On 22-23 March, under the chairmanship of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Washington will host a meeting of foreign ministers and senior leaders of anti-ISIS coalition members (officially known as the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS). This will be the first wide-format meeting of the coalition since December 2014. Representatives of 68 countries are expected to come.
This will be the first meeting of the coalition since the election of Donald Trump as well. So far, with the exception of the recent sending to Syria of a small contingent of Rangers and Marines to participate in battles for ISIS’ Syrian capital, Raqqa, statements of the new administration on combating extremists have mostly been declarative in nature. Perhaps the forthcoming meeting will provide details that enable a charting of at least some approximate lines of future White House policy for the region.
Besides countering ISIS per se, the agenda of the meeting includes issues such as the fight against terrorist financing, the stabilisation of liberated areas, and overcoming the humanitarian crisis.
Participants will need to come to terms with new realities, including Russia’s advance in the Middle East and the emerging interaction in Syria of Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
To promote an effective Syrian settlement, the US and its allies should not limit themselves only to striking at extremists and supporting certain groups from the Syrian opposition, but they should also start working with the official Damascus government. This is a sine qua non condition for a long-term settlement, no matter how unattractive it might look. The Assad government, the Syrian Armed Forces, and the pro-government militias are the number one force in Syria, and must be taken into account. It is necessary to remember the Iranian, Turkish, and other actors’ interests too. Certainly, it would be quite reasonable to honestly articulate all these interests and then start looking for possible ways towards their mutual accommodation. The sooner the proxy war element decreases in Syrian developments, the sooner stabilisation will come.
An important circumstance is that Russia will not attend the event. This was officially announced by the US Department of State Deputy Spokesperson, Mark Toner. The decision not to invite Russia was taken because Russia is “not part of the global coalition.” One of possible reasons for this is the legacy left by the Obama administration, which at the last moment did its best to spoil relations between Washington and Moscow. In this context, the fact that the Americans were invited to the meeting in Astana is quite telling.
Also of interest is how the Kurdish question will be handled at the ministerial meeting (and whether it will be touched on at all). The Kurdistan Regional Government’s foreign relations minister, Falah Mustafa has claimed that a representative of the Iraqi Kurds would participate in the meeting as part of the Iraqi delegation. Kurdish fighters are one of the most effective combatants against ISIS and so far have enjoyed considerable American support. Turkey is vividly worried about the prospects of such close cooperation. How will the US manage to accommodate Turkish and Kurdish interests in the future? And how will they act towards the Kurds when the current round of struggles against ISIS are over?
The background for the event is favourable: ISIS is losing control over territories it previously occupied in both Syria and Iraq, and is very close to leaving its major strongholds; Mosul is almost liberated, while a large-scale offensive on Raqqa is being prepared. On the other hand, the actions of different actors are not sufficiently coordinated. Iran, Russia, and Turkey, which demonstrated mutual understanding in Astana, have often operated independently of each other in Syria itself. The US and its allies adhere to completely different tactics. Judging by the US refusal to invite Russia to the coalition meeting, even in an observer capacity, this trend will persist. Areas currently occupied by ISIS can be liberated even with this configuration, but without concrete agreements it will hardly be possible to ensure the building of a peaceful life in Iraq and Syria.
More broadly, one should think about stabilisation in the whole MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. As was noted at the “Foreign Actors in the Syrian Conflict, 2017” roundtable, organised by the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute on 27-28 February, the current crisis is one with multiple factors, and in seeking to get out of it all dimensions must be taken into account: national (the multiethnic character of the region’s states within their existing borders); religious (the Sunni-Shia divide as well as issues of religious minorities like Christians and Yazidis); regional (the entangled interests of regional actors); and global (the influence of external actors).
The unpredictability of further developments is still one of the main characteristics of the situation. A few years ago, ISIS was seen to emerge out of the blue. The emergence of other unprecedented phenomena is not to be excluded in the future. All things considered, the key challenge is the elaboration of an articulated long-term programme of action. Whether the coalition will be able to respond to the challenge is yet to be seen. In the meantime, in June this year, ISIS is very likely to celebrate the third anniversary of its existence.