Mattis Says Operations Against ISIS Will Change in 2018

By Jim Garamone

The destruction of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s physical caliphate
will change the way the American-led military coalition will go after the
group, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis told Pentagon reporters.

Operations against the group dominated the informal press gaggle with the
secretary.

“We sit here today at the end of 2017, the caliphate is on the run, we’re
breaking them,” he said.

Some ISIS fighters escaped the encirclement of Raqqa into the Middle Euphrates
River Valley. “We are in the process of crushing the life out of the
caliphate there while trying to keep the innocent people safe — which is very
hard with this group,” he said.

The demarcation line between the Assad regime and its ally Russia, and the
Syrian Democratic Forces and the US-led coalition, is the middle of the river
in this area. Mattis said the line has held up well, and that communications
between Russian and coalition forces continue.

ISIS Fighters ‘Will Have to be Hunted Down’

The ISIS fighters that escaped into the valley “will have to be hunted
down,” Mattis said.

ISIS operatives who move into the region controlled by the regime of Syrian
President Bashar Assad and the Russians are another matter. The SDF and the
coalition will not launch attacks past the demarcation line, Mattis said.
Having the terrorists in their area is not in Assad’s or the Russian’s
best interests.

The United States tipping off Russia of a potential ISIS attack in St.
Petersburg is an example of ways the countries can work together against the
group.

Mattis stresses that the battle against ISIS is not over. While the group has
been shattered, its survivors are looking for ways and places to reconstitute,
he added.

“It’s only a safe haven if people give them one,” Mattis said.

In Iraq, the coalition will continue to work with the Iraqi government to
train troops and police and develop the intelligence needed to find and take
down terrorists trying to launch attacks.

“We need to drive this down to the point where it can be handled by local
authorities — police,” he said. “But right now, it is still very much a
military intelligence type of operation as the police try to set up local
operations. Eventually, it will be rule of law and local security forces.”

Hunting ISIS down is not over. “Am I worried about it? Not in the least,”
Mattis said. “These guys have not proven they can stand against the Iraqi
security forces [or] the SDF. They are best against unarmed men, women and
children.”

Moving forward in Syria involves ensuring diplomats have what they need to
solve this civil war.

ISIS ‘Brand’ Losing Luster

Looking to 2018, Mattis sees ISIS as being a “brand” for terrorists. “It
can inspire lone wolf attacks; it can inspire other groups,” he said. “But
it is less inspirational when they have lost their physical caliphate; it is
less inspirational as the stories of what it was like living under their rule
come out. I think it is a brand with a diminishing appeal, but the appeal is
still there for those who go in for that philosophy.”

In both Iraq and Syria, U.S. troops will be shifting from an offensive
terrain-seizing approach to a stabilizing effort focused on supporting the
diplomatic approach, the secretary said. This will include clearing areas of
improvised explosive devices, helping civil authorities set up water and
electrical systems and helping reopen schools and working with police.


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