President Obama is again relying on Special Operations commanders to lead against the threat of ISIS, and in turn boost his own image. The strategy involves using special operations forces in countering the spread of ISIS propaganda online, and a combination of airstrikes and direct action raids by SOF units. This type of leading from behind by the president has yet to produce any significant results, in spite of the best efforts by special operations forces.
Kimberly Dozier – The Daily Beast
“Time and again, Barack Obama has turned to a small cadre of elite troops in the most important moments of his presidency. Can they do it one more time?
Elite U.S. commandos are now in position in Iraq, northern Syria and beyond, ready to raid against the so-called Islamic State just as the White House has nominated a top special operations general to take charge of the ISIS fight.
Gen. Joseph Votel, who now heads American special operations forces, will take over U.S. Central Command, replacing Gen. Lloyd Austin if confirmed by the Senate. Votel, 57, previously ran the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite counterterrorist unit behind the new U.S. strike force in Iraq. Those JSOC operators are also working with rebel forces in Syria, as part of their widening footprint across the Mideast and Africa.
Votel’s appointment and the deployment of JSOC to spearhead the ISIS campaign shows that President Barack Obama is entrusting his national security legacy to the same elite group that killed Osama bin Laden—an achievement he made sure to mention in his last-ever State of the Union address.
The Obama administration is counting on the unit’s stepped-up operations over the next year to turn around largely negative public opinion of his track record against ISIS. It’s a perception reinforced by jihadist-inspired attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Jakarta, and Istanbul—not to mention the terror group’s ongoing hold on major cities like Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria. A December Quinnipiac University poll that found 57 percent of Americans surveyed thought the U.S. and its allies are losing the fight against ISIS.
In response, JSOC’s counterterrorist operations have thickened in places like Libya, where a sizeable team of operators work in parallel with French and British Special Forces, three senior U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast. They focus on tracking and sometimes striking key figures with raids and airstrikes, like the November strike that killed ISIS leader Abu Nabil. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The officials predict the JSOC team in Iraq will enable a stepped-up campaign against ISIS in a matter of weeks, working in coordination with the Iraqi government and with Kurdish forces, raiding alongside them inside Iraq and staging unilateral raids into Syria. The strike force’s other major role is to feed intelligence from the CIA, NSA, and other agencies to Iraqi and Kurdish forces to sharpen their anti-ISIS campaign.
The special operations mission inside Syria is at a more embryonic stage, a long way from giving new intelligence and targeting information to rebel troops, according to a senior U.S. official who had been briefed this week on the operations.
“There are multiple complexities driving the assessment. It’s figuring out who is supporting who, and who are we going to be able to work with, and who will we not be able to,” the official said, speaking anonymously as a condition of describing the briefings.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter insisted this week that they are already helping.
“These forces have already established contact with new forces that share our goals, new lines of communication to local, motivated, and capable partners, and new targets for airstrikes and strikes of all kinds,” Carter said in remarks Wednesday. “They are generating new insights that we turn into new targets, new strikes, and new opportunities.”
The Syria-based special operations team has already started feeding important information to the White House.
“We do think we have begun to identify some places where we can have an impact… in the shaping operations for Raqqah,” ISIS’s de facto capital, an administration official said. That can include identifying the routes ISIS uses to resupply its weaponry for targeting, or even identifying segments of the city that might welcome liberation from an outside force.
The White House would not comment on special operations outside Iraq and Syria, but confirmed Obama’s heavy reliance on the elite units in the ISIS fight.
“We have chosen special operations as one of the best ways to support our local forces on the ground… to make sure the victories against ISIS will be locally earned and locally sustainable,” the anonymous senior administration official said of the ISIS fight.
“We are deploying them in a tactical, targeted and limited way, in small enough numbers that we deny ISIS the opportunity to talk about a foreign occupation and use them as a recruiting tool,” the official added.
The White House has also endorsed a special operations takeover of another part of the ISIS fight by putting former Navy SEAL and current head of special operations at the Pentagon, Michael Lumpkin, in charge of a revamped State Department effort to counter ISIS propaganda.
Previous iterations of State’s social messaging campaign included engaging in a public Twitter war with ISIS trolls, considered a mistake by many who practice the dark art known as psychological operations. Lumpkin is expected to leverage his background and relationships to step up the ISIS social media fight by taking it underground.
“Lumpkin understands that ISIS wants a co-dependency with the U.S. government, so to deny them that diminishes their strength,” said a former senior strategist for special operations, speaking anonymously to describe policy debates. He predicted Lumpkin will build a campaign that includes finding ways to enable local voices who are already denouncing ISIS to speak more loudly, while keeping the U.S. government in the background.”
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