US-led coalition changes mission in Iraq, Syria

With ISIS beaten, aim now is to prevent a comeback by militants

WASHINGTON • With ISIS all but vanquished from its self-proclaimed "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria, the US-led coalition that has been fighting the extremist militants for more than three years is transforming its mission.

Eager to avoid a repeat of 2011, when the US completed its troop withdrawal from Iraq only to watch in horror as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria later overran swathes of the country, the coalition is focusing on what it must do to stop a re-emergence of the militants.

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis recently told reporters the mission is shifting towards stabilisation and making sure an "ISIS 2.0" cannot pop up.

"The longer-term recovery is going to take a lot of effort and a lot of years after what (ISIS) 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 terrain of innumerable bombs, mines and booby traps.

The United States hastily convened a coalition in 2014 after ISIS swept across tracts of Iraqi and Syrian territory, leaving a trail of murder and atrocity in their wake.

Its military began bombing ISIS with the immediate goal of stopping it from reaching Baghdad after it had seized a string of major cities including Mosul and Tikrit.

Today, the coalition boasts 70 nations as well as international organisations like Nato and Interpol.

NO PULLING OUT

Unless we want to cede eastern Syria to the Iranians, (the coalition) needs to be there.

RETIRED ARMY COLONEL STEVE WARREN, who was top spokesman for the coalition between 2015 and 2016.

A US State Department official said some coalition members can play an increased role now that the main campaign is over - by countering ISIS propaganda, sending in police trainers and providing funding.

Mr Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, said that ideally, "you are going to have different partners taking on many different aspects of the stabilising mission".

With ISIS now cleared from 98 per cent of the terrain they once held, nations like France and Australia have begun pulling some military assets from Iraq and Syria.

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 the militants 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 retired Army colonel Steve Warren, who was top spokesman for the coalition between 2015 and 2016.

The US has about 2,000 troops in Syria and more than 5,000 in Iraq, augmented 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 al-Assad is working with Russia and Iranian militias to maintain control of areas once in the hands of rebels or ISIS.

"Unless we want to cede eastern Syria to the Iranians, (the coalition) needs to be there," said Mr Warren.

Also, extremist groups the world over are rebranding themselves under the ISIS banner, so the anti-ISIS coalition will have a role beyond the Middle East, including in Africa.

Last year, four new African nations signed up to the coalition: Djibouti, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

US military officials stress the fight against ISIS is not over, and warn of the extremist militants in Iraq and Syria returning to a more traditional insurgency.

"Their repressive ideology continues. The conditions remain present for (ISIS) to return, and only through coalition and international efforts can the defeat become permanent," said coalition commander Lieutenant-General Paul Funk.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'US-led coalition changes mission in Iraq, Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe