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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks with reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, May 19, 2017.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks with reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, May 19, 2017. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — When the U.S. ferried Syrian forces behind enemy lines in a daring March air assault to open a vital new battle front outside Raqqa, the operation did not require Pentagon approval, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday.

The helicopter insertion of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters, which would pave their way to seizing the strategic town of Tabqa after seven weeks of intense fighting, was approved by American commanders operating on the ground alongside the militia.

That operation illustrates one adjustment President Donald Trump approved to the ongoing anti-ISIS campaign as a result of the 30-day review that he demanded of the Pentagon shortly after taking office – delegating tactical decisions to ground commanders, Mattis told reporters Friday at the Pentagon.

“No longer will we have slowed decision cycles because Washington, D.C. has to authorize tactical movements on the ground,” Mattis said during a news conference alongside Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brett McGurk, Trump’s envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition. “I have absolute confidence, as does the president, our commander in chief, in the commanders on the ground … and they’ve carried it out aggressively.”

The change in the level of approval to authorize an operation against ISIS was designed to speed up the campaign, Mattis said.

Unlike Trump, who as a candidate often criticized then President Barack Obama’s handling of the war, Mattis has described the campaign as largely successful since it began in 2014. On Friday, he noted ISIS has failed to ever defeat any of the coalition-backed ground forces in battle. Overall, he said, ISIS has lost more than 55 percent of the territory in Iraq and Syria it once controlled – some 55,000 square kilometers of land since the coalition began fighting.

Mattis signaled he expected the terrorist group to be defeated quicker due to the adjustments approved by Trump. Nonetheless, he declined to provide a timeline on future operations, calling the militants “a long-term threat.”

Other changes that the president agreed to include arming the Syrian Kurdish portion of the Syrian Democratic Forces and another tactical tweak designed to ensure ISIS’ foreign fighters are killed on the battlefield to stop them from returning to their home nations.

That adjustment is to surround ISIS-controlled areas, trapping its fighters inside a ring of U.S.-backed ground forces where their options are limited to being killed or surrendering.

“Our intent is that the foreign fighters do not get out,” the defense secretary said.

It’s a shift in tactics from some of the coalition’s previous operations against ISIS’ urban strongholds. In battles in Fallujah, Iraq and Manbij, Syria, for example, a corridor was left open for some ISIS fighters to escape. Often, militants attempting to escape were then attacked by coali-tion warplanes. But others were able to move to other areas where the terrorist group operates, Mattis said.

The new tactic to entirely encircle ISIS fighters is now being used in Mosul and will be used in Raqqa, which is about three-quarters surrounded now, according to Pentagon officials. The Syrian Democratic Forces effectively used the tactic in Tabqa, about 25 miles west of Raqqa, where McGurk said nearly all of the foreign fighters who had retained a heavy presence in the town for three years were killed in the fighting. McGurk just returned from a trip to Tabqa where he met with local officials.

The operation to liberate Raqqa is looming – Pentagon officials and leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces have said publicly that they expect the siege to begin this summer. In Mosul, the U.S.-led coalition’s operations are focused on only a few remaining neighborhoods occupied by ISIS. Mattis said the ultimate goal of the coalition is to pummel ISIS to the point where local po-lice groups can handle any threat.

But that remains a long-term goal. The United States will continue its operations against ISIS even after Mosul and Raqqa fall, because the group remains in areas in western Iraq and along the Euphrates River valley into southern Syria.

“Tough fighting lies ahead,” Mattis said. “They are still dangerous. It is not going to be over soon, but we are going to continue to press.” Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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