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Defense Secretary James Mattis on Friday provided an update on the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including on two significant changes President Trump has authorized that will accelerate progress and defeat the terrorist group.
First, James Mattis said, Trump has authorized him to delegate more decision-making authority down to U.S. commanders who are on the ground with Iraqi and Syrian partners fighting ISIS, to speed up the program.
“No longer will we have slowed decision cycles because Washington D.C. has to authorize tactical movements on the ground. I have absolute confidence as does the president, our commander in chief, in the commanders on the ground,” Mattis said.
Secondly, he said that Trump has also approved a tactical shift from pushing ISIS fighters out from a stronghold to enabling local partners to completely encircle them and move in, referring to it as an “annihilation” campaign.
“The intent is to prevent the return home of escaped foreign fighters,” he said.
Mattis emphasized that there has been no change to the rules of engagement concerning the use of force or in avoiding civilian casualties. However, he acknowledged the tactical shift also meant needing to go into populated areas to fight ISIS and ISIS refusing to let civilians leave and perhaps using them as human shields.
But he also said the strategy would prevent ISIS foreign fighters from returning home and carrying out attacks on the U.S. and its allies.
“The foreign fighters are the strategic threat should they return home to Tunis, to Kuala Lumpur, to Paris, to Detroit, wherever. Those foreign fighters are a threat. So by taking the time to deconflict, to surround and then attack, we carry out the annihilation campaign so we don’t simply transplant this problem from one location to another.”
Mattis, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford and the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk also briefed the press on progress in the campaign made so far.
East Mosul — which was held by ISIS until last year — is returning to normal, with businesses reopening and kids back in school, Mattis said.
West Mosul is surrounded, as is the city of Tal Afar, he said, naming Ninewa, Hawija, and the western Euphrates River Valley as next targets in Iraq.
In Syria, he said, a local force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces — consisting of Syrian Kurds and an Arab contingent — recently seized Manbij, have retaken the strategic city of Tabqa, and are “currently attacking with great success” to isolate ISIS’s stronghold in Raqqa.
“We have retaken over 55 percent of ISIS territory there in the core. Over four million people have been liberated. And not one inch of territory seized from ISIS has been recaptured [by] them,” Mattis said.
“Our partnered approach has brought significant progress,” Dunford said.
“We reduced ISIS-held territory, limited their freedom of movement, destroyed a great deal of their leadership, reduced the flow of foreign fighters into and from the region, diminished their financial resources and, I think, perhaps most importantly, we’ve undermined the credibility of their narrative that there’s a physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria.”
Dunford estimated that, at its peak, about 1,500 foreign fighters were flowing into Iraq and Syria every month. Now, that number is less than 100 per month.
Dunford noted other smaller changes in the strategy, including Trump’s recent approval to arm Syrian Kurdish fighters in addition to the Arab contingent, as well as allowing advisers to accompany Iraqi forces closer to the fight.
McGurk added that ISIS’s propaganda output is also down significantly.
Dunford said he has also made progress in working with Russia to deconflict their military operations in Syria. Russian forces entered Syria in 2015 to help shore up the Syrian regime against opposition forces, a year after the U.S. began its anti-ISIS campaign there.
“I’m confident that we’ve made progress in that regard over the last couple months. Spoke to my … Russian counterpart as recently as last night. We speak routinely when we need to, to work through the deconfliction.”
He also announced that there is a new channel within the Joint Chiefs at the three-star general level between the two nations, in addition to a hotline between their air operations centers.
Dunford did not say when the new channel opened, but the enhanced cooperation marked a stark change in tone on Russia from just last month when Russia threatened to cut the hotline after Trump ordered airstrikes against the Syrian regime, its ally, for a chemical weapons attack it carried out.
The general said the U.S. is looking for the Russians to work with the Syrian regime to further deconflict operations.
“We have a proposal that we’re working on with the Russians right now. I won’t share the details. But my sense is that the Russians are as enthusiastic as we are to deconflict operations and ensure that we can continue to take the campaign to ISIS and ensure the safety of our personnel,” he said.
Mattis acknowledged that, although U.S. forces don’t “close in” on the enemy with local forces, having them closer to the battlefield meant greater risk.
But, he said, “The lads know they’re not part of a life insurance corporation; they’re trained for this, and they go out and they do their job to the best they can.”
“I’m confident that our military forces are carrying out the intent, which is that they do not put themselves forward to do the job the partnered forces actually want to do, but they need our support in doing.”
All three officials cautioned that the fight was far from over and that the U.S. would continue to look for additional ways to accelerate the fight.
“This enemy remains adaptive, and the threat will not end with the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, but the end of the phony caliphate is coming into sight. And without telegraphing anything that is to come, the pressure’s only started,” McGurk said.