Members of the international campaign fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) met in Paris on Tuesday to discuss renewed efforts to combat the group, but the meeting again laid bare long-standing divisions and differing priorities that have made finding a common strategy difficult.
The one-day conference of ministers from coalition governments was called in the aftermath of the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra to ISIL last month, which raised questions about the effectiveness of the more than 60-nation coalition, which began operations last August.
"We will redouble our efforts," said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken at the conference on Tuesday, filling in for Secretary of State John Kerry, who was injured over the weekend in a biking accident. The U.S. has undertaken the bulk of the coalition airstrikes, conducting some 4,100 against ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq.
But aside from some small pledges for increased U.S. weapon deliveries to Iraqi government forces and continued coalition efforts to train anti-ISIL Syrian rebels, no new strategy was offered on Tuesday.
One key reason ISIL continues to thrive despite being considered an enemy of all the region's major powers is that those powers can't agree on long-term goals and priorities. For each of them, the challenge posed by ISIL is secondary to their primary strategic concerns, which often put them at odds with one another.
“There is no desired common end state for Iraq and Syria,” said Martin Reardon, the vice president of the Soufan Group, about competing goals among coalition members. For a coherent strategy to evolve, he said, “everyone has to have the same desired end state.”
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who leads Iraq’s Shia-dominated government, on Tuesday castigated coalition members for not doing enough to support Baghdad’s efforts to fight ISIL. But many Western governments countered that not enough was being done by Baghdad on the political front to enlist the support of Iraqi Sunnis, which is seen as vital to counter ISIL.
Referring to ISIL by its Arabic acronym, John R. Allen, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-ISIL coalition, said last week that unresolved political social, economic and religious grievances in Iraq helps to create “an environment where an organization like Daesh can find cohesion and purpose.”
But Iraq’s internal power dynamics have limited efforts at political inclusion.
“We have seen in some places, some Sunnis and some tribes clash with [ISIL] and kind of suffer under their rule, but there really hasn’t been widespread Sunni movement toward working with the central [Iraqi] government,” said Mohamad Bazzi, a New York University journalism professor who is writing a book about proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia. “The Shia militias have made the most gains,” he said, referring to Iranian-backed popular forces in Iraq that have played a major role in anti-ISIL efforts.
Along with disenfranchised Sunnis, Iraqi Kurds, whose peshmerga fighters have played a leading role in fighting ISIL on the ground as well, was excluded from the Iraqi government delegation at Tuesday’s talks. They have also complained about lack of support from the central government.
But the difficulties in the anti-ISIL coalition are magnified by regional tensions.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in the anti-ISIL coalition are more preoccupied by their strategic regional rivalry with Iran.
“The Saudis don’t seem to regard [ISIL] in Iraq as a big problem,” said Bazzi. “There is this underlying structural problem, and sort of the basic idea is that the Saudis see any consolidation of power by the central government in Baghdad as a victory for Iran.”
Reardon said, “The Gulf states are looking at the bigger picture in Syria,” adding that they’re also distracted by the war in Yemen, where Saudi and Gulf Arab allies have been battling Houthi rebels whom they view as proxies of Iran.
But even in Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, whose secular and Iranian-backed government ostensibly views ISIL as an existential threat, has benefited from ISIL’s efforts to remove other anti-Assad forces. Syrian rebel groups and the U.S. government on Tuesday accused Assad’s forces of aiding ISIL against besieged Syrian rebel groups in Aleppo, one of Syria’s key battlegrounds, which has been under ISIL attack.
“There’s this [ISIL] offensive aimed fairly directly at other [Syrian] rebels which has entirely overtaken anything that’s come out of Paris,” said Bazzi. “Assad benefits at least in the short-term from ISIS taking more territory.”
Despite the recent successes, however, ISIL still faces a number of roadblocks in its efforts to expand its territory beyond several key cities that it holds.
“It needs to generate huge funds to maintain its pretension to be a caliphate, yet its income streams, such as those from illicit oil sales, ransoms and looted antiquities, are all vulnerable to concerted pressure, and windfalls from conquest are dwindling,” said The Economist in an assessment of the group’s fortunes this week.
For now, the U.S.-led coalition is hoping, in the words of President Barack Obama last month, that the fall of Ramadi was merely a “tactical setback” in the larger fight against ISIL. But after Tuesday’s Paris conference, there are few signs that a new strategy will be forthcoming anytime soon.