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Mattis: Trump Empowered Commanders to 'Annihilate ISIS'

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stands in front of a map of Syria and Iraq during a news conference at the Pentagon, Friday, May 19, 2017, to give an update on the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stands in front of a map of Syria and Iraq during a news conference at the Pentagon, Friday, May 19, 2017, to give an update on the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Defense Secretary James Mattis said President Donald Trump has empowered commanders to more aggressively target the Islamic State as part of a new approach to "annihilate" the militant group.

The president has "delegated authority to the right level to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities," Mattis said during a press conference Friday at the Pentagon.

The commander in chief, who ordered a review of the conflict after taking office, has also "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 added. "The intent is to prevent the return home of escaped foreign fighters."

The defense secretary, a retired Marine general, appeared alongside Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford -- who also Friday was reappointed to another two-year term -- and Brett McGurk, the State Department's special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS to present an updated plan for Operation Inherent Resolve, the military's name for the fight against ISIS.

There are more than 5,000 American troops serving in Iraq and several hundred U.S. special operations forces in Syria.

ISIS, which at its peak controlled vast parts of Iraq and Syria, has lost 55,000 square kilometers of territory since the U.S. military campaign started in 2014, McGurk said.

The current goal of the campaign is to squeeze and destroy the militant group rather than getting them on the run, Mattis said. The idea is for the coalition to not allow militants to find escape routes or opportunities to resupply.

"We don't simply transplant this problem from one place to another," he said.

Even so, Mattis said there has been no change the current rules of engagement within the campaign to "avoid innocent civilian casualties, despite needing to go into populated areas to break ISIS hold on their self-described caliphate, despite ISIS purposely endangering innocent lives by refusing to allow civilians to evacuate."

He said, "We continue all possible efforts to protect the innocent."

McGurk said the State and Treasury departments are also working with allies to more rigorously track foreign fighters and investigate ISIS' currency-sharing methods.

"The newest member of our coalition, for example, is INTERPOL," McGurk said, referring to the intergovernmental international police cooperation agency based in France.

"More than 60 countries are now providing data to INTERPOL to build a global database of known foreign fighters who've worked with ISIS. That database had only 40 -- 40 people a few years ago, now it has 14,000 and continues to grow," he said.

McGurk, who was appointed during the Obama administration, acknowledged the situation is more difficult in Syria.

"We don't have a government to work with and we will never work with the Assad regime," he said.

The looming Raqqa offensive has yet to begin.

Dunford said the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces -- which includes both Arab fighters and Kurdish fighters (known as the YPG) -- encircled Raqqa, the Islamic State's proclaimed capital in Syria, in November, but the group has yet to launch the final assault.

Trump this month signed off on arming the YPG, or People's Protection Units.

Dunford said the U.S. has been supplying weapons to Arab members of the SDF and has "stockpiled equipment and were prepared to quickly field it" to the group's Kurdish branch.

Both Mattis and Dunford said that the delay in providing arms to the YPG has in no way been a setback for the Raqqa siege.

When asked whether the American public should expect a long-term presence of American troops in Syria, Mattis demurred.

"I'm not willing to say that right now," he said. "I'm not willing to sign up for that."

Mattis added, "That's not our intent. We're there to drive ISIS to its knees. And, as Mr. McGurk pointed out, there's got to be a political solution to the larger issues there. It's not going to be U.S. troops at the point of a gun making that happen."

The defense secretary said, "This threat is a long-term threat. That's why so many nations have signed up. You don't -- you don't see a coalition this size if it's some short-term threat or a small regional threat. This is a transnational, long-term threat."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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