White House will host anti-IS strat­egy ses­sion

Tiller­son to lead 2-day meet of over 60 na­tions, groups.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - By Anne Gearan

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has in­vited more than 60 na­tions and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions to Wash­ing­ton later this month for a strat­egy ses­sion on how to counter the Is­lamic State af­ter a widely ex­pected U.S.-backed military as­sault on the ex­trem­ists’ home base.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son will lead a two-day gath­er­ing of a global coali­tion fo­cused on fight­ing the ex­trem­ist group mil­i­tar­ily and starv­ing it of money, weapons and fight­ers.

The ses­sion is an im­por­tant sig­nal that the new ad­min­is­tra­tion in­tends to main­tain lead­er­ship of a sprawl­ing diplo­matic ef­fort be­gun by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in 2014, de­spite Trump’s scathing as­sess­ment of Obama’s ap­proach to the Is­lamic State dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

U.S. of­fi­cials de­scribed plans for the ses­sion March 22 and 23 ses­sion. The meet­ing will be the largest since the in­au­gu­ral ses­sion, and comes as the Is­lamic State ap­pears to be los­ing ground mil­i­tar­ily.

“It tells the coali­tion part­ners the U.S. re­mains in­cred­i­bly com­mit­ted to work­ing with them to de­feat” the group now loosely based in Raqqa, Syria, a se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial said.

“The first thing the new ad­min­is­tra­tion will do is re­in­force the im­por­tance of the coali­tion,” which in­cludes both military part­ners and na­tions that sup­port diplo­matic and hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts through do­na­tions of money, ex­per­tise and other re­sources, the of­fi­cial said.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had said it would re­tain Obama’s top of­fi­cial in charge of what was for­merly called the Global Coali­tion to Counter ISIL, but had not spelled out its goals for the group of 68 coun­tries and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions.

It has sub­sti­tuted its pre­ferred acro­nym, ISIS, in the global coali­tion’s name but left the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s struc­ture and fo­cus in­tact. The re­vised State Depart­ment web page for the coali­tion also stripped out men­tions of Obama and for­mer Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry, but kept lan­guage stress­ing that “there is a role for ev­ery coun­try to play in de­grad­ing and de­feat­ing” the militants.

“It’s con­sis­tent with what the pres­i­dent talked about in terms of bur­den-shar­ing and ask­ing other coun­tries to carry their load,” said one U.S. of­fi­cial who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity.

Diplo­mats from some of the coun­tries in­volved have ques­tioned whether the coali­tion would be dis­banded if the ex­trem­ist group is routed from Raqaa.

But U.S. of­fi­cials said Tiller­son will stress the im­por­tance of keep­ing the coali­tion in­tact and fo­cused on what is likely to be a dif­fuse but po­tent ex­trem­ist threat.

“We ex­pect them to dis­perse,” but not dis­ap­pear, one of­fi­cial said.

An­other of­fi­cial said that although the up­com­ing meet­ing is not a fundrais­ing con­fer­ence, the coali­tion aims to raise about $1.5 bil­lion for hu­man­i­tar­ian and other ef­forts in the near term.

Russia is a not a mem­ber of the diplo­matic coali­tion, although it is a dom­i­nant military pres­ence in Syria in sup­port of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s forces.

Trump has raised the prospect of the United States and Russia col­lab­o­rat­ing to fight Is­lamic State militants in Syria, and he and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin dis­cussed pos­si­bil­i­ties in a phone call in Jan­uary, ac­cord­ing to the White House. But the is­sue is com­pli­cated by po­lit­i­cal fall­out from Russia’s al­leged in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, and De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis has said dis­cus­sion of any broad co­op­er­a­tion is pre­ma­ture.

ALESSAN­DRO ROTA / SIPA USA / TNS 2016

A sign bear­ing the im­age of the Is­lamic State flag is dis­played on a build­ing early last year in the ru­ins of Sin­jar, Iraq.

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