Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to meet with other countries fighting against ISIS
Aaron David Miller and Jason M. Brodsky: Tillerson is likely to follow in the Obama administration's counter terrorism footsteps
Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran. Follow him @JasonMBrodsky. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors.
Rex Tillerson may be skipping the NATO meeting next month – a move that will clearly annoy the European allies. But on Wednesday, in a move that puts at least one foot of the Trump administration in the traditional diplomacy camp, he’s hosting foreign ministers and officials of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, originally organized by the Obama administration in the fall of 2014 as an alignment of nations and international organizations committed to defeating the terrorist group.
It’s unlikely this Washington DC confab, like its predecessors, will result in any dramatic surprises. After all, the real action against ISIS is happening on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria – not by a grand coalition, but primarily by a handful of countries, namely Russia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and the United States.
However, this marks the first such meeting of the coalition during the Trump administration. And not surprisingly in Trumpland, ironies, challenges and maybe some new opportunities abound.
As the meeting gets underway, here are five key elements to keep in mind:
ISIS: Meet the new boss – Same as the old boss
Trump the multilateralist and internationalist – who would have figured? But that’s precisely the signal that the coalition meeting sends. And what’s more, like so many developments for which the current president is claiming credit – from the economy to an agreement with South Korea to deploy a THAAD missile system – the work was done during the Obama administration.
On ISIS, President Trump is operating within the parameters set by his predecessor. Redux on the fact that the Trump White House has decided to retain President Obama’s special presidential envoy, Brett McGurk, so he will continue to be the point man for the US in countering ISIS.
Now removing the caps on the number of US forces deployed to these battlefields is a change. Still, if reports are accurate, President Trump’s much-promised “secret plan” to defeat ISIS looks very similar to the Obama playbook, albeit with increased tempo. According to NBC News, it includes “continued bombing; beefing up support and assistance to local forces to retake its Iraqi stronghold Mosul and ultimately the ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria; drying up ISIS’s sources of income; and stabilizing the areas retaken from ISIS.”
The coalition meeting will also allow the incredibly shrinking State Department – and the Secretary of State – a chance to grab a few headlines. Tillerson made some news on his recent trip to Japan, South Korea, and China. But he can use all the help he can get.
Tillerson can play master of ceremonies and potentially announce the outlines of the administration’s new ISIS strategy on his home turf. He can also put himself in the middle of an issue that his boss has identified as foreign policy issue No. 1. And it makes sense, as one US official who requested anonymity said, to demonstrate that this process wasn’t on auto pilot and that the Secretary of State took an affirmative decision to invigorate the coalition.
Having railed against the US pouring trillions into the Middle East, President Trump has no intention of paying for reconstruction efforts in Syria. Nevertheless, the humanitarian tragedy unfolding there – with more than 6 million people being displaced – is a part of the equation in stabilizing cities ousted from ISIS hands. And if Sunnis are to be integrated into the political systems in both countries, ensuring that their communities get the necessary equitable share of the resources is critical.
Operation Tin Cup
This gathering isn’t principally a fundraising exercise. But ‘burden-sharing’ is a not-so-subtle priority if the military gains are to be secured. As late as February, President Trump expressed his support for the establishment of safe zones in Syria to be paid for by the Gulf states. Expect the administration to lean hard on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to pony up money for this crusade.
If you’re looking for Moscow’s foreign minister in Washington at tomorrow’s meeting, you won’t find him. As Russia’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson noted, the coalition is a format “we don’t traditionally participate in.” And it’s no wonder. Putin’s primary goal in Syria hasn’t been destroying ISIS, but rather keeping the Assad regime afloat; battering his non-ISIS Syrian opponents; and making sure that the United States doesn’t get a chance to dispatch yet another Russian client and restructure the country in way that’s oblivious to Moscow’s interests.
For Putin, beating ISIS means not abandoning Assad whom he sees as the key bulwark against jihadist groups of all kinds. Indeed, Russian and Iranian efforts to help Assad crush the Syrian opposition has now guaranteed that his regime will stay.
The question now is whether the Trump administration will make good on the President’s much ballyhooed campaign pledge to work with Russia to destroy ISIS. Secretary of Defense Mattis opined last month that Washington “right now is not in a position to collaborate militarily with Russia.” Nor frankly do the advantages of military cooperation against ISIS seem to outweigh the downsides of sharing intelligence with Russia – indirectly cooperating with a power supporting Assad and Iranian goals in Syria, or tying US credibility to a Moscow that doesn’t seem to pay a lot of attention to civilian casualties during their airstrikes.
Eradicating ISIS from the face of the Earth?
The President promised in his inaugural address to eradicate ISIS, but it’s unlikely to happen. The Caliphate will be defeated, largely through intensifying the approach Obama began. And the Trump administration would be well-advised to be careful with any mission accomplished rhetoric.
ISIS won’t be defeated; it will disperse and morph into regional insurgencies in Iraq and Syria and inspire terror in Europe and through its derivative jihadist organizations throughout the region. Meanwhile al-Qaeda is gaining influence in Syria. And that’s why a comprehensive approach to the challenge of combatting the jihadists and their ideology will be so important.
Despite some of the president’s harsh criticism of US allies, the administration can’t run the anti-ISIS campaign – encompassing as it does political, military, humanitarian, intelligence, law enforcement efforts – by itself. America first doesn’t have to mean America only. Let’s hope the administration is willing to lead that effort.