Washington D.C. – House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith made the following statement at today’s hearing on U.S. Policy and Strategy in the Middle East:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And I would like to join you in thanking our witnesses for appearing here today. Secretary Carter, General Dempsey, it is always good to have you here. Let me begin by congratulating you both and your partners across the government in your recent successful efforts to further combat al Qaeda and eliminate its leadership. Nasser al-Wuhayshi and Mokhtar Belmokhtar were both responsible for attacks and attempted attacks on Americans and presented an ongoing threat against American citizens. Thank you both for your ongoing efforts to eliminate al Qaeda.
Today, the United States and our allies are faced with a high level of chaos in the Middle East. Traditionally stable states have sunk into civil war, sectarian strife is spreading, and the institutions of many central governments are increasingly weak and incapable of coping. These factors have allowed for the spread of violent extremist ideologies, particularly among some parts of the Sunni world, and opened up opportunities for the spread of Iranian influence among many of the Shi’a. The complexity of these interwoven conflicts has caused many to conclude that there is no short-term solution to this strife, and that we must be prepared to engage in an increasingly destabilized Middle East to protect our interests and allies for years to come.
ISIL is a symptom and consumer of the dysfunction in the Middle East, but it’s not a root cause. As others have noted, ISIL is either version two or version three of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq depending on how you count it. Simply driving the organization from the territory it now controls is not enough to secure our interests in the long run—we have to have allies who can hold that territory and govern it in a way that will prevent the return of ISIL or whatever extremist organization comes next.
Unfortunately, there are no obvious choices to take on the task of holding the terrain and preventing the emergence of more extremists. Shi’a parties, many of which have close links to Iran, dominate the central government of Iraq. Despite the good intentions of Prime Minister Abadi, those parties have consistently been unwilling to allow meaningful participation by Sunnis in the government. That government has also been unwilling to deploy additional forces to defend Sunni areas from ISIL or to even support the forces that were actually fighting ISIL in Ramadi. And they have certainly expressed no interest in seriously arming the Sunnis so that they can defend themselves. While some of this is due to a lack of capability, the biggest problem is will—the Shi’a majority is focused on defending the Shi’a areas of Iraq and seems to have no interest in defending, much less reconciling with, the Sunni minority.
For their part, it is not hard to understand why many Sunnis choose to keep their heads down. They are faced with a Shi’a-dominated central government that does not support them and has employed Iranian-backed militias who have engaged in ethnic cleansing in the past. Without getting Sunnis support in the fight against ISIL, I don’t see how we can win in Iraq. And unfortunately, I don’t see the government of Iraq helping in that effort in any meaningful way.
Syria is worse. The Assad regime has engaged in numerous war crimes and attacks on civilians and spends far more of its time fighting the more moderate opposition and not fighting ISIL. The opposition in Syria is splintered and while there are some moderate opposition groups, the strongest groups in the opposition are often far too extremist for anyone to be comfortable.
Iran, for its part, is backing extremist Shi’a militias in Iraq and the Assad regime and Hezbollah in Syria. No doubt, some of Iran’s effort is designed to defend Shi’a in the region—ISIL has often called for the murder of Shi’a and its predecessor organization was responsible for the murder of thousands, if not tens of thousands of Shi’a in Iraq. But Iran also seems to be attempting to expand its influence in the region in ways not only inimical to our interests, but in ways that often make the sectarian conflict worse.
Without central governments willing to help fight ISIL, reconcile with their ethnic and sectarian minorities, and govern fairly and effectively, this fight will be much more difficult than anyone of us might wish. In this situation, we will have to be prepared to arm, train, equip, and help groups who we can count on, government or not. The National Defense Authorization Act contains a provision that would allow for the direct arming of the Sunni and Kurdish elements in Iraq if the central government does not make progress in reconciliation. There are those who have suggested that arming those groups directly would cause the state to fracture. My concern is that if the Iraqis aren’t willing to make real progress in reconciliation, it will show that the state has already fractured and that there is little prospect of putting it back together.
Going forward, we will have to seriously engage with our Sunni partners in the region, the Saudis, UAE, Qataris, Turks, and others, to find ways to support the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria. We will have to work closely with Turkey to help address their fears of the Kurds growing too strong—so far in Syria and Iraq, the Kurds have been the groups most successful in retaking territory controlled by ISIL and we cannot walk away from them. We will have to work seriously with others to see if there is any sort of meaningful political moderate opposition to work with Syrians we train and equip and those other groups for whom we provide backing. Finally, we will certainly have to continue strikes against ISIL leadership and other targets. The successes of the Syrian Kurds in taking Tal Abyad from ISIL control and in defending Kobani show that with a competent and motivated ground force, we can have tactical success against ISIL even without Americans on the ground directly engaged.
We must find ways to increase assistance, both military assistance and help in dealing with refugees, for partners in the region—in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Jordan is almost overwhelmed under the strain of refugees. Lebanon has been stable in the face of challenges that many of us assumed would send it quickly back into civil war. We have to help them both and work to strengthen the institutions essential to maintaining their stability. We cannot deal with the threat of ISIL alone, so we will have to work closely with our partners to combat ISIL militarily, to stem the flow of foreign fighters, to combat their ideology, and to govern the territory taken from them over time.
Thank you Mr. Chairman, I yield back my time