President Donald Trump has ordered the U.S. to ramp up its campaign against Islamic State with an “annihilation” campaign to surround and kill terrorists rather than chasing them out of territory in Iraq and Syria, his defense chief said.
“We’ve accelerated the campaign,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters Friday at the Pentagon.
Since his run for the presidency, Trump has promised what he sometimes called his “secret plan” to defeat the terrorists, and in recent days he boasted that “my generals” would be spelling out how he’s stepped up the military campaign waged under former President Barack Obama.
After Mattis said the coalition has retaken more than 55 percent of Islamic State territory since 2014, he clarified that those gains were under way before Trump took office. “I was not saying it all started with us,” he added.
Still, the terror group isn’t broken yet. A campaign to seize Mosul in Iraq has been mired in street-by-street fighting and a long-promised push to take Raqqa in Syria has yet to begin.
Mattis said that under Trump, the Pentagon led a government-wide review of U.S.-led efforts fighting the Islamic State, which it then presented to the president.
“We submitted that report, and after his review, he then ordered an accelerated operation against” Islamic State, leading to two “significant changes,” Mattis said. “First, he delegated authority to the right level to aggressively — and in a timely manner — move against enemy vulnerabilities.” Battlefield commanders have been given more authority to make decisions.
Second, Trump directed a “tactical shift” in the battle, “from shoving ISIS out of seized locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS,” Mattis said using an acronym for the group. The intent is to prevent foreign fighters from escaping and returning to attack in their home countries.
“We now take the time to surround them — and why do we do it?” Mattis said. “We carry out the annihilation campaign” so that “the foreign fighters do not get out.”
For more than a week, Trump repeatedly plugged Mattis’s appearance, adding to expectations. Responding to a question during a news conference Thursday at the White House, Trump recited a list of what he considers successes of his administration so far.
“You’re going to see some incredible numbers with respect to the success of General Mattis and others with the ISIS situation,” Trump said. “The numbers are staggering, how successful” the military has been.
Mattis spoke to reporters at the Pentagon along with Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brett McGurk, presidential envoy for the U.S.-led coalition.
Dunford said the U.S. continues to work with Russia on “deconfliction” of their ground forces in Syria and “my impression is the Russians are as enthusiastic as we are.” Russia has proposed four “de-escalation zones” in Syria, a plan backed by Iran and Turkey. The Trump administration has neither openly supported the initiative nor ruled it out.
The U.S. role in the campaign against Islamic State will be a theme during Trump’s first overseas trip as the president talks with allies. He leaves Friday for Saudi Arabia and then heads to Israel and Rome before joining a NATO summit in Brussels next week. He’ll meet there again with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who visited the White House Tuesday.
Mattis, Dunford and McGurk all defended the U.S. decision to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria to help seize Raqqa, Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria, over strong objections from Erdogan, who contends the Kurds are allied with Kurdish groups in Turkey who are considered terrorists.
Mattis described Islamic State as a “long-term threat” and said the U.S. is “there to drive ISIS to its knees,” but added that only a political solution would resolve larger issues facing Syria. He wouldn’t comment on how long U.S. troops will be needed.