U.S.-led air campaign in Syria intensifies after shift in ISIS strategy

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Sunday more American ground troops could be sent to Syria in the future to contribute to the U.S.-led coalition that has carried out nearly 3,000 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We begin with the United States' escalating military role in Syria's civil war.

    Last week, President Obama announced the deployment of 50 special forces to aid rebel groups fighting the militants who call themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS.

    Now, in an interview with ABC News released today, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. could — quote — "do more" to help local ground forces in that fight, and — quote — "They may find themselves in combat."

  • ASHTON CARTER, U.S. Defense Secretary:

    If a group indicates a willingness to fight, we will give them some equipment and see how they do.

    If they prove capable, then we will provide them with some more information, maybe some airstrikes. If they prove really capable and really dedicated, then we might send some people in to be with them and train and advise them directly.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    For the past year, the U.S. has led a coalition that has carried out close to 3,000 airstrikes against positions held by ISIS inside Syria. U.S. warplanes have carried out 95 percent of those attacks, and Western and Arab allies seem to be turning their attention elsewhere.

    New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt is covering this issue. He joins me now from Washington.

    So, what's happened to the coalition? I remember the generals talking about our Arab partners flying with us, making these raids.

  • ERIC SCHMITT, The New York Times:

    They certainly did on the first — in the first night of those raids a year ago.

    But what happened since then is, in particular since March, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have had to take on the fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen, so a lot of their airpower has been diverted to Yemen to try and fight that fight.

    Some of the other countries that are also participating, some of the Arab countries, including Jordan out of solidarity to the Saudis, have also shifted some of their combat missions to Yemen as well.

    So, these countries are still flying a few missions every now and then, but they have had to shift their air forces to other priorities.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And what about just even moving the air forces closer to the fight, not keeping them out on the Persian Gulf, but perhaps staging them in Turkey? I mean, that was a huge advantage for the United States.

  • ERIC SCHMITT:

    It certainly was.

    And something the Pentagon had wanted to do all along was use the Turkish air base at Incirlik, which can cut down the flight times to Syria as little as 15 minutes to the border, as opposed to a five-hour flight from some of the Persian Gulf bases.

    But many of the European allies who are flying missions in Iraq and a few in Syria, countries like Australia and France, they have longstanding relationships with these Middle Eastern countries. And they don't necessarily want to uproot and move their forces to Incirlik in Turkey and up whole new arrangements with the Turks there, and that would be disruptive to their operations.

    So, even though it is a longer fight, they're willing to stay where they are at, at least that — what it seems to be for now.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What about the coordination or confrontation with Russia? I mean, we know where their planes are. They know where our planes are, but sometimes seem to be going after different targets.

  • ERIC SCHMITT:

    They are.

    The Russians have been primarily in the northwestern part of Syria, attacking targets that are rebels on the ground that are fighting the government and President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. tends to focus more in the east.

    And those are targets that are more ISIS targets. Just this week, however, there was a coordination exercise, where the U.S. and the Russians actually exchanged a communication, just so they know they can talk to each other and try and avoid crashing into each other in the skies over Syria.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is there concern that there — this could be the beginning of kind of mission creep; putting special forces on the ground or putting special advisers on the ground is one step; trying to increase our air campaign is another step?

  • ERIC SCHMITT:

    Well, certainly, that's what the critics in Congress and elsewhere are saying of the Obama administration's decision to put those 50 or so special ops guys on the ground.

    Those — those forces will be there to help coordinate intelligence, to basically give advice to the Syrian rebels on the ground in the east as they push toward Raqqa, which is the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS in Eastern Syria.

    The air campaign, as you said, increasing both the numbers of aircraft and shifting closer to the fight in Turkey is aimed at improving the efficiency of an air campaign that so far has come under criticism for not putting enough pressure on ISIS.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Right. I was going to ask, well, how does the administration — I should say, how does the military measure its success in this air campaign?

  • ERIC SCHMITT:

    Well, their goal is — and Ash Carter, the secretary of the defense, came out with — just the other day in trying to identity Ramadi, Raqqa, and raids, that is, Ramadi, of course, the city in Western Iraq, Raqqa, the capital of ISIS in the eastern part of Syria, and raids, commando raids to go after the leaders.

    That is what they want to do, is put pressure on those two main cities through — oftentimes through raids, isolate ISIS in its — in its — in some of its key areas, and shrink the territory that they control in Syria and Iraq. That's one of the many objectives the Pentagon has now.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Eric Schmitt of The New York Times joining us from Washington, thanks so much.

  • ERIC SCHMITT:

    You're welcome.

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