- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2016

As the battle rages to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, U.S. and European commanders are shifting focus to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the capital of the group’s self-styled caliphate, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday.

“We’ve already begun laying the groundwork with our partners to commence the isolation of Raqqa,” Mr. Carter said after meeting with several European defense chiefs involved in the U.S.-led coalition battling the terrorist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

“As we meet here, we’re helping to generate the local forces that will do so,” he said during a joint press conference with French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Paris.

Both defense chiefs remained mum on details regarding how the U.S. and its allies plan to retake Raqqa, one of the first major cities to fall under Islamic State control during its blitz across Syria and northern Iraq in 2014.

But Mr. Carter made clear that the U.S. role in the assault on Raqqa would keep in line with the White House’s standing strategy of training and arming proxy forces to battle the Islamic State.

“We’re seeking the lasting defeat of ISIL. And a lasting defeat of ISIL can’t be achieved by outsiders. It can only be achieved by those who live there,” Mr. Carter said.

But the U.S. military effort to raise a proxy Syrian army is receiving mixed reviews in the Pentagon, raising the specter of another failed training effort akin to American operations in Libya.

In June, the Pentagon revealed a 2.0 version of a military effort to train and equip vetted Syrian militias. U.S. generals told Congress last year that the $350 million program produced “four or five” U.S.-trained fighters before it was shut down in October.

The roughly $400 million program is geared toward training militia leaders — not entire units — in everything from basic infantry combat skills to more advanced communications and complex counterterrorism operations, the officials said at the time, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Fewer than 100 senior militia commanders have passed through the various training programs since they began in December and have received small arms and ammunition.

More advanced weaponry and equipment were handed over to certain militia commanders who took part in more advanced training.

The White House is looking at the fight in Iraq, not Syria, to validate President Obama’s strategy of training and arming local armies and paramilitary groups to battle the Islamic State while keeping U.S. forces largely on the sidelines.

Mr. Carter noted Tuesday that the eventual operation to clear Raqqa would likely overlap with the ongoing fight to drive the Islamic State from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

“There will be overlap, and that’s part of our plan, and we are prepared for that,” he said, adding that the campaign to retake Iraq‘s second-largest city “is proceeding on plan.”

But Islamic State resistance is stiffening along Mosul‘s southern and eastern borders two weeks into the campaign to liberate the city. Advancing Iraqi and Kurdish forces reportedly have met waves of car bombs and suicide attacks amid Kurdish forces opening a front along the city’s northern edges this week.

Also, renewed concerns over civilian casualties have brought into question whether U.S. and coalition air power — which has been critical to the rapid advance of Iraqi and Kurdish forces — will have to be curtailed once local forces break into the city itself.

The prospect of intense street fighting once coalition forces breach Mosul‘s city limits and eventually capture the Islamic State’s de facto Iraqi capital prompted Mr. Carter to open the door to deploying more U.S. and allied military trainers.

“We already know that there may be additional requirements for more trainers not only for Iraqi security forces, but particularly for local police and border forces,” as the fight for Mosul itself draws closer, Mr. Carter told reporters.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said last week that he could not rule out the possibility that commanders will send U.S. troops into Mosul as the battle progresses. “I’m not ruling it in, I’m not ruling it out,” he said.

Roughly 5,000 U.S. troops are on the ground in Iraq to provide intelligence, logistics and air support for Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Of those troops, nearly 100 U.S. special operations forces are embedded with Iraqi government and peshmerga units along the southern and eastern borders of Mosul.

Navy Chief Petty Officer Jason Finan was killed during combat operations last week east of Mosul. The 34-year-old Navy bomb technician, embedded with a Navy SEAL team working with Kurdish forces, died when the his Humvee struck a roadside bomb, according to reports.

He was the first U.S. casualty of the Mosul operation and the fourth American to die since U.S. forces started the campaign against the Islamic State two years ago.

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