President Obama’s rosy assessment of the U.S. war effort against ISIS terrorists in his State of the Union address Tuesday night continues to draw sharp rejoinders from prominent Republicans and some foreign policy experts who believe the president is misleading the public.
The latest to weigh in on Thursday was Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who called the situation in Syria a “horrible” mess. He claimed Obama was not telling the truth in saying that the U.S. and its allies are making headway on degrading and eventually destroying the jihadist terrorists.
During his nationally televised SOTU address, Obama said his administration’s plan has halted the momentum of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. That was too much for Thornberry.
“On the Syria side they have grown in territory, so I think factually what the president said is simply not true,” Thornberry told reporters. “The area that they control, what they have influenced, has actually grown, and there is not a lot of prospect, in the near-term, of pushing that back.”
Thornberry’s blast came after a blistering statement from Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) that dismissed the president’s speech as a demonstration of how “strategically listless” the Obama administration is right now.
“President Obama’s speech … was further evidence of the shameful lack of a coherent administration strategy to achieve his stated goal of degrading and ultimately destroying the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” McCain and Graham said.
Related: How the U.S. Allowed ISIS to Form a Terrorist Army
Graham, who is considering a bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, and McCain contend that the U.S. ultimately will have to commit more ground troops to the conflict if it hopes to win against ISIS.
That may indeed be part of the plan in Iraq, where the U.S., its allies and Iraqi forces have retaken much of the territory ISIS had seized. The plan now is to retake Mosul, which may involve U.S. troops on the ground.
Even if the U.S. is able to “degrade and defeat” ISIS, it will likely be a short-lived victory. Mideast scholars, including Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes the Middle East is facing a chapter in history akin to what Europe faced in the first half of the 17th Century—a prolonged period of instability akin to the 30 Years War.
Since last fall, Obama and U.S. allies have been waging strategic airstrikes against ISIS positions in both Syria and Iraq. U.S. diplomatic officials said on Thursday that the allied effort has now killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters, including half of the top command of the terror group. The U.S. and its allies have launched roughly 2,000 airstrikes, deployed 4,000 support troops in Iraq and spent $1.2 billion over the past five months in carrying out the mission.
U.S. intelligence estimates that ISIS has a total force of between 9,000 to 18,000 fighters. Yet that number is misleading because the terrorist group reportedly can draw on thousands of other fighters whose loyalty shifts.
“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance,” Obama said in his speech, using an alternative acronym for the group. “Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group. We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism. This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed.”
There are many conflicting reports on the progress of the U.S.-led coalition. The U.S. and some allies initially were surprised by the power and speed by which ISIS forces captured large swaths of Syria and Iraq. The group has also inspired homegrown terrorists in Europe, in the U.S. and elsewhere to launch deadly assaults.
But many Republicans, including McCain, Thornberry and House Speaker John Boehner, are highly dubious that Obama’s plan to pummel ISIS with airstrikes and rally support among friendly “moderate” rebels in war-torn Syria will be enough to defeat the terrorists.
At the same time, the new Iraqi Prime Minister – Haider al-Abadi – complained earlier this week that American training efforts in Iraq were slow and not enough weapons were getting to the Iraqis fast enough to help ward off ISIS forces in his country.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in one of his last press conferences before stepping aside, took sharp exception to those remarks on Thursday, saying, “I would say even further, I don’t think they’re helpful.”
Oil-rich Iraq has been clobbered by plunging oil prices. With Iraq’s revenues way down from oil sales, the country lacks the funds to pay for the weapons, ammunition and equipment its needs to wage war with the well-armed terrorist forces. Iraq has asked the U.S. and its allies to defer payments on some munitions it desperately needs, Reuters reported yesterday.
“We do not want to see a reverse of our military victory due to our budget and fiscal problems,” Abadi said during a news conference with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other representatives of coalition members who met in London on strategy.
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