By Jim Garamone
The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria will continue to build on the progress made to date to accelerate the campaign to annihilate the vicious group wherever it tries to form, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said during a Pentagon briefing.
Mattis was accompanied by Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The terror group seemed to appear from nowhere two years ago and swept across Syria and Iraq, causing death and destruction wherever it touched. ISIS affiliates formed in Afghanistan and North Africa. And swarms of foreign fighters sought to reach Raqqa, Syria, the terror group’s self-styled capital.
The United States is leading the campaign to defeat the terror group, and crush the idea that ISIS is invincible.
Taking the Fight to ISIS
“Thanks to the leadership and authorities granted by President (Donald J.) Trump, thanks to the spirit of dozens of nations committed to this fight, thanks to the nations whose troops have gone toe-to-toe with this terrorist group … we have retaken over 55 percent of ISIS territory there in the core,” Mattis said. “Over four million people have been liberated. And not one inch of territory seized from ISIS has been … recaptured by them.”
Soon after taking office in January, Trump ordered a review of the effort against ISIS. Two changes came from that review: Delegation of authority to lower command levels, and the president directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds, so we can annihilate ISIS,” Mattis said.
“The intent,” he said, “is to prevent the return home of escaped foreign fighters.”
All this was done with no change to the rules of engagement or changes in protecting innocent civilians caught in the fighting.
It’s truly an international effort against the brutal group, Mattis said.
“Since this began in 2014, the coalition has strengthened and expanded,” the secretary said.
There are now 68 members in the counter-ISIS coalition, Mattis said. Those nations and affiliated organizations are sharing intelligence, providing troops and funds for combat and for the post-combat recovery. A total of 26 nations contribute more than 4,000 non-U.S. troops on the ground and in the air.
“Our recent coalition meetings in Brussels, Copenhagen and elsewhere reflect an energized campaign among contributing nations partnering with, of course, the Iraqi security forces in Iraq and the counter-ISIS forces in Syria,” Mattis said.
This effort has “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 is a physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria,” Dunford said.
Counter-ISIS Campaign in Iraq
In Iraq, U.S. and coalition forces provide equipment and intelligence to Iraqi security forces, the chairman said. Coalition pilots bomb ISIS targets and coalition advisors work with Iraqi leaders on the campaign. But it is the Iraqis paying most of the cost, the general said.
“In Mosul alone, they’ve suffered approximately 980 killed and over 6,000 wounded,” Dunford said of Iraqi losses in the fight against ISIS.
However, the Iraqi forces have gotten much better and far more competent, the chairman said.
“Just as an aside, in addition to the competence that they’ve demonstrated Mosul, and the sacrifice, the one thing I’ve seen over time, in the 15 months I’ve been back and forth visiting in Iraq, in this particular assignment, is the confidence of the Iraqi leadership,” Dunford said. “Compare the fall of 2015 to today, it’s very clear … who is in charge, and the level of confidence of the commanders in their ability to lead and in their soldiers’ ability to fight is remarkably different than it was a short time ago.”
In Syria, working with Turkey and partnered forces, the coalition has sealed the Turkish-Syrian border, stemming the flow of foreign fighters, weapons and money to ISIS, Dunford said. The general said at its peak there were about 1,500 foreign fighters crossing that border each month. That has dropped to less than 100 today, he said.
And Syrian Democratic Forces are isolating Raqqa — the center of ISIS.
“We’re also taking the fight to ISIS outside of Iraq and Syria, attacking their affiliates and any groups that claim allegiance,” Dunford said. “ISIS is a transregional threat, and we have a global approach.”
The chairman told reporters he is working to expand the already huge coalition against ISIS. “I’m working very closely with more than 60 of my counterparts to expand the coalition that we have in dealing with ISIS, and our priority clearly is to prevent attacks against the homeland,” he said. “Our strategic approach is to cut the connectivity between ISIS affiliates and associates, and that’s specifically the foreign fighter flow, their illicit resources and their message.”
The effort is more than a military effort — it is a whole of government approach, and Brett McGurk, the president’s special envoy, said this is “enabling an anaconda-like approach to suffocate ISIS of its territory, finances, propaganda and ability to move foreign fighters.”
This cooperation has enabled closer political coordination between local, regional and national governments to help return people to their homes after the battles are won through an innovative post-conflict approach based on empowering people at the local level to restore life to their communities, McGurk said. The effort is being led by Germany, Italy, France, the United Arab Emirates, Norway, the United Kingdom and other key contributors.
The initial focus on de-mining key facilities is a critical coalition focus. “Iraqis, trained by our coalition supporting demining, have now cleared 34 tons of explosive material,” he said.
In Iraq, 1.7 million Iraqis are now back in their homes, McGurk said.
“That record is historically unprecedented in a conflict of this nature, and we give tremendous credit to the government of Iraq and local leaders who have worked cooperatively to stabilize local areas and return local populations,” he said. “To date in Mosul, 116,000 displaced civilians have returned, 250,000 boys and girls are back in school and we’re working to ensure that these trend lines continue.”
McGurk said the coalition will attempt to use the same model in Raqqa with local leaders planning for “the day after ISIS.”
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