In tactical shift, US announces intent to ‘annihilate’ ISIS
London - The Trump administration has announced its intention to “annihilate” the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) in what is described as a tactical shift in the campaign to oust the jihadists from their shrinking territory in Iraq and Syria.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis revealed the new policy in mid- May and spelled it out again ten days later after the Pentagon admitted that more than 100 civilians had died in a US air strike on Mosul in March.
Mattis said such casualties were “a fact of life” in such conflicts, which will be no consolation to the thousands trapped in the Iraqi city between its ISIS occupiers and advancing Iraqi government forces.
In his formal presentation of the new strategy on May 19, Mattis said US President Donald Trump had ordered an accelerated campaign against ISIS that would include a shift in existing tactics.
He inevitably raised the question of whether the White House was planning to escalate US involvement in the conflict and what the consequences of such action might be.
First, Mattis said, the military hierarchy would be given a freer hand in conducting the campaign. That implied a relaxation of the tight executive control of anti-ISIS operations exercised by the Obama White House.
Second, he revealed, the United States would seek to annihilate ISIS by surrounding and killing its forces rather than simply chasing them out of territory they control.
The expressed rationale for wiping out the jihadists was to prevent the foreign fighters among them escaping the battlefield and returning to their home countries to carry out attacks.
The US defence secretary elaborated on the strategy at the end of May when he told CBS News’ programme “Face the Nation”: “Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa.
“We’re not going to allow them to do so,” Mattis said. “We’re going to stop them there and take apart the caliphate.”
Those comments came days after a suicide bomber killed 22 people at a concert hall in Manchester, England. The bomber was identified as a man born in Britain to Libyan parents and whom British authorities said may have been in Syria at some stage. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.
None of the United States’ allies in the Middle East and beyond would disagree with the ultimate objective of removing the ISIS scourge but some are resistant to being bulldozed into backing the accelerated and more aggressive strategy emanating from the Trump administration.
Ahead of a NATO summit attended by Trump in late May, several European countries were reported to be sceptical about bowing to the US president’s demands that the 28-member alliance should formally enter the international coalition against ISIS.
Member countries are individually part of the coalition but France and Germany were among those said to be reluctant to see operations in Syria and Iraq turning into a NATO war.
The Brussels summit agreed that NATO would become a full member of the international coalition, although that announcement was somewhat eclipsed by Trump’s harangue of fellow members for not spending enough on defence.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stressed that joining the coalition did not mean that the alliance would engage in combat against ISIS.
He emphasised NATO support in terms of aerial surveillance, information sharing, intelligence and training of Iraqi troops, thereby assuaging concerns of alliance members about being dragged deeper into the conflict by a newly aggressive White House.
Although the United States’ allies have had to confront the challenges of dealing with a new president who has proved capricious on many foreign policy issues, the new Washington strategy does not automatically signal a major escalation in the scale of the anti-ISIS campaign or the resources dedicated to it.
It was unveiled after the US Congress said it would hold up billions of dollars of supplementary military spending unless the administration provided it with a formal strategy to defeat ISIS.
Shortly before the strategy was delivered, Mattis said the administration planned to focus on defeating ISIS without getting more deeply involved in Syria’s civil war.
Despite an increase in the small number of US and allied soldiers on the ground, the war in both Iraq and Syria is likely to continue to be fought overwhelmingly by local forces.
And, despite the more aggressive rhetoric coming out of the White House and the Pentagon, even “Mad Dog” Mattis — he earned the nickname as a US Marine Corps general — has been cautious about predicting that the new strategy will bring a speedy end to ISIS.
He said on “Face the Nation” it would be “a long fight” and would involve not only beating the group on the ground in Iraq and Syria but also defeating what he called the “virtual caliphate” existing on the internet.