Amid Raqqa, Mosul fights, US prepares for IS endgame effort

Remigio Civitarese
Mag 20, 2017

Also speaking at the Pentagon on Friday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, said strikes against Syrian government-backed fighters this week were a "force protection measure", and would not happen again if US forces are not threatened.

Mattis told reporters those forces targeted by airstrikes were "Iranian-directed forces". "It will. And we've talked about that as a specific area that requires" avoiding U.S. The rules of engagement governing USA forces in the region have also changed, allowing commanders on the ground more flexibility to move troops and engage with IS fighters without seeking clearance from military leaders.

"Whatever the reason for the USA strike was, it was illegitimate and marked another flagrant violation of Syria's sovereignty", Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Cyprus.

The remarks were one of the clearest indicators yet that President Donald Trump's administration will seek to exhaust alternatives before turning to military action to force Pyongyang's hand. He hasn't yet announced results of a strategy review he ordered the Pentagon to undertake in late January in collaboration with the State Department and other agencies, but officials are already plotting how to wrest the final territories from IS' control. But Mattis said Friday that Trump approved a recommendation for a "tactical shift" toward surrounding IS militants in their strongholds, such as the Syrian city of Raqqa, so that the foreign fighters among them can not return to their home countries.

"It is a change in tactics that we now surround these locations, these concentrations of [the] enemy", Mattis said.

Mattis also described the need to focus on foreign fighters who, he said, were more unsafe because of their ability to slip back to their homes outside of ISIS territory.

Much fighting remains to fully expel IS from Mosul in northern Iraq, and the battle for the extremists' self-declared capital of Raqqa, Syria, has barely begun. Islamic State leaders and operatives have gravitated there in apparent anticipate of losing Mosul and Raqqa.

Post-Mosul, post-Raqqa, the intent will be to militarily squeeze this stretch of territory from each end, according to US officials.

American forces would support a group of Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces driving southeast along the Euphrates from Raqqa toward Deir el-Zour, said the officials, who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the military details and demanded anonymity.

Mattis acknowledged that Pyongyang had likely learned a great deal from the latest test of what US officials say was a KN-17 missile, which was believed to have survived re-entry to some degree. At the same time, Iraqi government forces, also supported by US advisers and airpower, would advance toward al-Qaim. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said last week "the main goal" is to reach Deir el-Zour, an oil-producing region that was largely captured by IS during its great expansion of territory three years ago.

While the Middle Euphrates River Valley corridor may be the next key battleground, US officials believe it will not be the last.

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