During his campaign for office, U.S. President Donald Trump promised a plan to defeat the Islamic State. Now, his administration is taking steps to deliver on that promise. On Wednesday, the global coalition to counter the Islamic State held its first meeting since the Trump administration took power — and its first congress with representatives from all 68 members since mid-2016. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opened the session, held at State Department headquarters in Washington, by declaring the fight against the Islamic State as the United States’ chief priority in the Middle East. But notably absent from the meeting’s agenda was a clear answer to arguably the most important question hanging over the campaign to oust the jihadist group from Iraq and Syria: What happens after the military operations in Mosul and Raqqa are over?
By holding the meeting so early in its tenure, the Trump administration has emphasized the United States’ commitment to the military effort against the Islamic State and its role as the campaign’s leader. Its focus, however, ends with the battlefield. In Iraq, the fight to retake the city of Mosul is nearing its final stages after months of grueling battle. A diverse array of Iraqi forces have made steady gains in the campaign to clear thousands of Islamic State militants from their stronghold, backed by coalition advisory, artillery and air support. Once the city itself has been reclaimed in the next few months, offensives on the jihadist group’s remaining pockets in Nineveh and Kirkuk provinces will begin.
The offensive on the Syrian city of Raqqa, by contrast, is only just starting. The battle for the city itself will begin in a matter of weeks, but in the meantime, the Syrian Democratic Forces, with heavy support from U.S. troops, have moved quickly to isolate the city. In fact, U.S.-backed fighters marked a critical step in this phase Wednesday when they captured a beachhead south of the Euphrates River. Beyond the tactical reasons for the move, encircling the city will also enable the United States to carve out its own theater in the fight. Washington is trying to limit Russian and Iranian interference in the operation to pursue its ideal battle plan.
But the end of the fighting will not necessarily signify the end of the war. And in the long term, it will be regional powers — not the United States or most of its coalition partners — that shape the future of the reclaimed territories. The Kurdish-Arab borderland in northern Syria and Iraq will be a significant theater for competition among local factions and regional competitors alike. Turkey, despite its frustrations with the United States and Russia in Raqqa, is still committed to maintaining a long-term presence in the region. To that end, it is working to establish safe zones in northern Syria and to preserve its economic and security ties with northern Iraq. Ankara’s goals, however, will invite the attention of rival Iran, which also intends to manage the retaken territory in Syria and Iraq as it sees fit. Of course, the instability in these regions will make governing them a difficult and dangerous endeavor for outside powers, but that won’t stop them from vying for influence there, often with competing visions.
Russia, meanwhile, sees its involvement in Syria as long-term strategic leverage that it can use in its dealings with the United States. In the short term, though, it has been all but cut out of the Raqqa campaign. The Syrian Democratic Forces’ offensive to close the circle around the city blocked a sizeable portion of Highway 4, a crucial route that loyalist forces, with Russia’s backing, planned to use to reach the Raqqa battlefield. With no easy inroad to the operation, Russia will have a harder time using its support for loyalist troops in Syria as a bargaining chip with the United States.
The global coalition has its work cut out for it in the military campaigns that lie ahead. Compared with the more clear-cut tactical aspects of the effort to rid Mosul and Raqqa of the Islamic State, however, the task of stabilizing the territories in the group’s wake is far murkier. And the more progress the countries fighting the Islamic State make on the battlefield, the starker the divisions among them become. As Washington focuses on combating the extremist group in Mosul and Raqqa, questions over how to divvy up political power in those cities, foster economic growth, prevent radicalization and provide for victims of the violence loom large. Each member of the global coalition against the Islamic State has a different answer, as do the regional and local actors involved in the fight.