Senate Hearings Reveal Confusion in plan to counter IS/Russia in Syria

Buried under the incredulous headlines (‘that’s a joke’ quipped Sen. Kelly Ayotte when informed that just four or five US-trained Syrian troops are currently fighting IS) is the fact that with a little over a year after President Obama declared that the objective of Operation Inherent Resolve was to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, the mission still lacks a coherent and defined strategy to achieve that goal.

Although both CENTCOM Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that progress is being made against IS, the changing realities on the ground point to a looming potential disaster in the long term.

To start, the recent news that Russia is expanding their presence in Syria from an advisory and armament supply role to active participation in the civil war on the side of Bashar al-Assad has the potential to escalate the cold war-like conflict between Moscow and Washington. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) questioned whether Russian aircraft pose a threat to coalition flights and what our response would be, to which Gen. Austin replied that while there is concern for such an event, the current policy is to avoid those encounters, since there are no rules in place as of yet with regards how to deal with Russian forces on the ground, because the Russians have not yet initiated military operations.

Not only is this a very dangerous situation for US pilots to be in, the lack of a response will only embolden Vladimir Putin, as he fortifies Assad’s positions. While some analysts say that this is a defensive posture in light of Assad’s loss of territory against both the al-Nusra front and IS, others say this is just the beginning of a large-scale effort to take the fight directly to the jihadists.

Then there is Iran. Awaiting its financial windfall after sanctions are lifted, Ayatollah Khamenei has dispatched Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani to Moscow in order to coordinate their efforts to back Assad. While both Russia and Iran back the Syrian ruler to the hilt, the US engages in double-speak with regards to his regime: First, Ms. Wormuth states that he still commands the most powerful military force on the ground and faces no imminent danger. Then, she says that the best solution is his removal from power while maintaining Syrian government institutions.

At the same time, Gen. Austin pointed out that the only way Assad comes to the negotiating table is if he feels that he is under mortal threat. While our stated goal is the removal of Assad from power in order to facilitate a political solution, the focus of the operation remains IS only. Confusion and contradictions between words and deeds have never won wars; a lesson Iran and Russia know only too well.

Under questioning from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Gen. Austin was unequivocal in his claim that Iran can not be a partner against IS, since they have no productive role in the conflict. What about Russia? The Senator did not follow up with that question and we are only left to wonder, since Putin publicly claims he is intervening to help an ally fight terrorism.

With regards to actual air operations, the revelation that there are no actual forward air observers on the ground in Syria is startling, as the reliance on remote air operation centers restricts target acquisition, especially in IS-held fortified areas.

In the hearing that followed, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations asked foreign policy experts Dr. Kimberly Kagan, Mr. Brian Katulis, and Mr. Michael Bowers for their analysis of the US role and strategy in the Middle East. To put it blunty, both short and long-term outlooks are bleak.

Dr. Kagan described the Islamic State as operating in three spheres: internally in Iraq and Syria, outwardly in the historical caliphate lands of Islam, and externally into the US and Europe. She also maintains that currently, the main parties in Syria (Assad, Iran, jihadists, and other rebels) do not want a political solution. They are all concerned with preserving their position. Her concluding opinion is that there will not be a political solution until there is security on the ground, which is a long way off.

For his part, Mr. Katulis stated that many of the other countries in the coalition have not made degrading and destroying IS their priority, even the US, as we gave priority to the Iran nuclear deal while IS seized territory and cities like Palmyra in Syria. For example, a directly affected country like Turkey worries more about Kurd separatists than the jihadi threat next door. Furthermore, according to him, we are reacting in ad hoc fashion to their very effective social media campaign and our narrative is a piece by piece response to their atrocities with no concrete results.

Finally, Mr. Bowers weighed in on the migrant issue, stating that the US can and should do more to resettle them here. In his estimation, every worst-case scenario since the start of the Syrian civil war has come true: increased jihadi activity, breakdown of the Syrian state, and foreign intervention.

Both of these hearings highlighted the fact that our counter-terrorism strategy in general, and against IS in particular, lacks direction and a clear, defined objective. From Russia catching us by surprise to IS fulfilling their objective of remaining and expanding, the need for clarity in our efforts is critical.