WASHINGTON – Friday afternoon, the Senate confirmed retired Gen. James Mattis to run the Pentagon in President Donald Trump’s new administration.
Mattis will serve as the 26th Secretary of Defense after retiring a few years ago as a decades-long serving Marine.
Mattis could be carrying orders from Trump on immediate changes, the official said, but the Pentagon leadership in place during the transition has not been briefed on any expected immediate significant decisions. But that could change quickly, the official noted.
All current military authorities for commanders and troops to undertake operations are still effective and are expected to stay in place for now, the official said. Military operations, including airstrikes and training and advising local forces in Iraq and Syria, will remain in effect unless Trump orders changes to current rules governing those operations.
The rules for the use of special operations forces to target, capture or kill so-called high-value targets in counter-terrorism operations will also remain in place.
But under President Barack Obama, these types of high-risk missions, which often included deployments US troops on the ground, have required specific presidential approval in each case. For example, Obama personally approved the mission to strike ISIS camps in Libya on Thursday.
It will be up to Trump to decide if he wants to change the way approvals are done for such missions, the official said.
Another issue Trump will have to decide is the pace and number of meetings of the National Security Council, as well as the “principals’ meetings” — the most senior officials involved in national security.
For now, Dunford and Work plan to focus with Mattis a broad range of topics. On ISIS, they will discuss the status of the campaign and try to get an understanding of what the new administration’s specific goals are in fighting the terror group. As a candidate, Trump had called for military commanders to give him a plan to accelerate the fight against ISIS within 30 days of his taking office.
But defense officials have said that before they can present options to the new president they need more details about exactly what he wants to achieve militarily. Options presented will include a discussion of the risks they present and what additional progress against ISIS can be expected.
One key question will be whether Trump will change the Obama policy and agree that Syria’s Bashar al Assad should remain in power. That could open the door to the US military cooperating and coordinating with the Russian military in the skies over Syria, the official said.
There are already a number of military options developed under the Obama administration for accelerating the fight against ISIS.
They were not approved by the Obama White House, a second defense official told CNN. And there is no firm decision yet on what options will be presented to Trump until the military learns more about what his specific military objective is.
To boost the fight to retake Raqqa, one option is to begin to arm Kurdish fighters. That was never approved by Obama due to concerns it would deeply alienate Turkey. US relations with Turkey have suffered strains, and there have been concerns the Turks could restrict US access to airbases in that country.
Another option that could be presented is to send more US troops into Syria to engage in combat around Raqqa to help push ISIS fighters out. But US military officials continue to strongly insist they do not support putting US troops or Kurdish fighters directly into Raqqa.