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U.S. To Increase Air Campaign In Syria As Russian Strikes Continue

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on October 15.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on October 15.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said the United States will be stepping up its air campaign in Syria in the coming weeks, amid what appeared to be a four-day lull in air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

Carter’s comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee October 27 come as Russia continued its air campaign in support of Syrian troops and Iranian forces that are targeting rebel forces.

Carter told senators that the United States would intensify its campaign against Islamic State (IS) militants using additional U.S. and coalition aircraft and heavier air strikes.

The effort "will include more strikes against IS high-value targets as our intelligence improves, and also its oil enterprise, which is a critical pillar of IS's financial infrastructure," he said.

Carter said U.S. forces aimed to intensify pressure on the IS stronghold city of Raqqa in Syria and the Iraqi city of Ramadi.

"To be clear, we are not cooperating with Russia, and we’re not letting Russia impact the pace or scope of our campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria," he said. "We do not align ourselves more broadly with [Russian] military actions, because instead of singularly attacking [IS]...they are primarily attacking the Syrian opposition...which further fuels the tragic civil war there."

The U.S. led coalition has been hitting IS targets for more than a year now -- more than 6,000 -- but there have been few battlefield results to show for it.

Russia, meanwhile, launched its air campaign on September 30, with fighter jets and later cruise missiles, which was followed by a ground offensive by Syrian troops that was supported by Iranian forces.

A U.S.-led coalition jet attacked an Islamic State mortar system near the city of Mara on October 27, the Defense Department reported, the first such strike by the United States or its coalition partners in Syria in four days; the last previously reported one was an unmanned drone strike on October 23.

U.S. and other coalition jets have continued attacking IS targets in Iraq during this time.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, told the Senate committee that intelligence reports showed there were less than 2,000 Iranian troops now fighting along Syrian forces, and around 1,000 Iranians in Iraq.

Dunford also said he would consider recommending putting U.S. forces alongside Iraqi troops to fight Islamic State if that would improve the chances of defeating the militants.

Like Russia, Iran is a staunch ally of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is believed to have sent vast supplies of weaponry and supplies to keep Assad’s forces from collapsing entirely against Syrian rebels and Islamic State militants.

Iran has stepped up its direct involvement in Syria in recent weeks, with numerous reports of top Iranian officers and elite brigades appearing alongside Syrian troops.

Earlier this month, a top commander in the elite military unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was killed on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Two other IRGC commanders were reported killed by the Iran's Fars news agency on October 13.

In recent months, a number of Iranians killed in the fighting in Syria have been buried in Iranian cities.

Iranian media refer to them as “volunteers” who go to Syria to defend a holy shrine and fight “terrorists,” a term used in the Islamic republic to refer to all anti-Assad forces.