WASHINGTON (CN) – Sen. Lindsey Graham slammed the Obama administration Tuesday for its “half-assed” strategy at fighting the Islamic State, though officials testified about ramping up airstrikes in Syria.
“All I can say is it’s a sad day for America and the region will pay hell for this,” the South Carolina Republican said. “This is a half-assed strategy at best.”
The remarks came at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing today in which neither Defense Secretary Ashton Carter nor Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford would say if the Syrian opposition forces that the U.S. supports also want to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, or if the U.S. would support those forces if they decide to fight against Assad.
Carter and Dunford reiterated that the Syrian opposition forces supported by the U.S. are fighting ISIL alone, not Assad.
The implication that the United States will not assist Syrian opposition forces fighting the Syrian president stunned Sen. Graham.
“If I’m Assad, this is a good day for me, ’cause the American government has just said – without saying it – that they’re not going to fight to replace me,” Graham said.
Today’s hearing came on the heels of an agreement the U.S. and Russia reached last week on Syria flights that will help mitigate mishaps in the air.
Carter emphasized that the deal does not indicate any level of military cooperation between the two countries.
Members of the Senate committee also grilled Carter and Gen. Dunford about the U.S. response to increasing Russian airstrikes in Syria. Russia has said it wants to target ISIL, but the U.S. says Russian airstrikes are actually targeting some of the Syrian opposition forces, which will bolster Assad’s regime.
Carter told the committee that Russia’s involvement in the country will not alter U.S. military operations, but demurred when asked if the U.S. has told Russia to avoid certain areas, or if the U.S. will respond to Russian attacks on U.S.-trained forces.
Senators also pressed the witnesses about whether U.S. forces will protect Syrian opposition and coalition forces from Russian airstrikes and Assad’s barrel bombs.
“We have an obligation to protect the forces we’ve trained and equipped,” Carter said, adding that discussion of protecting coalition troops would need to happen privately.
Carter told the committee that Assad needs to go sooner rather than later to preserve Syria’s state structures. He called the Russian strategy “wrongheaded,” adding that it will fuel the very extremism it purports to fear, but reiterated that the U.S. approach to removing Assad is a political, not a military, approach.
Despite recent revelations of the massive failure of the Obama administration’s $500 million effort to train and equip Syrian opposition fighters, Carter said the administration learned from its failures and will press on with train and assist efforts in Syria.
The new effort will train and equip vetted leaders of opposition groups already operating on the ground in Syria in ISIL-occupied territory, Carter said. This is a departure from the old program’s method of training groups outside of Syria.
U.S. forces began airdropping supplies and small arms ammunition to Syrian opposition forces in northern Syria on Oct. 11, Carter said.
“We won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL, or conducting such missions directly whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground,” Carter said, noting a possibility that U.S. troops could be in harm’s way.
Carter told members of today that the new strategy will focus on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s high-value targets, including the organization’s oil enterprise from which it derives revenue.
Escalating U.S. efforts will focus on Raqqa – ISIL’s stronghold and administrative capital in Syria – and Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar Provence in Iraq, which fell to Islamic State fighters in May, he said.
Vowing that the U.S. will help sustain the newly trained forces with air support, Carter noted that some Syrian opposition forces have already made gains against ISIL, with some about 30 miles from Raqqa.
Some senators also grilled Carter about why the Obama administration is dragging its feet on implementing a no-fly zone or safe haven in Syria.
“We do not have a concept for a no-fly zone at this time that we’re prepared to recommend,” Carter said.
He added that the administration and the Defense Department have analyzed the option, and that the president is keeping it on the table.
Carter said such an option will, however, require intensifying U.S. military involvement.
“To keep it safe will require fighting to keep it safe,” he said, adding that the U.S. would need to operate in parts of Syria where Assad’s regime and Russia are currently operating.
Sen. Graham doubled down when Dunford agreed “the balance of forces right now” seem to serve Assad’s advantage.
“What you’ve done, gentlemen, along with the president, is you’ve turned Syria over to Russia and Iran,” Graham said.
“How do we leverage Assad leaving when Russia’s going to fight for him, Iran’s going to fight for him, Hezbollah’s fighting for him and we’re not going to do a damn thing to help people take him down?” Graham asked.
“Is there any credible military threat to Assad now that Russia, Iran and Hezbollah’s on his side?” he continued.
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