WASHINGTON (CN) – The accelerated military campaign President Donald Trump has ordered against the so-called Islamic State will shift gears to surrounding areas, killing the group’s fighters instead of pushing them out of Syria and Iraq, his defense chief said Friday.
“We’re there to drive ISIS to its knees,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said, using a common abbreviation for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Describing two tactical changes in the president’s approach, Mattis was joined at the Pentagon this afternoon by Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brett McGurk, the special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition.
“He delegated authority to aggressively, and in a timely manner, move against enemy vulnerabilities,” Mattis said of the president’s orders.
This directive essentially gives battlefield commanders more authority to make decisions in the field without waiting for approval from Washington, speeding up the execution of operations.
The other change could lead to a higher number of casualties among fighters.
“He directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS,” Mattis said. “The intent is to prevent the return home of escaped foreign fighters.”
Emphasizing the threat posed by foreign fighters, Mattis said the new strategy would prevent shifting the problem from one geographical area to another. The annihilation strategy will prevent fighters from carrying out attacks in their home countries after they return from the fight.
In removing the transnational aspect of the group, Mattis suggested the new strategy could reduce the threat posed by ISIS to one that local forces can manage.
“You’ve got to drive them down to a point that police can handle,” Mattis said. “Police can’t handle a force that’s driving tanks or using artillery or has thousands of fighters or mobile vehicles [that] allow them to range far and wide.”
No changes have been made to the rules of engagement, Mattis said, stressing that U.S. forces would try to avoid civilian casualties.
“We continue all possible efforts to protect the innocent,” he said.
Mattis did not elaborate on how coalition forces would be able to do that under the new strategy of surrounding and annihilating ISIS in its remaining strongholds.
The changes in strategy came after President Trump ordered the Defense Department to lead a governmentwide review of the anti-Islamic State strategy.
Mattis and Dunford said ISIS has lost 55 percent of its territory, none of which it has regained. The flow of foreign fighters from other countries into ISIS-held territory has dropped from about 1,500 per month at its peak to fewer than 100, they said.
Mattis declined to offer a timeframe for the campaign under the ramped-up strategy.