The U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State, which convened in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday, has taken a slow and steady approach to the fight against the Islamic State, and its efforts have begun to pay off. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
As the Islamic State claims responsibility for inspiring more and more attacks throughout the world, finding a way to defeat the group is as pressing a concern as ever. At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, which ended Thursday, speakers raised the subject, some questioning the slow and steady strategy of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. But the coalition’s tactics have started to work. During the coalition’s fourth meeting, held Wednesday and Thursday in Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke of the strides they had made against the Islamic State and the momentum they will have going forward. Despite the coalition’s progress, however, the fight against the Islamic State has revealed that there is no silver bullet to defeat it or any other extremist group.
While the convention has focused on conquering the Islamic State, the meeting in Washington looked at what comes afterward and how to combat the rise in grassroots attacks and Islamic State affiliate activity worldwide. Defense and foreign ministers from more than 30 countries participated in the talks, which yielded some new ideas but nothing dramatic. The addition of NATO air warning and control systems, joining those already deployed by the United States, will help the coalition better direct airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. A new internationally backed center in Tunisia will track the recruitment of jihadist fighters, a disproportionate number of whom come from some provinces in the county. Tactical military preparations for the looming approach to Mosul in Iraq and the battle for Raqqa in Syria were further coordinated, and a drive to collect aid for Iraq drew $2 billion worth of pledges from coalition members.
By relying on indigenous forces and following a strategy of limited involvement that is more sustainable for the United States, the coalition has eroded the Islamic State’s core territory, however slowly. Though they have taken more than a year to do so, coalition efforts have helped to reclaim much of the militant group’s territory in Iraq and Syria. Recent victories, including retaking Fallujah and cutting off Islamic State forces in Hawija, highlight the progress that the coalition has made, especially in Iraq, and underscore the importance of its local partners. The Fallujah operation was, above all, a fight by Iraqi security forces for Iraqi territory, albeit against a global enemy. This is crucial to the overall success of the battle to overcome the Islamic State, since it refutes the militant group’s very narrative.
Nonetheless, problems persist in the reclaimed territories. Clandestine operational cells that remain in Iraq’s retaken provinces continue to conduct attacks. A small cell of Islamic State militants from Diyala province is believed to have planned the truck bomb attack that killed close to 300 people in the affluent Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada on July 2, drawing ire from Iraqis who do not trust their government to protect them.
What’s more, the fighting itself is devastating for Iraqi and Syrian civilians, and if their needs are not being met, the cycle of violence in the region could well continue. The $2 billion in aid that the coalition members raised is intended to help mitigate the inevitable messiness of the upcoming battle for Mosul and to protect the civilians who could be caught up in it. A city of just over 1 million people and a center of Iraq’s Sunni Arab population, Mosul is critical territory for the Islamic State. As Iraqi and Kurdish forces advance in the slow-moving offensive around the city, refugee flows from the area could accelerate.
So far, steady pressure applied by different coalition members over time, with significant support from local partners, has proved an effective strategy against the Islamic State. But in drawing out the Mosul offensive, the coalition risks enflaming enmity between Sunnis and Shiites, as the Iran-backed Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces jostle for their place in the fight. Tensions could rise within the Sunni population, too, since many Mosul residents were deemed complicit in the Islamic State’s 2014 invasion of the city.
Moreover, after the Islamic State has been defeated, Iraq will have a host of other problems to deal with. In many ways, the Islamic State is a uniting factor, keeping regional enemies working together. Without the common cause of the fight against the group in Iraq, the political situations in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Baghdad could fall apart. Both governments have reached bitter impasses in their efforts to implement economic reform and reconcile political factions in their respective jurisdictions, but their shared goal to defeat the Islamic State keeps them working together in fits and starts.
Eliminating the global threat of the Islamic State is a piecemeal effort that requires a significant amount of internal and international cooperation, trust and negotiation. It will take time, but the reasons for proceeding with caution are manifold. Deviating from the strategy would only introduce greater uncertainty into an already complicated fight.