By Phil Stewart and Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS, Feb 11 – The United States is pressing allies on Thursday to contribute more to a U.S.-led military campaign against Daesh that it says must be accelerated, regardless of the fate of diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s civil war.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is due to start talks on Thursday afternoon in Brussels with more than two dozen defense ministers, including from key ally Saudi Arabia, which has held out the possibility of sending special forces into Syria.
Carter’s push came a day after France delivered a rebuke to President Barack Obama, demanding that Washington display a clearer commitment to resolving the crisis in Syria where Russia is tipping the military balance in favor of President Bashar Assad.
The talks take place as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leads a diplomatic push in Munich to rescue imperiled peace efforts, which are taking place despite Russian bombing raids to bolster Syrian forces around the city of Aleppo.
Carter, speaking to reporters ahead of his talks, sought to draw a line between military and diplomatic efforts.
“Our focus here is going to be on counter-ISIL and that campaign will go on because ISIL must be defeated, will be defeated, whatever happens with the Syrian civil war,” Carter told reporters, using an acronym for Daesh.
“But it certainly would help to de-fuel extremism if the Syrian civil war came to an end.”
The United States hopes the face-to-face gathering of coalition defense ministers will allow it to secure more support for a military campaign that aims to recapture the Islamic State strongholds of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
WARPLANES, TRAINING, SURVEILLANCE
Carter plans to offer a long list of required military capabilities—which, beyond air power, include training Iraqi forces and help with intelligence and surveillance. Carter said countries that cannot contribute militarily can help in other ways, like by choking Daesh financing.
“This is a terrific opportunity to have the acceleration that the United States and President Obama has committed to reinforced by all of the military members of the coalition,” Carter said.
Still, Carter and U.S. defense officials have sought to manage expectations about the talks, since many ministers will not be able to make new commitments without first winning support from their parliaments. The timeline for the campaign to retake Raqqa and Mosul is also unclear.
The head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency cautioned this week that Iraqi forces were unlikely to recapture Mosul this year, despite hopes by Baghdad.
Carter only said securing Raqqa and Mosul needed to happen “as soon as possible”. He also acknowledged the need to grapple with Islamic State’s spread beyond Syria and Iraq.
WASHINGTON FACES SKEPTICISM
Even if there is consensus on the military plan to fight Daesh on Thursday, it is unlikely to diminish skepticism about broader U.S. policy in Syria, which has sought to limit America’s role in the civil war.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Wednesday questioned the commitment of the United States to resolving the Syrian war. Rebel groups say that while Washington has put pressure on them to attend peace talks, they see less help on the battlefield.
NATO ally Turkey has meanwhile, upbraided the United States for supporting Syrian Kurdish PYD rebels, saying Washington’s inability to understand the group’s true nature had turned the region into a “sea of blood”.
Eager to sidestep such friction, NATO allies have focused on grappling with the humanitarian fallout from Syria’s conflict at talks over the past two days.
NATO announced on Thursday it will seek to help slow refugee flows through the Aegean Sea with a maritime mission to target criminal people smuggling networks.