World

Tough road ahead, despite victory over ISIS in Mosul and advances in Syria's Raqqa

WASHINGTON: With reports coming in that ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead and the terror group is all but ejected from one if its former capitals and surrounded in the other, members of a 72-nation coalition meet in Washington this week to try to ensure the battlefield victories do not, once again, evaporate amid new sectarian strife.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Mosul on Monday, three years after the militants seized the city.

In neighbouring Syria, US-backed forces have entered Raqqa and are battling ISIS militants there.

The battlefield advances are a potentially fatal blow to ISIS' self-proclaimed "caliphate" but also bring fresh challenges and risks, according to Western diplomats and US officials.

The key question is whether US President Donald Trump - who has been leery of foreign assistance and "nation building" - and allies in Europe and the Middle East lead a long-term campaign of physical and political reconstruction.

"I think everyone has learnt the hard way that unless you stick around and get the job done, we'll be back there again in 10 years' time," said one Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

One concern, the officials and diplomats said, is that Iran could fill the vacuum left by ISIS to expand its clout in both Iraq and Syria.

Another worry is that the region's Sunni Muslims, if not given a share of political and economic power, could be vulnerable to ISIS recruitment as the group reverts from one that holds territory to a shadowy, violent insurgency.

Mr Trump's budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct 1, would allocate US$13 billion (S$18 billion) for the military fight against ISIS.

"Are we going to spend even a fraction of the amount on reconstruction?" asked Mr Jeremy Konyndyk, who oversaw disaster assistance at the US Agency for International Development until January.

When the US military withdrew from Iraq in 2011, US aid budgets and personnel were reduced as well, said Mr Konyndyk, now at the Center for Global Development.

"We should not make the same mistake this time (of) taking a really military-centric approach to our engagement and once the military job is done, stripping out most of the other tools," he added. 
- REUTERS

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