Washington D.C.House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith made the following opening statement at today’s hearing on Iraq and Syria:

“Thank you Mr. Chairman.  And I would like to thank our witnesses for appearing here today.

“The ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria present us with a series of complicated and interlocked challenges.  U.S. policy in Syria has been to favor, to a growing extent, a moderate, largely Sunni, opposition in its fights against the Assad regime, which is backed by Shi’a Iran as well as various hardline Sunni terrorist groups, some allied with al-Qaeda and some too brutal for even that group to stomach.  In Iraq, the United States is exploring what it can do to assist a government that is now, and is likely to remain, largely dominated by Shi’a, which is also backed by Iran, as that government fights against the hardline Sunni group that was most successful in Syria and which has to date been able to coopt Sunni unhappiness with the Shi’a regime.  In short, this is a complicated situation that requires a thoughtful approach.

“Meanwhile, Russia continues to supply the Assad regime with weaponry and has made some sales to the Maliki government in Iraq, and our regional allies have acted to support Sunni groups in both Syria and Iraq, not always making as clear a distinction between moderate and extremist elements as we might like.  Finally, the ongoing violence in both these states has driven millions from their homes and often into other countries and regions, threatening the ability of Jordan, Lebanon, and the Kurdish area of Iraq to handle these demands and in some cases the internal stability of the governments of those actors. 

“I applaud the Administration’s recent request for authority and funds to provide the Syrian moderate opposition with training and equipment.  In the best case scenario, such an effort may put pressure on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Assad regime, driving the regime to the negotiating table and weakening the ability of ISIS to dominate areas of Syria, threaten the government of Iraq, and ultimately establish safe havens to threaten U.S. interests, our allies, and potentially the U.S. homeland.  In the worst case, and the conflict continues or ends with Assad emerging more or less victorious, it is likely that parts of Syria will remain violent and ungoverned for some time, and we will need to have influence with some groups who can help us ensure those areas aren’t used to launch terrorist attacks.

“I tend to favor the approach the Administration has taken so far in Iraq.  I believe we need to move cautiously there—the United States must continue to push for an inclusive government that can reassure moderate Sunnis that their interests are protected as a precondition for any greater degree of involvement.  The United States must show the Iraqi moderate Sunnis as well as our regional partners that we are not the Shi’a air force, but favor an Iraq that protects all of it’s people and fights against extremists of any stripe.  Having said that, I believe we also need to be thinking about what happens if we cannot achieve a political accommodation and cannot convince moderate or at least non-Islamic extremist Sunnis, to turn against ISIS.  If Iraq splits into three de facto mini-states, we should be thinking through what that does to U.S. policy in Iraq and the region. 

“I have only outlined a few of the challenges these situations present.  And I hope that our witnesses today can help us think through these and other questions.  For example, how do we think about Iran?  While we negotiate with them over their nuclear deal, in Syria they back a government we do not while in Iraq they provide assistance to the regime fighting ISIS.  How should we prioritize our goals in the region?  Which takes precedence—fighting Assad?  Pushing back on Iran?  Doing our best to crush ISIS?  And how much of any of this can the United States realistically accomplish?  Finally, if that isn’t enough, it does not seem that the unrest in the Middle East is going to quietly die down in the next few years, so how do you see the region evolving and what should the United States be doing to prepare for that future?

“Again, I would like to thank our witnesses for appearing here today.  I yield back.”