- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 27, 2015

President Obama’s war cabinet signaled Tuesday that the U.S. military is preparing for deeper troop commitments in the one-year offensive against the Islamic State, with ratcheted-up airstrikes on the terrorist group’s moneymaking enterprises and with more American boots on the ground.

The testimony from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came at a testy Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in which hawkish Republicans expressed broad dissatisfaction with the Obama war policy in Iraq and Syria.

A Democratic senator also said the administration “seems lost.”

Committee Chairman John McCain, an advocate for a more robust offensive and for more help for Syria rebels, directly questioned Mr. Obama’s competence as the nation’s commander in chief.

Gen. Dunford, just back from consultations in Iraq, is clearly thinking of deeper U.S. roles. He said all options are on the table for his recommendations to the White House. They include putting American troops alongside Iraqis closer to the battle.

Mr. Carter focused on changes he is making right now under “the three R’s” — Raqqa, Ramadi and Raids.

The Syrian city of Raqqa is the proclaimed capital of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” stretching from Syria into northern and western Iraq. He said the coalition is conducting more airstrikes on Raqqa and is beginning to ship arms to proven Syrian Arab fighters trying to retake the city. Some are just 30 miles away.

Ramadi is the key western Iraqi city held by the Islamic State. Iraqi government forces have had little luck in retaking the town despite U.S. arms, military advisers and overt urging from senior officials to begin an offensive. Mr. Carter suggested that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is still withholding arms from Sunni tribes that were successful in fighting with the U.S. in 2007 and 2008 to evict al Qaeda in Iraq.

“Raids” are the use of more direct ground actions against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, by special operations forces, such as the Delta Force team that joined with Kurdish fighters to free prisoners picked for another mass killing.

The third “R,” he said, signals that “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.”

The three R’s, Mr. Carter said, “should help shrink ISIL territory into smaller and smaller areas.”

Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, cited Mr. Obama’s failed train-and-equip program for moderate Syrians fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.

The senator referred to Mr. Obama’s appearance on the CBS “60 Minutes” program in which the president said he was proved right because he never thought the $500 million program would work in the first place. The White House asked for the legislation.

“Harry Truman must be spinning in his grave,” Mr. McCain said of the president whose motto was “The buck stops here.”

“If there is an opposite for commander in chief, this is it,” Mr. McCain said.

Gen. Dunford, whose predecessor termed the war against the Islamic State a “stalemate,” agreed. “No one is satisfied with our progress to date,” he testified.

He said the U.S. is accelerating attacks on the Islamic State’s economic means, specifically a recent strike on an oil facility that has helped the group rake in millions of dollars a month.

Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, suggested that the time is right for a “more active role” by U.S. troops in Iraq by “accompanying their forces at lower echelons, especially when direct contact with the enemy is not expected.”

Gen. Dunford said there are reasons to do this, such as ensuring arms and good intelligence reach Sunni tribal fighters in the west.

Mr. McCain pressed Mr. Carter to provide his position on creating safe zones on the ground inside Syria to try to stem the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. Mr. Carter refused, except to say that he has not yet submitted a recommendation to the White House.

Mr. McCain also asked the defense secretary whether he planned to try to protect pro-U.S. Syrian rebels who are being targeted by Russia and Syria with barrel and cluster bombs.

Mr. Carter asserted that no rebel group directly supported by the Defense Department under the law has been attacked.

Mr. McCain acted incredulous. Many on-the-ground sources have told monitoring groups that all rebel groups are being hit by Russian air power since it began strikes Sept. 30.

“I promise you they have,” Mr. McCain told Mr. Carter. “You will have to correct the record.”

Mr. Carter was making a fine distinction between groups the Pentagon is designated to back in the fight against the Islamic State as opposed to groups supported by the broader coalitions that are fighting the Assad regime. The latter are being attacked, he said.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, Indiana Democrat, issued a particularly harsh assessment of current policy.

“We seem lost,” he said. “We seem lost and at confusion about what to do next, unable to put any real marker down or have any plan for success. The people are voting, and they’re voting with their feet. They’re leaving. There’s refugees all over the world now, and we have the opportunity to set up safe zones, and what I hear is we’re worried about the Russians, we’re worried about the Syrians, we’re worried about all of these things.”

Whenever the safe haven question arose, Mr. Carter pointed to the difficulty of defending the facilities against terrorist attacks. The way to stop the refugee crisis, he said, was to reach a post-Assad political agreement without using the U.S. military to remove the dictator.

“We have not undertaken to achieve that goal militarily,” he said. “Our approach to that is political. We hope that that transition occurs and that the civil war in Syria ends.”

Republicans countered that Mr. Assad has no reason to step aside now that Russia has joined him in the fight. Russian President Vladimir Putin has no interest in accepting American objectives as his own, they said.

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