Update: While it's not entirely clear whether this represents an explicit pivot or simply amounts to a reiteration of comments US defense officials made in the wake of the ISIS prison raid that freed some 70 captives in Iraq and led to the first US casualty in ground combat since 2011, the media is alive with reports this evening which indicate that Defense Secretary Ash Carter may be set to send more spec ops ground troops to Iraq and "engage directly" in Syria. Here's CNN with the official White House-approved line:
The U.S. is considering increasing its attacks on ISIS through more ground action and airstrikes, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday.
Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. "won't hold back" from supporting partners carrying out such attacks or from "conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground."
The White House, however, has yet to make a decision on the options for upping the campaign against ISIS, according to defense and administration sources. They said that further involvement on the ground was one of the possibilities being presented.
The ground option Carter mentioned to the committee was part of a three-prong effort -- which he dubbed the "three Rs" -- to adapt the U.S. policy on countering ISIS.
Meanwhile, a few notable US lawmakers had some colorful remarks for Carter. First there was uber hawk John McCain insisiting that the Russians and the Assad regime are "slaughtering" the moderates:
Committee Chairman John McCain of Arizona peppered Carter with questions about how the U.S. would protect forces as Russia carries out airstrikes that have been hitting forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"Are we going to protect them from being barrel bombed by Bashar Assad and protected from Russia?" McCain asked.
"We have an obligation to do that. We made that clear right from the beginning of the train-and-equip program," Carter said.
"We haven't done it. We haven't done it," McCain disagreed.
Carter said to date, no forces that have been part of the U.S. training program have come under attack from Russian forces, but McCain once again disagreed.
"I promise you they have," McCain said. "You will have to correct the record. ... These are American-supported and coalition-supported men who are going in and being slaughtered."
And here's Lindsey Graham's assessment:
"This is a half-assed strategy at best."
On that point will not protest.
* * *
In addition to increased ground action and airstrikes, or "raids," Carter also spoke of the need to increase pressure around the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria, where "we will support moderate Syrian forces" fighting the terror organization there.
When analyzing geopolitics it’s important to try and skate ahead of the puck, so to speak. That is, while it’s useful to understand what’s going on now, it’s even more imperative to analyze the situation in an attempt to understand how the situation is likely to evolve going forward.
As it relates to the Mid-East, that means looking past Syria and on to Iraq. As we’ve outlined in great detail of late, there’s every reason to suspect that Russia will expand its airstrikes across the Syrian border and indeed, Baghdad has reportedly given Moscow the go-ahead to hit ISIS convoys fleeing Syria into Iraqi territory. This is in direct contradiction to what PM Haider al-Abadi told Gen. Joseph Dunford last week and suggests that Baghdad is about to pivot East, after becoming frustrated with a lack of results stemming from more than a year of US airstrikes against Islamic State targets.
It’s critical to note that Iran (via the IRGC and, more specifically, the Quds Force) controls Iraqi politics and the Iraqi armed forces. This means that Russia will find an extremely receptive environment when it comes to expanding the air campaign beyond Syria. We won’t get into the details here, but we do encourage you to review the whole story as detailed in “Russia Takes Over The Mid-East: Moscow Gets Green Light For Strikes In Iraq, Sets Up Alliance With Jordan” and “Who Really Controls Iraq? Inside Iran's Powerful Proxy Armies.”
Over the weekend we brought you helmet cam footage which purported to depict a US/Peshmerga raid on an ISIS prison. The operation allegedly freed some 70 hostages whose graves Islamic State had (literally) already dug. For those who missed it, here’s the video:
And here was our assessment:
Now obviously, there’s no telling what actually went on here, nor is there any telling what 30 members of Delta Force were doing running around with the Peshmerga in northern Iraq, but one thing is for sure: the US media seems to be trying to counter the Russian propaganda blitz by holding up the Huwija raid and the death of Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler as proof that Washington is serious about battling ISIS. We are of course not attempting to trivialize the death of Joshua Wheeler by writing this off as some kind of publicity stunt aimed at countering the Russian media blitz. In fact, the opposite is true. If the US is now set to ramp up the frequency with which the Pentagon puts American lives at stake by inserting spec ops in ground operations just so Washington can prove to the world that America is just as serious as Russia is about fighting ISIS, well then that's a crying shame for US servicemen; especially considering the role the US and its regional allies had in creating the groups that Delta Force and other units are now tasked with countering.
Sure enough, others are now beginning to ask questions about the timing of the raid and subsequent release of battlefield footage. Here’s Sputnik, citing China’s CCTV:
Russian-led counterterrorism efforts are so successful that they are "unnerving" Washington, CCTV reported. As a result, last week US leadership decided to act so as to prevent Iraq from fostering ties with Moscow.
The Chinese media outlet believes that the operation to free hostages in Northern Iraq followed this new logic. Last Thursday, US and Kurdish forces managed to free 70 people from a prison located to the west of Kirkuk. The operation saw the United States lose its first soldier in combat since Obama launched the campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy Islamic State.
This mission raised questions over Washington's plans in Iraq. On Friday, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter tried to dispel fears of the possible mission creep by saying that the US was not "assuming a combat role" and the operation was "a continuation of our advise-and-assist mission."
However, Carter stated that similar missions, which redefine assistance if not blur the line between combat and training, could be conducted in the future.
CCTV believes that the US-led hostage rescue operation was a show of force aimed at Iraq's leadership. The mission was meant to send a clear message to Baghdad, which is rumored to be planning to ask Moscow for greater assistance in its fight against Islamic State.
Of course we need to consider the sources here (i.e. this is Russian media quoting Chinese media) but nevertheless, this is precisely consistent with the assessment we offered immediately after the helmet cam footage was released.
In short, it seems entirely possible that the presence of Delta Force in the ISIS prison raid might well have been premeditated by the Pentagon. The official line is that 30 US commandos where present in an advise and assist role to the Peshmerga and once the Kurds started to take losses, Delta Force decided to intervene.
But is that the real story, or did Washington deliberately send spec ops into a battle the US knew they would win so that The White House could trot the "successful" operation out to Baghdad as evidence of why Iraq shouldn't turn to Moscow for help?
We'll let readers decide that for themselves and simply close with the following bit from Reuters which pretty clearly indicates that suddenly, the US has had a change of heart about putting boots on the ground in Iraq...
The top U.S. military officer said on Tuesday he would consider recommending putting U.S. forces with Iraqi troops to fight Islamic State if that would improve the chances of defeating the militants.
"If it had an operational or strategic impact and we could reinforce success, that would be the basic framework within which I'd make a recommendation for additional forces to be co-located with Iraqi units," Marine General Joseph Dunford told a Senate hearing.
Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined four reasons it might be useful to put U.S. troops with Iraqi forces: increasing the coherence of the military campaign, ensuring logistics effectiveness, boosting intelligence awareness and improving combined arms delivery.