The announcement signal a major shift in White House policy against using ground troops in a combat role against the militants.
“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,” Ash Carter told a Senate Armed Service Committee.
Carter’s comments came amid discussions within the Obama administration about adjustments to its anti-Daesh strategy.
A train-and-equip program for Syrian opposition groups was recently placed on hold after high-profile setbacks and Iraqi forces lagged behind anticipated progress in retaking territories held by the militant group.
Carter described the change in strategy as “three Rs” – “Raqqa, Ramadi and Raids”.
He said the coalition should put more pressure on the Raqqa stronghold and self-declared capital of Daesh, located in northeastern Syria.
“That to that end 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,” he said, noting that Syrian Arab Coalition forces who were recently provided with 50 tons of ammunition from the U.S., will primarily help in that effort.
He also said the U.S. would also support Jordan and intensify airstrikes on Daesh targets in Syria.
In Ramadi – the second “R” in the strategy – the U.S. will give more help to Iraqi forces that have intensified attacks against Daesh, said Carter.
“As we see more progress toward assembling capable and motivated Iraqi forces under Baghdad’s control and including Sunni elements, we are willing to continue providing more enabling capabilities and fire support to help our Iraqi partners succeed,” he said.
Carter also noted that Iraq should do more “in the direction of multi-sectarian governance and defense leadership” as the U.S. continues to train and equip Sunni tribes to step up against the terror group.
“If local Sunni forces aren’t sufficiently equipped, regularly paid, and empowered as co-equal members of the Iraqi Security Forces, ISIL’s defeats in Anbar will only be temporary,” he warned.
Rounding out the third “R”, or “Raids”, Carter said U.S. forces will take ground action against the militants, when necessary.
He singled out last week’s raid on a Daesh prison that freed 70 hostages. U.S. Special Operations Forces helped Kurdish peshmerga forces during the mission.
“While our mission in Iraq is to train, advise, and assist our Iraqi partners, in situations such as that operation – where we have actionable intelligence and a capable partner force – we want to support our partners,” he said.