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New Obama Strategy for Fighting the Islamic State Involves More Boots on the Ground

After months of promising to keep U.S. forces out of harm’s way, the administration is now open to giving them a direct combat role.

isis strategy

In a major shift, the Obama administration is now willing to have U.S. troops take part in direct combat against the Islamic State, a move that could lead to American fatalities in Iraq and Syria and that poses political risks for a White House that had long vowed to keep U.S. forces out of the fight.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that 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.” ISIL is an alternate acronym for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or Daesh.

Carter’s comments follow his assertion last week that he is “absolutely prepared” for a larger U.S. ground combat role in Iraq — even though those types of missions would carry the clear risk of American casualties. Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, a member of the Army’s elite Delta Force, was killed last week during a raid on an Islamic State prison. A 39-year-old father of four, Wheeler was the first American service member to die in combat in Iraq since 2011.

Testifying along with Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford added that in addition to special operations raids, he would be open to embedding U.S. troops with Iraqi combat forces to help provide them with intelligence, direct airstrikes, and artillery fire but only if their deployment “had an operational or strategic impact” on the fight.

The shift in thinking from months of pledges of “no boots on the ground” to one that embraces an active combat role comes as the Obama administration looks for ways to reinvigorate a stalled fight in Iraq, where the Islamic State retains control of several key cities. It also comes amid an intensifying Russian military intervention in neighboring Syria, where Vladimir Putin has promised to battle the Islamic State but instead has focused most of his airstrikes on the rebels working to unseat Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.

Carter called the new strategy “Raqqa, Ramadi, and raids,” referring first to the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, followed by the Iraqi city of Ramadi that was taken by jihadi forces in May, and finally to the potential new American ground role in the fight.

In Syria, Carter said the United States would continue advising and equipping Syrian opposition groups and Kurdish fighters while also launching new air raids against the Islamic State, particularly in and around Raqqa. There has been little evidence of that air war in recent days, however, with only two airstrikes in Syria since Oct. 22, both near the town of Mara. A spokesperson for U.S. Central Command said the current lull is simply “a matter of timing” while the coalition gathers more intelligence on potential targets.

The second “R” in the new strategy is Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province that was taken by a few hundred Islamic State fighters in May. Iraqi troops have been slowly encircling the city for weeks and are methodically working their way through layers of minefields with which the Islamic State has ringed the city, according to U.S. officials. Still, it’s not clear when a full-scale offensive to reclaim the city will begin or whether Iraqi forces will be able to accomplish the mission without significant U.S. help — and potentially large amounts of Russian and Iranian assistance as well.

Across the border in Syria, a few dozen Syrian fighters who had been trained and equipped by U.S. forces as part of a failed $500 million program are still in the fight, Dunford said. Despite the cancellation of the program, the general said they continue to receive American aid and have been active in calling in airstrikes on Islamic State positions.

Carter also outlined a change in the training effort for Syrian moderate fighters, saying that while the old approach was to identify, vet, and transport fighters out of Syria for weeks of training, the new approach is to work with trusted leaders of groups that are already fighting the Islamic State and “provide equipment and some training to them and support their operations with air power.”

Carter and Dunford were repeatedly pressed on the issue of what kind of support the United States was prepared to offer these Syrian fighters when they come under attack, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) repeatedly framing the issue as a moral one. Neither defense official was willing to offer specifics, but Dunford did admit that “we have the authority, and we have the capability” to defend them through air power. But when asked directly if the United States was ready to defend the rebels from Russian airstrikes, he denied that the main U.S.-backed group, the Free Syrian Army, had been targeted by Russian aircraft.

Photo credit: U.S. Army