Ashton Carter opens door to U.S. ground support for Iraqi forces in Ramadi

Willie Grace | 12/10/2015, 11:27 a.m.
U.S. Gen. Paul Selva withstood one of the most biting rebuttals of the country's ISIS strategy Wednesday when he told ...
Earlier, Carter served as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy under President Bill Clinton, emerging as an expert in nuclear weapons policy.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Gen. Paul Selva withstood one of the most biting rebuttals of the country's ISIS strategy Wednesday when he told lawmakers the Pentagon would not impose a no-fly zone on Syria because of possible blowback from Russia and Syria.

"We have the military capacity to impose a no-fly zone. The question that we need to ask is do we have the political and policy backdrop with which to do so," Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Selva told the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointing to the threat of "direct conflict" with Syrian forces or "a miscalculation" with the Russians should they challenge the no-fly zone.

Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, shot back: "I must say, it's one of the more embarrassing statements I've ever heard from a uniformed military officer, that we are worried about Syria and Russia's reaction to saving the lives of thousands and thousands of Syrians who are being barrel-bombed and massacred."

The exchange encapsulated a morning of tough grilling by members of the committee as Selva and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter defended the argument Obama made Sunday: the ISIS strategy is working, so give it time.

But even as Carter said that the U.S. is "building momentum against ISIL," also known as ISIS, he agreed with an assessment from McCain that the terrorist group hadn't been contained. That contrasts with what Obama said had been achieved against the organization last month.

Republican members of the panel were impatient, demanding to know how the U.S. would train Syrian forces and why the administration had not enlisted the aid of Arab allies who could provide ground forces.

But even as they were on the defensive, Pentagon officials offered some news of expanding the fight against ISIS, saying they were likely to provide Apache helicopters to Iraqi forces looking to retake Ramadi from ISIS and said they were close to securing special forces help from Arab allies.

More U.S. support on the ground?

Carter raised the prospect Wednesday that U.S. military advisers could accompany Iraqi forces on the ground in the effort to take back Ramadi.

A U.S. official told CNN that any advisers accompanying Iraqi forces would likely stay back from the front line of combat. The official said those helicopters would likely be Apaches.

On Tuesday, Iraqi officials said the Iraqi Security Forces have taken back 60% of Ramadi from ISIS. A U.S. official who spoke to CNN, however, disagreed with that assessment, saying, "they have made some progress, but not that much."

Carter's pitch to lawmakers came a few days after Obama delivered a prime time address looking to reassure Americans that his plan for ISIS is working. Carter largely recounted the administration's efforts so far, but he also asked lawmakers to release $116 million in funding for U.S.-backed forces.

Following a testy exchange with Carter, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham pressed his case for a more expansive authorization of military force for the U.S. effort against ISIS.