Senators demand strategy from Obama on Syria

Senators demand strategy from Obama on Syria
© Greg Nash

Senators are calling on President Obama to clarify his strategy on Syria after Russia ignored repeated U.S. warnings and began bombing rebel groups there this week to shore up President Bashar Assad's government forces.  

"It’s greatly concerning that the administration is continuously caught off-guard and publicly expresses confusion over obvious consequences and foreseeable occurrences," said Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerMeet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska Tariff fight could hit GOP in key Senate states Russia, China eclipse US in hypersonic missiles, prompting fears MORE (R-Neb.), chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities. 

“Once again, I call on the president to outline in detail his strategy moving forward. Is train-and-equip still our focus? Must Assad still go?" she said. "While the American people continue to wait for these answers, others are filling the leadership vacuum." 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerRand's reversal advances Pompeo Overnight Defense: Pompeo clears Senate panel, on track for confirmation | Retired officers oppose Haspel for CIA director | Iran, Syria on agenda for Macron visit Pompeo headed for confirmation after surprise panel vote MORE (R-Tenn.) said he has requested that Secretary of State John Kerry testify next week to explain the administration's Syria strategy to Congress and the American people. 

Rep. Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceThe battlefield of information warfare has been leveled Trump has not invited Democrats, media to state dinner: report Republican lawmaker introduces new cyber deterrence bill MORE (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, "It is time for the administration to actively work with Congress to develop an effective Syria policy. The costs of continued failure are far too high." 

Although Democrats are not directly criticizing the administration, they too are getting antsy.  

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineHannity snaps back at 'Crybaby' Todd: 'Only conservatives have to disclose relationships?' Chuck Todd lashes out at Fox, defends wife in radio interview Overnight Defense: Trump steps up fight with California over guard deployment | Heitkamp is first Dem to back Pompeo for State | Dems question legality of Syria strikes MORE (D-Va.), a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, said Russia's airstrikes were "alarming" and called for Congress to exercise oversight over the war. 

"More than a year into this fight, the fact that Congress has not yet debated and voted on U.S. military action against ISIL, including the defense of U.S.-trained Syrian forces in the region, is appalling," he said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

The strikes began two days after Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday. Although they led to talks between Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his Russian counterpart, the airstrikes took the U.S. by surprise.  

On Wednesday morning, Moscow gave the U.S. about an hour's notice before dropping bombs, asking U.S. air forces to exit the country, defense officials said. 

Although Russian officials said the airstrikes are targeting ISIS, defense officials say they are not hitting the terror group and are instead hitting fighters rebelling against Assad — some of whom are reportedly backed by the CIA. 

The airstrikes have come despite the U.S.'s warnings not to bolster Assad. 

"We are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can't continue to double down on a strategy that's doomed to fail," the president said at Fort Meade, Md., on Sept. 11.  

Russia’s dismissal of U.S. requests have fueled critics of the administration, who argue Obama's foreign policy strategy is weak.  

"Putin, through his actions, is showing disdain for President Obama and American interests," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed Services Committee and a 2016 presidential contender. 

U.S. officials fear the airstrikes will strengthen Assad's grip on power and prolong the four-year civil war in Syria at the same time the administration's program to train and equip a moderate Syrian ground force against ISIS is floundering.

The Pentagon admitted Tuesday that a program to bring new recruits to its training sites outside Syria has been paused while it is being reviewed.  

The program's dismal results — about 80 fighters remaining out of 125 graduates so far — has drawn skepticism from some of the administration's strongest supporters. 

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters he was disappointed with the program, which Congress provided $500 million for in 2015. 

"It's been very frustrating," he told reporters during a telephone conference Wednesday. He said there has been "a great deal of resources committed to it [but] modest expectations ... have not been met." 

The first batch of 54 fighters disintegrated after al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, killed and kidnapped some of its members, and the second batch of around 70 fighters had handed over a quarter of its U.S.-supplied equipment. 

Reed said the concept still has value, but a "tough examination of what's going wrong" is needed. 

The Pentagon said Thursday that U.S. defense officials had begun talks with Russian defense officials to avoid any accidents between coalition and Russian aircraft in Syrian airspace.

Defense officials sought to assuage concerns that there would be any accidents. 

"While there's always the potential for miscalculation and for accidents, it's important to remember … there are a lot of square miles in Syria," Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the operation, said Thursday.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainManchin, Donnelly back Pompeo This week: Senate barrels toward showdown over Pompeo Romney forced into GOP primary for Utah Senate nomination MORE (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, blasted the talks with Russia, calling them an accommodation of Russia's role of Syria. 

“Unfortunately, it appears 'deconfliction' is merely an Orwellian euphemism for this administration’s acceptance of Russia’s expanded role in Syria, and as a consequence, for Assad’s continued brutalization of the Syrian people," he said. 

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of the administration's biggest foreign policy critics, called on the administration to take stronger measures. 

"We should establish no-fly zones in Syria and make it clear that any aircraft that enters those zones will be shot down,” he said. 

Experts say Russia's airstrikes could worsen the Syrian crisis, which has led to more than 250,000 deaths and more than 4 million refugees fleeing the region. 

"An overt Russian intervention to further prop up the Assad government may provoke a further increase in support for such hardline militant groups by existing state backers in the wider region, further intensifying the conflict and placing a negotiated political settlement further from reach,” said Matthew Henman, head of Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre at IHS. 

White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communication Ben Rhodes on Wednesday reiterated the administration's view that the U.S. could work with Russia in Syria, as long as its actions were directed toward ISIS and a political transition.

"The main determining factor for Russia is if they understand that parallel to any counterterrorism efforts, there has to be a political resolution to the conflict in Syria, otherwise the fighting's not going to stop," he said at the Washington Ideas Forum.

"We have to recognize that there are not military solutions and certainly not US-imposed military solutions or for that matter, Russia-imposed military solutions on these problems," he said. "When Russia works with us on international problems, it's easier to resolve them."