Washington, DC – The Defense Department has ratcheted up its search for opportunities in Iraq and Syria to get at the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and it will continue at that pace until ISIL is defeated, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said here last night.
Speaking at the Wall Street Journal Chief Executive Officer Council Annual Meeting, Carter and WSJ Washington Bureau Chief Gerald F. Seib discussed global security in the 21st century.
The decision to seek additional targeting opportunities, Carter said, “isn’t because of a change of mind or a change of policy or a change of heart. It’s because we’re looking for opportunities.”
Offering examples of taken opportunities, Carter noted the targeting and killing of a notorious ISIL soldier and an ISIL leader.
On Nov. 12, US forces conducted an airstrike in Raqqa, Syria, targeting Mohamed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John.” The British citizen participated in videos that showed the murders of US journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, US aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig, British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, and other hostages.
On Nov. 13, US forces conducted an airstrike in Libya against Abu Nabil, also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, an Iraqi national who was a long-time al-Qaida operative and the senior ISIL leader in Libya. It was the first US strike against an ISIL leader in Libya.
“We started sustained strikes on oil infrastructure, which is one of the ways [ISIL gets] revenue in both Syria and Iraq. We are identifying and aiding able and capable and motivated ground forces there,” Carter added.
“If it were just us versus ISIL, we could defeat ISIL,” he said. “The problem, as we learned in Iraq previously and in Afghanistan, is sustaining the defeat. For that purpose we need capable and motivated local forces who can keep the places running without extremism after ISIL has been defeated.”
In Iraq, Kurds in the north have been very effective and the United States is helping them, the secretary said, and noted that elements of Iraq’s security, counterterrorism and military forces are effective.
Offering an example, Carter said that with US help Kurdish forces seized the road that connects Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and he called those cities the heart of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
Also in Syria, he added, “we’re aiding forces that are heading toward Raqqa, and from the air we continue to intensify that [action]. Our intelligence gets better with time.”
Carter said enabling local ground forces is basically the coalition’s strategy.
“Our strategy is to destroy ISIL in its heart of Iraq and Syria,” he said, while also protecting US personnel and the nation’s borders, working to disrupt ISIL finances, enabling foreign fighters and defending against lone wolves.
This is the strategy, Carter added, “because [ISIL] metastasizes worldwide, including to our own country,” the secretary said.
On Russia and its engagement in Syria — but to bolster the Assad regime rather than fight ISIL — Carter said it may be possible that Russia can “get on the right side of things.”
The Right Side
Secretary of State John Kerry is in talks with Russia, which, to “get on the right side of things,” would have to agree to promote a political transition in Syria that includes “some of the very people they started to bomb when they came in, Carter explained.
Such members of the moderate opposition have to be part of the future of Syria, Carter said.
With such an agreement, the secretary added, “then it’s fine if [the Russians] get in the game of actually fighting ISIL.”
Russia could be helpful in trying to persuade Assad to move aside, keep the structures of the state intact, and move the moderate opposition into the Syrian government, Carter said.
“That’s the path we’re behind,” he added.
On the trajectory of the ISIL threat, the secretary said the department has been concerned since last summer “because they say they [aspire] to come here.”
An Ugly Capability
Lone-wolf attacks are the most immediate danger to the United States, he added, noting, “We also have to do the surveillance and intelligence work that I know has been controversial. But we’re trying to protect our country and protect our people and we need to be reasonable about that.”
Carter said ISIL, with its expertise in social media, is the first social media Internet terrorist group and that the nation needs to “find a way that is consistent with a free and open Internet but that also allows us as public officials to protect our people.”
In the terrorist space, the secretary added, social media expertise has turned out to be an ugly capability for people to have.
“Now we’re trying to climb on top of that in every way we possibly can. There’s no question that it represents a new phenomenon. An organized, civilized society has to figure out how to protect itself from this kind of stuff,” Carter added.
It’s a work in progress, he said, but “we’ll do it.”