After keeping a very low public profile in his first couple of months on the job, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in the spotlight Wednesday and Thursday at a gathering in Washington aimed at countering the Islamic State terror group.
This is the first full meeting since 2014 of foreign ministers and senior officials from the 68 countries and international organizations in the U.S.-led coalition that is fighting IS. The State Department said the goal of the conference was to accelerate international efforts to defeat IS in the remaining areas it holds in Iraq and Syria and maximize pressure on its branches, affiliates and networks.
Acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Monday that the coalition was at an important stage of the fight against the terror group.
"First of all, it's an opportunity in the new administration to assess where we are at and what we want do going forward. I don't want to steal any thunder from the secretary, but I think he will come with new ideas and approaches and a new way of looking at how to defeat ISIS," he said, using another acronym for IS.
Meeting face to face
The strategy session will give the former Exxon chief executive the chance to meet face to face with U.S. allies, said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a research and policy group in Washington.
"If there are any fresh policy ideas, all the better," said O'Hanlon, who specializes in defense and foreign policy issues. "But it's not even necessary, it's not even obligatory for that in a first session, because people need to get to know each other as well. And of course Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump — these are not people who are all that well-known to the broader foreign policy or national security community, certainly not at a personal level."
O'Hanlon said there would be plenty of thorny issues for the coalition partners to discuss.
Turkey, for instance, has "millions of refugees on its soil and no end in sight to the war in Syria," he said. "The Western Europeans are still nervous about ISIS fighters coming back home, especially those who came from their countries in the first place to go to the battlefield. ... So no one's happy, no one should be happy. We are at a very intermediate stage of this campaign."
Earlier this month, Brett McGurk, the U.S. special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter Islamic State, said the two-year fight against the terror group had reclaimed more than 50,000 square kilometers in Iraq and Syria, and that the defeat of the group there was "now in sight."
Tillerson to skip NATO summit
The State Department confirmed Tuesday that Tillerson would not be going to a NATO summit in early April, saying he would meet with all the NATO countries' foreign ministers and top officials at the global ministers conference this week.
Some Democratic lawmakers have sharply criticized Tillerson's decision to skip the NATO summit and to travel to Russia later in April, saying that would send the wrong signal to close allies.
Notable for its absence from this global gathering on countering Islamic State will be Russia, since Russia is not part of the global coalition. Russian President Vladimir Putin's major focus in Syria has been keeping President Bashir al-Assad in power.
During the 2016 presidential election campaign, Trump was critical of then-President Barack Obama for what he called a weak fight against IS militants. During his inaugural address in January, Trump promised to eradicate IS.
Continuing with anti-IS coalition that was created under the Obama administration may signal that the new administration will continue its predecessor's multilateral approach, at least on this subject. Some analysts expect the U.S. to ask Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to contribute more to "burden-sharing" to help fund reconstruction efforts in war-ravaged Syria.