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Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) is facing criticism for claiming that the Obama administration “allied” with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) in Syria and helped strengthen the terror group prior to its takeover of key Iraqi cities.
Paul claimed in an interview Monday evening that the White House had “allied with [ISIL] in Syria,” a claim regional experts say is factually inaccurate and dangerous to make.
“One of the reasons they’re stronger is that we have been allied with them in Syria; we’ve been funding Islamic rebels … to fight against Iranian proxies in Syria, but now, on the other side of the world, we’d be siding with the Iranian Guard,” Paul said on the “Sean Hannity Show.”
The comments prompted confusion among regional experts, who criticized Paul for failing to understand the Obama administration’s Syria policy as well as the reality on the ground.
Paul has come under fire multiple times in recent months for comments that critics claim betray a lack of understanding about foreign policy issues in the Middle East.
The more recent comment on ISIL “betrays a fundamental confusion as to the reality of the situation in Syria on the one hand, but also as to the extent and nature of U.S. involvement,” said Tony Badran, a Syria expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
Badran and others outlined multiple factual inaccuracies in the remarks.
“For one, the notion that we’ve been helping ISIS is absurd because in reality for the longest time the administration’s failed policy used ISIS as a pretext for not helping any of the rebels because it would supposedly fall into the hands of ISIS,” Badran explained.
The White House’s latest effort to send lethal aid to certain Syrian rebel groups is meant to combat ISIL’s presence in the country, Badran said.
“On the other hand, now the administration has made a declaration that it will seek funding from Congress to supposedly support vetted Syrian rebels, but that support is actually premised on the rebels fighting ISIS,” he said. “So even in terms of describing reality in Syria and U.S. policy, Sen. Paul has the facts wrong on both counts.”
Lee Smith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and senior editor at the Weekly Standard, criticized Paul for failing to fully understand the Obama administration’s Syria policy.
“Anyone who has actually paid attention to the administration’s Syria policy now, going on three-and-a-half years, would understand quite clearly that the administration has not only not backed the Islamist faction, the administration has not armed anyone,” Smith said.
“To misconstrue this and not see what the administration is actually doing and what its priorities are is evidence of something worse than naiveté,” Smith said. “It’s absolute ignorance and inability to understand foreign policy. Either it’s ignorance or dangerously ideological.”
Other experts pointed out that Paul’s policy stance on Syria is actually similar to that of the Obama administration, which has been reluctant to take concrete action in favor of the rebels.
Paul and his allies are “suggesting the Obama administration has been helping the Syrian opposition and no one who follows Syria seriously sees the aid amounting to anything much at all,” said Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
The White House is “giving [the Syrian rebels] just enough to keep them on life support but not change anything on the ground,” Doran said. “The problem is that the Obama administration policy has resulted in a twofer—it has given us a revitalized Iranian alliance system and an al Qaeda safe haven.”
“Obama is actually doing what Rand Paul advocates, which is doing nothing, and that’s actually leading to an AQ safe haven,” Doran said.
Paul’s camp vigorously defended the comments when contacted by the Free Beacon.
Senior Paul adviser Doug Stafford dismissed the criticisms, affirming Paul’s remarks and again slamming the White House for “taking sides in the Syria civil war.”
“Sen. Paul has stated often that taking sides in the Syrian civil war meant taking sides alongside ISIS and al Qaeda, and was a dangerous action,” Stafford said. “That is what this administration has done, and now they have to deal with the consequences of that decision.”
Paul was attempting to communicate the difficulties the State Department has had in properly identifying so-called moderate rebel forces in Syria.
“His point was, we are funding and arming Syrian rebels who are allied with these extremists,” Stafford said. “Everyone claims they know who is who, but the fact is, they don’t, and regardless, the Obama administration is helping the side on which ISIS and al Qaeda are fighting. Saying they are certain they know who they are helping and when is dubious at best.”
Even aiding the moderate rebels is “dangerous, especially to Israel,” Stafford said, outlining the threat to Israel’s northern border.
“A general with the Syrian rebels we are openly arming is hostile to Israel,” he said. “Extremist rebels are now in control of much of the Syrian section of the Golan Heights, leaving only Assad’s forces between them and the” Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Smith and others maintained that the Paul camp has misconstrued the reality on the ground in Syria.
“Given the amount of information available on the Hill, and given the number of briefings that I’m sure Sen. Paul has been invited to, I believe it is very hard to get this basic information wrong,” Smith said. “There are, to my knowledge, no other senators who misunderstand the administration’s Syria policy as profoundly as he does, which suggests to me that it’s not a matter of ignorance but something else.”
Doran compared Paul’s foreign policy stance to that of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, who long advocated in favor of isolationism.
“I think he has the same foreign policy as his father but he’s much better at disguising and cloaking it in the concerns other people have in any given moment,” Doran said. “He doesn’t say, like his father does, that U.S. interventionism has caused all our problems in the world, but if you look at his vector on any issue, it’s to do nothing and pull back.”
Paul also came under fire in March when a video surfaced of him claiming that America is in part to blame for the Pearl Harbor attacks. He also stated in the video clip that Israeli officials do not consider an Iranian nuclear weapon an existential threat to the Jewish state.