Story highlights

The President arrives in Brussels Thursday for his first NATO heads of state summit

Trump, defense officials say, strongly believes more public acknowledgment must be paid to the successes of the US campaign

Washington CNN —  

In advance of his first NATO summit, President Donald Trump is turning to the Pentagon to raise the public profile of the military fight against ISIS, al Qaeda and other terror groups, several senior defense officials tell CNN.

But the move also comes with the risk of shedding more light on the difficult decisions facing the Pentagon and Trump White House in the coming weeks, including the need for thousands of additional troops overseas in critical locations and questions about how close the cooperation may become between US and Russian forces in key battlefield areas.

The President arrived in Brussels Wednesday for his first NATO heads of state summit, where the alliance is set to make key decisions on future military commitments ranging from increased defense spending to sending more troops to Afghanistan. Trump, defense officials say, strongly believes more public acknowledgment must be paid to the successes of the US campaign.

As a candidate, Trump once said he knew more than the generals about ISIS. Now the President is relying on those generals, revealing his strategy for making good news in a recent interview, saying, “my generals are going to be having a major news conference to inform the public and the world how well we’ve done against ISIS.”

Last Friday, that’s exactly what happened: in their first-ever Pentagon news conference together, Defense Secretary James Mattis, as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford and presidential envoy Brett McGuirk, laid out their case the war is working. While there was brief acknowledgment that the ISIS campaign began under former President Barack Obama, the emphasis was on some of the new changes made since Trump ordered a review of the ISIS strategy when he took office.

It was the news conference the President wanted, officials tell CNN. Some of the statistics about the fight in Iraq and Syria appear impressive. According to the Pentagon:

  • ISIS has lost 55,000 square kilometers of territory and regained none of it.
  • Airstrikes have hit 2,600 ISIS-held oil and gas targets, resulting in the lowest revenue for the terror group since 2014.
  • In Mosul, 980 ISIS fighters have been killed and more than 6,000 have been wounded.
  • More than 4 million people have been freed from ISIS-held areas.

Mattis pointed to two key changes under Trump. First, his decision to allow commanders more leeway in undertaking operations on their own authority. There will also be more of an effort to isolate ISIS fighters in their existing strongholds rather than pushing to be on run across remote areas.

Iraqi forces may be just days away from declaring Mosul liberated. And Syrian fighters are getting closer to Raqqa every day. But even these new changes demonstrate there are no perfect solutions, officials say.

But there are risks ahead. More fighting in cities like Mosul and Raqqa could raise the potential of civilian casualties. And commanders quickly undertaking their own operations without White House approval opens the door for the Trump administration to blame the military for any risk of casualties, such as happened after a Navy SEAL was killed earlier this year in a raid in Yemen.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the risk of complexity of the battlefield greater than in Syria. The Trump administration decided to provide arms to Kurdish units supporting in the fight to retake Raqqa, ISIS’s self-declared capitol. But that has infuriated Turkey to the north, which insists Kurds are affiliated with terror groups. And in southern Syria, Iranian-backed militias have moved closer to areas where US special operations forces are training anti ISIS fighters. The US tried to get Russian help in getting the militias to pull back, but so far it hasn’t worked.

With US, Russian and Syrian regime forces getting closer on the ground and in the air, the Pentagon finds itself trying to appeal to Moscow for greater efforts to de-conflict operations. In an extraordinary public acknowledgment for an often reticient chairman, Dunford revealed he is working with the Russians on an new proposal to ensure both countries military forces remain clear of each other.

“I won’t share the details. But my sense is that the Russians are as enthusiastic as we are to de-conflict operations and ensure that we can continue to take the campaign to ISIS and ensure the safety of our personnel,” he said.

At the news conference, Dunford also disclosed he often speaks to his Russian counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov.

“A primary purpose is to ensure the safety of our airmen, our personnel on the ground, and allow us to continue” the campaign, Dunford said. And now, a US and Russian three-star officer also speak regularly in addition to communications channels in the immediate region.

The new US-Russia proposal is also expected crucially to cover Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, where some regime forces of President Bashar al-Assad are still based – another targeting complexity for American pilots flying overhead.

But it’s not just about ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Trump is reviewing recommendations that could send up to 5,000 or more additional forces to Afghanistan, where US forces are still fighting the Taliban and trying to push back hundreds of ISIS fighters in the eastern section of the country. There are about 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has offered an option of adding somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 additional forces. But Trump is not expected to make a decision until there is more information about how many troops NATO might contribute – something the White House is pressing the alliance to do.

And those rules allowing commanders to conduct missions largely independent of White House oversight had led to more missions in Yemen against the al Qaeda affiliate there and opened the door to increased US military presence in Somalia.

The underlying strategy, all officials say, is to fight terror groups that pose a threat to the US and Europe especially by foreign fighters who may have been trained in Syria and then tried to make their way to the west.

One measure of success: During the peak of ISIS in recent years, the estimated flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq was about 1,500 per month. The estimate is now less than 100 per month.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Trump landed in Brussels on Wednesday.