On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will begin hosting the first anti-ISIS coalition meeting since President Trump took office.  Delegates and foreign ministers from sixty-eight nations are in attendance with important decisions to make about the future of anti-ISIS military efforts around the world for the U.S.-led coalition.

President Trump vowed to make the destruction of ISIS a centerpiece of his administration, already directing Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other federal agencies to submit a plan for the total defeat of the terrorist organization this past January.

ISIS has suffered a number of strategic defeats in recent months, and efforts are ongoing to root ISIS out of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, as well as the self-proclaimed ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria.  Iraqi forces have retaken a number of important locations, to include East Mosul, since the last coalition  meeting of this sort.

In a meeting on Monday between President Trump and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the American president once again reaffirmed his commitment to defeating ISIS all over the world, but also addressed the need to “promote a broad-based political and economic partnership based in the Strategic Framework Agreement,” in order to loosen any remaining cultural grip the terrorist group might retain over the people of Iraq.

According to a joint statement released by the White House, in the months to come, “United States and Iraqi leaders will consult on steps to deepen commercial ties and promote investment, expand collaboration in the energy sector, and seek new opportunities for cultural and educational cooperation.”

Discussions on Wednesday are expected to mirror this line of thinking, as the coalition strives to find ways not only to destroy the terrorist threat, but to prevent a similar group from gaining power in the region again.

The wide array of nations involved in the anti-ISIS efforts bring with them a unique set of challenges, as groups in Syria fighting ISIS are backed by three nations with distinctly different foreign policies: Russia, Turkey and the United States.  The U.S. backed rebel groups have a history of fighting with the Russian backed Syrian military, and Kurdish rebels in the region, which often enjoy U.S. support, are seen as a national security threat to the Turks.

Among the challenges faced by the coalition moving forward is a shift in the style of fighting likely to be employed in Iraq, as large pockets of ISIS fighters give way to insurgent snipers and suicide bombings intended only to slow the impending coalition victory.  Narrow city streets in places like Western Mosul, for instance, makes it difficult to maneuver armored vehicles and will likely leave Iraqi military forces susceptible to attacks by the few remaining pockets of fighters hidden amidst the Iraqi public.

If managed poorly, the power vacuum created by removing ISIS from both Syria and Iraq could result in political turmoil, so a sound strategy must be employed in order to ensure a further fracture of each region’s ethnically, religiously and culturally divided people does not occur.  Echoes of NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011, and its chaotic aftermath, will likely be on the minds of many within the meeting.

President Trump has authorized a slight increase in direct U.S. military involvement in the fight against ISIS since taking office, and it seems potentially feasible that U.S. forces may continue to play a growing role in the fight in the months to come.  Such increased action would speak directly to Trump’s planned defense spending increase, though some opponents have voiced concerns about the effect his intended cuts to foreign aid could have on the rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Syria.

Syria’s situation is made even more complex by an ongoing civil war between the government and rebel groups – the two sides have shifted their attention for the most part to ISIS, but with their defeat, fighting will likely resume between the two factions that are currently unified only by the presence of a common enemy.

Defeating ISIS will likely require not only an excellent military strategy, but a serious cultural one established and adhered to through compromise among the diverse group.


Image courtesy of Reuters