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Defense Secretary Carter Vows To Step Up Campaign Against ISIS


The U.S. secretary of defense, Ash Carter, and Joint Chiefs chairman, General Joseph Dunford, promise to step up the fight against ISIS. Senators who asked the men questions today are skeptical. This hearing also brought confirmation of U.S. military action in the South China Sea. NPR's David Welna starts our coverage.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: After thousands of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq in a failed effort to train the Syrian fighters to battle Islamic State, the Pentagon seems to be regrouping and rethinking an effort that's drawn plenty of criticism. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Cart put the best face on changes in the anti-ISIS campaign.


ASH CARTER: Our determination is unchanged even as the situation continues to evolve and we continue to adapt to execute our campaign more effectively.

WELNA: That effort, Carter said, will, in no way, be coordinated with Russia, which has been carrying out airstrikes in support of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad. Carter plans to bolster rebels who he says are closing in on Raqqa, the Islamic State's virtual capital in Syria.


CARTER: We will support moderate Syrian forces fighting ISIL that have made territorial gains near Raqqa. Indeed, some of them are within 30 miles of Raqqa today.

WELNA: Joint Chiefs chairman Dunford was considerably less upbeat in his appraisal of the situation on the ground in Syria.


JOSEPH DUNFORD: Without a partner on the ground, Syria has clearly presented the most difficult challenge. No one is satisfied with our progress to date.

WELNA: Defense Secretary Carter said another emphasis will be retaking the Western Iraqi city of Ramadi. But that effort's already been underway since July, and a long-promised assault on the city has yet to take place. Carter also pointed to a successful raid last week on an Islamic State prison in Iraq in which a U.S. soldier died as an example of the kind of commando operations the Pentagon plans to support and take part in if necessary.


CARTER: We won't hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL. We're conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground.

WELNA: These latest initiatives seem to leave the committee's Republican chairman, John McCain, far less than satisfied. McCain asked Carter if he'd recommended creating a no-fly zone in Syria as McCain's long advocated.


CARTER: We have not recommended that. We have analyzed it. We presented the alternatives.

JOHN MCCAIN: So you do not support...

CARTER: The president did not...

MCCAIN: You do not agree with General Petraeus and former secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton.

CARTER: We do not have a concept of operations for a no-fly zone at this time that we're...

MCCAIN: After all these years, we don't have a concept of operations.

CARTER: ...That we're prepared to recommend.

WELNA: General Dunford, for his part, said it was not a problem the Pentagon can solve alone.


DUNFORD: From a military perspective, we can implement a no-fly zone, and we have the capability to do that. The challenges are political, legal and then a diversion of the resources that are currently fighting ISIL in support of that no-fly zone.

WELNA: And South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham asked Carter why the U.S. insists on fighting only the Islamic State even as American officials call for the removal of Syrian leader Assad.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: Are we going to fight with people who want to take Assad down? Are we going to provide them military help?

CARTER: Our train-and-equip program...

GRAHAM: The answer is no.

WELNA: Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan wanted Carter to confirm reports that the U.S. defied China by sending a navy destroyer through waters around an artificial island in the South China Sea.


DAN SULLIVAN: Did we send a destroyer yesterday inside a 12-mile zone of one...

CARTER: To do that, there have been naval operations in that region in recent days, and there will be in the weeks and months...

SULLIVAN: Inside the 12-mile zone of a China...

CARTER: I don't want to comment on a particular operation, but...

SULLIVAN: You don't want to comment. It's all over the press right now.

CARTER: I'm sure it is.

WELNA: Carter eventually and reluctantly did confirm those news reports were accurate. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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