WASHINGTON — President Trump on Monday received a package of options for escalating or transforming the war on ISIS, setting in motion a process that could lead him to expand the presence of American forces fighting the terrorist army on the ground.
Defense Secretary James Mattis briefed top national security officials at the White House on the Pentagon-led proposal, which includes military recommendations but also proposals for how to starve the so-called Islamic State of funds and combat the group online, where it has recruited and radicalized perpetrators of attacks in Europe and the United States.
It’s not clear when Trump will put his stamp on the undeclared war he inherited from his predecessor, a campaign that has rolled back the rampaging death cult in Iraq but has posted less significant gains in neighboring Syria. He is not expected to offer any significant details when he addresses a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night.
The new president could transform the conflict in a number of significant ways. Chief among these would be the deployment of more U.S. troops to Iraq, where they number about 5,000, or to Syria, where the United States has roughly 500 special operations troops. A top general recently signaled that the latter is an option. But it would also bring risks — not just additional combat deaths of U.S. soldiers, but potential political complications for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, given that the U.S. occupation is not a distant memory.
Trump could also modify the rules of engagement that govern whether and how U.S. troops fight ISIS. Under Obama, the Pentagon insisted that American forces might sometimes find themselves in combat but were not on a combat mission, a tortured explanation partly designed to protect Trump’s predecessor from political criticism. U.S. troops have recently seen their roles change, moving closer to the front lines, and Trump could decide to change the rules further.
The White House could step up aid to Kurdish fighters, though that risks fueling concern in NATO partner Turkey and in Iraq, whose governments fear the prospects that insurgent Kurds could seek their own state.
Trump could also try to work more closely with Russia, something Mattis opposes, or take steps towards fulfilling his campaign pledge to create “safe zones” for Syrians fleeing the conflict, among other options.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week, Trump said his goal was to “totally obliterate ISIS” and promised that “working with our allies, we will eradicate this evil from the face of the Earth.”
Trump, who asked for a review of options in late January, frequently criticized Obama’s handling of the conflict and sometimes disparaged the generals in charge, notably for announcing plans to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
“I don’t talk about military response. I don’t say, ‘I’m going into Mosul in four months,’ ‘We are going to attack Mosul in four months.’ Then three months later, ‘We are going to attack Mosul in one month,’” he said in a mocking tone at a mid-February press conference.
But he has not repeated his March 2016 suggestion of sending tens of thousands more Americans to fight the rampaging death cult’s fighters in the Middle East.
Trump’s January order explicitly directed the Pentagon to look into changing any of the rules of engagement “that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.” It also called for an assessment of how best to besiege ISIS online to “delegitimize” the group “and its radical Islamist ideology.”
The order also called for senior national security officials to identify potential new coalition partners and look at ways to starve ISIS of funds.
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