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Little Changed in the US ‘anti-ISIS’ Strategy

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This is a summary of the US official view on the “war against ISIS”.

Little Changed in the US 'anti-ISIS' Strategy

Prepared by Costas Ioannou; edited by Viktor Stoilov; based on the ForeignPolicy‘s article

Since his last visit at the Pentagon briefing room in July, President Barack Obama authorized hundreds of airstrikes against the Islamic State, sent special operations teams in Iraq and Syria and struggled to figure out how he will deal with Russia in the anti-Islamic State fight.

President Obama visited the Pentagon on Monday searching for good news to announce. Regarding the US, the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria remains the same. With no major new successes to announce, Obama recounted many of the same victories he listed in July. He said that the U.S. allies had taken Kobani in Syria and the cities of Tikrit and Sinjar in Iraq.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces launched a second full-scale assault on Sinjar last month after pockets of Islamic State resistance continued to harass the local population. Kurdish commanders say they’ve finally pushed the final militant holdouts out of the area while cutting a vital highway resupply route between Syria and Mosul.

The Islamic State still holds the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi, and uses the Syrian city of Raqqa as its de-facto capital. Thousands of foreign fighters are streaming across the Turkish border, and the fragile US-backed government in Baghdad continues to struggle to unite Iraq.

The Iraqi troops have been fighting in the outskirts of the Islamic State-held city of Ramadi for months being unable to advance deeply into the city despite having up to 10,000 men. The Iraqi forces outnumber the defenders 10 to 1 according to some Pentagon estimates.

In his Monday statement, Obama presented a very different situation of the fighting in the Iraqi towns and cities. He said that “our partners on the ground are rooting ISIL out, town by town, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, block by block” and “we are hitting ISIL harder than ever” with more than 9,000 airstrikes during the $5.2 billion, 16-month campaign. He also said that “In many places, ISIL has lost its freedom of maneuver because they know if they mass their forces, we will wipe them out. In fact, since this summer, ISIL has not had a single successful major offensive operation on the ground in either Syria or Iraq”.

At the Pentagon in July, Obama made similar claims: “Thousands of fighting positions, tanks, vehicles, bomb factories, and training camps” that U.S. air power had eliminated and touting Iraqi forces as “an effective partner on the ground.”

Since the president was last at the Pentagon in July, the situation has changed dramatically. In September, Russia sent dozens of fighter planes to Syria to support Bashar al-Assad’s legitimate government, a move that immediately shifted the balance of power. While the White House and the U.S. officials have been sharply critical towards Russia, Russian jets have started to strike more Islamic State sites in and around Raqqa, and the Russians made sure they will be a key player in any potential development in the Syrian conflict.

Also, the Defence Department admitted that in the recent weeks ISIL has continued to expand outside the Iraqi and Syrian held territories, with affiliates now operating in Libya, Afghanistan, and other countries. Alleged Islamic State supporters have also been linked to bloody terrorist attacks in both Europe and the United States.

Since Obama’s statement in July, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for bombing a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula, as well as for the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.
Obama is facing hard criticism from Congress and a field of presidential hopefuls accusing him of not doing enough to meet the threat. On Monday he stated to the public that: “This fall, even before the revolting attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, I ordered new actions to intensify our fight against ISIL. These actions, including more firepower and special operations forces, are well underway.”

Defence Secretary Ash Carter announced last month that as many as 200 special operations forces are headed to Iraq in the coming weeks to engage in direct combat with the militant group in an attempt destroy its leadership structure. The deployment will come on top of the 50 commandos recently sent to northern Syria to train the western-backed rebels and the Kurdish forces.
While defence officials are refusing to confirm if those troops are already stationed in Syria, Obama announced that “they have begun supporting local forces” in cutting off supply lines leading to Raqqa.

He also stated that Carter’s long-planned visit to the Middle East this week will include a series of meetings “to work with our coalition partners on securing more military contributions to this fight.” Carter recently stated that Arab allies in the region need to put more effort in the fight against the Islamic State.

In an effort to show that the White House is taking in consideration the criticisms over its handling of the ISIL threat, the president will visit the National Counterterrorism Centre in McLean, Virginia. Also, Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Moscow to hold talks with Russian officials on finding a common political solution for the ongoing civil war in Syria.

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