Washington counterterrorism gathering highlights 'IS' fight and Iran

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When the foreign ministers of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, a 68-nation coalition formed in 2014 by former US President Barack Obama, gather in Washington this week to discuss efforts to combat the terror group, the meeting presents a welcome opportunity to showcase progress on one of President Donald Trump’s main campaign promises: the fight against and the complete defeat of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS).

Progress has indeed been made against the group. IS – referred to as ISIS by the White House – has been steadily losing territory for a long time in Iraq and Syria, the influx of foreign fighters has dwindled and the fall of the group’s strongholds in Mosul and even its de-facto capital Raqqa is widely expected in the coming months.

While the policies towards that development, as well as the coalition format itself, were set in motion long before the inauguration of Donald Trump, it is noteworthy that the new administration – unlike many other policies – has not discarded this particular holdover from the Obama years.

Good photo opportunity

“It will be a good photo opportunity for the president, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense on a public and global level,” said Randa Slim, a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington.

USA Donald Trump vor dem US-Kongress in Washington (picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Lo Scalzo)

Trump’s approach to ‘IS’ doesn’t differ greatly from Obama’s

“They want the political effect,” said Joseph Wippl, an international relations professor at Boston University and a former CIA officer.

That’s because the Trump administration’s approach to counter IS does not differ greatly from that developed under President Obama.

“The IS strategy the Trump administration is presenting resembles the Obama strategy to rely on Special Operations Forces to make targeted raids, such as the one carried out in Yemen in January this year, and to train and develop capabilities of local forces to fight [IS] on their own,”  Amanda Kadlec, a national security analyst with the Rand Corporation, said via email.

Intensification of Obama strategy

“Some observers have referred to the Trump plan as an ‘intensification’ of the existing one, not a new strategy,” she added.

The main difference, argue the scholars, is an increase in the number of US troops deployed.

Irak US-Truppen in Mossul (Getty Images/AFP/T. Coex)

Some 500 US troops are reportedly operating in Syria

Currently there are some 500 US special operation forces in Syria, and according to a “Washington Post” report, the Pentagon is considering sending up to 1,000 additional soldiers there in preparation for an offensive against IS’ de facto capital, Raqqa.

But what matters more, said Kadlec, than the relatively small number of troops is what those soldiers will be doing. And while support for a ground war against IS has increased over the past couple of years, according to Pew polls, the American public still prefers employ Special Operations Forces than troops in large numbers, she added.

Focus on Iran

“For the Trump Administration, sending a large contingent could be politically unpopular, particularly after the criticism from the Yemen raid that didn’t go according to plan,” said Kadlec.

The observers generally don’t expect a major shift in the fight against IS to be announced at the upcoming meeting in Washington, but one key aspect will change.   

“The one caveat where it is going to be different from before is that you will be hearing in this meeting, and you have heard this before, the Trump administration’s emphasis on rolling back Iranian influence in the region,” said Slim.

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