The top U.S. military officer declined repeatedly on Thursday to rule out committing U.S. ground troops to battle the Islamic State in in Syria, stressing that the Pentagon will present President Donald Trump with “a full range of options” to combat the terror organization.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the comments at a Washington research center as the 30 days that President Donald Trump gave military leaders to develop a strategy to fight the Islamic State are almost up.
“I’m in the business of providing the president with options,” Dunford said several times at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. when repeatedly pressed on whether those choices would include conventional ground troops.
I’m in the business of providing the president with options.
Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Following through on a campaign promise, Trump ordered a 30-day review of the U.S. strategy to fight the Islamic State on Jan. 28. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is expected to present him with the plan next week, according to the Pentagon.
Dunford said the recommendations also will include ways to battle transnational terrorist groups beyond just Syria and Iraq, especially given the flow of foreign fighters into the region.
“We’ve been given a task to go to the president with options to accelerate the defeat of ISIS specifically, but obviously other violent extremist groups as well,” he said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “So we’re going to go to him with a full range of options from which he can chose.”
Those options would also target al Qaida, he said.
In his first week in office, Trump said he would “absolutely do safe zones in Syria” for people displaced by the violence in order to stem the flow of refugees from the country. Establishing such safe zones would require boots on the ground.
We estimate over 120 countries that provided 45,000 foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, so that is one element that makes them a transnational threat.
Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
There are currently around 500 U.S. Special Operations forces in Syria, in what Dunford called “about as complex an environment as you can be,” working with Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces to close in on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. The Trump administration reportedly scrapped a detailed plan left by former President Barack Obama’s administration that outlined a strategy to train Kurdish forces, provide them with new equipment, and help them retake Raqqa, instead telling the Pentagon to come up with new options.
The head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, said on Wednesday that he was “concerned about maintaining momentum” in efforts to defeat ISIS in Syria, and that it could be a possibility to “take on a larger burden ourselves.”
There are approximately 5,000 U.S. troops inside Iraq, with several hundred embedded with Iraqi security forces advancing on multiple fronts on Mosul. Some of those American forces have recently engaged in combat during the battle for Mosul, Air Force Col. John Dorrian told reporters via teleconference at the Pentagon on Wednesday.
“When someone is shooting at you, that is combat. Yes, that has happened,” he said, adding that U.S. troops have “come under fire at different times” and “have returned fire at different times” although he said the intent is for American forces to stay away from the front.
During his confirmation hearing, Mattis spoke in support of an “accelerated campaign” against the Islamic State, although he was not asked about putting troops in Syria. If that is one of the options presented to Trump, indicating that Mattis and Dunford believe that advancing on ISIS more quickly is worth the risk to U.S. troops, it would be a significant break from the Obama administration’s policy.
A successful plan to defeat the Islamic State would need to “cut the connective tissue between regional groups that now form a trans-regional threat ... and then working in combination with local and coalition forces to drive the threat down to the level where local law enforcement can deal with that threat,” Dunford said.
The general stressed that the review ordered by Trump is not just a military plan coming from the Pentagon, but a “political-military plan” that involves the State Department, the intelligence agencies, the Treasury Department and others.