Fight in Marawi resets ties between Philippines and US

Duterte has tried to draw closer to China but unrest in the south has forced reliance on old ally

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 11:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 11:42pm

“This is really their sentiment, our soldiers are really pro-American, that I cannot deny,” lamented Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shortly after it became clear that American Special Forces were aiding the battle to liberate Marawi from an Islamic State-affiliated group.

Duterte even suggested his generals may have unilaterally decided to seek American help without his consent, claiming: “I never approached any American.”

Since his unlikely rise to power a year ago, the tough-talking Philippine leader has vowed to end his country’s historical reliance on the US in favour of an “independent” foreign policy.

‘Asia wary of US claims it’s committed to regional security’

Last month, Duterte embarked on back-to-back visits to Beijing and Moscow in order to finalise an ambitious set of defence and economic agreements. The aim was to diversify the Philippines’ pool of strategic partners. But as the spectre of terror casts a shadow over Duterte’s home island of Mindanao, the Philippines has been forced to fall back on tried-and-tested allies who can provide immediate and large-scale counterterrorism support.

Unlike Russia and China, the United States has a long tradition of working with Philippine soldiers and enjoys significant access to the nation’s military facilities. Security cooperation is governed by a set of legal arrangements, namely the Visiting Forces Agreement, Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, and the Philippine-US Mutual Defence Treaty.

Under the Philippine constitution, foreign troops are barred from establishing permanent military bases or involvement in direct combat operations. But they are allowed to provide training, technical assistance, real-time intelligence, and help coordinating complex operations against enemy combatants.

Washington has also provided, under a US$150 million grant programme, a new batch of automatic rifles, grenade launchers and machine guns to “enhance the [military’s] counterterrorism capabilities” amid the latest outbreak of conflict on Mindanao.

When asked about American involvement in Marawi, Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, said on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this month: “We are involved in activities in Mindanao to help the Armed Forces of the Philippines take the fight to ISIS in the Philippines,” Harris said, using another name for Islamic State. “I think that is a recognition of how important our relationship with the Philippines is.”

Philippines’ Duterte seeks alliance with China but defence officials warn of strategic threat

For weeks, the Philippine military has struggled with fighting street by street in the country’s biggest Muslim-majority city. Casualties have piled up, with up to 290 people reportedly killed, including 58 soldiers and 26 civilians.

Despite large deployment of troops and continuous air raids across enemy positions, government forces are yet to wrest control of up to a fifth of the sprawling city. Almost the entirety of Marawi’s population has been forced to seek shelter in increasingly congested refugee camps away from the epicentre of violence.

But Philippine troops are mainly trained in open-field and forest warfare, so they have struggled to end the brutal siege on Marawi. In 2013, it took them more than two weeks to end the siege of Zamboanga by a ragtag rebel group. This time, they are confronting the Maute group, a self-styled IS-affiliate, and a large contingent of foreign fighters, who have managed to hold onto key sections of the city by resorting to improvised explosive devices and snipers.

Marawi has come to eerily resemble Mosul and other devastated cities across Iraq and Syria.

Concerned about terror attacks beyond Marawi, Duterte has placed the entire island under martial law.

This has given security forces additional legal powers to crack down on suspected rebels and terrorist sympathisers. After months of mutual acrimony over human rights issues, the prospect of an IS caliphate on Mindanao has forced a diplomatic reset between the two estranged allies.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of "Asia's New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific" and the forthcoming "Duterte's Rise"