Anti-extremist coalition looks to future role after Daesh defeat

The German air force has 4 Tornado reconnaissance aircraft and an Airbus A-310 aerial refueling tanker aircraft operating out of the base as part of the “Counter Daesh operation.” (AFP)
Updated 14 January 2018
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Anti-extremist coalition looks to future role after Daesh defeat

WASHINGTON: With Daesh all but vanquished from its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, the US-led coalition that has been fighting the extremists for more than three years is transforming its mission.
Eager to avoid a repeat of 2011, when America completed its troop withdrawal from Iraq only to watch in horror as Daesh later overran swathes of the country, the coalition is focusing on what it must do to stop a extremist re-emergence.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently told reporters the mission now is shifting toward stabilization and making sure an “ISIS 2.0” can’t pop up, using an alternate acronym to refer to the extremist group.
Already, the Pentagon has said it will stay in Syria “as long as we need to.”
“The longer term recovery is going to take a lot of effort and a lot of years after what (Daesh) did, because they forcibly kept innocent people in the midst of the combat zone, and that meant the residential areas took damage, the public areas — everything took damage,” he said, adding that a most pressing need is to clear cities and terrain of innumerable bombs, mines and booby traps.
America hastily convened a coalition in 2014 after Daesh swept across vast tracts of Iraqi and Syrian territory, terrorizing residents and leaving a trail of murder and atrocity in their wake.
The US military began bombing them that summer with the immediate goal of stopping Daesh from reaching Baghdad after they’d seized a string of major cities including Mosul and Tikrit.
Today, the coalition boasts 70 nations as well as international organizations like NATO and Interpol.
Though some alliance members are there in name only, bigger countries like Britain, France, Canada and Australia are helping in the skies and on the ground.
A State Department official said some coalition members can play an increased role now that the main campaign is over, including by countering Daesh propaganda, sending in police trainers and providing funding.
Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said that ideally, “you are going to have different partners taking on many different aspects of the stabilizing mission, the part that they do well.”
With Daesh now cleared from 98 percent of the terrain they once held, nations like France and Australia have begun pulling some military assets — including planes and artillery — from Iraq and Syria, and the Pentagon has said the tapering off of bombing missions means it has more resources to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But the coalition is keeping an indefinite presence to help Iraqis get the support and training they need, and to protect a Kurdish-Arab alliance who fought against Daesh in Syria.
“If we were to repeat the mistakes that we made when the Iraq War came to a close then we are very much likely to see a repeat of the tragedies that followed,” warned Steve Warren, a retired Army colonel who was top spokesman for the coalition between 2015 and 2016.
“They need to morph into a stabilization force, there’s no question.”
America has about 2,000 troops in Syria and more than 5,000 in Iraq, augmented in both countries by coalition members who have provided commandos and military trainers.
But where Iraq now has a cohesive military and some degree of political stability, Syria is mired in civil war and President Bashar Assad is working with Russia and Iranian militias to maintain control of areas once in the hands of rebels or Daesh.
That means the US must keep boots on the ground in Syria to protect fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces who it backed to fight Daesh.
“Unless we want to cede eastern Syria to the Iranians, (the coalition) needs to be there,” Warren told AFP.
“Not necessarily the US — it’s other partners who have skin in this game, which includes every country in Europe,” he added, referring to the refugee crisis that has gripped the continent in part because of Syria.
Additionally, extremist groups the world over are rebranding themselves under the Daesh banner, meaning the anti-Daesh coalition will have a role beyond the Middle East, including in African nations.
Last year, four new African nations signed up to the coalition: Djibouti, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
“Pre-existing terrorist organizations like in the Philippines, like in Bangladesh, like in the Sinai and Afghanistan, they have basically rebranded themselves and started flying the ISIS flag in order to gain attraction and resources,” the State Department official told AFP.
US military officials stress the fight against Daesh is not over, and warn of the extremists in Iraq and Syria returning to a more traditional insurgency.
“Their repressive ideology continues. The conditions remain present for Daesh to return, and only through coalition and international efforts can the defeat become permanent,” coalition commander Lt. Gen. Paul Funk said, using an Arabic acronym for the group.


Syria’s Idlib spared attack, Turkey to send in more troops

Updated 19 September 2018
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Syria’s Idlib spared attack, Turkey to send in more troops

  • Damascus also welcomed the agreement but vowed to continue its efforts to recover “every inch” of Syria
  • The Idlib region and adjoining territory north of Aleppo represent the opposition’s last big foothold in Syria

ANKARA/AMMAN: Turkey will send more troops into Syria’s Idlib province after striking a deal with Russia that has averted a government offensive and delighted rebels who said it kept the area out of President Bashar Assad’s hands.
The deal unveiled on Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most powerful ally, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will create a demilitarised zone from which “radical” rebels must withdraw by the middle of next month.
Damascus also welcomed the agreement but vowed to continue its efforts to recover “every inch” of Syria. Iran, Assad’s other main ally, said that “responsible diplomacy” had averted a war in Idlib “with a firm commitment to fight extremist terror.”
The agreement halted a threatened Syrian government offensive. The United Nations had warned such an attack would create a humanitarian catastrophe in the Idlib region, home to about 3 million people.
The Idlib region and adjoining territory north of Aleppo represent the opposition’s last big foothold in Syria. Assad has recovered most of the areas once held by the rebels, with decisive military support from Iran and Russia.
But his plans to recover the northwest have been complicated by Turkey’s role on the ground. It has soldiers at 12 locations in Idlib and supplies weapons to some of the rebels.
Erdogan had feared another exodus of refugees to join the 3.5 million already in Turkey, and warned against any attack.
In striking the deal, Russia appears — at least for now — to have put its ties with Turkey ahead of advancing the goal of bringing all Syria back under Assad’s rule.
That goal is also obstructed by the presence of US forces in the quarter of Syria east of the Euphrates that is held by an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, and at a base near the borders with Jordan and Iraq.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis played down any notion the Turkey-Russia agreement had resolved the situation in Idlib.
“Idlib is one of the most complex problems in a complex theater (of conflict) right now. So I’m quite sure it’s not all sorted,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.
Analysts cautioned that implementation of the deal faced big challenges, notably how to separate extremists from other rebels — a goal Ankara has been struggling to achieve.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the “moderate opposition” would keep its weapons and the “region will be cleared of radicals.” Turkey would “make additional troop deployments” and its 12 observation posts would remain.
The deal was “very important for the political resolution in Syria.” “If this (Idlib) had been lost too, there would be no opposition anymore,” he said.
Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army (FSA) official, said the deal “buries Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria.”
Yahya Al-Aridi, spokesman for the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission, expressed hope a government offensive was now off the table for good.
The Syrian government, in a statement published by state media, said it welcomed any agreement that spared blood. It also said the deal had a specific time frame, which it did not detail.
“I see it as a test of the extent of Turkey’s ability to implement this decision,” Ali Abdul Karim, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, said in an interview with Lebanon’s Al-Jadeed TV. “We do not trust Turkey ... but it’s useful for Turkey to be able to carry out this fight to rid these groups from their weapons.”
’Catastrophe averted’
Moscow said the deal “confirmed the ability of both Moscow and Ankara to compromise ... in the interests of the ultimate goal of a Syrian settlement by political and diplomatic means.”
“Is this merely a stay of execution? Or is it the beginning of a reprieve?” UN aid chief Mark Lowcock asked during a monthly meeting of the UN Security Council on Syria.
The demilitarised zone will be monitored by Russian and Turkish forces, the countries’ leaders said.
Neither Russia nor Turkey has explained how it plans to differentiate “radically minded” rebels from other anti-Assad groups. It was also not immediately clear how much of the city of Idlib fell within the zone.
Putin said the decision was to establish by Oct. 15 a demilitarised area 15 to 20 km (10-12 miles) deep along the contact line between rebel and government fighters.
Naji Abu Hufaiza, spokesman for the National Front for Liberation, said he did not have details of the agreement, but added that while he saw it as a success for Turkish diplomacy, his group did not trust Russia to uphold it.
Idlib is held by an array of rebels. The most powerful is Tahrir Al-Sham, an amalgamation of Islamist groups dominated by the former Nusra Front — an Al-Qaeda affiliate until 2016.
Other Islamists, and groups fighting as the Free Syrian Army banner, are now gathered with Turkish backing under the banner of the “National Front for Liberation.”
The area is also the last major haven for foreign extremists who came to Syria to fight the Alawite-led Assad government.
Putin said that, at Erdogan’s suggestion, by Oct. 10, all opposition heavy weapons, mortars, tanks, rocket systems would also be removed from the demilitarised zone.
Earlier this month, Putin publicly rebuffed a proposal from Erdogan for a truce when the two met along with Iran’s president at a summit in Tehran.