A year after US President declared the formation of an international coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State group, world leaders convene for the UN General Assembly this week to discuss the campaign that has seen little impact despite spending billions of dollars and making thousands of airstrikes.
The extremist group may control slightly less territory than a year ago, but it continues to launch attacks and maintains key strongholds in Syria and Iraq. The militants’ reach has expanded to other countries, including Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan.
US-led airstrikes helped Syrian Kurds hold the strategic border town of Kobani in January, and seize another key border town, Tal Abyad, this summer. But a much-touted offensive to oust IS militants from the Iraqi city of Ramadi remains stalled; there have been grave losses among the few Syrian rebels trained by the US to fight IS; an IS-free zone announced by Turkey and the US has failed to materialize.
At the same time, growing concern about the Syrian refugee crisis and reports that IS may be planning attacks against Europe may spur some countries to get more involved in the anti-IS coalition. On Sunday, President Francois Hollande announced that French jet fighters had carried out their first airstrikes against IS targets in Syria. France had previously limited its air campaign to IS targets in Iraq.
But short of sending in ground forces — an option Western countries are not willing to entertain — the stalemate in the war against the Islamic State group is likely to persist.
“Quite simply, the countries best-placed to contribute meaningfully to the anti-IS effort do not share the same interests in Syria,” said Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
The Russian military buildup of aircraft, missiles, tanks and other equipment is complicating the fight against IS militants in Syria.
Russia’s declared purpose is helping the government of President Bashar Assad battle the Islamic extremists, and Moscow has urged the West to go along. In an interview broadcast ahead of his meeting on Monday with President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin sharply criticized US military support for Syrian rebels, describing it as illegal and useless.
The Obama administration is concerned that Russia’s real intention is to shore up Assad and strike at other factions seeking to topple him under the pretext of fighting international terrorism.
And in Iraq, US efforts to battle the extremists without working with Damascus and its allies could be further complicated by news on Sunday that Iraq’s military will begin sharing security and intelligence information with Syria, Russia and Iran to help combat the Islamic State group.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Sunday, said in response to a statement by Iraq’s military that “all of the efforts need to be coordinated. This is not yet coordinated.”
In New York, all eyes will be on Putin, who is expected to announce a counter-terrorism initiative when he addresses the General Assembly on Monday — his first UNGA appearance in 10 years.
“The Russian escalation in Syria will create a flurry of diplomatic activity to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis and a fresh attempt to confront IS in Syria, but the conditions for success on both fronts are still absent,” said Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
“While Putin’s call for more efforts to defeat IS will fall on welcoming ears in many capitals, the new Russian deployment does not introduce or free up significant numbers of ground forces to make such a campaign plausible,” he wrote.
Some analysts say the Russian deployment is likely to make Assad even less inclined to engage in meaningful negotiations for a political settlement to the civil war, which has allowed IS to flourish over the past four years.
“Barring either regime victory over the insurgency, which is unlikely, or a US policy shift toward political transition away from Assad — which would bring regional allies and insurgents on board against ISIS — I don’t see any prospect of defeating ISIS,” Itani said.
In the United States, both Republicans and Democrats have lambasted the administration’s strategy against the IS group, especially after a US general acknowledged that just a few US-trained Syrian rebels remain on the battlefield — others were wiped out by al-Qaeda militants.
The US military said this month that about 70 newly trained rebels have returned to Syria from Turkey. Still, the number is nowhere near the US goal to train and equip 5,400 rebels a year at a cost of $500 million.
The Obama administration is adamant that it will commit no US ground troops despite calls from some in Congress to do so.
“The whole thing is a joke. They are not serious about destroying Daesh either in Syria or Iraq,” said a one-time resident of Raqqa who fled to Turkey. “Dropping a few bombs every now and then will not change anything,” he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his family in Raqqa, the Syrian city the IS has claimed as the capital of its self-declared caliphate.
The top US commander in the Middle East, General Lloyd Austin, insisted this month that the operation against IS was making progress, and said the military had always said the campaign would take time.
An IS operative, meanwhile, said it was unlikely that Russia would be drawn into the war against the group. And he said bickering over the Russian presence in Syria would ultimately benefit the IS effort.
“Any group that wants to divide Syria up or battle over it for dividing the booty, this will be in our interest,” he wrote in an exchange of Skype messages. He spoke on condition of anonymity because members of the group are not allowed to speak to journalists.
If Russia joins the coalition, he said: “It makes no difference for the Islamic State to fight 60 or 80 countries. It is the same.”