On fifth anniversary of Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, former leaders reflect on successes and future challenges

Panelists at event on fifth anniversary of Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS (photo by Chris Williams)
Editor's note:

This post highlights key moments from the event on “The counter-ISIS coalition: Diplomacy and security in action,” held at Brookings on September 10, 2019.

In the summer of 2014, out of the chaos of the Arab Spring and Iraq’s civil war, the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (aka, ISIS or ISIL) unleashed a forceful takeover of parts of Iraq and Syria. In response, the United States formed the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, which now has brought together 81 partners, with the goal of eliminating ISIS. Five years after the coalition’s formation, ISIS has lost nearly all its territory and resources, but remains a threat

At an event last week to commemorate the coalition’s fifth anniversary, the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace brought together some of the coalition’s original leaders to reflect on the effort’s founding and future. Two of the coalition’s former special presidential envoys, Brookings President John R. Allen and Brett McGurk, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie, participated in the conversation moderated by Susan Glasser of the New Yorker. Lise Grande, resident and humanitarian coordinator for the U.N. in Yemen and former deputy special representative of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, joined the conversation via video chat.

In his opening remarks President Allen, a retired U.S. Marine Corps four-star general, described when the White House asked him to help build the coalition. He also honored the efforts of both McGurk and Grande in that work.

The coalition’s founding

In the leadup to the coalition’s founding, ISIS carried out bombings and assassinations that initially appeared to be individual attacks. However, their connectedness became clear when ISIS invaded northwest Iraq as they had effectively, as President Allen said, “hollow[ed] out” Iraq’s leadership, leading it to crumble.

Watch event highlights:

McGurk, who was in Iraq in the summer of 2014, described the time as “incredibly tense.” In a meeting with President Obama, McGurk said he proposed immediate airstrikes to counter ISIS but the president advocated for the development of a “strategic foundation” to help bring in other partners.

The coalition formed a strategic plan that included efforts to provide military support, isolate the region from foreign fighters, eliminate ISIS’s resources, and counter ISIS’s propagandistic narrative. It also called on the U.N. to initiate robust humanitarian aid to civilians through a stabilization fund supported by members of the coalition.

Once a campaign was formed, McGurk, with Allen, traveled across the globe visiting capitols and petitioning for the support of other nations. McGurk described the coalition’s formation as a “unique moment of American leadership.”

Unprecedented humanitarian effort

Grande joined the U.N. in Iraq in December 2014 as the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell under attack by ISIS. She said even though steps had been taken to mobilize the coalition, ISIS was within traveling distance of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and there were still questions about how the coalition would manage its military, security, and humanitarian efforts.

When the battle for Ramadi reached “full pitch,” Grande said nearly all its population fled and needed medical help, shelter and protection. “I think we realized at that stage … that every time the coalition, in supporting the Iraqi security forces, liberated a city, the entire population was going to flee.”

Grande related how reconstruction efforts began in cities as soon as they were liberated. Using an unprecedented approach, the U.N. restored electricity to civilians soon after returning to their homes while also implementing security, sanitation, water, and employment programs for the longer-term.

It was the “largest stabilization effort [the U.N. has] ever undertaken in our 75-year history, and it was possible because of the trust and confidence that was given to us by the coalition, and most particularly by the exceptional leadership of that coalition, the U.S. government,” Grande said. By the end of the effort in Iraq, Grande said around 6 million civilians had fled their homes, making it one of “the most exceptional population movements we’ve ever seen.”

The turning point

President Allen noted how the battle in the northern Syrian city of Kobanî in September 2014 was “the first real battle that we saw unfolding where [the coalition] had an opportunity to make a difference.” He said it was clear that ISIS wanted to wipe out Kobanî’s Kurdish population.

ISIS, Allen explained, was pouring troops into Kobanî to “crack the will” of the coalition and open up Syria again. However, while the Kurds were defending the city, coalition airpower was “hammering” ISIS. The coalition’s support of the battle in Kobanî showed that, as Allen related, “for the first time we had real partners in Syria that could make a difference.”

McGurk also noted the success of the collaboration between the coalition and regional forces in Kobanî. “We saw this opportunity, we had special forces in Iraq who had relations with Iraqi Kurds who happened to know some of the fighters who were left in Kobanî were about to be overrun.”

McGurk said he has “no doubt” the self-styled ISIS caliphate would still be in Syria if Kobanî had fallen.

Looking ahead

Despite the coalition’s tremendous successes, the panelists acknowledged the fight against ISIS is still ongoing.

Part of current U.S. policy in Syria includes that the enduring defeat of ISIS must be ensured. McGurk, who left his role as special presidential envoy at the end of 2018, said U.S. objectives in Syria have “expanded tremendously,” to also include all Iranian command forces leaving Syria, and the Assad regime making fundamental governing changes through the Geneva process. However, McGurk said there is an “ends and means gap” with the current administration, meaning the campaign to promote these efforts isn’t as well-resourced as it should be. When asked how the recent departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton may impact this stance, McGurk said, “I don’t think it fundamentally changes that much.”

President Allen described ISIS as still a “virulent threat,” through its lingering online and global presence, echoing McGurk’s assertion that there is still more work to be done. “The defeat of the main force units doesn’t mean, as some would contend, that ISIL is defeated,” Allen said. “It is still a very dangerous organization.”