Thank you Mr. Chairman. And I would like to join you in welcoming our witnesses here today and to thank them for their long service on behalf of our nation.
The tragic attacks in Paris, Beirut, Ankara, and Egypt brought home the very reasons why the United States is leading an international coalition to destroy ISIL and set the conditions that will prevent it or a successor from emerging in the future. The second half of this mission, ensuring that local allies can secure the territory from which ISIL is driven, is the key to ensuring our national security—driving ISIL from Raqqa or even Mosul won’t be enough unless they can be prevented from coming back.
Unfortunately, to date the forces on the ground have not yet fully demonstrated the ability to drive ISIL out of the territory held by the terrorists, much less to secure it. In Iraq, Prime Minister Abadi appears to mean well, but the Shi’a dominated central government is still unwilling to reach out to Sunnis politically and unwilling or unable to militarily retake areas held by ISIL. Instead, the government has employed Shi’a militias to do their fighting, many of which are back by Iran and have been accused of ethnic cleansing in the past. Unless the government brings the militias under control and demonstrates a willingness to accommodate Sunnis, long-term success against ISIL in Iraq will be extremely difficult.
In Syria, the moderate opposition is splintered at best, while many of the strongest members of the opposition are extremist in orientation. Until Monday night, Russia had at best carried out only intermittent attacks on areas held by ISIL, while Assad has largely focused on any group other than ISIL. Iran and Hezbollah have backed the Assad regime and created Alawite militias that will complicate the situation for years to come.
The United States has adopted a strategy of developing and assisting local partners who can militarily take the fight to ISIL while participating in a political process designed to bring about a transition in Syria. I believe that, broadly, this is the right approach. Lasting security can only be brought about though local partners willing to hold and govern the ground freed from ISIL.
It is tempting to suggest that, particularly in the wake of the Paris attacks, the solution is to send large numbers of U.S. ground troops to clear ISIL from eastern Syria. This would be a mistake. There is no doubt that the U.S. military could push ISIL from Raqqa and other territories they hold in relatively short order. But unless we wanted to station troops there for years, we could not prevent ISIL from coming back or another extremist group from filling that vacuum.
Instead, we must continue to support the local partners we have developed so far—the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, the Syrian Arab Coalition, and those elements of the Syrian moderate opposition that we were able to train—while developing more. The President has correctly decided to support these forces with arms and ammunition and announced that we will deploy a small number of Special Operations Forces to support them even further. As we identify and develop additional partners on the ground, we should consider supporting them in the same way.
We should also look for additional opportunities to increase the success and volume of our air campaign, while keeping in mind that the cities held by ISIL contain tens of thousands of civilians. This is a war on ISIL, not the innocent civilians they victimize. I hope that we will see more attacks such as the air strikes the other night on ISIL’s oil infrastructure. These are meaningful actions that will undermine ISIL’s ability to field and support forces.
We should be clear that, despite what some commentators suggest, these actions are having a positive effect. The Iraqi Kurds have taken Sinjar, which will constrict ISIL’s lines of communication between Raqqa and Mosul. The Syrian Arab Coalition and the Syrian Kurds have taken many towns away from ISIL and put pressure on the area around Raqqa. Other elements of the Syrian moderate opposition, supported by U.S. airstrikes, are pressuring the area around the last outpost on the Turkish border controlled by ISIL. And reports suggest that the foreign fighter flow into Syria is starting to dry up.
This fight will not be over soon. ISIL is a determined enemy that will try to strike outside of Syria and Iraq, as we have seen in Paris, Egypt, Beirut, and Ankara. We should expect more attempted attacks, particularly as ISIL is pressed on the battlefield. But we are making slow, but measurable, progress.
There are, of course, many areas where we can do better, and I hope the witnesses will help us think through some options. For example, how should we react to Russia’s actions and intentions, particularly in the wake of the bombing of their airliner? Are there ways we can help forge a unified Syrian political opposition that can meaningfully participate in a political transition? What, if anything, should we do to deal with the fracturing of Iraq and Syria into ethnic enclaves? How should we deal with Iran’s support for militias in both Iraq and Syria?
Finally, I would ask our witnesses how we should proceed regarding the Assad regime. Many commentators have suggested that we should more actively oppose the regime whether through more aggressive actions to degrade Assad’s capabilities or through imposing a no-fly zone of some sort. Is this necessary? The House of Representatives has failed to pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force regarding ISIL and more aggressive action against Assad may require some additional legal authorization—should we take such a step?
Again, I would like to thank our witnesses for appearing here today, and I look forward to their testimony.