West vows to crush ISIS 'power centres' amid fresh hopes for Syria peace talks

Carter (second left) and US Ambassador to France Jane Hartley (third left) pay their respects to victims of the Paris terrorist attacks.
Carter (second left) and US Ambassador to France Jane Hartley (third left) pay their respects to victims of the Paris terrorist attacks.PHOTO: EPA

PARIS (AFP) - Western leaders injected fresh urgency into the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group on Wednesday, vowing to destroy its "power centres", while Russia announced crucial Syrian peace talks would begin within days.

After meeting with key allies in Paris, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter vowed to crush what he called the ISIS "cancer" by "collapsing its two power centres in Raqa and Mosul" and combating "the metastasis of the ISIL tumour worldwide."

At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Syria peace talks would start "in the next few days" after he met US Secretary of State John Kerry in Zurich.

Iran also said it would throw its weight behind a political solution, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif telling the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Switzerland "there is no military solution to the crisis."

Russia and Iran are accused of propping up their ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Western powers say Moscow is indiscriminately bombing Syrian opposition forces fighting ISIS.

"The Russians are on the wrong track strategically and also in some cases tactically," Carter said.

"We don't have a basis for broader cooperation (with Russia)," Carter said.

Lavrov, by contrast, insisted Russia was willing to "more closely coordinate our actions" with the coalition to facilitate aid deliveries in Syria.

The meeting in Paris comprised defence ministers from Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States.

 

Carter announced an unprecedented meeting of 26 defence ministers in the anti-ISIS coalition, plus Iraq, to be held in Brussels in three weeks and warned he would demand greater effort.

"Every nation must come prepared to discuss further contributions to the fight and I will not hesitate to engage and challenge current and prospective members of the coalition as we go forward," he said.

Carter has repeatedly urged other countries in the approximately 60-member coalition to step up participation in the military effort, particularly Arab and Gulf countries that are more focused on fighting Iran-backed forces in Yemen.

Ministers were keen to tout progress in the campaign.

"Daesh is retreating, it is time to increase our joint efforts by implementing a coherent military strategy," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters. Daesh is another name for ISIS, which is also called ISIL.

ISIS has lost around a quarter of its self-proclaimed caliphate, including the Iraqi city of Ramadi to US-backed local forces last month.

A Britain-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said on Tuesday that ISIS has announced plans to halve the monthly pay of its members in Syria and Iraq.

The financial strain could be a result of intensified air strikes on its oil infrastructure, a key source of revenue for the group.

But the coalition faces a rapidly spreading threat around the world, notably in Libya where political chaos has allowed ISIS to build an estimated 3,000-strong force.

The West also lacks allies on the ground in Syria, since most opposition groups are focused on toppling Assad.

US, Australian and French instructors have already trained 15,000 Iraqi soldiers, notably against improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and vehicle suicide attacks that are the ISIS weapons of choice.

But Western forces remain reluctant to get too deeply involved, fearing a repeat of the quagmire of previous campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Australia has already ruled out any increase to its military contribution, and Canada was pointedly absent from Wednesday's meeting after its new government said it would pull out of the bombing campaign.

ISIS showed its continued threat this week, taking 400 people hostage when it attacked the eastern Syrian town of Deir Ezzor. Some 270 have since been released.

Russia said Wednesday it had bombed the area in the past day, and delivered 50 tonnes of humanitarian aid to the town.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the bombings and said heavy clashes were continuing between regime and ISIS fighters.

Meanwhile, UN-brokered Syrian peace talks are tentatively set for next Monday in Geneva.

Lavrov said they were expected to start "in the next few days," despite disagreements over who will represent the opposition.

Syria's largest opposition coalition on Wednesday picked Islamist rebel chief Mohammed Alloush, who has the support of Saudi Arabia, but it has demanded the exclusion of other parties, including Kurdish fighters who have been one of the most capable forces against ISIS.