Senators turned Joint Chiefs of Staff nominee Gen. Joseph Dunford’s confirmation hearing Thursday into a critique on the administration’s foreign policy against the Islamic State, questioning how to provide help to more capable Kurdish forces and why so few Syrians have started training.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee praised Gen. Dunford, who currently serves as commandant of the Marine Corps, and said they expected him to be confirmed easily by the full Senate to succeed Gen. Martin E. Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs later this year.
Instead of grilling Gen. Dunford about his experience, lawmakers used the hearing to speak out against other problems facing the military, including the long-term fight to defeat the Islamic State group, the small number of Syrians who have been vetted for U.S.-led training and delays in equipment shipments that have prevented Kurds from performing to their full potential.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said a leader of the Kurdish peshmerga told him that forces are still slow to receive American equipment. The U.S. previously sent equipment only through the central Iraqi government despite calls from Congress to arm the Kurds directly.
Gen. Dunford said any delays in Kurdish forces receiving U.S. equipment have been cleared and that Iraq would be one of the first places he would visit if confirmed as chairman to ensure that problems have been resolved.
“This issue, because it’s so important, would be one issue that I would look into personally,” Gen. Dunford said.
Mr. Cruz and other Republican presidential hopefuls have been critical of the Obama administration’s reluctance to directly arm the Kurds, who have been winning military battles in Iraq. A Syrian Kurdish militia Wednesday recaptured a town that had been claimed by Islamic State fighters north of the terrorist group’s base of operations in Raqqa city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The Obama administration has said it will provide assistance only to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government, which doles out the weapons as it sees fit. Many are concerned that those resources aren’t reaching Sunni tribes and Kurdish peshmerga who are willing and eager to fight. Others worry that a primarily Shiite military force fighting in the majority-Sunni Anbar province, where Iraqi Security Forces suffered a major setback at Ramadi, could spark further sectarian violence.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Gen. Dunford why the U.S. had spent $500 million so far on a train-and-equip mission that has vetted only 60 Syrians.
“The feedback I’ve received is those numbers are largely attributable to the vetting process,” Gen. Dunford said. “They think they’ve learned some things during the process of these first 60. But frankly, Chairman, until I have an opportunity to get on the ground and speak to the commanders, what I really know about that now is secondhand.”
Lawmakers also questioned how the military could train Syrians to fight the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS, in Syria, but not allow them to defend themselves or offer any protection from attacks by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“Sen. McCain first raised in September in a hearing, I think it was in this room, the question of if we train folks to fight ISIL in Syria and they get attacked by the Assad regime, will we protect them? And he still hasn’t gotten an answer to it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat. “That’s nine months without a clear answer.”
Gen. Dunford would not go so far as to indicate that Syrians or the U.S. should be able to launch attacks against Mr. Assad, but did say Americans will need to provide a “full range of capability.”
“If we expect them to be successful, we need to provide them with enabling capability that will allow them to be successful,” he said.
Although lawmakers questioned Gen. Dunford mostly on the administration’s strategy against the Islamic State, the Marine Corps officer ranked the terrorist group as the fourth-largest threat facing the United States. Gen. Dunford said the bigger threats are Russia, China and North Korea, though he emphasized that the U.S. cannot combat the threats in that order.