Obama, Congress, ISIL: Where Things Stand & What's Next

Obama, Congress, ISIL: Where Things Stand & What's Next

By Alexis Simendinger & Caitlin Huey-Burns - September 15, 2014

As Congress heads into what it imagined would be a short two weeks of work during September, lawmakers are now trying to reckon with twin requests from President Obama for their support: He wants their backing for attacks on Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria, and for training and arming Syrian rebels to become “boots on the ground” against Sunni extremists inside Syria.

Pressure for action by the United States, the United Kingdom and other nations mounted Saturday after militants released a video to news media showing a black-masked executioner beheading British aid worker David Haines, held captive in Syria since last year. Haines’ death followed the similarly grisly murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, both assailed by name and in English in the recent videos, issued statements Saturday condemning the perpetrators and vowing justice.

In the wake of Obama’s address to the nation Wednesday announcing an open-ended and long-term war against ISIL, lawmakers across party lines expressed their general support, but debated the role Congress should play. Most of them, with their eyes on the November elections, are anxious to sidestep any showdown votes in Washington that could boomerang and cause them harm back home.

For the administration, building an international coalition to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) got off to a lukewarm start as Secretary of State John Kerry discovered some allies embraced the goals while taking careful measure of any specific commitments.

On Sunday, Kerry said the United States was soliciting international commitments for “the whole package” before revealing the coalition, and was gratified that unnamed countries said they would contribute to the overall war strategy, including to U.S.-led airstrikes. Asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” if some countries are ready to put combat forces on the ground alongside Syrian rebels to battle ISIL, the secretary said, “We are not looking for that, at this moment anyway.”

The U.S. outreach will continue this week and during Obama’s Sept. 23-24 meetings at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

As the Pentagon announced on Saturday the 160th U.S. airstrike in Iraq against ISIL targets, the administration and Congress left a number of important questions cloaked in fog. What follows summarizes some of those issues.

What is the president’s strategy to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIL terrorists inside Syria?

The administration, using CIA and military personnel, has trained about 2,000 Syrian rebels for more than a year inside Jordan, and Obama is seeking to “scale up” the effort to create an effective ground force comprised of rebels.

Some military analysts expressed skepticism over the weekend that ISIL can be defeated without relying on a significant army of well-trained ground forces beyond the Syrian rebels, whose loyalties and aspirations are focused on defeating the ruling regime more than the terrorist organization that is also an Assad enemy.

“We can put Syrian boots on the ground to take this fight to ISIL,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told CBS News, and “not have to rely on ours or somebody else's. Ultimately, the president has made his decision on that. We're going to provide our unique capability in airstrikes, in intelligence and in training. And then it will be up to the Syrians on that side of the border to finish the job.”

In June, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed to Congress a $500 million program in fiscal 2015 to train and equip Syrian fighters, but until the president’s decision to go on the offensive with the Iraqi government, the proposal gained little momentum. Now the Pentagon is seeking to establish a different training program and base it in Saudi Arabia, although details remain unclear. The White House says the train-and-arm program is still being developed with the Saudis and potentially other nations.

Because Syrian rebels are a ragged band of fighters with uneven skills and hatreds more welded to defeating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad than vanquishing ISIL, some lawmakers want to weigh details and potential consequences with care. The White House insists Obama, by declining to send lethal military assistance to the Syrian rebels a year ago, prevented U.S. arms and equipment from falling into ISIL’s hands, which the administration insists would have made the terror organization even more dangerous at this point. 

Regardless of whether that assertion is true, ISIL is well funded, well supplied and has grown. The CIA announced that the group’s estimated force mushroomed through August to between 20,000 and 31,500 terrorists operating in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon thinks it can hasten to train as many as 6,000 “vetted” Syrian rebels to help stop ISIL from establishing safe havens in Syria, but that effort will take months, if not longer.

The Pentagon says the key to defeating ISIL is to throttle its extremist “ideology,” which is a long-term challenge given the group’s burgeoning numbers, and the plan to achieve its defeat is based, according to the president, on years of combating al-Qaeda.

But the U.S. military insists ISIL’s size is not a worry.

“While the numbers certainly got bigger, and that certainly intensifies the scope of the enemy that you're facing, I don't think there's a direct line between that and the duration of the conflict or the difficulty of the conflict,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Friday.

When will the U.S. military begin bombing ISIL targets inside Syria, and what impact will those strikes have on Assad’s hold on power after three bloody years of civil war?

By all indications, the administration has drawn up plans to hit targets inside Syria soon, perhaps in a matter of weeks. White House officials said the Pentagon would disclose any such strikes when they occur, as U.S. Central Command has been doing since August with its air offensive in Iraq.

Obama on Wednesday will visit CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Fla., the White House announced.

A U.S.-led offensive inside Syria would be limited to crushing ISIL, and would not be aimed at toppling Assad from power, according to senior administration officials. Nonetheless, Obama a year ago vowed to help end the civil war in Syria, to try to expel Assad and to support a more representative government.

Training and arming Syrian rebels could have multiple benefits for U.S. interests -- and pose multiple risks. Assad’s forces have mobile air defense capabilities, and while Assad’s regime considers ISIL an enemy, it remains uncertain how Assad would respond. Syria has “no reservations” about the U.S. military battling a common enemy, the regime’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, told NBC News last week. He urged the United States to form a broad coalition against ISIL that includes Russia, China and Iran.

The administration has for several weeks conducted surveillance flights over Syria and developed intelligence to establish where airstrikes would be useful. Officials said before Haines’ murder that known Islamic State leaders were not bombing targets.    

How long will the U.S. military offensive against ISIL continue before objectives are met or victory achieved?

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