- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2017

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson will attempt to infuse new energy into the vast international coalition battling the Islamic State later this month by hosting senior officials from the 68 countries in the Trump administration’s first major stab at multinational diplomacy.

The State Department said Thursday that the goal will be to “increase the momentum of the campaign” against the Islamic State through discussions on “the coalition’s multiple lines of effort, including military, foreign terrorist fighters, counterterrorist financing, counter-messaging and stabilization” of areas already liberated from the terror group.

The March 22-23 gathering in Washington will be the first of the full coalition since December 2014, when it was founded as part of an Obama administration-led effort to rally world support against the group also known as ISIS and ISIL.

While the meeting comes just weeks after a major Trump administration review of the fight against Islamic State, the State Department declined to say whether Mr. Tillerson intends to introduce any new strategic initiatives during the meeting.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters on Thursday that details “are still classified” on how the Trump administration’s approach will differ from the existing effort shaped by the Obama administration — an effort Mr. Trump personally lambasted as a failure during last year’s presidential campaign.

Pentagon and State Department sources say on background that elements of a potential strategy shift being considered by the White House may include an increase in weapons for U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State in Syria, more U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets and an expansion of U.S. Special Forces operating on the ground in the region. The first deployment of U.S. Marines inside Syria occurred this week in what many see as a prelude to the assault on Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa.

The formulation of a new approach represents a major early test for Mr. Trump’s overall national security policy, and the decision to have Mr. Tillerson host this month’s coalition meeting suggests the president is keen to enlist as many allies as possible in the cause.

Mr. Toner said Thursday that the meeting will include budgetary matters and ways to share costs in the Islamic State fight.

“I think we all recognize that we have seen progress in defeating ISIS on the ground,” Mr. Toner said. “Certainly, in the battlefield, they’ve lost lots of territories. But how do we leverage that success? And what are the next challenges?”

One issue that will hang over the meeting centers on Russia’s role in the fight. Russian forces are on the ground in Syria in support of longtime ally President Bashar Assad.

The U.S. has backed anti-Assad forces inside Syria, and the White House has said that President Trump discussed ways that U.S. and Russian forces might work together against Islamic State.

However, neither Russia nor Iran, which is also backing forces loyal to the Assad regime, are in the 68-nation U.S. coalition, and Mr. Toner said Thursday that Russian officials will not be participating in this month’s summit.

It’s also unclear whether Turkey, which is a coalition member and has played an increasing role in the battle against Islamic State, will see eye to eye with the Trump administration.

Turkey fears the new U.S. administration may significantly increase weapons flows and other support to Kurdish rebels fighting in northern Syria. Ankara views several of the Kurdish factions there as terrorist organizations involved in a decades-old cross-border insurgency against the Turkish state.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told The Associated Press Thursday that the U.S. risks major damage to the bilateral relationship if Washington includes Kurdish forces in the Raqqa fight.

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