French, US host defence minister talks on fight against IS


Paris (AFP)

The defence ministers of seven countries leading the battle against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria will meet in Paris on Wednesday to hash out ways to build their coalition and boost its resources.

Co-hosted by the French and US defence ministers, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Ash Carter, the meeting will be attended by their Australian, British, Dutch, German and Italian counterparts.

Their countries have taken the lead in the air campaign against IS and the training of Iraqi forces to fight the jihadists.

Russia, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, began a campaign of air strikes in support of the regime in late September, targeting IS -- but, say critics, more often the moderate opposition.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is to discuss the situation in Syria with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Wednesday.

The French government said the ministers on Wednesday would "take stock" of coalition efforts since the campaign kicked off in 2014 and study ways to intensify it.

"They will discuss what may be needed to speed up the tempo," a French defence source said, adding that he hoped the meeting would become a regular event.

The fight against IS has been slow to take off, but has begun to bear fruit, experts say.

The IS group, which swept through vast regions of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015 and captured a string of cities, has seen recent setbacks across its self-proclaimed caliphate, including the loss of the key Iraqi city of Ramadi to US-supported local forces last month.

Air strikes have intensified since IS claimed the November 13 jihadist attacks in Paris, especially targeting its oil production, a principal source of revenue.

IS is having trouble guaranteeing public services within the territory under its control, causing "tensions" within the group, a source at the French defence ministry said, adding that IS fighters are facing pay cuts.

- 'Speedy results' elusive -

Carter, who has repeatedly urged other countries in the approximately 60-member coalition to step up their participation, will be keen to rally further support.

In particular, Arab and Gulf countries that are also part of a Saudi-led coalition have since last March been more engaged in Yemen, carrying out air strikes against Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels.

Greater participation by them against IS, even symbolic, would be greatly appreciated, Carter aides say.

Asian countries, mainly involved in humanitarian efforts, could also step up support in terms of military equipment, they say.

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

The French government said the defence ministers would also study ways to boost the capacity of local forces -- Kurdish Peshmergas and the Iraqi army -- with equipment and training.

US, Australian and French instructors have already trained 15,000 Iraqi soldiers, notably in defending themselves against the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers aboard cars and trucks that are the IS weapons of choice.

While the Western powers are keen to avoid the quagmire experienced by US forces in Iraq, they recognise the need to beef up their special forces on the ground and their intelligence-gathering capabilities.

Among the Europeans, the Netherlands promised to spell out its commitment by the end of January. Australia has already ruled out any increase to its military contribution.

Libya, whose political chaos has enabled IS to bolster its power, will also be on the agenda, but no concrete proposals are on the table, a US military source said.

The French government is still hopeful that the military strategy can be coupled with diplomacy.

But a French push for a united front including Russia against IS has so far failed to gain traction.

UN-brokered Syrian peace talks including Moscow are tentatively set for next Monday in Geneva, but the main parties have yet to agree on who will represent the Syrian opposition.