Washington counterterrorism gathering highlights ′IS′ fight and Iran | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 21.03.2017
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Washington counterterrorism gathering highlights 'IS' fight and Iran

The Trump administration's strategy to fight the so-called "Islamic State" does not differ substantially from Obama's plan. That's unlikely to change even as a high-profile summit on the issue unfolds this week.

When the foreign ministers of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, a 68-nation coalition formed in 2014 by former US President Barack Obama, gather in Washington on Wednesday to discuss efforts to combat the terror group, the meeting presents a welcome opportunity to showcase progress on one of President Donald Trump's main campaign promises: the fight against and the complete defeat of the so-called "Islamic State" (IS).

Progress has indeed been made against the group. IS - referred to as ISIS by the White House - has been steadily losing territory for a long time in Iraq and Syria, the influx of foreign fighters has dwindled, and the fall of the group's strongholds in Mosul and even its de-facto capital Raqqa is widely expected in the coming months.

While the policies towards that development, as well as the coalition format itself, were set in motion long before the inauguration of Donald Trump, it is noteworthy that the new administration has not discarded this particular holdover from the Obama years, in contrast to many others.

Good photo opportunity

"It will be a good photo opportunity for the president, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense on a public and global level," saidRanda Slim, a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington.

"They want the political effect," said Joseph Wippl, an international relations professor at Boston University and a former CIA officer.

That's because the Trump administration's approach to counter IS does not differ greatly from that developed under President Obama.

"The IS strategy the Trump administration is presenting resembles the Obama strategy to rely on Special Operations Forces to make targeted raids, such as the one carried out in Yemen in January this year, and to train and develop capabilities of local forces to fight [IS] on their own," Amanda Kadlec, a national security analyst with the Rand Corporation, said via email.

USA Donald Trump vor dem US-Kongress in Washington (picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Lo Scalzo)

Trump's approach to 'IS' doesn't differ greatly from Obama's

Intensification of Obama strategy

"Some observers have referred to the Trump plan as an 'intensification' of the existing one, not a new strategy," she added.

The main difference, the scholars argue, is an increase in the number of US troops deployed.

Currently there are some 500 US Special Operations forces in Syria, and according to a "Washington Post" report, the Pentagon is considering sending up to 1,000 additional soldiers there in preparation for an offensive against IS' de facto capital, Raqqa.

But what matters more than the relatively small number of troops, Kadlec said, is what those soldiers will be doing. And while support for a ground war against IS has increased over the past couple of years, according to Pew polls, the American public still prefers using Special Operations forces to deploying troops in large numbers, she added.

Irak US-Truppen in Mossul (Getty Images/AFP/T. Coex)

Some 500 US troops are reportedly operating in Syria

Focus on Iran

"For the Trump Administration, sending a large contingent could be politically unpopular, particularly after the criticism from the Yemen raid that didn't go according to plan," said Kadlec.

The observers generally don't expect a major shift in the fight against IS to be announced at the upcoming meeting in Washington, but one key aspect will change.   

"The one caveat where it is going to be different from before is that you will be hearing in this meeting, and you have heard this before, the Trump administration's emphasis on rolling back Iranian influence in the region," said Slim.