Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has laid out changes to the Obama administration’s anti-ISIS strategy that will lead to more airstrikes and special operations raids against ISIS, saying they will “gather battlefield momentum.”
The changes are intended to build on the Obama administration’s strategy to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria where the tactical fight against the terror group has stalemated.
“The changes we’re pursuing can be described by what I call the “three R’s” — Raqqa, Ramadi, and Raids,” Carter said in testimony Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The idea of more raids builds on Carter’s previous comments at a Pentagon news conference Friday that there would be more raids similar to the one where American special operations forces assisted Kurdish troops in the rescue of 70 hostages held by ISIS.
Carter did not recommend the creation of a buffer zone, no-fly zone or humanitarian zone that has been advocated by several members of Congress.
He said the first “R” stands for the line of effort to challenge ISIS control of Raqqa, the city that is the group’s de facto capital in Syria. That would include the continued support with equipment and training to Syrian Kurds and the Syrian Arab Coalition that have already been the recipients of equipment and training from the Pentagon’s remodeled Syrian rebel train and equip program.
Carter also said there would be an intensification of the air campaign against ISIS with more aircraft “with a higher and heavier rate of strikes.”
“This will include more strikes against ISIL high-value targets as our intelligence improves, and also its oil enterprise, which is a critical pillar of ISIL’s financial infrastructure,“ he said, using the government’s acronym for ISIS. ”If done in concert as we intend, all these actions on the ground and from the air should help shrink ISIL’s territory into a smaller and smaller area and create new opportunities for targeting ISIL — ultimately denying this evil movement any safe haven in its supposed heartland.”
The second “R” is Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province taken by ISIS earlier this year. As Iraqi forces build up to retake the city Carter said “we are willing to continue providing more enabling capabilities and fire support to help our Iraqi partners succeed.”
“However, the Iraqi government and security forces will have to take certain steps militarily to make sure progress sticks,” he said.
That progress includes better leadership and multi-sectarian governance, such as making sure Sunni tribal forces get the equipment the United States has provided to them to fight ISIS in Anbar Province.
While Carter did not detail how the administration would provide more enabling capabilities, the Obama administration is weighing options that could put U.S. troops in much closer range of combat in Iraq and Syria.
In Iraq, one option under consideration would place forward air controllers alongside Iraqi troops so they could call in airstrikes to make it easier to find and confirm targets. Currently, U.S. forces in Iraq are calling in those airstrikes from a headquarters or cell removed from the Iraqi troops on the ground.
The Third “R” stands for more raids either by supporting “supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL, or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground.” He cited last week’s raid where U.S. advisers were in support of the Kurdish led rescue mission.
Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, a highly decorated Delta Force leader and father of four, was killed during the mission. Wheeler had survived 14 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was this “train and assist” mission, a mission that was not supposed to involve U.S. troops in combat, that ultimately took his life.
“While our mission in Iraq is to train, advise, and assist our Iraqi partners, in situations such as that operation – where we have actionable intelligence and a capable partner force – we want to support our partners,” said Carter.
He noted that previous raids like the one in Syria against ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf and airstrikes against Junaid Hussain and Sanafi al-Nasr “should all serve notice to ISIL and other terrorist leaders that once we locate them, no target is beyond our reach.”
The President may also consider putting a small team of U.S. special operations troops on the ground in Syria, according to the Washington Post. These forces would advise and assist the U.S.-backed moderate Syrian rebels. The U.S. has done quick raids in Syria, but nothing that keeps troops there in a more permanent way.
The options in Iraq and Syria would not, on paper, put the U.S. forces in direct combat. However, it’s always a possibility.
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