ARLINGTON, Va. — As local forces have been squeezing ISIS toward defeat in the group’s Iraqi and Syrian capitals, the Pentagon announced a similar strategy for the U.S. to accelerate its campaign against the Islamic State.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters Friday that the flow of foreign fighters to the Islamic State that peaked at about 1,500 out-of-town volunteers per month in the caliphate’s heyday has gradually declined to fewer than 100 per month.
The Syrian Democratic Forces — an anti-ISIS, anti-Qaeda, anti-Assad coalition composed of more than 50,000 fighters, female and male commanders, Arabs, Assyrian Christians, Kurds, and other minority ethnic groups such as Circassians, Turkmen and Armenians — launched the Wrath of Euphrates operation at the beginning of November. Since then, the SDF has liberated more than 5,000 square miles of territory in the surgical advance to encircle and choke off Raqqa before moving in.
Last week, after fierce fighting with the SDF in which about 100 SDF fighters were killed, ISIS lost al-Tabqa, a city 35 miles west of ISIS’ capital Raqqa that includes a critical dam on the Euphrates.
Brett McGurk, the State Department’s special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition since 2015, said he recently met a leader from al-Tabqa, who “described to us the thousands of foreign fighters from as far away as Trinidad and Tobago who terrorize his community, enslaving women, brainwashing children and committing public executions.”
“He also said he believes that most of these foreign fighters are now dead. And he’s working to organize demining initiatives and ensure the streets are safe for people to return and enable the people of Tabqa — the local people of Tabqa to restore their community,” McGurk said, adding Raqqa “will be no different.”
More than 60 countries have been contributing to an INTERPOL database information about citizens known to have fought for ISIS. McGurk said the list is up to 14,000 names “and continues to grow.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. is going to focus on killing remaining foreign fighters in the Islamic State. “Because the foreign fighters are the strategic threat should they return home to Tunis, to Kuala Lumpur, to Paris, to Detroit, wherever. Those foreign fighters are a threat,” he said. “So by taking the time to deconflict, to surround and then attack, we carry out the annihilation campaign so we don’t simply transplant this problem from one location to another.”
“I’ll leave that to the generals who know how to do those kind of things. We don’t direct that from here,” he added. “They know our intent is the foreign fighters do not get out, I leave it to their skill, their cunning, to carry that out.”
The other policy change going into effect after defense officials presented recommendations to President Trump, Mattis said, is the president “delegated authority to the right level to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities.”
“I want to emphasize here there has been no change to our rules of engagement and there has been no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties, despite needing to go into populated areas to break ISIS hold on their self-described caliphate, despite ISIS purposely endangering innocent lives by refusing to allow civilians to evacuate,” he said. “And we continue all possible efforts to protect the innocent.”
Mattis said there was no delay in the Raqqa operation from the last administration to the current one, “other than the normal vagaries of the battlefield.”
“So far, [ISIS has] been defeated by the SDF in every single battle they’ve been in, but it has been a very tough fight, Tabqa being one more example,” he added. “So they were not able to move more quickly into the attack on Raqqa for purely tactical and battlefield reasons.”
Dunford said the Arab component of the SDF has been receiving U.S. equipment and weapons for many months, and soon aid will also go to the Kurdish forces.
SDF Commander Rojda Felat, who has repeatedly emphasized her goal of liberating all Yazidi sex slaves from ISIS, said last week that a significant number of Yazidis were rescued during the al-Tabqa phase of the Wrath of Euphrates operation.
“We also avenged the Yazidi women with the liberation of Tabqa and the Euphrates Dam,” she said. “…2017 will be the year of freedom for all women, including the Yazidi women who were kidnapped by Daesh.”
In Mosul, Iraqi security forces are clearing out the ISIS remnants, who have been putting up a tough fight, in west Mosul. ISIS was defeated in the east part of the city in January; Mattis said east Mosul is returning back to normal “with businesses reopening, cleanup underway, and kids back in school.” About 980 Iraqi soldiers have been killed and more than 6,000 wounded in the Mosul fight.
McGurk said that to date in Mosul “116,000 displaced civilians have returned, 250,000 boys and girls are back in school and we’re working to ensure that these trend lines continue.”
“This enemy remains adaptive, and the threat will not end with the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, but the end of the phony caliphate is coming into sight,” the envoy added.