Anti-ISIS campaign 'dramatically accelerated' after Trump's strategy changes

A U.S. Army soldier watches a helicopter belonging to the international coalition forces land on a base outside Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. The U.S. has just as much to gain from the operation to recapture Mosul as the Iraqis themselves. Since 2014, the U.S. has provided airstrikes and advise-and-assist operations to put the beleaguered Iraqi military back on its feet after the Islamic State group gutted it of weapons, supplies and soldiers during its blitzkrieg across Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo)

On Friday, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-Islamic State (ISIS) coalition, Brett McGurk attributed a series of significant gains against the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria to policy and strategy changes made in the last six months under President Donald Trump.

Since ISIS began seizing territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the United States and its coalition partners have effectively retaken and held 70,000 square kilometers of territory from the group and liberated nearly five million people who were formerly living under ISIS control. At least 30 percent of the territorial gains have occurred in the last six months under the Trump administration.

"Over the last six months, we have dramatically accelerated this campaign," McGurk reported at a State Department briefing. "This is due to some key changes that were put in place very early on ... from President Trump."

Among the changes that have made the greatest difference in turning the tide against ISIS have been military, according to senior State Department and Pentagon officials. Starting in January, Trump decided he would reverse Obama-era restraints on the military and delegate more tactical authority to commanders in the field.

Trump's delegation of authority back to the military "is how you exploit or pick up the tempo of operation," Defense Secretary James Mattis explained in a July press briefing.

"He did that in order to do what he said he wanted done, an accelerated campaign," Mattis said.

The campaign against ISIS in Syria also picked up speed in May after President Trump authorized the U.S. military to arm and train Syrian Kurdish forces, who now make up approximately half of the U.S.-backed forces fighting ISIS in Syria. The Obama administration avoided making the decision and risk upsetting U.S. ally Turkey, who has deemed the Kurds a terrorist organization.

The other fundamental change in the military campaign against ISIS has been the focus on "a campaign of annihilation." Rather than allowing surrendered fighters to retreat safely back into ISIS-controlled territory, as occurred last summer when 200 ISIS fighters were allowed to retreat from the battle of Manbij, the U.S. and allied forces surround the enemy to ensure no fighters escape.

"Every foreign fighter that made its way into Syria and Iraq, we want to make sure that they can never make their way out of Syria and Iraq," McGurk explained.

Trump has struck a confident tone in response to the military victories on the ground. The president has said that "ISIS is falling fast," and touted the successes against the terrorist group over social media.

The military campaign is only one piece of a very complex puzzle, experts advised. As important as the military component is to defeating the Islamic State, there are longer-term challenges that the Trump administration will soon face.

"We learned first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq that an initial overwhelming military victory does not necessarily bring long-term peace, unless it's consolidated," explained Ambassador James Dobbins, a retired U.S. diplomat and Rand Corporation chair in diplomacy and security.

"The question is whether we'll commit ourselves in the long-term to stabilizing these countries and ensuring that movements like the Islamic State don't reemerge," he added.

That stability will depend on how effectively the United States can mobilize economic and diplomatic resources both independently and as a leader in the anti-ISIS coalition and the United Nations.

The Trump administration's dedication to America's diplomatic mission was cast in doubt after the administration's 2018 budget called for cutting the State Department's budget by 30 percent, while substantially reducing U.S. contributions to the U.N.

The U.N. has also faced shortfalls in humanitarian aid. Despite international donors contributing more than $6 billion to Syrian relief efforts in April, the efforts still fell short of the $8 billion required to assist more than 12 million people in need.

The administration has emphasized that when it comes to long-term reconstruction efforts in both Iraq and Syria, the United States will be relying on stepped-up contributions from all 74 members of the anti-ISIS coalition.

Katherine Zimmerman, research manager with the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project, advised that while taking back territory from ISIS is incredibly important, the fact that the administration is prioritizing the "annihilation" of ISIS fighters could be a mistake.

"The fact that the military strategy is so focused on ... defeating the group itself and less focused on the conditions that it's leaving in its wake, we are actually setting ourselves up for the return of either ISIS or even al-Qaeda," Zimmerman stated.

In that regard, another key difference in the Trump administration's approach to fighting terrorism is defeating the ideology, as White House aide Sebastian Gorka told Sincalir Broadcast Group in a recent interview.

"Killing and arresting terrorists is only part of the solution," Gorka explained. "Ultimate victory occurs when people stop wanting to become terrorists."

Gorka advised caution in looking at the terrorist group's terrritorial losses in Iraq and Syria, saying that the more successful the U.S. and allies are in ISIS strongholds "the greater the likelihood that some of these individuals will go north and west into Europe." ISIS has also expanded its reach as far as southeast and central Asia.

He continued that for the Trump administration, the "long-term play" is to work with Muslim allies on a "counter-ideological push that delegitimizes" the terrorist narrative. "When that happens, we've won."

In his first months in office, Trump visited Saudi Arabia to open a counter-terrorism messaging center in Riyadh. The administration also successfully brought additional members into the anti-ISIS coalition, including NATO, the Arab League and Interpol, the E.U.'s intergovernmental policing authority.

Zimmerman noted that the Trump administration is taking the issue of combating the terrorist ideology "much more seriously" than the previous administration, but continues to miss an important point.

"Sunni grievances persist. Populations continue to face direct threats, and al-Qaeda and ISIS are the groups that are standing there when they are looking for support," she said. "They are literally the men with guns, the men providing food and water."

The State Department has reported it is continuing to work with the international community to prevent those conditions from reemerging in both Iraq and Syria.

As military operations continue to clear the remaining sections of Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the ISIS caliphate, the United States has been working alongside the United Nations, the World Food Program and a number of NGOs to get ready for the day after ISIS is defeated.

That has meant preparing shelter, water, medical treatment facilities and food for the 50,000 civilians the UN estimates are trapped in Raqqa.

The Pentagon explained that by taking back territory from ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it will deprive the group of the ability to conduct the "large-scale attacks" and conventional fighting that tore through the region in 2014. The expectation, according to Pentagon spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon, is an for ISIS to "devolve back into an insurgent-type organization" with capabilities.

Those ISIS fighters who are not killed still pose a significant threat, particularly because of the group's ability to conduct external operations against western targets with limited contact and a minimal number of people, Zimmer warned. "It's unlikely that that will be completely destroyed even after the fall of Raqqa and Mosul."

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