Can Paris talks produce cohesive anti-IS strategy?
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A meeting of the US-led coalition combating the Islamic State (IS) group opened in Paris on Tuesday with two potential strikes against it: the absence of US Secretary of State John Kerry and a "central" focus on Iraq despite IS group gains in Syria.
Tuesday’s summit – which brought together representatives from 24 coalition countries as well as international agencies – came weeks after the fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province, to Islamic State group control in what was a key defeat for the coalition.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was not present at the Paris meeting following a cycling accident in France over the weekend. The top US diplomat rushed home on Sunday to seek treatment for a fractured femur.
Kerry had been scheduled to fly to Paris on Monday for a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi ahead of Tuesday’s talks. Monday’s face-to-face has since been cancelled, with Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Gen. John Allen, White House envoy for the anti-IS coalition, representing the United States in Paris.
A September summit in Paris brought together officials from around the globe to discuss what role each would play in the US-led coalition of more than 60 countries, at least a dozen of which have launched air strikes on IS group targets.
But the latest round of talks may have doomed itself to failure by focusing on Iraq, relegating the Islamic State group’s recent significant gains in Syria to the background.
Announcing the coalition summit last month, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the “central” focus of the talks would be the Islamic State group’s activities in Iraq, although he said that it was “not impossible” that the Syrian crisis would also be discussed.
Coalition faults Iraqi authorities, Abadi blames coalition
“Political solution” was the catchphrase as the talks got under way, with US officials increasingly warning that the battle against the IS group required more than just a successful military strategy.
In an exclusive interview with FRANCE 24 last week, General John Allen – the special US presidential envoy to the international coalition – said that pressing political questions must be addressed to undermine support for the militants.
“We have to deal with the political issues,” he said. “We have to deal with inherent social, economic, religious issues. Because in the end, the aggregation of those creates an environment where an organisation like Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the IS group) can find cohesion and purpose.”
The Paris talks come as the IS group has made significant recent gains in Syria and Iraq with the almost simultaneous fall of the Syrian town of Palmyra and the strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi.
“A main goal of the talks is to put pressure on the Iraqi government to step up to the plate. Members of the anti-IS coalition were very disappointed when Iraqi forces gave up Ramadi without a fight,” explained FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor, Armen Georgian.
Noting that the September 2014 anti-IS talks in Paris had ended with a pledge from Baghdad to “do more” to reach out to all sections of the Iraqi population, Georgian added, “There’s a sense in Paris and Washington that progress towards that goal has been too slow.”
But speaking to reporters at the start of the Paris talks Tuesday, Abadi blamed the international coalition for the lack of sufficient support in the anti-IS fight. “Air support is not enough,” said Abadi. “There is too little surveillance. Daesh is mobile and moves in very small groups. It’s not enough.”
Abadi’s comments represented “a veiled criticism” of the international coalition against the IS group, which includes several Arab nations, Georgian noted.
“These comments may stem from legitimate concerns. But they’re also aimed at preempting criticisms from his partners, criticisms of the recent performance of Iraqi troops – particularly in Ramadi – and also criticism of Haidar al-Abadi’s own record on political inclusiveness with certain members of the coalition such as France saying he has not done enough to reach out to communities in Iraq and include them in the political process,” he said.
Addressing IS group’s Sunni support
The strategy to take back Ramadi and other parts of Anbar has so far revolved on the use of controversial Shiite militias – a strategy the US, as well as Abadi, had been keen to avoid for fear of fanning the flames of sectarian conflict in the Sunni-majority territory.
“The Islamic State group has a reasonably strong backbone of support within Iraq that comprises Sunni tribes, former Baathists and jihadists, going all the way back to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. A common threat within the first two groups is a feeling of disenfranchisement in recent years with Shias dominating the government,” explained FRANCE 24’s regional correspondent Adam Pletts, reporting from the Lebanese capital of Beirut.
When Abadi replaced Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister last year, many hoped he would begin an end to his predecessor’s sectarian tendencies and bring Sunnis back into the national fold.
But the operation to take back Anbar province got off to a controversial start last week, raising questions of Abadi’s ability to tackle Iraq’s systemic divisions.
The military offensive, initially codenamed Operation Labaik ya Hussein, drew criticisms from Sunni leaders as well as the Pentagon, which called the codename “unhelpful” given its deeply sectarian nature.
“Labaik ya Hussein,” which roughly translates as, “We are at your service, Hussein,” is a reference to one of the most revered Shiite imams, whose death in the 7th century marked the birth of Islam’s bitter Sunni-Shiite divide.
Operation Labaik ya Hussein was eventually changed to Operation Labaik ya Anbar – but for many critics, the political damage had already been done.
A weakened Assad
The reluctance of Western powers to enter into discussions with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made finding a diplomatic solution tricky, if not impossible. But the fast-changing situation on the ground in Syria is now pushing officials in both regional and far-flung capitals to re-examine the political issues at the root of the country's Islamist problem.
Over the past few weeks, Assad has been losing ground in the war against IS and other rebel groups across the country. The IS group’s takeover of the historic town of Palmyra last month marked the first regime loss to the jihadists, who have swept across swaths of both Syria and Iraq since early last year.
According to Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center, the Syrian army and its supporting militias appear to be “at their weakest point since early 2013” – before the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah joined the Syrian battle on Assad’s side.
The recent loss of Palmyra to the IS group, as well as advances by a rebel coalition in Idlib and the southern province of Deraa, have inflicted psychological and military pressures on the Syrian regime, Lister noted in a recent report entitled, "Why Assad Is Losing".
“Frustration, disaffection and even incidences of protest are rising across Assad’s most ardent areas of support on Syria’s coast – some of which are now under direct attack. Hezbollah is stretched thin and even Iranian forces have begun withdrawing to the areas of Syria deemed to be the most important for regime survival,” noted Lister.
Reinvigorated cooperation between Sunni Muslim powers Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to contain the regional influence of Iran – a key Assad supporter, and now backing anti-IS militias in Iraq – has brought increased heavy arms flows, such as anti-tank weapons, to Syrian rebel groups battling Assad’s forces.
But the options on the table at the Paris talks were limited, according to Georgian. “Neither the US, nor the Arab states want a ground invasion. That leaves the option of tweaking air strikes and sending more weapons to troops on the ground. But in Ramadi, weapons fell to the IS group. The other option is to put pressure on Turkey to clamp down on IS recruits and also to choke oil sales in Turkey.”