diplomats from the coalition partners in a Wednesday meeting at the State Department. The aim is to seek new ideas to expand the fight against IS and prepare for the day of its defeat.
But they were not likely to develop a new overall strategy. The Trump administration is refining its approach to the Islamic State group, and that probably will mean a greater military role for the U.S. and its allies, and increased reliance on local militias in Syria. The partnership with Kurdish forces is the source of complex and difficult discussions with Turkey, which sees the militants as a national security threat.
As IS becomes more encircled, the mission will change. Officials expect in the coming months to see the dissipation of surviving fighters into underground cells that could plan and mount attacks throughout the Middle East, South and Central Asia, Europe and the United States.
The officials gathering in Washington also hope to figure out how best to deal with the inevitably messy humanitarian and political aftermath of IS’ defeat on the battlefield. There are widespread fears of chaos, such as what emerged after NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011, that could further fracture the region’s deep ethnic and religious splits, and complicate the stated goal of preserving the Syrian and Iraqi states.
The meeting was the first of all the coalition’s top diplomats since September 2014.
Under Trump, there has been a slight uptick in U.S. military involvement, with 400 additional Marines sent to the region this month ahead of the expected assault on Raqqa, the militants’ base. U.S. officials say that operation will be modeled closely on the campaign in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
Iraqi government troops working with Kurdish forces known as peshmerga and supported by American airpower and military advisers are nearing a full liberation of the city that has been the extremists’ main Iraqi stronghold since 2014. The effort is focused on driving them from the city’s western half. The United Nations said Wednesday about 45,000 civilians have fled fighting in the past week. Some 330,000 have been uprooted since the operation began in October.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who meet with Trump on Monday, said he was assured that the U.S. will accelerate support with a more aggressive stance than President Barack Obama took. Obama had been reluctant to commit large numbers of U.S. troops. His approach, which relied on training and supporting local forces, has succeeded in pushing the militants from much of the Iraqi territory they held.
Coalition members have expressed concern that Trump’s proposed budget cuts to foreign aid and the United Nations will have severe consequences for humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Syria.
Syrian plans are confounded by the country’s civil war, where a political settlement appears nowhere in sight. The U.S. and its partners must balance their need to work with Kurdish groups, whom they say are the most effective local fighting partner, and safeguard broad cooperation with coalition member Turkey.
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