US Defense Secretary drums anti-ISIS support on visit to Europe

Friday 05/02/2016
In Europe, with an increasingly forceful tone

BRUSSELS - US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter left for Europe on Tuesday to lead a major summit for key members of the US-driven coalition struggling to defeat the Islamic State group.

Carter has in recent weeks chastised members of the 65-nation alliance for not helping enough in the fight against the extremists, who despite suffering some significant setbacks remain firmly in control of large parts of Iraq and Syria and have a growing foothold in Libya.

In all, 27 coalition members who have contributed militarily to the 18-month campaign will join the US delegation in Brussels on Thursday. Partners include Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and several Western nations including France, Britain and Australia.

Another 21 coalition countries will attend the talks as observers.

Carter "is going to be looking... for contributions in a whole range of forms, whether it's additional combat aircraft, whether it's (intelligence), whether it's refuelers," Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said, adding that even pledges of financial assistance would help.

"Look at... the devastation in Ramadi. Footing the bill to get the water on again and the electricity in a place like Ramadi is critically important to the Iraqi people and to making sure that we deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL and that those people get a decent life back," Cook added, using an alternative name for the ISIS group.

So far, the campaign has cost $5.8 billion -- about $11.4 million daily -- since it began at the end of summer 2014, according to Pentagon figures.

Carter, who has only been in the job for a year and remains fairly cautious in his public pronouncements, has taken an increasingly forceful tone in recent weeks, bashing some members of what he said was the "so-called" coalition for doing "nothing at all," while America carries out the lion's share of the military campaign.

Pentagon officials say his efforts are bearing some fruit.

Canada, for instance, announced Monday it would triple the number of special forces training Kurdish militia in northern Iraq to about 210.

The move comes even after the new government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it will bring home six warplanes that had been conducting air strikes.

Carter "looks forward to discussing with his Canadian counterpart... what the other needs are going forward that not only Canada could perhaps play a role in, but other countries assembled there in Brussels could assist us with," Cook said.

Despite some successes, such as the coalition-assisted takeback of Ramadi by Iraqi security forces, the ISIS group still holds several important cities like Mosul in Iraq and Raqa in Syria.

Carter and President Barack Obama are facing growing criticism at home over the pace of progress of the campaign and hawks are calling for intervention in Libya, where ISIS jihadists have doubled in number to about 5,000 in recent weeks.

Last year, they seized control of the city of Sirte and an adjoining length of Mediterranean coastline.

Carter will also discuss the situation in Syria's Aleppo province, where a government assault backed by Russian air support has resulted in tens of thousands of newly displaced people and refugees.

Ahead of his anti-ISIS meeting, Carter on Wednesday is attending a summit for NATO defense ministers that will feed into a general NATO summit in Warsaw in July.

The 28-member alliance is trying to figure out how to adapt to a massively complicated array of potential threats, including future Russian land grabs along the borders of countries in eastern Europe and the Baltic nations.

"There are going to be some important changes for NATO, which is so used to doing (counter-insurgency operations), working in Afghanistan, being deployable outside of Europe," a senior defense official said on condition of anonymity.

"All of which is important, but now increasingly we are looking at our ability within Europe to move wherever the problem might be."

Pentagon's proposed budget for next year, due to be officially unveiled later Tuesday, includes $3.4 billion -- quadruple last year's amount -- for US military operations in Europe. The cash will fund the so-called European Reassurance Initiative.