Terri Moon Cronk, DoD News
The U.S. military remains determined to defeat Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant extremist forces and effectively adapts its campaign as conditions evolve in Iraq and Syria, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Forces Committee Tuesday.
Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. testified before the full committee on U.S. military strategy in the Middle East, including Russian involvement in Syria.
The secretary first acknowledged Congress for last night’s “significant progress” toward a multi-year defense budget deal. A multi-year deal would support the defense strategy, troops and their families; and all elements of America’s national security and strength, he said. “I welcome this major positive development and applaud the members of this committee for what you’re doing to help us get there.”
Turning to U.S. strategy in the Middle East, Carter called the region a kaleidoscope of challenges, and added, “ISIL poses a threat to our people and friendly countries, not only in the Middle East, but around the world.”
While changes in U.S. strategy are under way, he reemphasized that a lasting ISIL defeat will require enabling capable and motivated local ground forces, recognizing the campaign will take time and energetic diplomacy, and strengthening the execution of U.S. strategy.
The secretary reminded Congress that defeating ISIL and protecting America requires coordinated efforts across the nine lines of effort put forth in the president’s strategy to counter ISIL, such as “supporting effective governance in Iraq, enhancing intelligence collection, disrupting ISIL’s financing, countering ISIL’s messaging, stopping the flow of foreign fighters, providing humanitarian support, and protecting the homeland -- where other departments and agencies of our government have the lead,” he said.
Strategy of ‘The Three Rs’
DoD is pursuing a strategy that Carter called the “three R’s” – Raqqa, Ramadi and Raids.
-- Raqqa: ISIL has made Raqqa its Syrian headquarters, which has resulted in the city -- located about 100 miles east of Aleppo -- becoming the target of fierce ground fighting and numerous airstrikes by coalition as well as Syrian and Russian forces.
“We will support moderate Syrian forces fighting ISIL that have made territorial gains near Raqqa,” Carter said, adding that DoD plans to strengthen the Syrian Arab Coalition by working with other Syrian anti-ISIL forces to push toward Raqqa.
DoD also expects to strengthen U.S. partner Jordan and intensify the air campaign, Additional U.S. and coalition aircraft will target ISIL with a “higher and heavier rate of strikes” as intelligence improves to focus on high-value ISIL areas -- such as its oil enterprise, which Carter called “a critical pillar” of the extremist group’s financial infrastructure. “We’ve already begun to ramp up these deliberate strikes,” he said.
More pressure on Raqqa is expected to result from the new Syrian train-and-equip program, which would work with vetted leaders of groups that are now fighting ISIL, and provide equipment, some training and airpower support to their operations.
“This approach builds on successes that local Syrian Arab and Syrian Kurdish forces have made along Syria’s northern border to retake and hold ground from ISIL with the help of U.S. airstrikes and equipment resupplies,” Carter said.
Actions on the ground and from the air are expected to help shrink ISIL’s territory into a smaller area and create new opportunities to target the extremists while “ultimately denying this evil movement any safe haven,” the secretary added.
-- Ramadi: Ramadi’s strategic location on the highway that connects Iraq with Syria and Jordan made it a prized target for ISIL, which took the city in May 2015. Iraq’s forces have been working to retake the city, and Carter called their efforts “a critical example of [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s] government’s commitment to work with local Sunni communities with our help to retake and hold ground from ISIL and in turn, build momentum to eventually go northward to Mosul.”
Iraq’s use of American-made F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft to fight ISIL has also empowered capable battlefield commanders, the defense secretary said. “As we see more progress toward assembling capable and motivated Iraqi forces under Baghdad’s control and including Sunni elements, we are willing to continue providing more enabling capabilities and fire support to help our Iraqi partners succeed,” he said.
But, Carter said, Iraq’s government and security forces must take certain steps militarily to ensure lasting success, such as building a more multi-sectarian governance and defense leadership, which is needed for the Iraq government to “effectively distribute” U.S. equipment to mobilize Sunni tribal forces.
“If local Sunni forces aren’t sufficiently equipped, regularly paid, and empowered as co-equal members of the Iraqi Security Forces, ISIL’s defeats in Anbar [province]will only be temporary,” the defense secretary said.
-- Raids: Raids prove to ISIL that the U.S. and its coalition partners “won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks or conducting such missions directly,” Carter said, noting the success of last week’s attack by Iraqi Kurdish forces on an ISIL prison with support from U.S. special operations forces. The raid freed 70 hostages, and airstrikes later destroyed the prison. The secretary expressed his condolences over the death of Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler that resulted from the raid.
Similarly, recent the raid earlier this year on the home of high-level ISIL commander Abu Sayyaf and strikes against ISIL hacker Junaid Hussain and ISIL strategist Sanafi al-Nasr, “should serve notice to ISIL and other terrorist leaders that once we locate them, no target is beyond our reach,” Carter said.
Russia Won’t Impact Counter-ISIL Campaign
“To be clear, we are not cooperating with Russia, and we are not letting Russia impact the pace or scope of our campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria,” the secretary said.
Despite the recently signed U.S.-Russia agreement for coalition air safety protocol over Syria, the U.S. military continues to support the moderate Syrian opposition along with other commitments to friends and allies in the region, he said.
“We do not align ourselves more broadly with [Russian] military actions, because instead of singularly attacking ISIL, they are primarily attacking the Syrian opposition,” Carter said, noting that such Russian actions suggest a doubling-down on its longstanding relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.