Administration sends anti-ISIS strategy to Congress

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The Obama administration has sent Congress its overdue Middle East strategy report, which puts into writing the steps it’s taking to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee was unimpressed, saying the report provides little new information.

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“Over a month after it was due, today the administration sent the committee a document entitled 'Strategy for the Middle East and to Counter Violent Extremism,'” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said in written statement Thursday night.

“As we have unfortunately come to expect from this administration, the seven page document fails to provide much new information and fails to address all the elements required by law, such as identifying which groups must be engaged to counter violent extremism.”

The report, which was due Feb. 15, comes days after ISIS claimed credit for terrorist attacks in Brussels that killed at least 31 people. The attacks have prompted a new round of criticism of Obama's strategy.

The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act required the administration to send Congress a strategy that addressed nine specific areas, including what the U.S. objectives in the Middle East are, what actions are being taken to counter violent extremism, what state and non-state actors need to be engaged to counter violent extremism and what’s being done to prevent foreign fighters from traveling to Syria and Iraq and then to the United States.

In the report, the administration lists 11 objectives for the Middle East, including making sure that terrorist groups no longer threaten the United States, its allies and its interests; that governments in the region have strength and legitimacy; that governments respect human rights; and that the drivers of violent extremist radicalization and recruitment are addressed.

“In the present context, one overarching objective is to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL),” the report adds. “Working with coalition partners and local forces, we are taking the fight to ISIL where it holds territory, because ISIL’s control of territory enables it to sustain its fight.”

Near-term goals of the military strategy in Iraq include stabilizing Ramadi, which was taken back from ISIS at the end of the last year, and taking back Mosul, which Iraqi officials reported Thursday was starting. The coalition will do that with increased airpower and raids and by continuing to train, advise and assist local forces, according to the report.

In the medium and long term, the coalition is protecting territory from instability or being recaptured and fostering political processes to ensure long-term liberation.

In Syria, the short-term goal is to expand relationships with local forces, the report says.

“In particular, we are pursuing relationships with groups in southern Syria with an eye toward enabling them to mount unconventional operations to improve our visibility and understanding in the area, to deny ISIL operational freedom, to force ISIL to divert remaining combat power from external operations to internal security and to weaken ISIL’s territorial control,” the report says. “Coalition partners will assist in the training, munitions and equipment supply for these groups.”

The United States also continues to work toward a political end to the Syrian civil war by participating in the International Syrian Support Group, which has facilitated peace talks.

While the military campaign focuses on Iraq and Syria, the United States will also work with regional partners to target ISIS in Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sinai and Nigeria, the report says.

“To achieve these goals, we will continue and expand efforts to build the security sector capacity of nations where ISIL operates and to strengthen border-states and other nations committed to confronting ISIL,” the report says. “Where necessary, we will also take unilateral or partnered action to disrupt emerging ISIL nodes directly.”

To help prevent foreign fighters from traveling to Iraq and Syria and then to Europe or the United States, the administration has sent “Foreign Fighter Surge Teams” to Europe, according to the report. The United States now has agreements with 50 countries to share information on terrorist identities.

“These teams deepen bilateral cooperation on information sharing, traveler screening, border security, and law enforcement investigations,” the report says. “We continue to monitor networks and travel patterns with information shared among coalition governments.”

To counter violent extremist, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have developed a strategy to expand diplomatic efforts, according to the report. In addition, a Global Engagement Center will seek to counter terrorist propaganda.

Thornberry said the report fails to build confidence in the administration’s anti-ISIS strategy.

“It is another missed opportunity to build public and Congressional support for and confidence in their efforts against terrorism,” he said. “It is unsettling to know that this report may reflect the actual depth of strategic thought within the administration on how to face this grave threat."