Defence ministers vow to destroy IS 'power centres'

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Paris (AFP)

Defence ministers from seven countries fighting the Islamic State group vowed Wednesday to step up their operations and destroy the jihadists' "power centres" in Iraq and Syria.

Speaking after talks in Paris, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said the coalition's main aim was to crush what he called the IS "tumour" in Iraq and Syria by "collapsing its two power centres in Raqa and Mosul."

The second aim, said Carter, was "to combat the metastasis of the ISIL tumour worldwide," using an alternative name for IS.

Russia -- a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- was not invited to the Paris meeting, where hosts France and the United States demanded it stop bombing Syrian opposition forces fighting IS.

But in Zurich, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Syria peace talks would start "in the next few days" after a meeting with US counterpart John Kerry.

"The Russians are on the wrong track strategically and also in some cases tactically," Carter said.

"We don't have a basis for broader cooperation (with Russia)," Carter said.

In contrast, Lavrov said Russia was willing to "more closely coordinate our actions" with the coalition to facilitate aid deliveries in Syria.

The meeting in Paris included defence ministers from the United States, Australia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

Carter announced an unprecedented meeting of 26 defence ministers in the anti-IS coalition, plus Iraq, to be held in Brussels in three weeks and warned that he would demand increased efforts.

"Every nation must come prepared to discuss further contributions to the fight and I will not hesitate to engage and challenge current and prospective members of the coalition as we go forward," he said.

Carter has repeatedly urged other countries in the approximately 60-member coalition to step up their participation in the military effort, particularly Arab and Gulf countries that are more focused on fighting Iran-backed forces in Yemen.

- 'Daesh is retreating' -

The ministers were keen to tout progress in their campaign.

"Daesh is retreating, it is time to increase our joint efforts by implementing a coherent military strategy," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters.

But the coalition faces a rapidly spreading threat from IS around the world, notably in Libya where political chaos has allowed the group to build a 3,000-strong force.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed there could be "no military solution" to the war.

"We need a political solution," Zarif told an audience at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos.

IS has suffered some setbacks, losing around a quarter of its self-proclaimed caliphate, including the Iraqi city of Ramadi to US-backed local forces last month.

Washington this week claimed to have leaked IS documents showing the group had halved fighters' pay since the coalition stepped up bombing of oil production, a key source of revenue for the group.

- A lack of ground forces -

But the coalition faces major challenges, particularly the lack of ground forces willing to fight IS in Syria, since most groups are focused on toppling Assad.

In a rare admission, the French army's operations chief, General Didier Castre, recently acknowledged the coalition's military strategy was having trouble "producing speedy results".

US, Australian and French instructors have already trained 15,000 Iraqi soldiers, notably against improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and vehicle suicide attacks that are the IS weapons of choice.

But Western forces remain reluctant to get too deeply involved, fearing a repeat of the quagmire of previous campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Australia has already ruled out any increase to its military contribution, and Canada was pointedly absent from Wednesday's meeting after its new government said it would pull out of the bombing campaign.

IS showed its continued threat this week, taking 400 people hostage when it attacked the eastern Syrian town of Deir Ezzor. Some 270 have since been released.

"The sooner the civil war is brought to an end the better, and then we can all focus on the enemy that is Daesh," said British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon.

UN-brokered Syrian peace talks are tentatively set for next Monday in Geneva.

Lavrov said these talks should start "in the next few days," despite disagreements over who will represent the opposition.

Syria's largest opposition coalition on Wednesday named Islamist rebel chief Mohammed Alloush, backed by Saudi Arabia, as head negotiator for the peace talks.

The coalition of political and armed opposition groups demanded the exclusion of other parties from the talks and a halt to the Syrian army's bombardment and sieges of populated areas.