As the battle between Philippine troops and Islamic State-linked militants enters its third month in the besieged city of Marawi, it has become clear to many that Manila’s armed forces need a strategic course shift from jungle to urban warfare tactics to counter the new rising threat of global terrorism in its midst.
The Philippine military has missed at least two self-imposed deadlines to end the siege and openly admitted weakness in its ability to subdue militants well-trained in using urban mazes and civilian hostages to strategic effect in sustaining a conflict that ultimately aims to establish an IS caliphate in Southeast Asia.
IS-linked militants with the local Maute and Abu Sayyaf Groups, estimated at around 700 foot soldiers including from the Middle East and neighboring countries, have also deployed drones, mortars, land mines and sophisticated ambush and sniper tactics to put Philippine armed forces on a back foot.
The military has come under criticism for imprecise aerial bombings that have killed civilians and added to the country’s only Muslim majority city’s devastation. An estimated 700 militants, 122 security forces and 45 civilians have been killed in the heaviest urban warfare the country has seen since World War II.
Some analysts believe the tech-savvy militants are leveraging the death, devastation and displacement which has forced over 400,000 to evacuate their homes to tar state forces and recruit more militants to its ideological cause, including in neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia.
Despite the imposition of island-wide martial law, which gives the military free hand in house-to-house searches and enforcement of a night-time curfew, many fear the conflict could re-erupt in another urban area in Mindanao after Marawi is subdued.
It’s all leading to calls for a massive strategic overhaul and more long-term joint counterterrorism cooperation with foreign partners, including China and the United States. Philippine President Rodrigo has indicated he will pour significant new resources into the fight, including plans to recruit 20,000 new troops dedicated solely to counterterrorism.
China and the US are already competing for influence over those long overdue military modernization plans. When reports emerged that Filipino soldiers had been killed by skilled militant snipers, China responded with the provision of 3,000 modern sniper, automatic and high-precision rifles and six million pieces of ammunition.
Beijing has also offered to help finance rehabilitation and reconstruction in Marawi when the devastating battle is finally won. Philippine officials have estimated reconstruction will cost as much as 20 billion pesos (US$400 million), of which the government hopes the private sector will help with housing rehabilitation.
Analysts say Beijing has seized on the conflict to gain a new entry point in boosting military-to-military linkages in new strategic areas. They note that counterterrorism cooperation will also divert attention from the two sides’ ongoing disputes over territories in the South China Sea.
China’s Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua said that after the Marawi conflict is won that China would be interested in holding joint military counterterrorism exercises. Zhao referred to Islamic extremism as a “common enemy”, an apparent reference to Beijing’s struggle with ethnic Uighur militants in its northwestern Xinjiang region that has recently taken on an international dimension.
There have been no reports that ethnic Uiguhrs have been involved in the Marawi fighting.
China’s offer, apart from assisting the war against regional terrorism, will also lend support to Duterte’s declared war on poverty in his home island of Mindanao, the country’s most underdeveloped and conflict-ridden region. Beijing has already offered to help build a modern railway on the island centered in his hometown of Davao.
The US has also sensed a strategic opportunity in the battle for Marawi to reset traditionally strong military ties that have wilted under Duterte. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged during his recent visit to Manila that the US has provided Cessna aircraft and drones to Philippine armed forces to battle the militants.
The new Cessna 208B surveillance planes were valued at US$33 million and are the first of their kind in the Philippine air force’s fleet. During the ceremonial hand over, US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim said the planes symbolized the enduring strength of the sides’ treaty alliance.
“The US commitment to the Philippines doesn’t stop with these planes,” Kim said, adding: “but we will work with the Philippine Air Force to providing training advice and maintenance so that the Philippine military will get the best possible performance.”
Prior to that delivery, US Special Forces were photographed flying drones in Marawi’s battle zone to assist Philippine foot soldiers. The US Embassy in Manila felt compelled to clarify that their presence in Marawi was limited to providing military advice, technical assistance and intelligence-sharing.
While China and the US compete to play a bigger role in countering terrorism in the Philippines, the US has a clear first-mover and superior expertise advantage. Manila and Washington launched counterterrorism cooperation and operations soon after the 9/11 attacks on the US amid reports some of the plotters had spent time in the Philippines.
The US has played a mostly behind-the-scenes role in combating terror groups in the Philippines and has offered high dollar bounties for the capture or killing of certain terror suspects, including for Abu Sayyaf Group leaders. The US and Philippines hold regular joint military exercises in the name of fighting terrorism, though to date those exercises have had limited preventative success.
China’s future role should not be underestimated under Duterte, who has publicly praised China’s capabilities in suppressing terrorism. China is known to have documented and developed “best practices” in suppressing militants in its northwestern Xinjiang region it apparently believes are transferrable to other regional theaters.
Duterte has sought stronger bilateral ties with China while rolling back US strategic relations, including a call last to downgrade annual war games to scaled down humanitarian exercises. He has since come under criticism for losing focus on a terrorism threat that was quietly mounting while he jousted diplomatically with the US over rights issues.
While China is a comparative novice in fighting terrorism abroad, unlike the Syria and Iraq battle-hardened US, Duterte appears keen to give Beijing the opportunity to advise counterterrorism tactics in Marawi. Duterte’s challenge ahead will be how to best balance both superpowers’ offers of assistance amid their competing ideologies and visions for the region.