FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Friday the decision to send special operations forces to Syria to work with local Kurdish and Arab fighters is unlikely to be the last significant adjustment to the U.S. fight against the resilient Islamic State group.
"We are going to continue to innovate to build up what works," he told reporters flying with him to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska, on the first leg of a nine-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region.
He added that the U.S. will soon beef up its air campaign by sending F-15 fighter planes to a Turkish air base, giving the U.S. an opportunity to accelerate airstrikes. A senior defense official said the U.S. will send about a dozen of the F-15s to Turkey's Incirlik Air Base.
Asked whether the use of U.S. special operations troops in northern Syria to coordinate with local forces was a model that would be adopted in Iraq, Carter said "we will continue to consider" this and other ways to achieve better results against the militants, who control large portions of Iraq and Syria.
Carter said the U.S. forces in northern Syria will be in an area where Russian warplanes are not bombing, so it would not be necessary to talk to the Russians about steering clear. The U.S. and Russia recently signed a memorandum of understanding to avoid unintended conflicts between their warplanes, which are operating separately in the skies over Syria.
Carter declined to be specific about where the U.S. troops will operate in northern Syria but said they will be in territory controlled by Syrian Kurds.
"However, the Kurdish YPG and the Syrian Arab coalition essentially work together to counter ISIL," he said, referring to the main Kurdish group fighting the Islamic State in an area near the Turkish border. The Syrian Arab coalition is a U.S. term for a group of about 5,000 Sunni Arab fighters.
Carter added, "Both we and the Syrian Kurds see the great value of the Syrian Arab coalition as the fact that they are Sunni Arabs and therefore have an interest in driving ISIL from Raqqa," the militants' declared capital. "Moreover, they'll be the kind of force that is more likely to be accepted by the population of Raqqa, and that's important." Raqqa is in Arab territory south of the Kurdish area.
U.S. officials have said the U.S.-led coalition campaign in Syria is now focused on putting increased pressure on IS in Raqqa. That could in turn make it easier to fight IS in Iraq.
Later, in an exchange with reporters after he spoke to troops at Fort Wainwright, Carter was asked whether the U.S. objective is to retake Raqqa or just put pressure on the city.
"Ultimately, Raqqa has to be retaken and returned to its citizens and to a decent way of life," he said. "In the near term we will apply pressure to them. What does that mean? It means degrading their capacity to fight, their logistics, their roads," as well as limiting their ability to command and control their fighters, and killing their leaders.
U.S. officials said Friday that as part of the plan, the U.S. is talking with the Iraqi government about setting up a commando task force to better target Islamic State leaders and networks.
The U.S. is also looking at providing Iraqi forces with additional equipment and training to counter roadside bombs and vehicle-borne explosive devices.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.