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The new “three R's” of America’s ISIS strategy, explained

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The United States is now shifting its strategy in the fight against ISIS, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in testimony on Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee. These changes, Carter said, "can be described by what I call the three R's." Those are: the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Iraqi city of Ramadi, and raids into ISIS territory.

This is not a transformative change to US strategy against ISIS, but it does show some revealing things about what's working and not. Here's why the US is now shifting to focus on two specific cities — and the factors that complicate America's new approach.

1) Raqqa

Syrian fighters plant the Syrian rebel flag in the countryside near Ramadi.
(The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Raqqa is a city in northeastern Syria and the de facto capital of ISIS's so-called caliphate. In the past several months, US-backed Kurdish forces called the YPG have made major advances in the surrounding area, coming within 30 miles of the capital city. Moreover, Kurdish forces in Iraq have made progress in cutting off ISIS supply lines to the city.

The US, by reorienting airstrikes and weapons drops to support the forces in Syria advancing against Raqqa, is hoping those proxies will encircle the city, weaken its defenses, and eventually retake it.

Raqqa is "obviously central to Daesh's holdings," Noah Bonsey, a senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, said (using an Arabic term for ISIS). "It's operated as something of a de facto capital, it's central to the Daesh narrative, and there's also resources nearby."

But analysts expect any campaign against Raqqa to be difficult and lengthy.

"This is not going to be a dash to Raqqa," Michael Knights, the Lafer fellow at the Washington Center for Near East Policy, says. "This is going to be an isolation campaign."

There are serious risks to this focus on Raqqa.

For one thing, the city's population is mostly Arab, and the US allies there are mostly Kurds. In his testimony, Carter mentioned a group called the Syrian Arab Coalition the US would partner with, but according to Bonsey, "that's a phrase that one hears US officials use; it's not a coalition that's well known or understood in conversations with Syrians themselves."

Kurdish forces may have little interest in risking a major assault to liberate non-Kurdish territory. And even if they do, wielding Kurds against Arabs could drive locals into ISIS's arms. "The prospects for success are far from clear," Bonsey says, "and the potential for Daesh to benefit for recruitment even as it loses some territory is real."

2) Ramadi

Iraqi forces deploying to Anbar province in May.
(Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

For much of the past six months, the US and Iraq have been at odds over how to fight ISIS. The US has wanted to focus on retaking Mosul, Iraq's second largest city up in the north. Iraq has wanted to prioritize liberating the western Anbar province, of which Ramadi (taken by ISIS in May) is the provincial capital.

Carter's announcement that the US will focus on Ramadi suggests that the Iraqi view has prevailed.

"This is the first official US backing-off of our Mosul-first obsession," Douglas Ollivant, the former National Security Council director for Iraq and a current partner at Mantid International, says. "The Iraqis seem to be set on Anbar-first, so maybe we should do what the people we're supporting think."

In the past several months, local Iraqi forces had made some progress in Anbar province. That's slowed of late, according to Ollivant. Stepped-up US airstrikes and logistical support are meant to help turn the tide.

There was a similar US-Iraqi joint effort recently to retake Baiji, a central Iraqi city that Iraqi forces seized a week and a half ago with heavy US support. "We were smashing literally hundreds of these guys on the road system and rivers north of Baiji for, like, a month and a half," Knights says.

Ramadi, Knights says, could in theory be a first step to clearing the rest of Anbar.

It also has political significance: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has put tremendous political capital into retaking Anbar with American support. The longer he takes, the more influence Iranian-backed Shia hard-liners gain.

"He's secure, but it's fragile," Ollivant says. "He is our guy. And as such, he is a target for all the Iranian-backed politicians."

3) Raids

Secretary Ash Carter looks on as soldiers solute the coffin of US Army Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, the first American soldier killed in combat against ISIS.
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

This last R refers to targeted raids, like the joint Delta Force–Kurdish raid in Iraq last week that freed 70 prisoners from ISIS captivity — and resulted in the first US casualty of the ISIS war. Carter was vague on whether the US would merely be continuing an existing raiding strategy or stepping up the pace of American-led sorties:

The third and final "R" is raids, signaling that we won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL, or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground.

None of the experts I spoke to were sure of what precisely Carter meant (it's pretty hard to be sure when it comes to covert ops). But they did say US raids could play a major role in the counter-ISIS campaign.

"You get a lot of intelligence during raids," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says. The raids also free fighters from prison "who have an enormous bone to pick with ISIS after being tortured and slated for execution," Gartenstein-Ross continues. These fighters could "add a multiplying effect" on the battlefield.

Ultimately, neither the raids nor the other two R's represent a fundamental transformation in America's counter-ISIS strategy. The US will still rely on local ground forces to retake territory from ISIS, supported by US supplies, intelligence, special forces, and airpower.

But these changes do show the US adjusting to realities on the ground. Time will tell whether that shows the US is being passively reactive or smartly opportunistic.

"At some point, I just expected the US to get smarter in the way it's fighting," Gartenstein-Ross says. "It's possible that's happening now, though I'm cautious about giving too much credit."

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