Fresh doubts emerged Tuesday about the Obama administration’s plan for defeating the Islamic State in Syria, with the U.S. general in charge of the operation planning to step down, new evidence surfacing of a Russian military buildup to back the U.S.-opposed regime in Damascus and former CIA Director David Petraeus criticizing the White House’s strategy.
The White House said the imminent departure of Marine Gen. John Allen, who was hand-picked by President Obama to lead the war against the Islamic State, has nothing to do with the administration’s failure to recruit an opposition army in Syria to fight the extremist group.
“Of course not,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest replied when asked if Gen. Allen’s leaving is tied to the embarrassment of the nonexistent opposition army in Syria. Last week, a Pentagon official told Congress that the year-old, $500 million plan to train and equip thousands of Syrian fighters had produced “four or five” soldiers.
On Capitol Hill, Mr. Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S.-led effort to defeat the Islamic State has so far been “inadequate.”
“We are not where we should be at this point,” Mr. Petraeus said.
The retired general, who was the architect of the so-called “surge” of U.S. forces in 2007 that helped stabilize Iraq, assailed Mr. Obama’s handling of the crisis in Iraq and Syria and faulted U.S. “inaction” for some of the upheaval in Syria that has led to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to the West. He also suggested the administration’s timid approach in Syria is partly to blame for Russia’s aggressive moves to defend the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the U.S. wants to step down.
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“If America is ineffective or absent in the face of the most egregious violations of the most basic principles of the international order that we have championed, our commitment to that order is inevitably questioned and further challenges to it are invited,” Mr. Petraeus told the Senate panel. “When the U.S. does not take the initiative, others will fill the vacuum, often in ways that are harmful to our interests.”
New evidence emerged Tuesday that Russia’s military footprint in Syria is expanding. Satellite photos taken in mid-September and obtained by IHS Jane’s showed Russian forces developing two additional military facilities near Syria’s Mediterranean coast, said Rob Munks, editor of IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review.
Mr. Munks told Reuters that the previously undisclosed work was taking place at a weapons storage facility and a military base north of Latakia, suggesting Russia is preparing to place troops at both locations. Russia has been dramatically increasing its forces at an air base south of Latakia, a stronghold of Assad, including positioning combat planes and helicopters as well as tanks and accommodation blocks.
Washington has been wary of Moscow’s support for Mr. Assad and U.S. officials have said such deepening ties are troubling even as the United States and Russia have their eye on fighting the Islamic State militant group.
As Russia proceeds with its own robust plans for confronting the Islamic State, Bloomberg reported that Gen. Allen will step down within a few weeks as the State Department’s envoy to the U.S.-led coalition battling the extremist group.
Mr. Earnest said Gen. Allen signed up for a six-month tour, and has been on the job for more than one year. He said the general deserves much credit for forging an international coalition of 62 nations to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
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“Gen. Allen’s principal responsibility was to help build the international coalition,” he said. “Gen. Allen certain deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Addressing criticism that the administration’s strategy for the region is failing, Mr. Earnest said there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria, and added, “our strategy encompasses a whole lot more than just military might.”
But Mr. Petraeus offered specific ideas for protecting Syria’s civilian population and taking the fight to the Islamic State more aggressively.
He said Mr. Assad’s attacks on civilians, with an arsenal ranging from barrel bombs to chemical weapons, have “been a principal driver of the radicalization” fueling the Islamic State and the refugee crisis.
“Sunni Arabs will not be willing partners against the Islamic State unless we commit to protect them and the broader Syrian population against all enemies, not just ISIS,” Mr. Petraeus said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “We could, for example, tell Assad that the use of barrel bombs must end — and that if they continue, we will stop the Syrian air force from flying. We have that capability.”
He also called for the establishment of “enclaves” in Syria “protected by coalition airpower” where refugees could find safety.
“Like a nuclear disaster, the fallout from the meltdown of Syria threatens to be with us for decades, and the longer it is permitted to continue, the more severe the damage will be,” Mr. Petraeus said.
Administration officials pointed to two pieces of good news: confirmation by the Pentagon that al Qaeda operative and explosive expert David Drugeon was killed in a coalition airstrike on July 5 near Aleppo, Syria, and that Islamic State senior leader Abu Bakr al-Turkmani was killed in a coalition strike on Sept. 10 near Tal Afar, Iraq.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called Drugeon’s death “another major setback for al Qaeda in Syria, and particularly for those involved in plotting against the West.”
But Rep. Ted W. Lieu, California Democrat, called on the administration to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and Iraq until Congress authorizes the use of force there.
“The recurrent U.S. bombing in Syria does not appear to have made the situation more stable,” Mr. Lieu said. “More Syrian refugees, not less, are fleeing Syria.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire-service reports.