Looking Ahead To The War Against ISIS In 2017

In 2017, major fighting against the ISIS in Iraq may wind up and focus may shift to a new protracted campaign in northern Syria. Ari Shapiro talks with NPR’s Tom Bowman about what lies ahead.


A new year and a new president could mean a new phase in the war against the Islamic State. Donald Trump promised to defeat that group many times throughout his campaign. Here’s what he said back in September.


DONALD TRUMP: So we’re going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.


TRUMP: We have no choice.

SHAPIRO: Joining us now to look ahead to the next chapter in this conflict is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.


SHAPIRO: So that was President-elect Trump of being optimistic. What do you think he’ll do?

BOWMAN: Well, of course, Ari, during the campaign, Trump complained that the Mosul operation in Iraq had bogged down. He complained that the generals running the war were incompetent. Now he owns it. So what can he do?

People I talk with at the Pentagon say Trump could increase the number of airstrikes, but that could mean more civilian casualties. He could send even more American commandos and Green Berets or even conventional troops. But that of course could mean more American casualties.

But the challenge all along has been this. The U.S. strategy is to rely on local forces to capture Mosul and Raqqah. That’s the self-proclaimed ISIS capital in Syria. And it’s been slow going either because local troops are not that competent, or they’re not sufficient in number. Now, will Trump change that strategy in any way? That is the big question.

SHAPIRO: The Mosul assault has been slow going. If we see an assault on rock in the New Year, do you expect it would look very different from what we’ve seen in Mosul?

BOWMAN: Well, it is different. First of all, Raqqah is smaller. Mosul has some 2 million people. Raqqah has several hundred thousand, and there’s no government troops in Syria to help like you have in Iraq. Iraqi government forces really make up the bulk of that fighting force. So…

SHAPIRO: Is that because there is no Syrian government force or just because the U.S. won’t work with them because they…

BOWMAN: They won’t work with them.

SHAPIRO: …Are on opposite sides of the conflict?

BOWMAN: Right, the Syrian government forces are busy taking out the moderate Arab rebels in the northwest part of the country. They’re not really going after ISIS. So in Raqqah, you’re relying on basically militias – Syrian Arab forces, Kurdish forces. And they don’t have the firepower of the Iraqi forces.

Now, the Pentagon has agreed to send in 200 more trainers to help beef up these forces in Syria. As it stands now, the U.S. has trained 3,000 Syrian Arabs, and officials say they’ll need two or three times that number to take Raqqah. So they’re a long ways off from actually entering the city.

SHAPIRO: If we imagine that in 2017 ISIS is cleared from these two major cities, Mosul and Raqqah, in Iraq and Syria, would that mean the end of the conflict against ISIS?

BOWMAN: Not necessarily. The sense is that ISIS will then become an insurgency much like we saw in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. And that problem went on for years, and it relied on a surge of U.S. troops.

The other problem is that attacks on the West, both Europe and the U.S., are being planned out of Raqqah, so it’s possible that with Raqqah surrounded and eventually liberated, for example, you could see those attack plans unleashed. And you could also see some of these fighters slip back into Europe and plan future attacks. Obama himself has said even destroying the caliphate may not reduce the danger in the near term.

SHAPIRO: That’s NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You’re welcome.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.