Administration briefs Senate on progress against ISIS

Administration briefs Senate on progress against ISIS
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The Trump administration on Wednesday gave the full Senate an update on its efforts against ISIS, but lawmakers had mixed opinions as to whether the plans represent anything new.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford gave a classified briefing to senators for more than an hour at the Capitol.

The presentation follows the U.S.-led coalition ousting of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from their stronghold in Mosul, Iraq, earlier this month. The coalition is now focused on pushing ISIS from the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital, and elsewhere in the region.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump's GOP impeachment firewall holds strong George Conway hits Republicans for not saying Trump's name while criticizing policy Trump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid MORE (R-Tenn.), who left the briefing before it ended, described the presentation as a “very thorough” general layout of the administration’s efforts against ISIS.

“It’s sort of a whole different kind of effort that’s underway, and I think people will leave there pretty educated about what’s happening,” Corker told reporters.

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He declined to detail any differences between the previous administration’s efforts and the new White House strategy, saying “comparisons are odious.”

“There’s just a lot more clarity, a lot more focus on annihilation. A lot of partnering with other countries is building tremendously. You can just tell there’s a renewed energy, renewed focus and they are not playing around,” Corker said.  

“I think anybody that listened to that hearing understands they’re all about killing any ISIS member they can get a hold of,” Corker added.

But Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said she didn’t get a sense of anything new being done compared to the Obama White House. The briefing was simply an update on progress in the region and did not include President Trump’s long-awaited strategy to defeat ISIS, she said.

“It was a more comprehensive look at what the situation was on the ground in the region, which was very nice to have, but there wasn’t anything new in terms of what they’re proposing to do next,” Duckworth told reporters as she left the briefing.

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineLawmakers set to host fundraisers focused on Nats' World Series trip The Hill's 12:30 Report: Washington mourns loss of Elijah Cummings GOP cautions Graham against hauling Biden before Senate MORE (D-Va.), meanwhile, declined to discuss specifics due to the briefing’s classified nature, but allowed that “it was a very good exchange … best discussion we’ve had about it since the administration” changeover.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) told reporters the White House strategy “has an enormous component with regard to working with our allies.”

“They’re focused on an annihilation strategy with regard to the fighters, but importantly, foreign fighters. A big part of their focus is to annihilate the people they’re fighting so they can’t go home and conduct terrorist attacks in Europe or in Detroit or other places in America,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also said he believes the operational focus is very different from that of the Obama administration.

“They are aggressively, aggressively going after the energy assets of ISIS — the oil, the gas, literally thousands of strikes. It literally takes terrorist financing and puts it up in smoke. They have done that to the tune of tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of destroyed product,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham says he shares Kurdish 'concerns' over cease-fire Majority of Americans believe Trump's Syria move has damaged US reputation: poll Senate GOP braces for impeachment trial 'roller coaster' MORE (R-S.C.), however, said he remains concerned the ISIS plan does not address the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom Graham argued is the driver of the instability that brought about the terrorist group. It’s a concern Graham said he thinks is shared by his ally Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCummings to lie in state at the Capitol Elizabeth Warren should concern Donald Trump 'bigly' Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show MORE (R-Ariz.), a fellow foreign policy hawk who is recovering from surgery in Arizona and so did not attend the briefing.

“There is no plan to get rid of Assad,” Graham said. “I really appreciate all they’re doing to liberate the areas and get donors to contribute to holding the territory. But the fundamental question unanswered is, how do you get Assad to leave? What leverage do you have?"

The briefing came the same day as a report that Trump is ending a program to arm Syrian rebels in their fight against Assad. The policy change is seen as a victory for Russia, one of the Syrian government’s strongest allies.

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinDemocrats vow to push for repeal of other Trump rules after loss on power plant rollback Senate Democrats aim to repeal rules blocking Trump tax law workarounds Congress briefed on Iran after Saudi oil attacks MORE (D-Md.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, declined to comment on the contents of the briefings, citing its classified nature.

Asked whether any concerns about the administration’s approach to ISIS were assuaged, Cardin said the briefing was “helpful.”

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyPelosi, Schumer hit 'flailing' Trump over 'sham ceasefire' deal Romney slams ceasefire deal, calls Trump's Syria move 'a bloodstain' in US history Backlash erupts at video depicting Trump killing media, critics MORE (D-Conn.) likewise declined to discuss specifics. But asked whether his concerns still stand after the briefing, he said, “sure.”

“I don’t support the president’s policy of doubling down our military presence inside Syria,” he said of his concerns. “I worry that we are putting ourselves in a position for a long-term troop commitment there. I worry that we are setting up a situation where we’re going to get into a major conflict with Russia and/or Iran.”

—Rebecca Kheel contributed.