U.S. ‘Direct Action’ Against the Islamic State

Defense Secretary Ash Carter says the U.S. will step up its operations against the group in Iraq and Syria.

Kevin Wolf / AP

Defense Secretary Ash Carter says the U.S. will step up its operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including through “direct action on the ground.”

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter said the changed policy against the Islamic State would focus on what he called the three Rs: Raqqa, Ramadi, and raids.

He said the U.S. will support moderate Syrian rebels who have made territorial gains near the Raqqa, the Islamic State’s stronghold and administrative capital. In the Iraqi city of Ramadi, meanwhile, he said, the Iraqi government has worked with the local Sunni community to retake ground from the Islamic State and will move north toward the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city that is held by the group. Outlining the strategy on raids, the third R, Carter said:

We 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.

ISIL is another name for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS.

The comments appear to signal acknowledgment by the Obama administration that its strategy against the Islamic State has had limited success. Last month, General Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, said the $500 million American effort to train 5,400 troops had resulted in some “four or five” fighters still in the field.  Carter announced this month the U.S. was looking at other ways to train support the rebels.

Carter’s remarks Tuesday appear to reflect a change in strategy by the Obama administration whose national-security advisers have recommended that U.S. troops be moved closer to the front lines in Iraq and Syria, according to The Washington Post. Here’s more:

The debate over the proposed steps, which would for the first time position a limited number of Special Operations forces on the ground in Syria and put U.S. advisers closer to the firefights in Iraq, comes as Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter presses the military to deliver new options for greater military involvement in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The changes would represent a significant escalation of the American role in Iraq and Syria. They still require formal approval from Obama, who could make a decision as soon as this week and could decide not to alter the current course, said U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions are still ongoing. It’s unclear how many additional troops would be required to implement the changes being considered by the president, but the number for now is likely to be relatively small, these officials said.

On Friday, commenting on an operation in Iraq to rescue dozens of prisoners held by the Islamic State that resulted in the death of an American serviceman, Carter said: “I expect we’ll do more of this sort of thing,” he said, before adding: “It doesn’t represent us entering the combat role.”

U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, and remain there in an advisory role.

On Tuesday, Carter told lawmakers U.S. operations against the Islamic State will focus on the group’s oil infrastructure, a major source of revenue for the group.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina criticized the U.S. strategy in Syria, pointing out that it appeared to be focused solely on the Islamic State and not President Bashar Assad, who the U.S. says must step down from power. Assad is fighting several rebel groups, including the Islamic State, in a nearly five-year-long civil war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and created more than 4 million refugees.

Assad is now supported by Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State and other groups opposed to his regime, including those supported by the West.

“If I’m Assad this is a good day for me because the American government has just said, without saying it, that they are not going to fight to replace me,” Graham said.

At the State Department, spokesman John Kirby signaled a shift in the diplomatic track, too, saying Iran—a key Assad ally—had been invited to international talks over Syria’s future.

“The ultimate goal that everyone wants to get to … is to come up with a framework for a successful political transition in Syria which leads to a government not led by Bashar al-Assad and that is representative of and responsive to the Syrian people,” Kirby said.