As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, the Islamic State is on the defensive in three countries and has been all but wiped out in another. Two and a half years after the extremists rolled across northern Iraq, Pentagon and diplomatic officials say a military victory, at least in their major strongholds, is within sight.
But tens of thousands of fighters remain, and the militants are showing signs of reinventing themselves as a dispersed terrorist movement — a threat that the incoming commander in chief says has been given too much time to grow.
“This should have been over with quickly,” Trump told CNN last year. “We’re not fighting strongly enough. We have to end it.”
While Trump has promised a more effective military campaign than that of his predecessor, many of the actions he might take to accelerate progress in Iraq and Syria come with toxic side effects. Those include the potential worsening of already frayed ties with NATO ally Turkey, an increase in U.S. or civilian casualties or reinvigorated militant recruitment.
“I think they’ll find there’s not a lot of low-hanging fruit, by which I mean obvious and low-cost things to do that will noticeably advance progress without negative or unintended consequences,” said Philip H. Gordon, who served as President Obama’s coordinator for Middle East issues when the Islamic State captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, an event that stunned U.S. officials and upended the president’s national security plans.
Obama administration officials credit their slow-and-steady strategy, which has centered on local combat power backed by U.S. air support, for the gradual recapture of much of the territory held by militants across Iraq and Syria over the past two years.
U.S. air power has also dealt a blow to a potent Islamic State branch in Afghanistan and, last month, finished off the militants’ sole stronghold in Libya.
While Trump has spoken only in general terms about his plans, Pentagon officials are already preparing recommendations in anticipation of the changes that Trump and his designated Pentagon chief, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, may want to make.
Speaking in his confirmation hearing, Mattis told lawmakers that the current plan for recapturing Raqqa, the Syrian city where the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has plotted external attacks, “needs to be reviewed and perhaps energized on a more aggressive timeline.” But he, like Trump, provided few details on what steps he might take.
U.S.-backed Syrian fighters are seeking to encircle Raqqa, supported by members of an American Special Operations force of about 500 troops. But U.S. reliance on the Syrian Democratic Force, a Kurdish-dominated group, in the lead-up to the Raqqa battle has already created deep strains with Turkey, which views the Kurdish fighters as a threat to its own security.
Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said the United States had already laid the ground for lasting conflict in Syria by empowering the YPG, the Kurdish group that is at odds not only with Turkey, but also with much of the country’s Arab majority.
The U.S. military has struggled since 2014 to build up a reliable, sufficiently large Arab force that can battle the Islamic State without exacerbating ethnic friction or fueling jihadist sympathies among Arabs opposed to Kurdish encroachment.
But increasing support to the Kurdish forces may be one of the only options Trump can exercise to accelerate the Raqqa offensive, short of sending in U.S. troops to liberate the city. Obama administration officials have long mulled providing weapons directly to the YPG, and are continuing to consider that step, but have held off for fear of triggering a crisis with Turkey.
Ford warned against such a move, saying that only by limiting support to Arab groups could the United States head off a more lasting, problematic conflict.
“In return for delaying six months, you’d have the chance of defusing the ethnic tensions that the Islamic State is sure to exploit in its soon-to-come insurgency,” said Ford, who is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
The president-elect, who said that “Russia can help us fight” the Islamic State, has also suggested he might broaden military cooperation with Moscow in Syria. Over the past year, Russia’s support for President Bashar al-Assad has altered the trajectory of the war while, Western nations allege, indiscriminate Russian airstrikes have killed thousands of Syrian civilians.
But moving to establish a robust partnership with Russia in Syria will probably face significant resistance at the Pentagon. Last year, defense officials sought to block a proposal to expand cooperation with Moscow over Syria air operations, a move that Pentagon officials argued would give the Kremlin access to sensitive U.S. intelligence and operational information.
One area where Trump’s national security team may decide to dial things up is with the size of the U.S. force deployed in support of local troops in Syria and Iraq.
In Iraq, additional troops would mean more hands-on advisory capability for Iraqi troops who have taken heavy losses as they push their way deeper into Mosul. Obama has gradually increased the number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq to more than 6,000 U.S. troops today, most of whom serve in an advisory role away from the front lines.
In Syria, additional troops there could mean more hands to recruit, train and advise Arab forces ahead of the Raqqa offensive.
While military leaders will probably support modest increases to those advisory forces, proposals for any larger increase, many thousands or tens of thousands as Trump has suggested he might order, could lack military support.
Shaped by their repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of the senior officers leading the Pentagon have questioned the need to risk American lives in conflicts that may fail to bring about lasting change in the countries where they occur. They also worry about the antibodies that large U.S. deployments will produce, among Sunni extremists or Shiite militias.
The president-elect, promising during the campaign to “bomb the s---” out of the Islamic State,” will probably intensify the American air effort. Although the United States has conducted more than 13,000 strikes in Iraq and Syria since 2014, critics have assailed the offensive for proceeding more slowly than previous air campaigns.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters recently that air operations were limited only by the pace of ground operations, as American and allied officials seek to help local forces advance into militant territory.
But military officials have said they have been already hitting all the available militant sites, not just in areas where allied ground forces are active and are constrained primarily by strict rules about avoiding civilian casualties.
“There’s not much left to strike in many cases,” a defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss current operations, said. “The bottleneck in the chain is having targets to hit.”
Despite the restrictions, U.S. Central Command has acknowledged the death of at least 188 people in U.S. strikes over Iraq and Syria, a figure that watchdog groups say is too low.
As a candidate, Trump espoused a cavalier attitude toward civilian deaths, saying he would “go after” family members of terrorists.
“I suspect . . . they will err on the side of possibly doing more, hitting more, and killing more, in order to go after ISIS,” Gordon said. “But there will be a cost.”
|© Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters Members of the Iraqi rapid response forces inspect a hospital damaged by clashes during a battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in the Wahda district of eastern Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 8.|
Obama’s Stark Options on ISIS: Arm Syrian Kurds or Let Trump Decide
With just days left as commander in chief, President Obama is confronting a wrenching decision on whether to move ahead with plans to arm Syrian Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State in order to launch the long-awaited assault to retake Raqqa, the terrorist group’s de facto capital.
The choice before Mr. Obama has been a stark one.
One option would be forging a closer military alliance with the Syrian Kurds to maintain the momentum in the fight against the Islamic State, even though Turkey has denounced the Kurdish fighters as terrorists.
The other would be for Mr. Obama to leave the decision to the incoming Trump administration. Such a move could delay the Raqqa operation for many months and would mean that Mr. Obama would leave office without a clear path forward for seizing the most important Islamic State stronghold and its base for plotting terrorist operations against the West.
Mr. Obama convened a meeting on Tuesday of the National Security Council, which discussed the question, one of the most momentous of the United States’ campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The White House declined to disclose what decision Mr. Obama had reached, but some administration officials believe it is unlikely that he will resolve the contentious issue in the waning moments of his presidency.
That such a pivotal decision has been left to Mr. Obama’s final weeks in office reflects the complexity of the debate about working with the Y.P.G., as the Syrian Kurdish militia is known, as well as the caution the president has displayed about sending American forces to fight in the region.
Mr. Obama has vowed to deal the Islamic State crippling blows in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa before he steps down on Friday. Allied airstrikes have increased in and around Raqqa in recent weeks as thousands of Syrian Kurdish and Syrian Arab fighters encircle the city, isolating it from the resupply of arms, fighters and fuel. Last month, Mr. Obama ordered 200 more American Special Operations forces to Syria to help these local fighters advancing on Raqqa, nearly doubling the number of American troops on the ground there.
But the American military believes that Raqqa cannot be seized unless the Y.P.G. is equipped for urban warfare. It is unclear what level of support President-elect Donald J. Trump will maintain for opposition groups in Syria combating the Islamic State, especially those groups that are bitterly opposed by the Turks.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter stressed Raqqa’s importance during a visit to Fort Campbell, Ky., in January 2016. “The ISIL parent tumor has two centers: Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq,” Mr. Carter said. “That’s why our campaign plan’s got big arrows pointing at both Mosul and Raqqa.”
American officials requested anonymity in order to describe the administration’s internal deliberations.
About 250,000 civilians are in Raqqa, and the Islamic State has fortified the city with trenches and mines and would defend it with suicide bombers. Because the Obama administration has ruled out the use of American combat troops, the United States has to rely on mobilizing local Arab forces to join battle-hardened Syrian Kurdish fighters.
“Raqqa is very difficult because unlike Iraq, we’re not working with a government,” Brett McGurk, the American envoy to the coalition that is fighting the Islamic State, said at a seminar last week. “We’re not working with an army. We have to work with local actors and organize them into a military force.”
American military officials say it is urgent to retake Raqqa because it is the capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate, a sanctuary for many of its top leaders and the hub for the extremist group’s plots against the West.
The Pentagon has been urging Mr. Obama to equip the Syrian Kurds, whom American commanders view as their most effective ground partner, with armored vehicles, rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, machine guns and other heavy equipment so that the American-supported Raqqa attack can begin in February.
The weaponry is needed, American military officials say, because the Iraqi push to capture Mosul has demonstrated that retaking a city occupied by Islamic State fighters, armed with suicide car bombs, is a difficult and bloody operation.
To buttress the Raqqa mission, the Pentagon is also urging that the White House authorize the use of United States Army Apache attack helicopters, which are equipped with Hellfire missiles. Apaches are supporting Iraqi troops in the fight for Mosul.
But arming the Kurds would also aggravate Mr. Obama’s tense relations with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has contended that the Y.P.G. is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey and the United States regard as a terrorist group.
The administration has been considering ways to ease Turkey’s anxiety, such as making arrangements to monitor the weapons given to the Syrian Kurds for the Raqqa offensive and thus prevent the weapons from being used elsewhere by the Kurds. In addition, Arab forces would occupy Raqqa after the city is taken, and Kurdish fighters would be withdrawn.
The United States also recently began carrying out airstrikes near Al Bab, a town in northern Syria that Turkey has been struggling to take from the Islamic State.
But American diplomats in Ankara, the Turkish capital, have warned that providing weapons to the Y.P.G. could provoke a Turkish backlash, officials say. Not only might it cause a deep breach in the United States’ relations with Mr. Erdogan, but the Turks might take actions against the Y.P.G. in northern Syria that could ultimately undermine the offensive to retake Raqqa.
Anticipating Mr. Obama’s decision, the Turks have been quietly increasing the pressure by delaying approval for American air missions that are flown from the Turkish air base at Incirlik and supplies going in and out of the base. Incirlik has been a major hub for carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey’s sensitivity on the issue was clear last week when the United States Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, posted a statement on Twitter by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the umbrella group that includes Syrian Kurds as well as Syrian Arab fighters, affirming that it is not part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party as “some regional governments” have claimed.
“Is this a joke or @CENTCOM has lost its senses,” Ibrahim Kalin, Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman, responded on Twitter.
Faced with the dilemma, some administration officials have suggested that American officials go back to the drawing board and try to cobble together a more diverse force to take Raqqa that would include Turkish Special Forces as well as Turkish-supported Syrian opposition groups. American commanders say about 20,000 troops will be needed to seize the city. By contrast, Turkey has been able to muster only about 2,000 Arab fighters in its battle to reclaim Al Bab, and that campaign has been bogged down by fierce resistance.
During a visit to Washington last month, Masrour Barzani, a top security official in the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, pressed American officials to work with Syrian Kurds who are separate from the Y.P.G. and are operating in Iraq, a group known as Pesh Merga of Rojava, or Roj Pesh. Aides to Mr. Barzani assert that the Roj Pesh are trained by the pesh merga, would be politically acceptable to the Turks and number about 3,300.
“Roj Pesh are the most efficient and politically diverse force,” Mr. Barzani said. “They can be the bridge to lessen regional tensions and a force multiplier in the campaign.”
But Pentagon officials say that the Y.P.G. has the most effective fighters, is already closing in on Raqqa, and that trying to assemble, train and equip an alternative force could be difficult and at best would take many months.
Pentagon readies aggressive ISIS proposals for Trump
The Defense Department is prepared to provide the new administration with military options to accelerate the war against ISIS in Syria that could send additional US troops into direct combat, CNN has learned.
These options would inherently increase the risk for US troops compared to what President Barack Obama was willing to accept.
The options will be ready for President-elect Donald Trump to consider as soon as he takes office and would be presented by James Mattis as the new defense secretary and Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They would have the final say on any details being briefed to the new president for his approval.
Options to deal with other hotspots, including Iran, are also being prepared, according to the defense official.
The options had already been worked up by the military during the Obama administration, but the authorities to carry them out were never approved by President Barack Obama.
New authorizations by Trump, needed to act on any of the proposals, would mean the US is expanding both its military strategy on fighting ISIS and signal the Trump White House is willing to take on increased military risk. None of the options being discussed contradict positions taken by Mattis publicly at this point.
Discussing ISIS on the campaign trail, Trump pledged to "bomb the s--t out of them." And in September, he said, "I am also going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction: They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for defeating ISIS."
US military planners and intelligence officials have now mapped virtually every airstrip and location in Syria that might have to be used by US troops, according to the official directly familiar with the details.
One option would put hundreds, if not thousands, of additional US troops into a combat role as part of the fight to take Raqqa.
Depending on progress in arming and training the full Syrian Democratic Forces -- a local fighting force -- in the coming months, the Pentagon could put several US brigade-sized combat teams on the ground, each team perhaps as many as 4,000 troops.
There is no consensus on the size of any US deployment being proposed, because a final decision on how many to send would depend on what is done with issues like arming the Kurds, who are also US partners in the fight.
The US troops would not enter Raqqa but would focus on territory outside the city, calling in airstrikes and controlling roads and towns around Raqqa.
In addition, heavily armed US Special Operations Forces could be put in a direct combat role for the first time, beyond their current mission to advise and assist local forces.
Another key option is for Trump to authorize the Pentagon for the first time to arm Kurdish fighters, who would be used to control villages and roads around Raqqa.
The move would be highly controversial because it would surely anger Turkey -- a NATO ally -- which does not want to see Kurdish elements gain further military strength, the official said.
But the Pentagon believes that the Kurds and Arabs who make up the Syrian Democratic Forces are the only local fighters able to take the ground around Raqqa, ISIS's self-declared capital and its most important stronghold in the country. Arab elements of the SDF are the ones who would eventually enter Raqqa, a predominantly Arab town. Currently, the SDF has about 50,000 fighters. The Kurdish YPG portion of the SDF is about 27,000, though it includes some Arabs. The Syrian Arab Coalition portion of the SDV has 23,000 forces, with some Kurds in the mix.
Trump will be briefed on efforts to capture or kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. There have been multiple intelligence tips in recent weeks about Baghdadi's whereabouts, the official said. But none of them have been "real-time" sightings, only tips on where he had recently been seen.
Military and intelligence officials are now working through that data to narrow down a possible location. A recent mission by the US Expeditionary Targeting Force outside Deir Ezzor was specifically aimed at capturing an ISIS operative who was believed to have intelligence on Baghdadi, but the person opened fire on the American troops, who then killed him.
Another set of options aims to counter Iran's growing influence in the region, something Mattis has already indicated is one of his top priorities. US military commanders would like more authority to stop Iranian weapons shipments into Yemen through the Bab al-Mandab waterway between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, the official said.
This authority could extend to trying to stop the buildup of shore installations along the Yemen coast using Iranian-supplied weapons to attack shipping and US military vessels transiting through the area.
In October, the US conducted missile strikes against coastal installations being run by Iranian-supported fighters to attack US Navy ships. Additional options are being updated to ensure the Strait of Hormuz cannot be shut down by Iran.
One area of increased US military activity in the coming days that Trump has not yet had a role in is Afghanistan. Within days, Afghan forces -- with support from US air and ground units -- will launch a series of operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan against the Taliban.
These are likely to be the first intensified military operations of the Trump administration but have been long planned by the Pentagon, the official said.