May 19 (UPI) -- Top Pentagon officials on Friday announced a shift in tactics in the fight against the Islamic State as a U.S.-led coalition prepares an assault on the group's last remaining strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a press briefing the strategy, which has been authorized by President Donald Trump, will be to encircle IS strongholds prior to engaging with fighters. The rules of engagement governing U.S. forces in the region have also changed, allowing commanders on the ground more flexibility to move troops and engage with IS fighters without seeking clearance from military leaders.
"It is a change in tactics that we now surround these locations, these concentrations of [the] enemy," Mattis said. "No longer will we have slow decision cycles because Washington, D.C., has to authorize tactical movements on the ground."
The pending assault on Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the self-declared capital of the Islamic State caliphate, would constitute the last major offensive in the region. Iraqi forces have largely regained control of Mosul, another city that fell under IS control in 2014.
Mattis said the effort to retake Raqqa would not require the U.S. military to remain in place as guardians once the most significant fighting is over. He said the military's goal will be to degrade the IS presence to a level at which local police can handle the threat.
"You've got to drive them down to a point police can handle it. Police can't handle a force that's driving tanks," Mattis said.
While U.S. military advisers worked in concert with the Iraqi army in the Mosul fight, the Raqqa fight will be different. The U.S. opposes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government in the multi-factional Syrian civil war, meaning there is no cooperation in military operations despite both sides regarding the Islamic State as a common enemy.
Dunford said the U.S. military has established a series of communication links with the Russian military that is backing Assad as a means to avoid potential conflicts while the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition targets the group's remaining strongholds. Both countries are running regular bombing missions in Syrian airspace.
Dunford said the effort is meant to avoid incidents like the one earlier this week, when U.S. forces fired on a convoy of military vehicles belonging to Assad's government after the drivers defied warnings not to approach a U.S. training facility in the city of al-Tanf. Eight Syrian fighters were killed when U.S. warplanes opened fire on the convoy, the Syrian government said.