In the second meeting of the coalition against the "Islamic State" since it began last summer, foreign ministers vowed to take a long-term view of the fight against the terror militia. Barbara Wesel reports from Paris.
Speaking to journalists outside the Foreign Ministry in Paris, Frank-Walter Steinmeier had little to add to what was said during an official press conference given by the French hosts. There would be no change of strategy in the war against the terror militia known as the "Islamic State" (IS), the German foreign minister said. Instead, he said, the coalition needed to stay the course. Nobody thought that it would be possible to achieve an easy victory over IS, Steinmeier said. In addition to discussing military strategy, the foreign ministers also talked about how to stabilize territory liberated from IS. Germany has been particularly active on that front, together with the United Arab Emirates. The German government plans to make a further 20 million euros ($22 million) available for reconstruction. However, the US representatives said an additional 500 million euros would be needed to overcome the worst humanitarian and infrastructure problems.
The foreign ministers did appear to reach an agreement on how to describe the spectacular retreat and defeat of the Iraqi army in Ramadi and Syrian forces' pullback from Palmyra. Around two dozen representatives of the participating countries spoke of a "setback." French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also spoke of "a long fight against IS." The coalition discussed its strategy, and now wants to concentrate on helping Iraq's government in its stated goal of regaining Anbar province. However, that help will continue to take the same form: The US and other allies, including France, want to conduct airstrikes; the rest of the coalition is focused on training the Iraqi military.
Fabius stressed the importance of reforms and national reconciliation in Iraq. It was an indirect way of addressing the biggest problem facing the government in Baghdad: It is dominated by Shiites and has, up to now, not made any real effort to integrate Sunni tribes and groups in the southern part of the country. Some Sunnis have joined IS fighters in Anbar province, because their fear of the Shiite militias Is bigger than their will to fight the group. As long as the Sunnis are not involved in political decisions and military leadership, there is little hope that Iraq's army will be able to beat IS - that much was made clear in Paris.
Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken presented the US position in Paris after the country's top diplomat, John Kerry, flew home after breaking his leg in a bicycle accident. Like Steinmeier, Blinken called on the coalition to remain unified, stay the course and learn from setbacks. Blinken said five important goals should be met: recapture Anbar province and then mobilize regional tribes in Iraq, find new recruits for the Iraqi army, reform the police forces in areas threatened by IS, stabilize freed areas via reconstruction, and create a stabilization fund to finance such tasks. The US has long pushed Iraq's government to integrate the Sunni population. The goals identified by Washington can only work if Iraq's government cooperates.
Al-Abadi on coalition's 'failure'
On the morning before the meeting, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had some harsh words for the coalition. He spoke of its "failure" and lack of support for his country. Later, at the joint press conference, al-Abadi was more cautious, although on multiple occasions he did demand more help from allies - even "support on the ground."
That's not likely to be forthcoming. All the other actors, especially the US, are completely avoiding the term "ground offensive." They want to carry on as before if possible. However, al-Abadi is likely to receive more anti-tank weaponry from the US. The shockingly successful strategies of the IS fighters - including a recent trend of using heavily armored vehicles and suicide bombers to break through military blockades - had made that necessary, the US's Blinken said.
Al-Abadi also repeatedly urged the coalition to do more to stem the flow of foreign fighters to IS. He said that over 60 percent of the group's members currently fighting in Iraq were foreign citizens. The coalition agreed that it was necessary to reduce the amount of combatants still traveling to Iraq and Syria to join IS and groups like it, but was not unified on how to do so. Better cooperation with Turkey, the main transit country, can only be discussed after the country's general elections this weekend. A political dispute endures, too: Turkey would like to focus on implementing regime change in Syria; the coalition considers this desirable but wishes to do so by diplomatic means instead.
The meeting in Paris was little more than taking stock, if anything dampening expectations of a policy realignment. The underlying political problems remain unsolved.