Rex Tillerson insists IS leader’s days are numbered and vows to set up ‘zones of stability’ to allow refugees to return to homes
Increased US or allied air power would be required if President Donald Trump chooses to enforce ‘no fly’ restrictions, and ground forces might also be needed to protect civilians in those areas
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared on Wednesday that Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death is imminent, as US-backed forces close in on the jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
“Nearly all of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s deputies are now dead, including the mastermind behind the attacks in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere,” Tillerson told a coalition meeting in Washington.
“It is only a matter of time before Baghdadi himself meets this same fate,” he promised, as he opened discussions between the 69 members of the US-led military coalition and their Iraqi ally.
Earlier this month, a US defence official told reporters that Baghdadi, the elusive leader of IS’s so-called caliphate had fled the Iraqi city of Mosul.
The northern city has been encircled and partially liberated by US-backed Iraqi forces, amid intense street battles, and officials now think the IS chief is cut off from command.
Now, the US-led coalition hopes to finalise the reconquest of northern Iraq and to turn the screw on the last IS bastion in Syria, its nominal capital in the city of Raqqa.
“The great commonality among we who have gathered today is a commitment to bringing down a global force of evil and I emphasise the word commitment,” Tillerson said. “The success of our mission depends on a continued devotion to our stated objective of defeating this terrorist organisation.”
Tillerson also said the US would set up “interim zones of stability” to help refugees return home in the next phase of the fight against IS and al-Qaeda. He did not make clear where these zones were to be set up.
“The United States will increase our pressure on ISIS and al-Qaeda and will work to establish interim zones of stability, through ceasefires, to allow refugees to return home,” Tillerson said.
Creating safe zones could ratchet up US military involvement in Syria and mark a major departure from President Barack Obama’s more cautious approach. Increased US or allied air power would be required if President Donald Trump chooses to enforce ‘no fly’ restrictions, and ground forces might also be needed to protect civilians in those areas.
Wednesday event was the first meeting of the international coalition since the election of Trump, who has pledged to make the fight against IS a priority. He vowed in January to set up safe zones in Syria for refugees.
Tillerson said the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq was down 90 per cent over the past year.
“It is harder for terrorists to get in and more importantly harder for them to get out to threaten our homelands,” he said.
He called on coalition partners to make good on financial pledges to help secure and rebuild areas where IS fighters have been pushed out.
The US will do its part but circumstances on the ground require more, he said, urging allies to allocate more military, financial resources toward defeating IS.
Speaking to the same meeting, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi called for unity in the region to fight IS and outlined Iraq’s progress in the fight against the militant group. Abadi met with Trump on Monday and said afterwards he had won assurances of more US support in the war against IS.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse