US mulls direct ground raids in fight against Isis in Syria and Iraq
The US military will intensify airstrikes and may carry out unilateral ground raids as it steps up efforts against militants after a failed attempt to train Syrian rebels, according to the defence secretary, Ash Carter.
Speaking to the Senate armed services committee days after participating in a Kurdish-led , Carter said similar missions were likely as US forces adapted to the fight in Syria and Iraq.
“We won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against Isil [Isis] or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground,” Carter said.
He did not say under what circumstances the US might conduct more ground action, but added: “Once we locate them, no target is beyond our reach.”
Separately, reports in Iran say that the foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, and his deputies will attend . If confirmed, it will be the first time Tehran, the main regional backer of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has attended an international summit on the war.
Carter testified before the Senate armed services committee alongside Marine Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Republicans harshly criticised the US administration’s strategy in and Iraq, where Isis militants have captured large swaths of territory and have largely fought the US-led coalition to a stalemate.
With little recent progress in defeating the militant group, the defence secretary’s testimony outlined a changing US approach to the fight against Isis. The changes point towards the prospect of deeper US military involvement, although President has said he would not authorise a major commitment of ground combat forces.
Among other options being considered is close-air support for Iraqi ground forces with Apache helicopters or other aircraft, and embedding advisers with smaller Iraqi units, thus placing the Americans closer to the frontlines. That’s according to defence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The US now has about 3,300 troops in to train and advise Iraqi forces and to protect US facilities. There are no US troops in Syria.
The changes Carter cited focus largely on targeting Raqqa, the militants’ declared capital in Syria, and recapturing Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq, which Isis fighters captured in May and have successfully defended so far.
In Syria, Carter said the US will support moderate Syrian forces fighting Isis militants, who have made territorial gains near Raqqa. “In the new train-and-equip effort that we described today, we will look to identify and then support capable and motivated forces on Syrian territory that are willing to take on [Isis],” Carter said. “We have identified some of them already. And the new approach is to enable them, train them and equip them, rather than trying to create such forces anew, which was the previous approach.”
A Department of Defense programme to train and equip moderate rebels to combat Isis was a failure, and CIA-backed rebels fighting Assad are now under attack by Russian bombers.
In Iraq, Carter said the US is willing to provide more firepower and other support if the Iraqi government can create a motivated force that includes ethnic Sunnis.
“We’ve given the Iraqi government two battalions worth of equipment for mobilising 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 will only be temporary,” Carter said.
Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency reported on Wednesday that a delegation will attend the talks over Syria’s future later this week.
Officials in Washington earlier insisted that a “genuine multilateral invitation” had been extended, reversing longstanding opposition to Iran’s participation in discussions about ending the Syrian civil war.
Nearly two years ago, a similar offer for Iran to attend an earlier round of talks in Geneva was , after fierce opposition from the US, Britain and Syrian opposition groups.
But continued bloodshed and diplomatic stalemate have combined with a worsening refugee crisis and new Russian military intervention to put pressure on the international community to find a fresh political approach to ending the war.
The presence of Iran – which, along with Russia, has been a crucial ally of the Syrian government – could be a key factor in bringing the competing external players in the conflict to a common agreement on how to end it.
The US insists a central goal of the peace talks also remains the removal of Assad, who it says has been responsible for too many civilian deaths to remain a credible part of any future government.
“The ultimate goal that everyone wants to get to … is to come up with a framework for a successful political transition in which leads to a government not led by Bashar al-Assad and that is representative of and responsive to the Syrian people,” Department of State spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.