U.S. seeks path from ISIS war to next phase at Munich Security Conference

ISIS holds only “one town” in Syria, Americans say, amid concerns that Iran will benefit from US withdrawal.

February 16, 2019 19:12
4 minute read.
US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speaks to reporters

US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speaks to reporters about the FBI's investigation of sexual assault allegations surrounding U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, October 4, 2018. (photo credit: MARY F. CALVERT / REUTERS)


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US Senator Lindsey Graham praised the international community for destroying ISIS at the Munich Security Conference on Friday.

He asked “what follows” after listing of dozens of ISIS attacks around the world that had occurred since 2014.

“Does it matter what happens over there, hell yes it matters,” he said.

He said it was important that three things must be accomplished for a successful US withdrawal. He praised the Syrian Democratic Forces for its work defeating ISIS in eastern Syria. He reminded the audience of ISIS crimes against the Yazidi power.

“The post-ISIS strategy must be different than the fight to destroy the caliphate,” Graham said.

Among the three things that needed to be accomplished, he alerted attendees that the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs General, Joseph Dunford, would ask European allies for a contribution of forces to stabilize the region after the destruction of the ISIS “caliphate.” We need a game plan, he said. He noted that the US had played a key role in creating the SDF.

He said that a safe zone had to be created. This was to deal with Turkey’s concerns that Kurdish members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) could threaten Turkey from Syria. He also said that it was needed so that the SDF was not betrayed by a US withdrawal. Most important, Graham said, was to not allow Iran to benefit.

Graham indicated that Trump would be asking for more support from allies. He argued that the Trump administration is challenging the status quo and this would mean more commitment from US allies and the international community.

The US delegation at the Munich conference was unprecedented in size, reportedly including dozens of members of Congress, as well as acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and US Vice President Mike Pence. Special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran and Iraq, Andrew Peek, were also present, indicating how seriously Washington took the event.

The message from US officials was similar: ISIS is defeated. Pence said that the last mile of ISIS-held territory was being cleared on Saturday. Shanahan, like Graham, mentioned the need to transition from US troops to including other forces that would support the post-ISIS phase.

Yet, European countries seemed to be concerned about a power vacuum in Syria. Norway’s Foreign Minister was worried about there being a lack of state services in eastern Syria while Germany said that it was important to confront underground ISIS networks.

The most complicated aspect of the US discussions at Munich are not only to get European allies to commit forces to Syria but to figure out how to get them to police a so-called “safe zone” that the US appears to envision along the border with Turkey.

The fact that Graham said a “game plan” was needed, when the US has already announced that the game – the war against ISIS – is largely over in Syria, is problematic. The US, according to reports, is eyeing an April withdrawal date now, after initially hoping troops would be out by March. Equipment is being withdrawn. Yet people on the ground in southern Syria indicate that there is massive suffering among civilians displaced by fighting, and that ISIS not only has a network of fighters who have melted into the civilian environment, but that they have a network of tunnels and explosives that need to be removed. How that can happen in the next few months is not clear.

If things seem bad in southern Syria, where the last meters of ISIS-held territory are supposedly being cleared, the complexities of the “safe zone” in the north are also up in the air. Turkey met with Iran and Russia in Sochi last week and signed on to a statement supporting the US withdrawal. Iran spread conspiracies claiming the US supports ISIS at Sochi. This means that the discussions at Munich do not appear to include a coordinated withdrawal that involves Ankara, which is key to the US withdrawal moving along successfully. Graham has sought to placate Turkey, traveling to the country and seeking to slow down Trump’s timetable. Turkey wants control the safe zone, and it hasn’t come to an agreement about the mechanism for doing that. The major players, in US eyes, are the Europeans that the US wants to fill the gaps in the line.

Question marks remain over whether the US withdrawal will be a phased process or include continued US involvement in the form of a safe zone or some special forces. The US faced the same problems in Munich that it did at the Warsaw summit last week. There was a lot of talk about what comes next, but so far no concrete steps and explanation for the process going forward.

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