Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that the US mission against ISIS has changed somewhat, along the lines of what he called “the three R’s”: Raqqa, Ramadi, and raids. In Syria, the US will focus its mission on backing a mostly-Kurdish offensive to dislodge ISIS from Raqqa, the groups “capital.” In Iraq, the US will stop insisting that the Iraqi army attempt to liberate Mosul and will instead support the Iraqis in retaking Ramadi, which is what the Iraqis have been pushing. And finally, US special forces will be engaging in more direct combat action against ISIS, in raids like last Thursday’s joint US-Kurdish raid in Hawija, Iraq, that freed 70 prisoners and resulted in the first US combat death in fighting against ISIS.
Some of this seems pretty self-explanatory; the idea that the Iraqi army was going to be ready to take Mosul anytime soon is completely unrealistic, and focusing on Raqqa is a way for the US to continue (or even expand) its air campaign in Syria without antagonizing Russia and potentially damaging whatever slim chance exists for a political settlement to the civil war. But parts of the plan seem new-ish. Carter says that the US is going insist that the Ramadi operation be “multi-sectarian,” which means, among other things, that Baghdad has to give Sunni tribal forces the US arms and equipment that Washington intends to give them, which hasn’t been happening so much to this point. This makes retaking Ramadi not only an important goal in its own right, but also important as a kind of dress rehearsal for an eventual push on Mosul.
The biggest news is obviously that raids like the one last week are going to become more common. There have already been a couple apart from the one last week, like that raid in Syria in May that resulted in the death of a reportedly high-level ISIS operative. The administration may also consider putting adviser/trainer forces in Syria, presumably attached to an FSA unit, and putting airstrike spotters near the front lines in Iraq. None of this quite reaches the level of direct combat, but that’s kind of splitting hairs. These forces would all be incurring significantly more risk than any US forces have incurred in the anti-ISIS operation thus far.
These moves, particularly the prospect of US forces being put in combat zones and/or engaging in regular armed raids, underscores just how desperately Congress needs to get over its complete institutional dysfunction and put together a new Authorization to Use Military Force that is specific to the anti-ISIS mission. The legal basis for putting US forces into or near direct combat in Syria and Iraq right now is basically ¯\_(シ)_/¯ without Congressional action, which means that the US operation is both poorly defined and pretty open-ended. In the absence of Congressional oversight, tiny changes/escalations like these are how you get from “adviser” to “air support” to “full-blown war.”
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