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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 April 2018

In the wake of ISIL defeat, US-led coalition looks to transform its mission

But US military officials stress the fight against ISIL is not over, and warn of a return to a more traditional insurgency

US defense secretary Jim Mattis leaves a luncheon meeting of senate Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington. Michael Reynolds / EPA
US defense secretary Jim Mattis leaves a luncheon meeting of senate Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington. Michael Reynolds / EPA

With ISIL all but vanquished from its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria, the US-led coalition is transforming its mission.

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

US defense secretary Jim Mattis recently told reporters that the mission is now shifting towards stabilisation and making sure there is no space for a repeat of ISIL.

The Pentagon has said it will stay in Syria "as long as we need to".

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

America hastily convened a coalition in 2014 after ISIL swept across vast tracts of Iraqi and Syrian territory, terrorising residents and leaving a trail of murder and atrocity in their wake.

The US military began bombing ISIL in August 2014 with the immediate goal of stopping them from reaching the city of Erbil and prevent them from carrying out a massacre against the Yazidi population.

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

Though some alliance members are there in name only, bigger countries like Britain, France, Canada and Australia are lending a helping hand.

A state department official said some coalition members can play an increased role now that the main bombing campaign is over, including countering ISIL propaganda, sending in police trainers and providing funding.

Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the think-tank Center for a New American Security, said that ideally, "you are going to have different partners taking on many different aspects of the stabilising mission, the part that they do well."

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With ISIL now cleared from 98 per cent of the terrain they once held, nations like France and Australia have begun pulling some military assets – including planes and artillery – from Iraq and Syria. Pentagon has said the tapering off of bombing missions means it has more resources to fight Taliban in Afghanistan.

But the coalition is keeping an indefinite presence to help Iraqis get the support and training they need, and to protect the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who fought against ISIL 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 Steve Warren, a retired Army colonel who was top spokesman for the coalition between 2015 and 2016.

"They need to morph into a stabilization force, there's no question."

America has about 2,000 troops in Syria and more than 5,000 in Iraq, augmented in both countries 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 ISIL.

That means the United States must keep boots on the ground in Syria to protect SDF fighters. "Unless we want to cede eastern Syria to the Iranians, (the coalition) needs to be there," Warren said.

"Not necessarily the US – it's other partners who have skin in this game, which includes every country in Europe," he added, referring to the refugee crisis that has gripped the continent in part because of Syria.

Additionally, extremist groups the world over are rebranding themselves under the ISIL banner, meaning the anti-ISIL coalition will have a role beyond the Middle East, including in African nations.

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

"Pre-existing terrorist organisations like in the Philippines, like in Bangladesh, like in the Sinai and Afghanistan, they have basically rebranded themselves and started flying the ISIS flag in order to gain attraction and resources," Mr Mattis said, using a different acronym for ISIL.

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

"Their repressive ideology continues. The conditions remain present for Daesh [Arabic acronym for the group] to return, and only through coalition and international efforts can the defeat become permanent," coalition commander Lieutenant General Paul Funk said.