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Mindanao conflict pushing Duterte back into US orbit

ISIS threat alters Philippine president's foreign policy calculus

| Philippines

As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte enters his second year in office, he is confronting his greatest political challenge. For the past month, a legion of Islamic State-affiliated fighters, under the command of the Maute Group, have stubbornly held onto several barangays (neighborhoods) in Marawi, a provincial capital on the southern island of Mindanao and the country's largest Muslim-majority city.

The brazen assault on the city, which has forced more than 200,000 people to flee for safety and claimed the lives of close to 400 individuals, marks the first attempt by an IS regional affiliate to control a large urban territory. The ultimate goal is to establish a distant caliphate, or a so-called Daulah Islamiya Wilayatul Mashriq ("Islamic State province in the Orient").

The magnitude of the crisis has pushed the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia to step up intelligence-sharing and cyber counter-terrorism, and to conduct joint patrols along their porous maritime borders. Most crucially, the Duterte administration, which has consistently touted its commitment to an "independent" foreign policy away from traditional allies, was forced to seek American assistance in Marawi and affected areas.

Despite his best efforts, the Philippine president has once again found his country relying heavily on American military muscle to address domestic security challenges. This will inevitably place constraints on his attempts to build an enduring strategic partnership with China, which deeply opposes the growing American military footprint in Southeast Asia.

Intent on denying the extremists a single inch of territory, the Philippine military has resorted to large-scale air raids, which have resulted in friendly-fire incidents, raised the risks of civilian casualties, and caused large-scale destruction of the city's infrastructure. As the days have passed, Marawi has begun to resemble post-conflict Aleppo in Syria, and Mosul in Iraq, which have been similarly ravaged by clashes between security forces and extremist elements in recent years.

Boasting battle-tested foreign fighters among its ranks, including some from the Russian Caucasus and the Arab world, the Maute Group has used a lethal combination of improvised explosive devices, snipers, and an extensive network of underground tunnels to inflict heavy casualties on government troops.

As it struggled with full-blown urban warfare, the Philippine military sought help from the U.S., which immediately deployed a contingent of special forces to provide training and technical assistance for counter-terrorism operations in difficult urban settings. The Americans also sent drones for real-time intelligence gathering and donated a new cache of weapons, including machine guns and grenade launchers.

Despite the government's imminent military victory in Marawi, there is growing worry over potential terrorism contagion across Mindanao. The month-long siege has exposed the vulnerability of the Philippines security apparatus and created a new magnet for international jihadi groups.

More recently, up to 300 members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, another regional IS affiliate, launched a daring assault in North Cotabato, where they took several families hostage and attacked a primary school.

Aside from the Maute Group and the BIFF, three other local jihadi groups have pledged allegiance to the IS -- the well-known Abu Sayyaf and the Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao and Ansar Khalifa Philippines groups. Duterte has warned of the possibility of an all-out civil war.

"Here in Mindanao, there are more Christians and they have better guns. They are buying. The rich ones, they're stockpiling guns," Duterte exclaimed during an emotionally charged speech on June 20 in which he called for a revival of peace negotiations with moderate Islamist rebel groups. "We cannot allow [stockpiling] because if civilians also arm themselves, it will be a civil war," he said.

Shocks and realignments

Ironically, the Philippines' growing dependence on American security assistance follows high-profile visits by Duterte to Beijing and Moscow. Over the past year, Duterte has threatened to expel American soldiers stationed in Mindanao in pursuit of a foreign policy more aligned to China and Russia.

It was not all bluster. In exchange for improved diplomatic and economic relations with Beijing, Duterte canceled two sets of joint war games with the U.S. in the South China Sea -- the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Exercise (Carat) and the U.S.-Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX).

He also downgraded and relocated (away from disputed waters) an annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercise with the U.S., while blocking requests for American expansion of the Bautista Airbase in Palawan, which lies close to the disputed Spratly chain of islands.

All these concessions were intended to appease Chinese concerns over the expanding American military footprint in the Philippines and close to the South China Sea. However, the Philippines has now begun doubling down on its joint military cooperation with the U.S., with particular focus on the IS threat.

As the crisis in Mindanao deepens, the U.S. will likely seek more military bases and operational freedom on Philippine soil in exchange for high-grade intelligence, equipment and training. This would limit Duterte's ability to improve strategic relations with Beijing, which expressly seeks to extricate the Philippines from the American strategic orbit. To dispel any criticism of his apparent turnabout, Duterte has implied that it was the Philippine military that sought U.S. assistance in Marawi.

Duterte went so far as to lament caustically, "This is really their sentiment; our soldiers are really pro-American, that I cannot deny." Though this may underline an element of civil-military tensions in the administration, it also suggests that the tough-talking president has reluctantly accepted the value of the U.S. military presence in the Philippines.

Unlike Beijing and Moscow, Washington enjoys extensive access to Philippine bases and a long history of fruitful interoperability with the Philippine military. The Pentagon also boasts hard-earned counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism experience, thanks to decades of operations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Since 2002, a contingent of American special forces has been aiding the Philippine military against local jihadist groups.

The intimate and enduring Philippine-American military cooperation is governed by a range of security agreements, including a mutual defense treaty, a visiting forces agreement and an enhanced defense cooperation agreement, which were ratified by the Philippine Senate and are broadly supported by the broader population.

There are few signs that the Philippines will sign any comparable security agreements with China and Russia, which are deeply mistrusted by both the defense establishment and the Filipino people. Thus, Duterte cannot expect significant assistance from the two eastern powers, which have been the recipients of his strategic flirtation for the past year.

Weeks before the siege of Marawi, Duterte recognized the profound interdependence between the Philippine and American military establishments. In a speech commemorating the Philippine-U.S. alliance during World War II, he underscored their shared interest in continued cooperation against "the menace of terrorism, violent extremism and transnational crimes" to "defend the common good." The crisis in Mindanao is not only shaping Duterte's domestic political agenda, but will likely have a profound impact on his foreign and defense policy.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and columnist. He is the author of "Asia's New Battlefield: U.S., China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific," and the forthcoming book "Rise of Duterte."

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