Defense and foreign leaders from more than 30 countries met in Washington on July 21-22 to discuss the next steps to be taken in the fight to defeat the Islamic State (IS) group.
The gathering comes as Iraqi security forces, aided by the coalition, are preparing to encircle and eventually attempt to retake the key northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
A lot of the conversations were about identifying the needs for reconstruction after the battles are over.
US, UN, European and Arab diplomats said that military victory to uproot IS will not be enduring without making sure humanitarian relief and government services are provided to care for the displaced. With the Islamic State group on the ropes, new questions and problems are bound to come to the fore.
In Syria US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, which include Kurdish and Arab fighters, are advancing to Raqqa. The SDF militia includes disparate forces – a mixture of many ethnicities staying together – with Kurds serving as the majority of the group’s leadership. Will it be able to stay united and guarantee law and order if IS militants are defeated? Will there be an established authority able to effectively govern the city? What will the US-led coalition do if things go awry?
In Iraq the question of postwar governance and social cohesion will become really challenging after Mosul is liberated. Can the US-led coalition ensure that the recapture of the city – which has a complex ethnic structure – does not lead to political or military infighting, as rival groups try to fill the power vacuum caused by the defeat of IS? The US has failed to unify Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in Iraq. There is no ground to believe this time it’ll be different if Mosul is liberated by US-supported forces.
The Iraqi government is weak and has to shoulder a heavy burden of domestic problems, including deep internal strains and Sunni mistrust towards the Shia-dominated government. Kurdish forces can only play a limited role in the campaign. The Shia militias may not be seen as liberators by Sunni inhabitants. A political settlement allowing the local Sunni to address their legitimate political grievances with the central government in Baghdad will be a challenge.
The United Nations says there are nearly half a million people in besieged areas in Syria and an estimated 4.5 million Syrians in so-called hard-to-reach areas.
In Iraq the latest government offensive to retake Fallujah has displaced more than 60,000 people, with most people forced to fend for themselves. More than 3.4 million Iraqis have been displaced, 90% of them are Sunnis, since January 2014, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
«Every victory on the battlefield creates another humanitarian crisis», Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, told an Iraq pledging conference held at the State Department in Washington July 20. Some 660,000 people are expected to flee their homes and as many as 1.5 million people will be severely affected in the operation to retake Mosul, Grande said, describing it as the biggest humanitarian challenge Iraq has faced.
The Islamic State group is not what it once was anymore, but the war in Iraq and Syria is as much about political as military success. Military victories are not enough to bring peace and stability to the region. Complicated political problems of great scope are to be tackled after Islamic State is gone. Nothing like a workable plan of the postwar settlement exists or has been discussed internationally as yet. It’s not enough to win the war against IS, but also important to win peace. The international community needs a plan for the day after. The US knows well from its own sad experience in the Middle East how important it is. So far, the issue has been limited to cessation of hostilities in Syria with IS and Jabhat al-Nusra excluded from the process. This is the time for all actors involved, including the Russia-supported Syria-led coalition and the US-led coalition, to launch preparations for an international conference on the post-war settlement in Syria and Iraq.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel. Russia and the US are to hold fresh talks on Syria and the fight against the common enemy. On July 22, it was announced that Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov and the United States Secretary of State John Kerry will hold a bilateral meeting with on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Regional Forum in the capital of Laos, Vientiane (July 25-26). According to the State Secretary, US President Barack Obama has insisted on keeping dialogue with Moscow open on Syria. «The President of the United States has authorized and ordered this track», he said.
«We would take stock of where our negotiation is», Kerry said. «It's – in the event there are brackets around certain things or issues that are not resolved by the current discussions, he and I will have to resolve them», he added. Kerry held marathon talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr Lavrov in Moscow last week, striking an agreement on «concrete steps» to salvage a failing truce and tackle jihadist groups in Syria.
The Russia-US cooperation may lead to the revival of UN-sponsored Geneva peace process, which may broaden the agenda to include shaping the future political settlement in Syria, Iraq and other countries hit by conflicts, like Yemen and Libya, for instance.