Diplomatic negotiations with "no preconditions" will be the US approach to solving the problem of North Korea, while working in concert with friends and allies, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the Atlantic Council on December 12.

“We’re ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk,” said Tillerson, “and we’re ready to have the first meeting without preconditions.”

“Let’s just meet and let’s – we can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face?” he added.

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Below are remarks by Ambassador Frederic C. Hof at the NATO Parliamentary Forum at the National Defense University on Dec. 11, 2017 that touched upon the evolving US approach to Syria and Iraq.

I’ve been asked to discuss the evolving US approach to Iraq and Syria. I will try to do so as accurately and as briefly as possible. Brevity will not be a problem. Accuracy may be something else. I’ve been out of government for five years, and although I stay in touch with former colleagues and try to offer ideas on objectives and strategy, I do not purport to know what the commander-in-chief has decided on key issues affecting Syria and Iraq.

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As the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is driven from its strongholds in Syria, US-backed forces face the challenge of stabilizing these conflict-ravaged territories.

This task is made more urgent by the fact that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Iran-backed militias are swooping in on eastern Syria in an attempt to capitalize on ISIS’ defeat, said Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“If they succeed, the basis for ISIS 2.0 will be set,” said Hof, adding: “After all, it was the Iranian (and Russian)-supported brutality of the Assad regime that created the governance vacuum filled by ISIS in the first place.”

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on October 16 that they had seized control of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS’ “caliphate.” A US-backed civilian council, which has been based in Ayn Issa, north of Raqqa, will now seek to stabilize Raqqa.

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Iraqi government forces on October 16 seized vital oil fields and the city of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces.

The military action, which pits two US allies against each other, followed a September 25 referendum in which the Kurds voted for an independent state. The Iraqi government had declared the vote unconstitutional. Kirkuk, which is not part of Iraqi Kurdistan but was under Kurdish control at the time, took part in the referendum. (Kurdish forces had controlled Kirkuk since 2014 when Iraqi forces fled as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants advanced on the city.)

Explaining the security offensive, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said in a statement on October 16 that he acted “in accordance with the constitution to serve the citizens and protect the unity of the country, which was in danger of partition due to the insistence on holding the referendum.”

Harith Hasan Al Qarawee, a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, discussed the significance of the developments in an e-mail interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from that interview.

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While the Kurdistani people may have voted for independence, the practical application of the referendum, which was rejected by the Kurdistan region’s neighbors, remains uncertain. Depending on the fallout in the days, weeks, and months to come, the referendum could either prove an opportunity to improve regional relations, or leave a bitter aftertaste for all parties involved.

September 25, 2017, was a historic day for the Kurds. In a referendum, close to 93 percent voted in favor of independence, a long-held dream for most Kurds. However, while many people in Kurdistan celebrated the outcome, the referendum was opposed by Iraq, its neighbors, and the international community. Further, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran responded by threatening to sanction the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq militarily or economically.

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The combined efforts of a host of international and regional state and non-state actors against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have reduced the so-called caliphate’s control of Mosul to one district and surrounded its fighters in Raqqa, resulting in more of ISIS’ militants fleeing Iraq and Syria and fewer foreign fighters joining it. Despite the fact that ISIS now faces a stark new operational reality with less territory under its control and having suffered major symbolic and tactical losses, it is premature to conclude that the struggle against ISIS is over because many of the factors that contributed to its rise remain. 

The extent to which ISIS’ loss of large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria will damage its ideological influence remains to be seen. On one hand, ISIS’ ability to portray itself as a “winning” and “invincible” force in the Muslim world was a prominent theme of its sophisticated social media campaigns. Today, jihadists around the world must now view ISIS as somewhat less than “invincible.” Yet changes in the US military’s war on ISIS, with US President Donald Trump transferring more authority over such operations to the Pentagon, have increased civilian deaths. This serves ISIS’ political objectives by fueling narratives about Western militaries, much like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Russian backers, deliberately targeting Sunni Muslim civilians.

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Don’t ask for audits in the middle of the war on ISIS.

In a report this week, Amnesty International expresses its annoyance that “the US Army failed to keep tabs on more than $1 billion worth of arms and other military equipment in Iraq and Kuwait.” As the human rights group continues, “the [Defense] department’s Golden Sentry program,” carried about by the End-Use Monitoring Division of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), “is mandated to carry out post-delivery checks” to ensure that weapons do not wind up in miscreant hands. After an audit in September 2016, obtained recently by Amnesty through a Freedom Of Information Act request, the US Army acknowledged during that brutal militias had probably gotten hold of some of the guns it had given to the Iraqi Army. That’s not shocking given the chaotic nature of that civil war. According to the Defense Department’s Inspector General, the main shortcoming was that “the use of manually populated spreadsheets increased the risk for human error when inputting and updating equipment data.”

For my part, I don’t think that the Mahdists are just exploiting a mistake in cell C26.

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On January 27, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order on immigration, titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” The order places a ban on the entry of foreign nationals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen for 90 days; suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days; and blocks the entry of Syrian nationals indefinitely.  

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The US-led coalition offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the final major foothold of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq, has progressed slowly but positively over the course of the past month. However, questions still remain whether the offensive, Operation Inherent Resolve, will prove to be a coalition of convenience that dissolves without a clear and common enemy, or if political wills in Baghdad and Erbil, both in Iraq, are able to hash out a post-conflict structure that preempts ethnic opportunists and revenge killing. The battle for Mosul may mark the culmination of a protracted effort to build some semblance of unity amidst Iraq’s factionalist disorder.

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Wisam al-Zubaidi is a member of one of Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism troops. But right now he isn’t fighting, he is in a Baghdad hospital nursing a bullet wound in his foot. At a battle east of Mosul, he and his battalion were ambushed by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, which Iraqi forces are currently fighting in northern Iraq. Some of his comrades were killed, others injured and some are still fighting; al-Zubaidi, a member of the elite troops that often fight their way forward into battle before other military units, is still telephoning his colleagues to find out what’s going on.

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