War of an­ni­hi­la­tion: No wait­ing for Wash­ing­ton Troops quickly rid Syr­ian city of Is­lamic State

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

Pres­i­dent Trump’s war of an­ni­hi­la­tion against the Is­lamic State played out this spring in the Syr­ian city of Tabqa, a crit­i­cal prize in the on­go­ing fi­nal march to Raqqa.

De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis an­nounced the an­ni­hi­la­tion strat­egy in midMay, but be­fore that com­man­ders in Iraq and Syria got the go-ahead to fight ISIS, as the Pen­tagon calls the ter­ror­ist army, Trump-style.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Obama, U.S. Army Spe­cial Forces as­signed to Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces needed spe­cial ap­proval from Wash­ing­ton for vir­tu­ally all tac­ti­cal moves amid the po­lit­i­cally com­plex the­ater of Amer­i­cans, Arabs, Kurds, Turks and Syr­i­ans.

In Tabqa, where the city, its dam and its air­field were the ob­jec­tives, the Green Berets de­cided they needed an air­lift. Sud­denly mi­nus red tape, Arabs, Kurds and Amer­i­cans were he­li­copter­ing into bat­tle, and they quickly seized ter­ri­tory.

Un­der Mr. Obama, Is­lamic State ter­ror­ists could at times re­treat from towns, im­mune from airstrikes if they used civil­ians as cover. The bat­tle for Man­bij in Au­gust be­came in­fa­mous when the SDF let 200 Is­lamic State fight­ers turn in their weapons and es­cape be­cause they had threat­ened to kill town res­i­dents if they were not al­lowed to run away.

The new Trump strat­egy calls for sur­round­ing towns, as op­posed to push­ing from one end or one side to an­other, in or­der to iso­late Is­lamic State fight­ers and an­ni­hi­late them.

Brett H. McGurk, spe­cial U.S. en­voy to the coali­tion against the Is­lamic State who per­formed the same role for Mr. Obama, talked of “the del­e­ga­tions of au­thor­ity which has made a dif­fer­ence in terms of the speed of ex­e­cu­tion. I think Tabqa was an ex­am­ple of that.”

“Our mil­i­tary peo­ple on the ground saw an op­por­tu­nity to kind of sur­prise ISIS with a he­li­copter, mov­ing them by he­li­copter, sur­prise them from be­hind and seize the air­port, the dam and the town,” Mr. McGurk later told re­porters at the Pen­tagon.

Af­ter Tabqa’s lib­er­a­tion, Mr. McGurk spoke to the city’s mayor, who gave a brief de­scrip­tion of the war of an­ni­hi­la­tion.

“He also said he be­lieves that most of these for­eign fight­ers are now dead,” the diplo­mat said.

Mr. Mat­tis said: “No longer will we have slowed de­ci­sion cy­cles be­cause Wash­ing­ton, D.C., has to au­tho­rize tac­ti­cal move­ments. I’ll leave that to the gen­er­als who know how to do those kind of things. We don’t di­rect that from here. They know our in­tent is the for­eign fight­ers do not get out. I leave it to their skill, their cun­ning, to carry that out.”

Six months into the Trump pres­i­dency, the lib­eral main­stream me­dia have pro­duced as­sess­ments of the new pres­i­dent’s war against the Is­lamic State and pro­nounced it the same as Mr. Obama’s.

But Mr. Trump’s de­fend­ers point to dis­tinct dif­fer­ences, such as the bat­tle for Tabqa and the sur­round­ing of West Mo­sul, as well as new lee­way given Amer­i­can war­riors on the ground.

‘Bomb the hell out of ISIS’

In De­cem­ber, The Wash­ing­ton Times re­ported on the frus­tra­tion of Green Berets in Syria as they tried to or­ga­nize, train and equip Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces units on a march to­ward the Is­lamic State’s pro­claimed cap­i­tal of Raqqa. The sol­diers com­plained of mi­cro­man­age­ment by su­pe­ri­ors watch­ing their ev­ery move via sur­veil­lance air­craft.

“Based on the very high-level ap­proval re­quired to con­duct op­er­a­tions, it can be ex­tremely frus­trat­ing for the teams,” an of­fi­cer told The Times. “We just don’t have the lat­i­tude we had dur­ing our years in Iraq, and that can be frus­trat­ing for the teams. The progress over the last year has been slow. Each team may not see it dur­ing their ro­ta­tion, but cu­mu­la­tively we’ve made sig­nif­i­cant progress against Daesh while main­tain­ing re­la­tion­ships with Turkey and Jor­dan. In my many years in Spe­cial Forces, I’ve never been in­volved with a more com­plex mis­sion.”

Daesh is a dis­puted acro­nym based on the ter­ror­ist group’s full Ara­bic name.

That same of­fi­cer told The Times last week: “The com­man­ders on the ground have a great deal of lat­i­tude. Tabqa is a great ex­am­ple: a com­plex op­er­a­tion de­vel­oped and ex­e­cuted at the low­est level and en­abled from higher.”

Green Berets were able to call in more air as­sets and change tac­tics on the run. U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand also in­tro­duced Marine Corps ar­tillery units that pro­vided pre­cise fire as the SDF moved for­ward.

“The re­duc­tion in mi­cro­man­age­ment of tac­ti­cal level ac­tions by the White House staff dur­ing the Obama era, to the del­e­ga­tion of au­thor­ity to con­duct mil­i­tary ac­tions to mil­i­tary pro­fes­sion­als by Pres­i­dent Trump is a lauda­tory step in as­sur­ing our na­tional se­cu­rity strat­egy is op­ti­mally ex­e­cuted,” said re­tired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Dep­tula.

Early in his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Mr. Trump made a one-minute ra­dio ad. He spelled out his planned strat­egy as “quickly and de­ci­sively bomb the hell out of ISIS.”

There has in­deed been an uptick in airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Out­side that the­ater, U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand car­ried out days of airstrikes against the Is­lamic State in Libya and Ye­men. It also dropped the big­gest con­ven­tional U.S. bomb on a con­cen­tra­tion of Is­lamic State fight­ers in Afghanistan.

Com­bined Joint Task Force Op­er­a­tion In­her­ent Re­solve, the Iraq-Syria com­mand, is­sues daily airstrike numbers. It is dif­fi­cult to com­pare 2016 strikes to this year’s be­cause bat­tle­field con­di­tions and ob­jec­tives change.

In Fe­bru­ary, Mr. Trump’s first full month in of­fice, the coali­tion con­ducted 831 airstrikes, com­pared with 684 in Fe­bru­ary 2016.

Mr. Dep­tula, a ca­reer fighter pi­lot, called the Obama bomb­ing cam­paign too timid.

Of Mr. Trump’s strat­egy, he said: “There has been an in­crease in the av­er­age num­ber of airstrikes per day since the in­au­gu­ra­tion. That is most likely at­trib­ut­able to the lat­ter stages of the cam­paign to dis­lodge the Is­lamic State from Mo­sul and Raqqa.”

What Is­lamic State hawks are not see­ing from the Trump team are grander strat­egy changes such as safe zones for in­no­cents, no-fly zones to pro­tect them and a coali­tion oc­cu­pa­tion force to keep Syr­ian regime units and Ira­nian sur­ro­gates away from lib­er­ated eastern towns.

Re­tired Army Gen. Jack Keane is one of Wash­ing­ton’s most as­tute an­a­lysts on the long fight against ji­hadis.

“There are some dif­fer­ences but cer­tainly no change in strat­egy, just re­sources,” Mr. Keane told The Times. “In Syria, which is the ISIS sanc­tu­ary, some ad­di­tional [spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces] are in place to as­sist with the U.S.-led coali­tion of Syr­ian Kurds/ Arabs plus ad­di­tional ar­tillery, Apache at­tack he­li­copters along with a gen­eral loos­en­ing up of the rules of en­gage­ment.”

He said he be­lieves Mr. Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity team has re­jected an even more ag­gres­sive strat­egy to cre­ate a ground force of U.S. and Sunni Arab troops to pre­vent Iran and its mili­tias from dom­i­nat­ing eastern Syria af­ter the elim­i­na­tion of the Is­lamic State.

War of an­ni­hi­la­tion

J.D. Gor­don, a for­mer Pen­tagon spokesman and na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser to the Trump pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, views the changes as more sig­nif­i­cant. For the first time, he said, a U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion is call­ing out Qatar, via Per­sian Gulf al­lies, for its ties to Sunni ter­ror­ism.

“Pres­i­dent Trump has taken the war against ISIS to the next level,” Mr. Gor­don said. “First, he’s worked with al­lied forces to sur­round and phys­i­cally de­stroy ISIS fight­ers in both Iraq and Syria, and sec­ond, in­creased pres­sure on their fi­nances to in­clude shin­ing a spot­light on Qatar’s sup­port to ter­ror groups. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, he’s en­acted ex­treme vet­ting for nu­mer­ous coun­tries where it’s near im­pos­si­ble to screen out ISIS op­er­a­tives and sym­pa­thiz­ers.”

Re­tired Army Lt. Gen. James Du­bik com­manded troops in Iraq and now an­a­lyzes coun­tert­er­ror­ism as a scholar at the In­sti­tute for the Study of War in Wash­ing­ton.

Mr. Du­bik said the jury is still out on Mr. Mat­tis’ war of an­ni­hi­la­tion, which the for­mer Army soldier views as bring­ing more com­bined arms to put more pres­sure on the Is­lamic State.

“The bat­tle for Tabqa is, I think, an ex­am­ple of this more in­tense and so­phis­ti­cated ap­proach, an ap­proach that is, I think, a de­par­ture from the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion,” he said. “So far, how­ever, the dif­fer­ence is in de­gree, not kind.”

He said a war of an­ni­hi­la­tion does not mean the coali­tion must kill or cap­ture ev­ery Is­lamic State fighter. It means the strat­egy must pre­vent the fight­ers from re­con­sti­tut­ing as ter­ror­ists to cap­ture new ter­ri­tory or re­gain lost ground. This in­volves not just killing but also putting into place broader ac­tions among al­lies to deny money, weapons and re­place­ments for the dead.


Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces take po­si­tion be­fore the bat­tle to re­cap­ture Tabqa. The Trump strat­egy calls for sur­round­ing towns to iso­late Is­lamic State fight­ers and an­ni­hi­late them.

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