The only good reason to have a meeting is to deliberate and decide on a shared objective. From that business angle, the March 22 meeting in Washington of the Global Coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) did not serve any purpose. The US message to its allies was clear: let us alone deal a military blow to ISIL, you deal with the day after.
Nothing is ordinary about the tumultuous nature of Donald Trump‘s presidency, even during what was supposed to be a mundane bureaucratic gathering. As the invited Arab ministers were settling into their hotels, US authorities surprised them by banning electronic devices onboard of flights coming from their national airports. While the meeting was underway at the State Department, US forces airlifted members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) behind enemy lines in Raqqa and an ISIL-inspired attack was terrorising London.
All that matters to the battle against ISIL was not heard in the hallways of the first expanded anti-ISIL coalition meeting in more than two years. The US State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson’s remarks did not even mention the three elephants in the room: Russia, Iran and the Kurdish-led SDF forces (he called the latter “our Syrian partners”). Despite the looming budget cuts his department could face, Tillerson stood high and proud expecting that ISIL fighters are tuned “into their TVs and their computer monitors” to watch the global coalition’s show of “strength”.
It is true ISIL’s territorial control and leadership were degraded during the final stretch of the previous US administration and the campaign has intensified in the past three months. We are now in a transitional period where ISIL will metamorphose into decentralised and uncontrolled individuals who launch attacks sporadically with basic, unsophisticated tools.
Engaging global partners is crucial to enlist their efforts, the US can no longer go alone. Drones can win battles but are not enough to protect the US from possible attacks in the long term.
US allies left Washington more confused than when they arrived. The confusion is due to the perception that the Trump administration had created about having an awesome secret plan no one will see coming. The mere gathering of the Global Coalition is a subtle continuation of President Barack Obama’s strategy to defeat ISIL: launching systematic air strikes; increasing US support for local forces; deploying non-combat US special forces; cooperating on global counterterrorism efforts; and providing humanitarian assistance to displaced civilians.
What the Trump administration is doing “differently” is more of the same: intensify already existing strikes, deploy additional forces and increase support to SDF forces.
Tillerson made three issues blatantly clear: He told Arab allies, anxious to deter Iran that, “defeating ISIL is the United States’ No 1 goal in the region”. For those betting on a long-term US involvement, the message was also plain: “We are not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction.” The Trump administration is satisfied with the current formula of providing in Iraq and Syria 75 percent of the military resources and 25 percent of humanitarian and stabilisation support.
Defeating ISIL alone cannot be a stand-alone strategy and the Trump Administration should first be forthcoming about the fact that there is no significant change in US policy.
The third American message delivered to allies via Tillerson was simple: We alone will take care of business in Iraq and Syria, and all we want from you is to prepare for post-Raqqa and Mosul operations by investing resources, increasing pressure on ISIL networks in your home countries, exchanging intelligence information and combating ISIL online.
Defeating ISIL alone cannot be a stand-alone strategy and the Trump administration should first be forthcoming about the fact that there is no significant change in US policy. The two-year tacit understanding between Washington and Tehran still holds: US-trained Iraqi special forces lead the fight in sensitive demographic areas and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) mostly stay put. Endorsing SDF forces continues to grow without promising Kurdish forces to back their autonomy and without pushing the buttons of Ankara.
While safe zones increasingly disappear from the White House narrative, Tillerson lowered the expectation further and spoke about “interim zones of stability through ceasefires to allow refugees to go home”. While that statement alone is desperately vague, the “safe zones” idea was not included in the ministerial meeting’s concluding statement.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate on March 22 that it is in the US national interest to keep a residual force in Iraq even after the defeat of ISIL. In the case of Syria, however, the Pentagon knew when to go in but struggles with the question of how soon to get out.
For that specific reason, the timing of the anti-ISIL global coalition was premature without a clear path to victory for both Mosul and Raqqa operations. While the US is leading on the military level, chaos along the contested areas on the Iraqi-Syrian border is expected the day after victory. With no vision for conflict-resolution or power-sharing in place, there are no guarantees that regional infighting will not happen or radical elements will not fill the vacuum once again. Protecting the peace is often far more important than defeating the enemy.
Joe Macaron is a policy analyst at the Arab Center Washington, DC.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.