President Trump’s demand for a new plan to defeat the Islamic State has triggered a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity at the Pentagon and State Department, where officials are poised to propose a dramatic increase in weapons for Kurdish fighters in Syria, significantly more U.S. airstrikes against the jihadi group and an expansion of American special forces commandos operating on the ground.
Those moves, along with studying how to coordinate U.S. airstrikes with Russian forces backing Syrian President Bashar Assad, will make up the bulk of what gets presented to the White House in response to the executive order that Mr. Trump signed Friday mandating a new plan “within 30 days” to defeat the terror group also known as ISIS, officials say.
One official directly involved in the planning told The Washington Times that the proposals won’t start from scratch, but rather green-light and dramatically accelerate controversial aspects of a strategy already set in motion by the Obama administration — with the most difficult piece being the movement of more and heavier arms to the ethnic Kurdish forces without outraging NATO ally Turkey.
“The main sticking point has been Ankara,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in reference to Ankara’s anger over U.S. support for a Kurdish militia in Syria that the Turks say is a terrorist organization linked to violent Turkish Kurdish separatists.
“We’ve been working with the Turks on this,” the official said, adding that “at some point, we will have to make a decision.”
Other officials said a proposal for more U.S. Special Forces deployed inside Syria will expand the mission to train and possibly fight alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, and other militias in the campaign to capture Islamic State’s de facto “capital” of Raqqa.
“If you want to take Raqqa in short order, in a time frame of months, this is the only force that can do it, and they need to be properly equipped,” said one official.
Mr. Trump’s executive order, signed in a ceremony on his first visit to the Pentagon, dealt with rebuilding the U.S. military along with formulating the new Islamic State strategy.
The new order will include “developing a plan for new planes, new ships, new resources and new tools for our men and women in uniform, and I’m very proud to be doing that,” Mr. Trump said Friday. “As we prepare our budget request of Congress, and I think Congress is going to be very happy to see it, our military strength will be questioned by no one, but neither will our dedication to peace.”
Increasing arms supplies to Kurdish forces had been under consideration long before the Trump administration took office, a senior Pentagon official told The Times. “I would not necessarily tie this to the 30-day review” being called for by the White House.
But the decision whether to boost the number of special operations fighters in Syria is directly tied to the new strategy to battle Islamic State.
“As the battle for Raqqa gets closer … it’s no surprise that you are going to have to increase that capability,” the Pentagon official said, adding department leaders have not many any final recommendations concerning the review.
American special operations units have trained over 5,000 Syrian Arabs and Turkmen fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed paramilitary group leading the charge on Raqqa.
As the battle for Raqqa looms and the fight for the Islamic State-held northern Iraqi city of Mosul rages on, military advisers close to Defense Secretary James N. Mattis are considering revising Obama administration-era rules of engagement that were designed to limit the number of estimated civilian casualties in the war against Islamic State.
Changing the rules
A key tenet of the proposed revisions, according to current and former U.S. officials, will be to dramatically increase the “acceptable” number of civilian casualties in an authorized airstrike — giving American commanders a freer hand to pound Islamic State positions not only in Syria and Iraq, but further afar in Libya and potentially other nations where the terror group’s affiliates hold territory.
On a separate front, officials said the most immediate counter-Islamic State collaboration with Moscow is likely to center on reviving a stalled Obama administration plan that had called for joint U.S.-Russian airstrikes in Syria.
“We were ready to go, and we can be ready to go again,” one U.S. defense official told The Times in November, speaking on condition of anonymity hours before the Kremlin first announced that Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were discussing ways to work together on Syria.
A State Department official said on background at the time that the Obama plan, which had in September called for the creation of a Geneva-based Joint Integration Center staffed by Russian and U.S. military officials, likely would be presented to the incoming administration.
The same official said this week that the creation of a “joint command center with Russia “is one of the things being looked at,” but that it will be “complicated to do.”
“A lot goes into it, and you have to have a basic level of trust there,” the official said, suggesting that concerns remain high among career State Department and Pentagon officials over the prospect of aligning with Russia forces, who have been accused by human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers — including several prominent Republicans — of committing war crimes against civilians in Syria.
The foreign policy establishment in Washington remains split on President Trump’s embrace of a more aggressive national security policy that downplays human rights concerns, as shown by a flurry of directives the new commander in chief issued during his first week in office.
Some experts welcome the forward-leaning nature of the emerging Trump doctrine, which was lacking in the Obama administration’s hands-off approach to the use of U.S. military force worldwide. But a number of current and former national security officials have questioned Mr. Trump’s desire to take a much harder military line in a region battered by political, ethnic and religious cross-currents.
President Trump began issuing executive orders to transform U.S. defense policy and the national security apparatus in his first days in office, moving to fulfill a campaign promise to take a much harder line on Islamic State and remove what he said were self-imposed restraints on U.S. military action. Some analysts argue that the 30-day mandate on Islamic State was the opening salvo in what is shaping up as a wholesale rebuke of the so-called “Obama doctrine.”
Throughout his presidency Mr. Obama relied heavily on proxy forces, trained and armed by small U.S. special operations forces teams and backed by American surveillance drones and airpower, as opposed to direct American military involvement. Such missions in Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq were initially touted as clear examples of the strategy’s success. Mr. Obama was clearly skeptical that fundamental U.S. security interests were at stake in the Syrian conflict or that the U.S. military was the best tool to protect those interests.
No more ‘leading from behind’
But on the campaign trail, Mr. Trump and his allies claimed the “leading from behind” strategy only served to weaken America’s leadership role in the world.
“If you think about the root causes of the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East today, obviously ISIS was a major if not predominant factor in a lot of that,” a senior Trump White House official told The Times. “You see the genocide of Yazidis and Christians and Kurds and many other groups.”
Mr. Trump also roiled veteran Washington national security watchers by changing the construct of his National Security Council, adding Senior White House Adviser Steve Bannon as a permanent participant while giving a lesser role to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Acting Director of National Intelligence Michael Dempsey.
In the order, Mr. Trump wrote that the nation’s top military officer and top spy would only attend council meetings “as needed.” White House officials play down the changes and say they track the minor bureaucratic changes that every new administration makes when coming to power.
But critics say the shift elevates Mr. Trump’s top political adviser and demotes top military and intelligence voices on a panel designed to provide unvarnished advice on security matters to the president.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized the moves, telling ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, “I think pushing them out of the National Security Council meetings, except when their specific issues are at stake, is a big mistake.”
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and has emerged as a major Republican critic of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, also slammed the exclusion of the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the council.
“I understand this [is a] reorganization, [but] one person who is indispensable would be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in my view,” Sen. McCain said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” adding Mr. Bannon’s appointment is “a radical departure from any National Security Council in history.”
Gen. Dunford on Monday offered some clarification on his future role on the council, insisting in a statement Monday he would “fully participate” in the group’s activities “to provide the best military advice to the president.”