The Trump administration will make its debut at large-scale multinational diplomacy Wednesday as representatives from 68 countries in the anti-Islamic State coalition converge on Washington for a two-day summit to discuss strategy and the road ahead.
Major players in town include Iraq’s prime minister, Turkey’s foreign minister and a high-level delegation from Saudi Arabia, but some key countries, most notably Russia and Iran, will be missing.
The summit opens at a moment of uncertainty over the Trump administration’s plans for defeating the Islamic State terrorist group.
Pentagon and State Department officials say privately that the strategy shift that the Trump White House is considering includes significant increases in weapons for U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria, more U.S. airstrikes and an expansion of American special operations forces in the region.
But administration officials say the results of the recent strategy review ordered by President Trump are classified, and national security insiders believe any serious shift in policy away from the Obama administration’s multinational approach is likely to be subtle.
One official directly involved in the planning told The Washington Times in January that proposals won’t start from scratch but are likely to green-light and accelerate controversial aspects of a strategy that was set into motion under Mr. Obama since the Islamic State’s emergence in 2014.
The most difficult piece is likely to center on the movement of more and heavier arms to ethnic Kurdish fighters — whom Washington has for years viewed as a key ground force in the looming battle for the Islamic State’s de facto headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa — without outraging NATO ally Turkey.
Anger has simmered for months in Ankara over what it says has been U.S. support for such militias as the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — which Turkey lists as terrorist organizations engaged in a decades-old separatist insurgency.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu acknowledged Tuesday that Ankara and the Trump administration don’t see eye to eye on the matter, which is likely to be the source of heated behind-the-scenes debate at this week’s summit.
“In our fight against [the Islamic State], we do not rely on other terrorist organizations,” Mr. Cavusoglu said in remarks at the National Press Club in Washington. “Why? Because there is not a good terrorist.
“Yet some Washingtonians do not seem to care about this,” he said, adding that he raised the issue in a meeting Tuesday with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and will push it this week with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.
“This is a very sensitive issue and, unfortunately, they support and legitimize YPG and PYD just because they are in the fight against [the Islamic State],” the Turkish foreign minister said.
Acrimony between the Turkish government and Kurdish activists, meanwhile, was on full display when the organization hosting the event with Mr. Cavusoglu forcibly prevented at least two people from attending.
One was Kani Xulam, an activist who heads the Washington-based American Kurdish Information Network, who said he was forcibly removed by security guards despite having secured an invitation to the event at the National Press Club.
More of the same?
How different U.S. leadership in the global terror fight will be under President Trump is still an unanswered question.
Seth Jones, who heads the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp., noted that Mr. Trump has kept Brett McGurk — the Obama administration-appointed special representative to the global coalition against the Islamic State — in place ahead of the summit.
The gathering marks the first full meeting of the coalition since December 2014, when it was founded as part of an Obama administration-led effort to rally world support.
Mr. Jones said the White House will likely continue to work the diplomatic side of the fight through Mr. McGurk while expanding the Pentagon’s operations by loosening restrictions on U.S. bombings of targets beyond Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to include nations such as Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Nigeria.
“It looks like the U.S. military will have a lot more authority to strike targets in a range of different places without having the bureaucracy and the president involved in signing off,” he said, adding that Mr. Trump also appears poised to engage more deeply in efforts to counter Iran’s influence over Middle Eastern territory being reclaimed from the Islamic State.
Iran’s main rival in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, and a top Saudi military general attending this week’s summit said Riyadh secured a private commitment from the Trump administration last week to significantly increase U.S. intelligence-sharing and defense cooperation against Iran-backed proxy militias and other Iranian meddling across the Middle East.
While it remains to be seen how such cooperation might affect the wider campaign, Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri told a small group of reporters in Washington on Friday that Defense Secretary James Mattis and other administration officials had vowed to increase the cooperation on a range of fronts to counter Iran.
In a speech in Washington on Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called on the United States and other allies to stay focused in the fight against the Islamic State.
He said he sees a new willingness in the Trump administration to take a more direct role in the fight not just to contain but to defeat the terrorist group.
While Mr. al-Abadi did not speak of Iranian influence, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said he was encouraged after a meeting with the Iraqi prime minister on Tuesday that Iran-backed Shiite militias have stayed out of the fight to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State.
“These forces have been responsible for horrible abuses and have no place in a stable, democratic and independent Iraq,” Mr. Royce said.
Some have called on the administration to focus in on extremist hot spots expected to emerge as the Islamic State loses territory in Syria and Iraq.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui told The Times in an interview last week that he had pushed during meetings with Trump administration officials for more U.S. attention and resources to go toward creating stability in North Africa, particularly in Libya.
“Nobody is taking care of the terrorists who are assembling [in Libya] from all over the world and particularly coming from the wars in Iraq and Syria,” Mr. Jhinaoui said.
Another issue hanging over this week’s summit centers on Russia’s role in the fight. Russian forces are on the ground in Syria to support longtime ally President Bashar Assad.
The U.S. has backed anti-Assad forces inside Syria, and the White House has said that Mr. Trump has discussed ways for U.S. and Russian forces to work together against the Islamic State. Mr. Tillerson is going to Moscow early next month for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top Kremlin officials.
Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a visiting scholar at Princeton University who advised the Iranian side in the talks that led to the 2015 nuclear deal, said the Iranian and Russian absence from this week’s summit is notable because the two “form the most effective regional coalition fighting the group.”
At the same time, Mr. Mousavian argued in an op-ed published by the Tehran Times on Sunday that Mr. Trump faces a host of challenges “in any attempt to any attempt to destroy ISIS, which his own contradictory aims and positions only serve to exacerbate.”