WASHINGTON – The Pentagon said Friday that its anti-ISIS campaign is moving as fast as is practical, a day after President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the Defense Department said that if confirmed for the post he would speed up the fight.
Asked during his confirmation hearing if the U.S. military currently has a strategy to regain control of the ISIS capital of Raqqa, retired Marine Gen. Jame Mattis said, “I believe we do, sir. However, I believe that strategy needs to be reviewed and perhaps energized on a more aggressive timeline.”
However, commanders do have a plan that “is pushing to the limit what we can do in intensifying that campaign,” Elissa Slotkin, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told reporters at the Pentagon.
“All ideas are going to be on the table. But, I believe we have in place a plan right now that moves as fast as the local forces on the ground are able to move,” she said during a press conference on her last day in the role.
The pace of the campaign, both in Syria and Iraq, is dictated by what forces on the ground are capable of, Slotkin said.
In Iraq, the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition is working through the internationally recognized government, but in Syria the coalition doesn’t recognize the government as legitimate and is instead working through rebel groups, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The coalition is supporting the SDF, made up of Kurdish and Arab forces, with training and arms, as well as guidance. In addition, the coalition is backing forces on the ground with airstrikes and artillery.
Slotkin said anti-ISIS operations in Syria were creating a “snowball effect,” with each new victory generating more recruits willing to fight ISIS. She estimated the SDF now numbered about 50,000 persons.
She said she had a “hard time” seeing what additional targets the anti-ISIS coalition could hit that aren’t already part of the campaign plan.
One way the U.S. could speed up the operation for Raqqa is to deploy more troops, though Mattis didn’t allude to this option. The Obama administration has authorized some 500 U.S. troops to operate in Syria, while the actual number in the country is thought to be slightly lower than the cap.
At the Pentagon, Slotkin stressed that President Barack Obama has authorized every request from the Pentagon for additional capabilities.
“When they accelerate, we accelerate. When they need a moment to reset, you see a quieter period in our air campaign,” she said, referencing the pace of local forces. “I think it’s always good to reflect on what we do, but I do not feel that we’ve been held back in any way from accelerating the campaign to the greatest extent possible.”
President-elect Donald Trump has said he wants to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. While campaigning, Trump said he would assemble his defense team to formulate a plan within his first 30 days in office to defeat ISIS.