The Obama administration’s strategy for Iraq and Syria came under harsh criticism from senators on Tuesday as key defense leaders outlined the latest shift in strategy from earlier failed policies and programs.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the president’s strategy against Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) terrorists to date has produced poor results in both Syria and Iraq.
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"The end-state is to defeat ISIL," Dunford said. "Without a partner on the ground, Syria has clearly presented the most difficult challenge. No one is satisfied with our progress to date."
In Syria, the administration’s program to create a U.S.-armed and equipped anti-Islamic State rebel force failed to produce a significant number of opposition fighters to battle the terrorist group; despite spending $43 million of $500 million allocated for the program. Only a handful of anti-IS fighters were produced.
To further complicate U.S. anti-IS efforts, Russian military forces last month began conducting airstrikes and missile attacks against rebels battling the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, further weakening the U.S.-led anti-IS program.
In Iraq, the battle to regain territory taken over by IS fighters also has been floundering, as IS fighters have taken over key Iraqi cities, seized weapons from fleeing Iraqi forces, and gained access to millions of dollars in stolen bank assets.
U.S. support under the Obama plan has been limited to airstrikes and training Iraqi troops on the ground. Defense officials disclosed to the Washington Free Beacon in August that U.S. and allied airstrikes were not targeting 60 identified IS training camps that are producing some 1,000 fighters monthly.
Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) engaged in a heated exchange with Carter about the failed program to train Syrian rebels.
"I'm not sure how many young people were killed in trying to implement this failed program. Did you feel vindicated when this program failed?" McCain asked.
"No, I was disappointed in it. I wished it had turned out differently," Carter replied.
Carter and Dunford also said imposing a military air exclusion zone over Syria, something supported by McCain, would represent a costly and difficult military escalation requiring increased air and ground forces and up to $1 billion a day in costs. A no-fly zone also would be difficult because of Syrian air defenses that could attack U.S. aircraft in the zone.
"We can implement a no-fly zone, and we have the capability to do that, Dunford said. "The challenges are political, and legal, and then, a diversion of the resources that are currently fighting ISIL in support of the no-fly zone."
The defense secretary outlined a shift in strategy for both Syria and Iraq during his testimony. In Syria, he said a new program would seek to enable moderate rebels inside Syria who could be armed to fight against the Islamic State.
Yet, Carter acknowledged that the U.S. arm-and-equip program for Syria prohibits allowing the anti-IS rebels to fight against the Assad regime, a policy that drew criticism from Sen. Lindsay Graham (R., S.C.), who noted that Russia, Iran, and the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah are now backing Assad, making his ouster unlikely.
"All I can say is, this is a sad day for America and the region," Graham said. "We'll pay hell for this because the Arabs are not going to accept this. The people in Syria are not going to accept this. This is a half-assed strategy at best."
The revised strategy outlined by Carter calls for stepping up air strikes against the Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, helping Iraqi ground forces re-take the city of Ramadi, and continuing to conduct targeted raids, both air strikes against group leaders and special operations ground attacks.
Carter said Iraqi government and security forces need to do more to help the battle.
"We need to see more in the direction of multi-sectarian governance and defense leadership," he said.
A recent State Department security report disclosed that IS gained between $20 billion and $50 billion worth of arms from Iraqi military troops who fled rather than fight during battles last year. Much of the equipment and arms were U.S.-made, including tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery.
Carter also defended the administration’s failure to dissuade Russia from conducting military operations in Syria against anti-Assad rebels.
"While we negotiated a document on safety of flight with the Russian minister of defense, we do not align ourselves more broadly, with their military actions because instead of singularly attacking ISIL, as they said they were going to do, they're primarily attacking the Syrian opposition, as the chairman has noted, which further fuels the tragic civil war there," Carter said.
Dunford, who recently took over as chairman after a stint as Marine Corps commandant, said the refocused military campaign will involve more airstrikes against IS leaders and fighters, as well as disrupting supply lines and IS revenue sources.
Second, the military is working to bolster Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces who can take back territory now held by IS fighters.
"To be successful with the coalition's military campaign, we must reduce ISIL's territorial control, destroy it's war-fighting capability, and undermine its brand and aura of invincibility," Dunford said.
"We must do all we can to enable vetted Syrian opposition forces willing to fight ISIL, and we must be more aggressive in strikes that will deny ISIL the access they have to oil revenue," the four-star general added.
Carter said the new train-and-arm program in Syria would seek capable and motivated forces inside Syria.
"We have identified some of them already, and the new approach is to enable them, train them, and equip them, rather than trying to create such forces anew, which was the previous approach," he said.
Carter said he and Obama concluded the program to train fighters outside the country and send them into Syria was not working.
"So we have a different approach that we think will allow us to gain more momentum," Carter said. "And in particular, to allow us to put pressure on the city of Raqqa which is the self-declared capital of the caliphate."
On the South China Sea, Carter confirmed that the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen recently conducted a passage within 12 miles of a newly-created Chinese island in the disputed Spratly Island chain.
The warship transit was widely anticipated and sparked outrage from Beijing, which called the passage a military provocation.
The Lassen sailed close to Subi Reef, where commercial satellite images revealed that China is building a military airstrip.
China has built up some 3,000 acres of islands in the South China Sea and is declaring nearly the entire strategic waterway as Chinese maritime territory.
Those claims are rejected by the United States and others in the region.