Washington D.C. – House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith made the following opening statement at today’s hearing with Secretary Hagel on combating ISIL:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And I would like to thank our witnesses, Secretary Hagel and General Mayville. We appreciate you coming here to discuss the way forward in our effort to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). I know General Dempsey wanted to be here, but had a prior commitment to travel to Eastern Europe to meet with Ministers of Defense there. Given what has been going on in that area, I think we can all be glad that he is helping to reemphasize our commitment to our NATO allies.
In some ways, this hearing is occurring at both a strange and a perfect moment. Some members, I am sure, are asking why the Secretary is appearing after the House passed the McKeon amendment to allow for the training and equipping of the moderate Syrian opposition. I would suggest that we need to remember that passage of that measure cannot be regarded as a “Mission Accomplished” moment, but is instead one step in a strategy that will likely require years of effort and constant engagement.
ISIL is a clear threat to our interests. A large number of foreign fighters are going to Syria and Iraq to support ISIL. Some of those foreign fighters—estimates are somewhere in the 100 range—have come from the U.S., and many more have come from Western Europe. Many of those have returned to their home country, and they present a clear threat. European or American ISIL members, radicalized by their time spent fighting in Syria, would be extremely hard to monitor or stop, whether they plan lone wolf attacks as we have seen in Europe or the broader attacks we all fear.
In a broader sense, if ISIL is able to control territory in Iraq and in Syria and have a safe and secure haven, they will, without question, plot and plan attacks against the West. They have already said that is their plan, and that is exactly what happened when al Qaeda had safe haven in Afghanistan.
So denying ISIL safe haven is clearly in the United States’ interests. I think a humanitarian aspect of this is also worth stating. As was noted by some speakers on the debate earlier this week, you cannot imagine a more violent and dangerous group of people. The number of people that this group has brutally murdered in Iraq and Syria solely because they refused to pledge allegiance to ISIL and their twisted view of Islam is staggering. This is a group that must be stopped.
The President has laid out the elements of a strategy to stop this group. The first step was to stop their advance in Iraq, which we have assisted the Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in doing. With our assistance they have in some cases pushed ISIL out of critical terrain. Secondly, we have helped the Iraqis begin to reach out to the disaffected Sunnis who are supporting ISIL. While the new government that is being formed in Iraq will hopefully include Sunnis in real and meaningful ways, more remains to be done. We have to assist in reforming the ISF to once again become the professional and largely nonsectarian force we left in 2011—only a force like that will reassure
Sunnis who fear that they have no place Iraq and draw them away from the ISIL camp. At the same time, we must and will escalate our air strikes to deny ISIL the ability to move, to degrade their conventional military power, and to undermine their ability to raise funds in Iraq. Ultimately, it will be Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi politicians who carry out much of the work to reassure Sunnis and attack ISIL on the ground, but we must stand ready to assist the reform effort and to support their combat forces from the air. None of this is easy, and much of it will take substantial time and resources, but I believe that we have a good start down this path.
Syria, as many of my colleagues know, is more complicated. The civil war in Syria is multi-sided and presents a complex and ever-changing battlefield. While we can attack ISIL from the air, ultimately we need a force on the ground that can help defend Syrians from their depredations, pressure their fighters, and, with our air support, take their territory away from them. That force must also not be the Assad regime, which has lost its legitimacy. Passage of the
McKeon amendment provides the authority to begin to train such a force, but it is only one step. The President’s effort to forge an international coalition is also vital. Only a regional coalition can reach out to many of the actors in the civil war and begin to unite the factions into a more coherent military and political organization that can face down both ISIL and eventually the Assad regime.
This is all relatively easy to say, but will be much harder to do. The train and equip mission itself will provide many challenges— recruiting, vetting the Syrian fighters, and getting them out of Syria to train and then back in the country to fight will be difficult. Command and control will be a challenge for some time. We don’t yet have a system to provide logistics or fire support.
The other parts will be equally hard—for example, we want to target ISIL first, but members of the Syrian resistance may have other ideas. Members of the international coalition may also have somewhat diverging interests. Keeping everyone focused on one goal will be extremely challenging. And ISIL is the worst extremist organization in Syria, but hardly the only one.
Ultimately, there must be some government in Syria that can deal with those groups and prevent them from becoming a threat to us in the future. That will be extremely difficult.
While ISIL may present a single threat across Iraq and Syria, those two areas are hardly the same. In Iraq, we temporarily have some of the same interests as Iran, to stop ISIL from being a threat to the government in Baghdad. But in Syria, we will be backing very different sides, and it remains to be seen how that will be managed. Iraqi Shi’a militias are also fighting ISIL, but some of them fought us in the past and have fought in Syria against some of those we hope to train and equip. And the role of Russia will be challenging for some time.
I am hopeful that the Secretary can help lay out our way forward here. I believe that we have begun to take a number of important actions. But the American people need to understand how those actions fit together into a coherent strategy and ultimately lead to a world without ISIL and where the Middle East is more stable than it is now. I am hopeful that the Secretary can help explain how this will work.
Again, thank you, Mr. Chairman. I yield back.