While being questioned by Lindsey Graham about the means through which the Obama administration intended to secure the ousting of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter conceded that such efforts were “principally political.”
Carter made his remarks Tuesday during a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting on the White House’s strategy to stabilize the Middle East. Also speaking to the panel was Joint Chiefs of Staff chair, General Joseph Dunford, who admitted, “the balance of forces … are in Assad’s advantage.”
Graham noted that both Russia and Iran had aligned themselves to support Assad’s regime militarily, implying that such “principally political” efforts to secure regime change in Syria were doomed to fail without a credible military option on the table.
White House and Department of State officials have made conflicting remarks regarding the situation in Syria. For years — and, most recently, before the UN General Assembly — President Obama has stated that Assad must step down from power as soon as possible. In September, however, Secretary of State John Kerry remarked that Assad’s “long-term presence” in power was necessary for the stability of Syria. Officials have since called for a controlled “transition” away from Assad, replacing him with a new, yet-to-be-determined government.
Chairing the Armed Services Committee hearing, John McCain blasted the oft-repeated refrain of President Barack Obama and his administration, “There is no military solution to [Syria],” stating that “leverage” through military power had to underwrite any diplomatic efforts toward regime change. During McCain’s questioning, Carter acknowledged that American-backed “moderate” rebels did not have a green light from the Pentagon to engage Russian forces in combat if attacked. McCain described this as weakness that would be a provocation for more intransigence from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Senators McCain and Graham both called for greater support for “moderate” rebels combating Assad.
Senator Jefferson Sessions, often wont to draw on experts, invoked several in expressing his concerns that he could not see a clear long-term vision for America’s national interests in the Middle East. In particular, he quoted Walter Russell Mead of the Hudson Institute, who said that never before had he seen America “be so unfocused in a strategy.” He also noted that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had previously lamented:
I don’t see an overreaching or overriding strategy on the part of the United States with this complex challenge for the next 20 or 30 years. … I will always believe that critical to our success in the Cold War was that we had a broad strategy called “containment” that was practised by nine consecutive administrations of both parties.
Sessions also described America’s regional allies as confused about America’s commitment to its alliances and stated objectives. Bloomberg’s Eli Lake and Josh Rogin reported on Monday that these allies now seem to be making overtures to Russia, framing Obama’s foreign policy as driving them towards Putin.
Tim Kaine, a Democrat, made a similar argument to his Republican colleagues, expressing concern that America had left itself vulnerable to open-ended warfare without a clear endpoint. He stated that the White House drew its authority for current military operations in the Middle East via an authorization passed September 18, 2001. The authorization empowers the president to use military force against those “who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” Kaine stated that he viewed current military operations in the Middle East and eastern Africa as “beyond the contemplation” of the senators of fourteen years ago.
Watch highlights from the hearing below: