U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday tore apart the Obama administration’s strategy to fight the Islamic State, expressing skepticism about the scope, duration and partners involved in what Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged would be a “multi-year effort.”
Across party lines, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee raised doubts about nearly every aspect of the new U.S.-led campaign against the extremists, who’ve declared their own state across large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Kerry, the star speaker at Wednesday’s hearing, vacillated from assuring senators that the U.S. strategy was deliberate and thorough to acknowledging that serious questions remain about its viability, especially in Syria.
The hearing underscored that Congress remains badly fractured over how to respond to the Islamic State even as the House of Representatives granted the administration authority for the first time to arm Syrian rebels. But even that 273-156 vote was hardly a ringing endorsement. The authorization included no money for the training, is good for only 10 weeks, and it faced bipartisan opposition from an odd-bedfellows coalition of conservatives and liberals.
In the Senate, legislators hurled a barrage of tough questions Kerry’s way, highlighting the many unknowns and potential pitfalls of the emerging U.S. plan to build an international coalition that will fight the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, presumably with Western air power and homegrown ground forces.
The most-cited concerns included the eventual need for U.S. combat forces, the myriad problems with the Syrian rebel movement, the lack of clear legal authorization for this conflict, and the fact that such a campaign is likely to undermine the U.S. policy goal – and opposition priority – of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster.
Even sympathetic Democrats such as Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, who expressed general support for the stepped-up efforts, said he’s “not comfortable yet” with the plan for Syria.
The most heated exchange was between Kerry and his old Senate colleague, Arizona Republican John McCain, who has long advocated the U.S. arming of the Syrian rebels and taking a lead role in the anti-Assad campaign. McCain, in a view echoed by several others, said it was unrealistic to ask young Syrians to join the moderate opposition and fight Islamist extremists when there’s no equal effort against their No. 1 foe, Assad, who’s killed far more Syrians than the Islamic State.
“ISIL first. That’s our policy,” Kerry replied flatly, using the U.S. government’s acronym for the Islamic State.
McCain seemed to suggest a no-fly zone or some other Western air cover for the rebels, an idea Kerry didn’t rule out but said would be better discussed in a classified session. Kerry told McCain the fight would include “these two prongs” of Assad and the Islamic State, though it was clear from their statements that McCain and the other senators weren’t sold on that assertion.
McCain and Kerry were interrupted when their exchanges grew tense; the moment ended with Kerry saying McCain believes “a fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed,” a jab at his hawkish reputation.
A growing source of contention is the legal grounding for the anti-Islamic State intervention. President Barack Obama, citing assessments by White House and State Department attorneys, argues that the sweeping 2001 authorization that was used to combat al Qaida after the 9/11 attacks applies because the Islamic State is an al Qaida splinter group.
Senators from both parties balked, insisting that a new, Islamic State-specific authorization is required, and that Congress should have a bigger say and a clearer picture about the administration’s decision to launch a military intervention.
“What you’re doing now is illegal and unconstitutional,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Other weaknesses the senators noted in the Syria side of the U.S. strategy is how to identify moderate rebels, their viability on the battlefield, and what assurances there were that they wouldn’t strike truces with the Islamic State or join forces with the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s affiliate in the conflict. In the past, the moderates have coordinated with Nusra, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, on specific operations, though they’ve also clashed repeatedly.
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, said of the so-called moderate Syrian rebels: “We’ve been through this for over a year, and I’m just not convinced there is such a group there.”
Kerry didn’t dispute the murkiness of the Syrian rebel movement, but he argued that the kind of U.S. assistance proposed in the administration’s plan would strengthen moderate opposition fighters, make them more attractive than the Islamic State to recruits, and help drive out the extremists – though he left open the possibility that some could work with undesirable elements.
“In the end, there probably will be some strange-bedfellow moments in this kind of battle,” Kerry said.
Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria who recently retired after years as one of the State Department’s go-to Middle East specialists, also testified before the committee. He said the proposed U.S. training of 5,000 Syrian rebels wouldn’t be enough, but that other groups were present to help, including Islamists who are off-limits for U.S. assistance.
However, Ford said, with a death toll now past 200,000 and a history of broken promises, the potential Syrian partners express “a lot of bitterness” and “great anger” that the United States hasn’t intervened militarily before and now seems only interested in the Islamic State. Ford said it’s crucial to have an anti-Assad arm of the campaign.
“We have a credibility problem,” Ford told the lawmakers.
Another question that came up repeatedly was which international allies, particularly among Sunni Muslim states, are on board and to what extent they’re willing to help in the fight. Kerry said some 50 nations had joined the campaign and that he’d received personal pledges of support, including from the king of Saudi Arabia. He didn’t elaborate with names of coalition partners or what role they’d play; he said such details would emerge in classified sessions and at this month’s United Nations General Assembly.
Typically, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was skeptical. “You have the coalition together before you announce it. I hope we end up with more than a group of coat-holders.”