Trump poli­cies cred­ited in progress against ISIS

Gains in Iraq and Syria have ac­cel­er­ated over 6 months, en­voy re­ports

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY KAREN DEYOUNG karen.deyoung@wash­post.com

Nearly a third of ter­ri­tory re­claimed from the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria since 2014 has been won in the past six months be­cause of new poli­cies adopted by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, a se­nior State Depart­ment of­fi­cial said Fri­day.

Brett McGurk, the State Depart­ment’s se­nior en­voy to the anti-Is­lamic State coali­tion, said that steps Pres­i­dent Trump has taken, in­clud­ing del­e­gat­ing de­ci­sion-mak­ing author­ity down from the White House to com­man­ders in the field, have “dra­mat­i­cally ac­cel­er­ated” gains against the mil­i­tants.

Com­bined Is­lamic State losses in both coun­tries since the group’s peak con­trol in early 2015 to­tal about 27,000 square miles of ter­ri­tory — 78 per­cent of mil­i­tant hold­ings in Iraq and 58 per­cent in Syria. About 8,000 square miles have been re­claimed un­der Trump, McGurk said in a brief­ing for re­porters.

McGurk said the Is­lamic State has been driven out of 45 per­cent of Raqqa, the group’s de facto Syr­ian cap­i­tal, since the launch of an of­fen­sive by U.S.-backed lo­cal forces two months ago. U.S. and coali­tion airstrikes have been in­stru­men­tal in the ground suc­cesses of the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, com­posed of Kur­dish and Arab fight­ers.

As­sess­ments by dif­fer­ent sources of ground won and lost by the mil­i­tants over the years have var­ied widely. Early this year, the de­fense con­sul­tant IHS Jane’s put the to­tal amount of ter­ri­tory con­trolled by the Is­lamic State in early 2015 at 35,000 square miles. Af­ter “un­prece­dented” losses for the mil­i­tants in 2016, it said in Jan­uary that the group oc­cu­pied a re­main­ing 23,000 square miles.

Al­though the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has yet to an­nounce its new strat­egy for the cam­paign against the Is­lamic State, McGurk cited “key changes” un­der Trump. In ad­di­tion to the del­e­ga­tion of de­ci­sion-mak­ing author­ity, which he said has al­lowed much greater re­spon­sive­ness to op­por­tu­ni­ties and chang­ing cir­cum­stances, McGurk cited a “cam­paign of an­ni­hi­la­tion” that has con­cen­trated on sur­round­ing ci­ties held by the mil­i­tants be­fore launch­ing of­fen­sives, to en­sure that no mil­i­tants will es­cape.

He said the 2,000 mil­i­tants re­main­ing in Raqqa “most likely will die in Raqqa.” The United Na­tions has es­ti­mated that 25,000 civil­ians also re­main in the city.

McGurk, who held the same job in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, also cited re­newed ad­min­is­tra­tion ef­forts to “in­crease bur­den shar­ing from the coali­tion” among what he said were 73 coun­tries. Most of them do not con­trib­ute to the warfight­ing but are ex­pected to help with sta­bi­liza­tion ef­forts in cleared ar­eas, in­clud­ing in the Iraqi city of Mo­sul, where U.S.-backed Iraqi se­cu­rity forces de­clared vic­tory over the Is­lamic State last month.

Some U.S. law­mak­ers have crit­i­cized what they have said is a lack of post-con­flict plans, while oth­ers have said — as Trump em­pha­sized dur­ing his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign — that the United States should not be in­volved in “na­tion-build­ing” over­seas.

McGurk de­scribed ex­ten­sive prepa­ra­tions, while em­pha­siz­ing that the United States is not in­ter­ested in re­con­struc­tion or na­tion­build­ing. In­stead, he said, the United States and part­ner na­tions are re­mov­ing mines, clear­ing rub­ble and mak­ing sure that ba­sic ser­vices — elec­tric­ity, sewer and wa­ter — are op­er­a­tional to al­low dis­placed res­i­dents to re­turn un­der the lead­er­ship of lo­cal

The United States and part­ner na­tions are re­mov­ing mines, clear­ing rub­ble and mak­ing sure that ba­sic ser­vices are op­er­a­tional.

coun­cils.

“Peo­ple say, ‘We want you to run the hos­pi­tal, the schools.’ We say, ‘No, we’re not very good at that.’ It’s not our re­spon­si­bil­ity,” McGurk said.

Asked whether the cur­rent de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of re­la­tions be­tween the United States and Rus­sia has af­fected their co­op­er­a­tion in Syria, he said that “so far, we’ve not seen an ef­fect on our en­gage­ment” there.

Last month, the two gov­ern­ments an­nounced a cease-fire agree­ment in south­west Syria, where U.S.-backed op­po­si­tion forces have bat­tled the Rus­sian­backed Syr­ian army of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad in an on­go­ing civil war.

Rus­sia, on As­sad’s be­half, has also agreed to “de­con­flic­tion” lines south of Raqqa and along the Euphrates River, where As­sad’s forces threat­ened to clash with U.S.-backed fight­ers com­bat­ing the Is­lamic State.

McGurk de­scribed daily “mil­i­tary to mil­i­tary” con­tacts be­tween Rus­sia and the United States, and less-fre­quent diplo­matic con­tacts.

Among the suc­cesses of the cur­rent pol­icy, he said, are the near-ces­sa­tion of civil­ian dis­place­ments in­side Syria and Iraq, and the re­turn of hun­dreds of thou­sands of dis­placed civil­ians to their homes in places pre­vi­ously oc­cu­pied by the Is­lamic State.

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