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Congressional Hearing on ISIS: Where is Syria?

Shadi Hamid

Congressional hearings aren’t always illuminating, but this time they were. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried — and, at times, struggled — to minimize the apparent contradictions of our evolving policy. Taken together, their remarks confirm what many have suspected — that there is, and will continue to be, a gaping hole at the heart of our ISIS strategy. That hole is Syria.

Despite all the talk about boosting mainstream Syrian rebels (“mainstream” or “non-extremist” are more appropriate descriptors than “moderate”), the administration hasn’t proposed any new funding beyond the $500 million in aid requested by the president in June, well before ISIS conquered the headlines. At the time, the plan was dismissed as being far too small. As one defense official said, “I get the sense no one really wants to do it.”

That same funding effort, dismissed then as another example of our “too little, too late” Syria policy, is under discussion today, but this time in the context of a much more demanding, urgent fight against ISIS. As the Wall Street Journal reported, $500 million could only be expected to train 2,300 individuals over 18 months. In his testimony, Hagel — for reasons that aren’t entirely clear — said 5,000 fighters could be trained over the course of one year. While five thousand is a significant step up, it still falls well short of what’s needed to shift the balance of forces on the ground, as even Hagel himself acknowledged during the hearing. “Five thousand alone is not going to be able to turn the tide. We recognize that,” the secretary said.

More problematic, however, were Gen. Dempsey’s subsequent remarks, which clarified the limited objectives of this new American-trained rebel force. Sen. John McCain asked what the U.S. would do if rebels were attacked by the Assad regime from the air. Dempsey failed to offer a clear answer and instead emphasized that the primary of focus of the 5,000 rebels would be fighting ISIS rather than Assad (an “ISIL-first strategy”). Questions aside of how or whether to integrate the fighters within existing FSA-aligned units, it would be odd to expect Syrian rebels, whose very raison d’etre is fighting and ending the Assad regime, to adopt this sort of sequencing. As McCain rightly noted, Dempsey’s comments reflected “a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire concept and motivation of the Free Syrian Army.” They see Assad as the primary enemy, while we see ISIS as the greater threat. The result is significant divergence in priorities with the very local forces President Obama said we would to depend on to fight ISIS. 

The Syria problem isn’t just a side issue. After all, the rise of ISIS to prominence and power is, as I argued in a recent essay in The Atlantic, more closely tied to the Syrian civil war than Iraq’s. If we aren’t willing to develop a coherent multi-year effort plan to boost mainstream rebels to counter both ISIS as well as Assad, then the most we can hope to do is contain the ISIS threat. There are arguments for doing precisely that – for example, Michael Hanna argues that the goal in Syria should be a “more stable cantonization between Assad and [the] rebels” – but the administration continues to insist that containment isn’t an option. Even if it were, the president wouldn’t be able to say so. What we have, then, are a series of statements pledging to “ultimately destroy” ISIS, but such statements are merely aspirational, at least for now.