In a major policy shift, the Obama administration is now open to having American troops take part in direct combat missions against the ISIS, which could lead to the deaths of more soldiers in Iraq and Syria and could also pose political risks for the White House.
In testimony Tuesday in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Ash Carter laid out changes to regain momentum against the terrorist group.
Since the summer of 2014, U.S.-led airstrikes on ISIS haven’t had the impact American military officials hoped they would. According to the Institute for the Study of War, ISIS has lost territory in some areas, including along the Syria–Turkey border but gained in others, including in and around Palmyra.
This lack of progress led Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to last month describe the fight against ISIS as “tactically stalemated” with no “dramatic gains on either side.”
He predicted it would take “a decade or more to resolve.”
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Carter wants to “gather battlefield momentum” against ISIS by shifting the strategy, which entails more airstrikes and special operations raids against the terrorist group. The United States “won’t hold back from 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 said. ISIL is one of the U.S. government’s terms for ISIS.
Carter’s assertion differs from the “no boots on the ground” mandate that was reiterated ad nauseum by officials in the Obama administration since last year when the airstrikes started. The move also comes after weeks of Russian airstrikes on Syria to back President Bashar al-Assad.
“The changes we’re pursuing can be described by what I call the ‘three R’s’: Raqqa, Ramadi, and Raids,” Carter said. He said the campaign was evolving as U.S. forces sought to reinforce efforts on ISIS strongholds in both Iraq and Syria.
Carter said the first “R” aims at taking back Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS-held territory in Syria. This includes continued support with training and giving equipment to Syrian Kurds.
He also expects the air campaign to intensify, with more aircraft and at a higher pace. The U.S. military won’t hold back in supporting local forces with “strikes from the air or direct action on the ground,” Carter said.
“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. If it is done as the United States intends, the attacks “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” stands for Ramadi, in Iraq, which has been under fire from a combination of Iraqi Security Forces, Shiite militias, and Sunni tribesmen since ISIS took it in May. 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 added.
The final “R” stands for more raids, the most aggressive action that the Untied States has taken against ISIS. Last week, a raid on an ISIS prison holding hostages that faced imminent executions led to the killing of the first U.S. soldier in Iraq since 2011 when combat troops were pulled from the country.
The raids include either “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,” Carter said. He cited last week’s raid where U.S. troops worked in support of Kurdish forces to rescue the prisoners.
Carter stressed the raids “should all serve notice to ISIL and other terrorist leaders that once we locate them, no target is beyond our reach.”