Anti-ISIS command handed over in Iraq, Syria amid regional tensions

Lt.-Gen. Paul Calvert takes over after a year where the US-led coalition, which is fighting ISIS, handed over eight facilities to Iraq and confronted the Covid-19 crisis.

A Coalition convoy of US led international coalition against ISIS stops to test fire their M2 machine guns and MK19 grenade launcher in the Middle Euphrates River Valley in the Deir Ezzor province, Syria, November 22, 2018 (photo credit: COURTESY MATTHEW CRANE/US ARMY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A Coalition convoy of US led international coalition against ISIS stops to test fire their M2 machine guns and MK19 grenade launcher in the Middle Euphrates River Valley in the Deir Ezzor province, Syria, November 22, 2018
As the US continues to lead and support the coalition against Islamic State in Iraq it now has a new general in charge as well as a new spokesperson for the coalition. 
The US intends to draw down more troops in Iraq, from some 5,200 to about 3,000.
The US has transferred facilities at numerous bases shared with the Iraqis to full Iraqi control. This has come amid tensions with Russia in Syria and with Iran in Iraq. The coalition has helped train and mentor some 200,000 Iraqi personnel.
The new commander of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) is Lt.-Gen. Paul Calvert of the III Armored Corps. In 2019, Lt.-Gen. Pat White took command from Lt.-Gen. Paul LaCamera, who had taken over from Lt.-Gen. Paul Funk II in 2018. Previously, Lt.-Gen. Stephen Townsend took over from Lt.-Gen. Sean MacFarland, who had received the command from Lt.-Gen. James Terry in 2015.
The command had some 60 partner nations by 2015 and now has about 80.
“I am confident [that Calvert] will continue to build on the progress the coalition has made, and as we move forward he will remain committed to our mutual goals of the enduring defeat of ISIS, and the long-term security, stability and prosperity of Iraq,” CENTCOM commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said during the handover ceremony.
The coalition also has a new spokesman as Col. Myles Caggins III handed over his role to Col. Wayne Marotto. Caggins bid an emotional farewell to partner forces over the last week after a flight to meet with the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria and also Kurdish Peshmerga in Erbil in northern Iraq.
"We must never forget the men and women who were willing to face death on behalf of innocent civilians," he said at a farewell address.
Caggins, who tweeted in Kurdish, Arabic and other languages to highlight the coalition's efforts against ISIS, was a key part of the coalition's efforts over the past year. 
CENTCOM is responsible for a swath of operations across Iraq and Syria. However, the US has generally transitioned from advise-and-assist missions, including special operations and direct support, to train-and-equip missions. It now has a very light footprint that often eschews even training during the COVID-19 crisis.
It still carries out airstrikes against ISIS and has armored vehicles in Syria amid US attempts to secure oil fields.
In Syria, the key to stability is the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group of fighters led mostly by Kurds who defeated ISIS and now secure eastern Syria. They are pressured in the north by Turkey and Russia, the former wanting to fight them and the latter wanting the Syrian regime to control more.
In Deir Ezzor, the SDF is pressured by the Syrian regime, Iran and ISIS, all of which seek to stir up tribal tensions.
THIS MEANS the US-led mission must handle many challenges that are very different in Iraq than in Syria. In Iraq, Washington has deployed air-defense systems after dozens of rocket attacks on US facilities. Now that the US has handed over Camp Taji and six other facilities, it basically only has forces at Al-Asad base, Union III in Baghdad, near the airport and also near Erbil in the Kurdistan region.
The Kurdistan region appears to be where coalition forces are safest after recent bombing attacks on supply trucks en route to coalition forces. Last December, a coalition contractor was killed near Kirkuk. In March, three members of the coalition were killed by Iranian-backed groups, which demanded that the US leave.
The Iranian-backed groups are mostly affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Units, or Hashd al-Shaabi, a militia that is now a part of the security forces. There also are about four other Iran-linked groups that have popped up to claim responsibility for attacks.
Fighting ISIS, which is the coalition’s mandate, is hampered by tensions with Iran, Russia and others. Last year, the coalition had Security Force Assistance Brigades deployed in Nineveh, near Mosul. But today, that role is largely gone, and it is unclear what comes next.
It is also unclear if European countries will backfill the US drawdown. France’s president was in Baghdad recently, and countries, including Hungary, have supported the Kurdish Peshmerga. But it is unclear whether the UK and others will continue a major role in Iraq, especially if they think the White House is not committed.
Last year saw “significant progress and change for the CJTF,” the coalition statement said. “As a result of partner force success, the coalition transferred sites inside of eight Iraqi bases to full government of Iraq control.”
In fact, the Iranian tensions and COVID-19 contributed to these transfers.
“CJTF-OIR support in Iraq is now centralized, as coalition advisor teams in Baghdad and Erbil provide specialized planning mentorship to ISF [Iraqi Security Force] directorates overseeing operations, logistics, intelligence and other military functions,” the coalition said. “All elements will assist the ISF with operational planning, intelligence fusion and air support for Iraqi-led military operations to defeat the Daesh threat in Iraq.”