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Townsend: No major US force buildup needed to fight Islamic State in Iraq, Syria

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, right, meets with U.S. troops at tactical assembly area Hamam al-Alil, Iraq, on Feb. 22, 2017.

JASON HULL/U.S. ARMY

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 1, 2017

WASHINGTON — The American general leading the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria signaled Wednesday that the United States is unlikely to drastically alter its strategy to defeat the terrorist organization under President Donald Trump.

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition, said he sees no need for a significant influx of American ground troops in either country where U.S.-backed local forces – the Iraqi military and the Syrian Democratic Forces – have consistently pushed back the terrorist group during the last two years.

“I don’t foresee us bringing in large numbers of coalition troops, mainly because what we are doing is, in fact, working,” Townsend told reporters at the Pentagon during a briefing from his headquarters in Baghdad.

The general’s remarks came just two days after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with key White House national security officials to present the Pentagon’s “broad framework” plan to rapidly defeat the Islamic State group, which was ordered by Trump on Jan. 28.

Trump had called for the Pentagon to prepare a new plan to “obliterate” the terrorist group. As a candidate, Trump regularly criticized President Barack Obama’s handling of the war.

Townsend said he submitted several recommendations for adjustments that could accelerate the fight, but he declined to discuss them Wednesday.

But he emphasized that he did not suggest American troops take the lead in the fight on the ground.

“Our strategy is by, with and through our local partners,” Townsend said. “That is the still the right way to go. It’s working. Our local partners are fully invested. They’re leading the fight, and we’re just here helping them.”

The Islamic State group has continuously ceded ground under pressure from those American-backed fighters and coalition air power in Iraq and Syria. At one time, it was estimated the terrorist group boasted more than 31,000 fighters across those countries, but only has 12,000 to 15,000 now, Townsend said. Army Gen. Raymond Thomas, who leads U.S. Special Operations Command, said in February that the United States and its allies had killed 60,000 Islamic State militants during the last two years. That includes nearly all of the close advisers to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the organization’s senior leader, Townsend said.

The focus in Iraq and Syria remains on the terrorist strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, Townsend said. Defeating the Islamic State group in those cities remains “a ways off,” but both campaigns are on track to succeed, he said.

In Mosul, Iraqi forces began their final push last week into the city’s west, where it is advancing on the group’s last urban stronghold in Iraq from three directions. Iraqi troops have recaptured key infrastructure on the outskirts of the city, but they are expected to face heavy fighting once inside the populated neighborhoods at west Mosul’s center.

How the eventual attack on Raqqa will come together remains unclear. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are now converging on the city from the north and the west. They have liberated some 2,300 square miles around the city as they work to isolate it.

Townsend signaled Wednesday that the assault on Raqqa is likely to be led by Syrian Democratic Forces, but he said negotiations on the composition of that force are ongoing.

“Nothing is off the table,” Townsend said of Raqqa assault planning.

The key issue is NATO ally Turkey’s distrust of the Kurdish YPG forces, which comprise some 40 percent of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group for its perceived links to the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group considered terrorists by Turkey and the United States.

Turkey, which has occasionally fought the YPG within Syria, has deployed its military into northern Syria where it has cleared Islamic State group fighters out large pockets across the country’s north. Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted his troops play a key role in the assault on Raqqa and balked at any Kurdish involvement.

Townsend on Wednesday defended the YPG, saying he trusts its leadership and he has seen “zero evidence” its fighters aim to harm Turkey.

“They continually reassure us that they have no desire to attack Turkey -- that they are not a threat to Turkey,” the general said. “In fact, they desire to have a good working relationship with Turkey.”

What is more important will be how effective the Syrian Democratic Forces can be leading the assault on Raqqa. While smaller than Mosul, Raqqa presents similar challenges for its liberating force – a city full of civilians alongside thousands of trained fighters who have had more than two years to prepare defenses.

Mosul has been a “challenging” five-month battle for the Iraqi security forces, a modern army complete with tanks, fighter jets and heavy artillery. It could continue for several more months. The Syrian Democratic Forces lack heavy fire power, relying primarily on rifles and pick-up trucks.

“I think they’ll need additional combat power,” Townsend said. “But those decisions have yet to be made.”

Nonetheless, he said, the Syrian Democratic Forces is the best-prepared group to lead the operation to retake Raqqa.

“They’re Syrians. That’s who is going to Raqqa,” Townsend said. “Syrians are going to liberate Raqqa.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC
 

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