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Pentagon delivers plan to speed up fight against Islamic State that may boost US troop presence in Syria


Militant Islamist fighters parade on military vehicles along the streets of northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014.
Reuters
Militant Islamist fighters parade on military vehicles along the streets of northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014.

Following up on President Donald Trump's request, Defense Secretary James Mattis on Monday delivered a preliminary plan on how step up the fight against Islamic State — a plan likely to include more U.S. troops as well as further steps to tighten the screws on the terror group's funding.

Analysts say they don't see a plan that will include tens of thousands of U.S. troops but something more along the lines of up to 5,000 troops in Syria to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or also known as ISIS). There are about 500 troops currently authorized in Syria.

"As directed by the President on Jan. 28, the preliminary plan was developed in close coordination with interagency partners, and will now serve as a basis for broader discussion with the new National Security Advisor and White House," a Pentagon spokesperson told CNBC Monday in a written response.

The official indicated that the plan to defeat the Islamic State is "a broad plan that's global" in scope and "not just military, [and] it is not just Iraq and Syria."

Trump pledged to defeat ISIS during the campaign and also has repeated it since becoming president.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) convention last Friday, Trump told attendees: "As part of my pledge to restore safety for the American people, I have…directed the defense community to develop a plan to totally obliterate ISIS. Working with our allies, we will eradicate this evil from the face of the Earth."

Over the years, the ISIS group has been able to capture major cities in Syria and Iraq. It also has claimed thousands of lives in the Middle East and also become a threat outside the region.

ISIS-inspired terrorism has been blamed on deadly incidents across Europe and North America as well as in Africa. ISIS also has claimed responsibility for terror attacks in Australia and Asia.

US special forces monitor as Iraqi forces advance on February 23, 2017 towards Mosul airport on the southern edge of the jihadist stronghold prior to entering the airport compound for the first time since the Islamic State group overran the region in 2014.
Ahmad Al-Rubaye | AFP | Getty Images
US special forces monitor as Iraqi forces advance on February 23, 2017 towards Mosul airport on the southern edge of the jihadist stronghold prior to entering the airport compound for the first time since the Islamic State group overran the region in 2014.

"What that might look like is putting an extra 4,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops into Syria in order to help accelerate operations around Raqqa in the next 6 to 9 months," said Hal Brands, a national security expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.

Adding more troops could help speed up the war but there's also the need to reduce the flow of money to the Islamic State, according to analysts. That is one reason why experts suggest the Trump administration will take steps with other nations to reduce funds going to the terror group.

A Pentagon official said Monday there are currently about 5,225 troops in Iraq with a total authorized of 5,262. That's in addition to the roughly 500 authorized in Syria. The official said the actual number in Syria is not provided "for force protection reasons."

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies' International Security Program in Washington also believes the troop commitment will be increased by several thousand in Syria.

"It will intensify what we're already doing," he said. "The tough problem is going to be what happens when ISIS is defeated."

Indeed, Cancian said the U.S. doesn't want to get into a situation where they liberate Mosul and other ISIS cities and then see the terror group come back in again. He said the risk is that the government that replaces ISIS in those cities "is too corrupt or too inept."

Brands said he doesn't expect any "major paradigmatic changes in the strategy" in a sense that we are not going to send around 50,000 troops into Syria or Iraq in order to complete the defeat of ISIS. He said the major reason for that is the strategy in place seems to be working.

Iraqi forces flash the sign for victory while holding an Islamic State (IS) group flag on February 23, 2017, as they enter Mosul airport on the southern edge of the jihadist stronghold for the first time since the Islamic State group overran the region in 2014.
Ahmad Al-Rubaye | AFP | Getty Images
Iraqi forces flash the sign for victory while holding an Islamic State (IS) group flag on February 23, 2017, as they enter Mosul airport on the southern edge of the jihadist stronghold for the first time since the Islamic State group overran the region in 2014.

Analysts suggest that the risk of sending tens of thousands of troops is there could be a backlash in public support. It also would become a costlier fight and there's no evidence, they say, that the operation requires that level of troop commitment.

According to Brands, the success in the current war against Islamic State can be measured by the significant reduction in territory occupied by the terror group. Moreover, he said the manpower of ISIS has been reduced sharply.

Yet ISIS is getting more inventive in its use of weapons in the past year. Militants for ISIS have been using weaponized drones that drop grenades or other explosives. There's also been video that is unconfirmed showing the use of suicide bombs strapped to dogs.

Besides the push to recapture the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, there's also ongoing operations to retake Mosul. Iraqi troops have led the effort to retake Mosul, which was Iraq's second-largest city when the Islamic State won control of it in 2014.

Trump is expected to touch on his fight against terror groups such as ISIS in his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. Yet don't look for too much detail on the plan.

"It's not really Trump's style to give deeply detailed policy proposals when he's speaking publicly," said Brands.

As for Raqqa, the U.S. forces already on the ground in the region have been working with the Syrian Democratic Forces and Kurdish YPG militias in operations to take control of the city.

Washington's cooperation with the Kurdish fighters has angered Turkey's government, which views the YPG (or People's Protection Units) as an affiliate of a terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers Party. Mattis met with his Turkish counterpart recently where the Ankara government reiterated its case against the Kurdish group.

Brands said it's possible the Trump administration's ISIS plan may include a strategy that relies "less on the Syrian Kurdish forces." If that happens, though, "almost by a process of elimination they are going to have to rely more on U.S. forces because there are no other capable indigenous forces…capable of taking Raqqa in the next 6 to 9 months."

Finally, experts say there's also a possibility that the new plan to defeat ISIS could include working more closely with the Russians to fight terror globally.

"My guess is we'll try to make some accommodation with the Russians," said Cancian. "But I am not sure that there's really much to be had frankly. Both the Bush administration and the Obama administration tried to reach out to the Russians — and even Hillary Clinton had this 'reset' button and it failed."

Added Cancian, "Each administration comes in believing that a sincere outreach to [Russian leaderVladimir] Putin will cut through the hostility. What they find out is that it's not just Putin; it's a thousand years of Russian history that they're fighting against."