Defense Secretary James N. Mattis left yesterday on a six-day trip to meet with defense leaders from around the world to chart the way ahead against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The secretary is now in Rome and will move on to Brussels for this year’s first NATO defense ministerial, before traveling on to Stuttgart to visit U.S. Africa and European commands, finally wrapping up his trip in Munich to attend the 54th Munich Security Conference.
Mattis said the fight against ISIS has gone well, but that hard fighting remains. He said the terror group has been pushed out of Iraq, but is still a problem in Syria’s Euphrates River Valley.
The battlespace there is complex, the defense secretary said, with Assad regime forces violating the deconfliction line at the river, forcing a coalition response. “We crossed the river in Tabqa, for example, all coordinated with … through the Russians, and in this case, [regime forces] came across the river and went some 10 miles, veered directly toward one of our positions,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him. “They knew it was our position. How do we know that? Because they began shelling it.”
There were Americans at the position and they responded and stopped the incursion. The Syrian force retreated back to the west side of the river.
“In Rome, we'll be talking about the way ahead, and this has to do also with the recovery efforts for the area that were occupied by ISIS,” he said. “As you know, they tore the heck out of those places, and so there's a lot of recovery that's got to go on, and we'll be talking about that as well.”
Recovery will be important in the affected areas. Removing improvised explosive devices; opening schools; and restoring basic services such as water, electricity and gas will be crucial to stopping the terror group from coming back.
In Brussels, the secretary will participate in the first NATO defense ministers meeting since the release of the National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review. He has received praise from allies on the documents.
The secretary will stress alliance modernization and burden-sharing. He wants all allies to carry their full shares of the load. “[NATO] is engaged in fighting now as you know in Afghanistan,” he said. “Afghanistan will be a key part of the discussion there in Brussels. And as you know, we remain unambiguously committed to the alliance and to our allies, and that comes through loud and clear in the National Defense Strategy and underneath the White House National Security Strategy.”
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