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Syria forces near capture of Deir Ezzor city from IS Video provided by AFP Newslook

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WASHINGTON — President Trump said this week that the military has “knocked the hell” out of the Islamic State, adding that the battlefield success is based on his decision to give commanders more latitude in fighting the terror group.

“I want to thank General Mattis for doing such a great job with respect to ISIS,” Trump said, turning to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting. “He's knocked the hell out of them. Of course, I've made it possible with what I've let you do.”

It’s true that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has lost its grip on nearly all the terrain it controlled when it first came on the scene three years ago in Iraq and Syria, but pinpointing credit for that success is more complicated.

What Trump left unsaid was that his administration is pursuing a strategy against ISIS largely formulated under President Barack Obama.

“Nothing President Trump did or authorized was a fundamental game changer in the counter-ISIS strategy,” said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

The Obama strategy was designed to support local ground forces in Iraq and Syria with coalition air power, advisers and training. American ground forces are not engaged in direct combat with the terror group.

The United States has deployed about 5,200 troops to Iraq and 2,000 in Syria. Most are serving in advisory or training roles.

More: ISIS 'capital' Raqqa falls to U.S.-backed forces. What it means for terror group's future

More: Forces in Iraq, Syria will need U.S. help long after ISIS is gone, top commander says

The overall strategy hasn’t changed, but Trump’s decision to give field commanders more decision-making authority has accelerated the pace of the campaign, analysts said.

In the past year, ISIS has been driven from Raqqa, its de facto capital in Syria, and from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

The Islamic State has lost most major towns and cities it once controlled, and the remnants are clinging to a string of towns and villages on the Euphrates River stretching between Iraq and Syria.

About 3,000 militants are left in Iraq and Syria, down from a peak of more than 25,000 in 2014 and 2015.

Trump “delegated authority to the right level to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities,” Mattis said earlier this year in explaining the president's changes.

Analysts say the new authorities have allowed commanders to move more quickly to seize the initiative on battles. The Pentagon said it still vets requests for airstrikes carefully, but commanders closer to the battle can now approve those strikes.

Critics had said Obama was too restrictive, requiring White House clearance for even small troop increases or changes in where advisers were on the battlefield.

“Target approval was at too high a level and too slow,” said Michael Barbero, a retired Army lieutenant general who served three tours in Iraq. “That has changed.”

Still, it is nearly impossible to predict how the war with ISIS would have developed without Trump’s changes.

Even before Trump took office, U.S. officers had started making some changes.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who recently completed a tour as the top coalition commander based in Baghdad, issued a directive in December that moved advisers closer to the combat units they were supporting to capitalize on progress Iraqi forces were having in Mosul.

“By putting the advisers further forward with the Iraqis it allowed a lot more agility and a lot more clarity to the decision making,” Col. Pat Work, a U.S. adviser in Iraq, said in an interview after returning to the United States earlier this year.

Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria increased dramatically, but it’s not clear whether that is a result of new authorities or progress ground forces would have had regardless. The number of bombs and other weapons dropped in both countries increased 65% to 36,351 in the first nine months of this year over the same period in 2016, according to U.S. military statistics.

Since then, bombing has tapered off as the number of targets in Iraq and Syria have declined. The Pentagon is also considering reducing the number of trainers and advisers in the region.

The chaos of war often makes it hard to identify any single factor for success or failure.

“There was a lot more to this than bombs and there was a lot more to this then any single decision,” Work said.

 

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