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Gen. Allen Navigates Complicated Political Landscape To Fight ISIS


It's been a tough couple of weeks for retired U.S. Marine General John Allen. President Obama appointed him last year to build a coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS. The militants have made significant gains in the past month, including the capture of the city of Ramadi in Iraq. At a meeting in Paris this week, Iraq's prime minister said the world has failed to support his country. General Allen gathered with members of the coalition at that meeting. Then, he went to a security conference in Doha, Qatar, where NPR's Deborah Amos caught up with him.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The U.S. envoy's assessment of the fall of Ramadi comes from his military background. It's a setback, he says, the wins and losses in a long campaign. But he told a security conference here in Doha that battling ISIS ideology might take a generation or more. The devastating defeat in Ramadi has meant swift decisions as the Iraqi government gears up for a military campaign to try to take the city back. The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad had resisted arming Sunni tribal fighters. Now the government has promised to streamline weapons delivery. Coalition member states can earmark weapons for the tribes.

JOHN ALLEN: This is new for us with respect to the tribes. So we'll see just what streamlining really means because the process is really just beginning. My sense is that the urgency associated with the recovery of Ramadi has everyone's attention.

AMOS: Allen's attention is focused on the Sunnis. He insists there's no future for Iraq without their support. He stressed the government has to rein in what he called extremist Shiite militias with links to Iran. But some of those militias are already moving onto the battlefield, even under government command, in the military buildup around Ramadi. And that will complicate the operation.

ALLEN: And so we'll have to take that into account. We're not going to coordinate with them. We're not going to provide fire support or aerial fires. We're not going to run close air for them. But we're going to have to be very conscious of the battlefield geometry so that we're supporting those who deserve to be supported, and we're conscious of where the others are as we conduct the operations with the Iraqis.

AMOS: Allen's main message, a political rather than a military solution is the key to fighting ISIS in Iraq and in Syria. He repeated administration calls for negotiations to end the war in Syria, more urgent now as the rebels gain territory and ISIS has taken Palmyra, another key Syrian city.

ALLEN: The regime forces are experiencing greater difficulties in the battle space. They have been, frankly, resoundingly defeated in a number of areas. The sense is that there is a weakening of the regime.

AMOS: That weakening has led to a rebel charge that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is coordinating with ISIS to blunt the gains of rebels supported by the West and Arab states. Allen has heard those charges, and he explains, using the Arabic name for ISIS, Daesh.

ALLEN: I think for a very long time, we have suspected that Assad has had a relationship with Daesh that has facilitated each other's ends. Whether they would look at each other and consider that they're allies, I'm not sure we're to that point. But clearly there have been some actions or inactions by the regime that has facilitated Daesh frankly.

AMOS: His job hasn't gotten any easier as he navigates a complicated political landscape to coordinate a common strategy against ISIS. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Doha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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