Anti-ISIS coalition meeting to outline next phase of fight

Anti-ISIS coalition meeting to outline next phase of fight
A man watches a news program about an Islamic State video purporting to show two Japanese captives at an electronics store in Tokyo January 20, 2015.

Foreign ministers from countries belonging to the coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) meet in London today to assess progress in tackling the militant group which still occupies large chunks of Syria and Iraq.

"It's vital that we consider what more we can all do to tackle the issue of foreign fighters, to clamp down on ISIS' financing, to step up humanitarian assistance and continue our coordinated military campaign," said British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who is hosting the meeting.

But although the anti-ISIS coalition is impressive, encompassing about 20 countries, there is still no consensus on what needs to be done to stabilise the Middle East.

The coalition has succeeded in its immediate objective, which was to use air power to prevent ISIS from overrunning Iraq and massacring hundreds of thousands of members of various ethnic and religious communities.

The Iraqi capital of Baghdad is no longer threatened, nor are other key cities. Meanwhile, isolated and threatened communities continue to be sustained by the largest airlift of humanitarian supplies since the operations in former East Timor during the late 1990s.

But despite these achievements, the reality is that ISIS remains in control of the bulk of the territory of Syria and Iraq which it overran last year, and continues to impose a barbaric rule involving mass executions of both locals and foreigners.

More ominously, ISIS has succeeded in portraying itself as the most radical of all terrorist movements, and its gruesome methods attract volunteers from around the world. So, while the ISIS challenge is being contained, it is far from being defeated.

One problem with the international operation is that, as military analysts warned all along, an air campaign on its own cannot liberate territory: that requires boots on the ground which no contributing nation is contemplating.

Furthermore, even the air force contributions of participating nations remain small.

The British and the French have each contributed only eight aircraft to the air campaign. And even the mighty American air force has flown only around 1,500 sorties against ISIS since September last year.

But the military tempo looks set to accelerate. French President Francois Hollande has just ordered the Charles de Gaulle, his country's aircraft carrier, to the Gulf, while the British have announced the imminent opening of a naval base in the neighbouring Gulf kingdom of Bahrain.

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