The US is prepared to use “direct action on the ground” against Islamic State targets, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told lawmakers. He also promised ramped-up airstrikes and support for Iraqi forces besieging Ramadi.
“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,” Carter told the Senate Armed Services committee.
Carter’s announcement comes following the news that Sergeant Joshua Wheeler of the Delta Force was killed during a hostage rescue raid in northern Iraq last week. A number of Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) militants were killed in the operation, which recovered 69 captives the Pentagon says were in danger of imminent execution.
“We expect to intensify our air campaign, including with additional U.S. and coalition aircraft, to target ISIL with a higher and heavier rate of strikes,” Carter said in his opening remarks, adding that the strikes would focus on high-value targets and IS oil facilities. “We’ve already begun to ramp up these deliberate strikes.”
As of Monday, three days had passed without any airstrikes in Syria by the US-led coalition, AFP reported. In that period, Russian jets flew 164 sorties, hitting 285 targets, reported the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Carter’s statement comes four days after White House spokesman Eric Schultz said President Obama has “no intention to authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operation like our nation has conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The Kremlin does not consider Carter’s statement on possible US ground operations in Syria a proper announcement, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
“We need to figure out the details of what was meant,” Peskov told reporters.
The committee, chaired by Arizona Republican John McCain, spent almost three hours grilling Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, over US strategy in the Middle East. McCain blamed the current situation in the region for what he said was the Obama administration’s strategy of trying to extract the US from the Middle East, creating a power vacuum exploited by IS, Iran and Russia. Carter attempted to dodge the lawmakers’ insistence that the US ought to defend the Syrian rebels who has been trained and equipped both by the Pentagon and the CIA: McCain: Russian aircraft are bombing moderate Syrian forces in Syria while we have deconflicted. Do you believe we should be protecting those young people? Carter: We have an obligation to protect – we stated that. McCain: Are we protecting them? Carter: They have not come under attack by either Assad or Russian forces. McCain: I’m asking about moderate Syrian forces, someone that we train and equip, moderate Syrian forces that are now being bombed by Russia- Carter: With respect to the title 10 forces – they have not come under attack… McCain: None of the moderate forces that some of whom we trained become under attack by Russia from the air? It’s fascinating.
When Carter carefully avoided pledging aid to those forces backed by the CIA and several US allies in the region in their fight against the government in Damascus, McCain accused him of making a “distinction without a difference.” “These are American-supported and coalition-supported men who are being slaughtered,” McCain said. The Defense Secretary eventually fended off further questions about the CIA-backed rebels by saying that ought to be a matter for a closed session.
Senators appeared unimpressed by Carter’s promise of ground operations against IS, focusing instead on questions about setting up a no-fly zone over Syria and establishing “safe areas” on the ground – a strategy proposed by several notable military and political figures who have testified before the committee.
While the US military had the capability to establish both the safe areas and a no-fly zone, “the challenges are political, legal, and a diversion of resources” from fighting IS, Gen. Dunford said.
Carter said the safe zones would be contested by IS and Al-Nusra – an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria – and would require ground troops to defend. “We do not have a concept of operations for a no-fly zone that we’re prepared to recommend,” the Defense Secretary added.
Another point of contention between the Senators and the Secretary was the issue of priorities in Syria. Pressed by lawmakers, Carter said the primary US objective was to fight IS, but would like to “see Assad no longer running the country.”
The confusion of priorities has led Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to remark that the US-led coalition “has no common understanding who poses a terrorist threat in Syria.”