FPI Bulletin: Suggested Questions for House Armed Services Committee Hearing on ISIS

November 12, 2014

Tomorrow, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Army General Martin Dempsey will testify before the House Armed Services Committee.  They will detail the administration’s strategy against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) and the status of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led military campaign against the extremist group.

The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) is closely monitoring the situation in the Middle East, and believes that the following questions will be useful for lawmakers and their staffs as they prepare for this important panel.

On Obama’s Outreach to Khamenei

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that President Obama sent a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to seek his cooperation in battling ISIS. According to the report, the letter stated that cooperation would be “largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by a November 24 diplomatic deadline.”

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, can you elaborate on the nature of potential U.S.-Iran cooperation that President Obama envisions?
  • Are you concerned that potential U.S. cooperation with Iran will undermine U.S. ties to both the moderate Syrian opposition and Sunni Iraqis?
  • In light of Iran’s global terror operations, brutal repression at home, pursuit of nuclear weapons, efforts to co-opt Iraq as a client state, alliance with Syria’s tyrannical Assad regime, and longtime hostility to the United States and our allies, do either of you believe that Tehran could serve as a reliable partner in any capacity?

According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, anonymous U.S. and Arab officials say that America and Iran have reached “an effective state of détente over the past year,” and described various ways in which our governments are now cooperating.

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, would you describe American ties with Iran over the past year as a state of “détente”?
  • Has any representative of the Iranian government threatened U.S. personnel and installations in the Middle East if the United States were to strike military forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad?

U.S. outreach to Iran has deeply troubled our allies in the region, who believe that it strengthens Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East and undermines confidence in America’s determination to dismantle Tehran’s nuclear program and defeat ISIS.

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, what steps have you taken to reassure our allies in the region that America is committed to maintaining its leadership role in the Middle East?


On the Status of Operation Inherent Resolve

Mark Gunzinger and John Stillon of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments wrote in the Wall Street Journal on October 14 that while the United States averaged 138 airstrikes per day in the 1999 Kosovo air campaign, and 86 during the 2001 liberation of Afghanistan, U.S. forces had conducted an average of only 7 per day against ISIS.

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, if the administration is truly committed to the destruction of ISIS, what is the justification for such a limited effort? Do we lack the resources or capability to destroy ISIS?
  • Do you agree that, as The Daily Beast reported in October, the low levels of airstrikes in Operation Inherent Resolve compared to previous campaigns is due in part to the lack of American personnel on the ground to help direct airstrikes?
  • Given that ISIS’ influence has grown despite American operations, will the United States expand its campaign of airstrikes in the near future? What will be your metric of success for operations in the coming months?

As The New York Times reported last week, ISIS’ rapid advance throughout Iraq has slowed in recent weeks. However, as a recent analysis from the Institute for the Study of War found, “ISIS possesses significant offensive momentum in western Iraq which has not been entirely curbed by coalition airstrikes,” and that “Iraqi Army units in Anbar province have adopted a largely defensive posture in October 2014, retreating to their bases and leaving the defense of most urban areas in the hands of local Iraqi Police and Sunni tribal forces.”

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, do you believe and expect that ISIS still has the capability and will to expand its territory beyond the areas under its present control?

The Wall Street Journal reported in October that ISIS’ siege of Kobani “has overstretched its supply lines, thinned its ranks of experienced fighters, and pressured the insurgency’s overall expansion strategy.”

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, do you believe that the siege of Kobani has presented ISIS with a tactical setback? Has the fighting around Kobani prevented ISIS from pursuing offensives in other parts of Syria or Iraq?


On the Situation in Syria

The administration’s plan to train vetted elements of the Free Syrian Army will only produce 5,000 trained fighters per year. Of these fighters, only 500 will reportedly be trained in counterterrorism, the remainder of which will serve as local defense forces.

  • General Dempsey, given the recent defeat of moderate forces at the hands of Jahbat al-Nusra, can the United States afford to wait for a year before sending reinforcements? Isn’t that just repeating the mistake the U.S. made by giving negligible aid up until now?
  • General Dempsey, you have said that the Free Syrian Army would need 12,000 to 15,000 trained fighters to recapture lost territory in eastern Syria. Under the current parameters of the administration’s training program, when do you anticipate trained fighters will be able to conduct offensive operations against ISIS and reclaim territory from their control?
  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, can you detail when the effort to train vetted members of the Free Syrian Army will switch from the intelligence community to Department of Defense control? What steps will the administration take to accelerate this timeframe?
  • General Dempsey, do you recommend the establishment of a Joint Cooperation Center, or similar coordination mechanism, with the Free Syrian Army to help facilitate coordination for U.S. airstrikes?

Some U.S.-backed rebels suffered a defeat last week when the al Qaeda-linked group Jahbat al-Nusra routed them from their strongholds in northern Syria. 

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, what is your assessment of the Free Syrian Army’s strength and capability in light of this setback? 

The Daily Beast reported on October 31 that “The National Security Council has given precise instructions on which rebels can be engaged, who can be trained, and what exactly those fighters will do when they return to Syria. Most of the rebels to be trained by the U.S. will never be sent to fight against ISIS.”

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, can you detail the constraints that the White House has imposed on military planning and operations over the course of Operation Inherent Resolve?

President Obama’s reported letter to Khamenei reassured him that the U.S. military campaign in Syria in no way seeks to topple the regime of Bashar Assad—Iran’s closest ally in the region. Yet as Newsweek reported, Damascus has played a key role in fueling the rise of ISIS, which the regime sees as a way to force the international community to choose between secular Assad and Islamist extremists. In an interview earlier this year, Secretary Kerry called Assad “a one-man super magnet for terrorism” who enabled ISIS to take root and flourish in Syria/

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, can the United States realistically achieve its strategic objectives in Syria and Iraq if Assad remains in power? Isn’t Assad’s relentless slaughter of his own people a principal contributor to the rise of ISIS?
  • In the past, the U.S. government has called for Assad’s departure. Did President Obama’s reported, secret assurances to Iran contradict this policy? Or is there a new policy of which Congress should be aware?

Hadi al-Bahra, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, told The Guardian this week that “[Syrians] see coalition planes hitting ISIS targets but turning a blind eye to Assad’s air force, which is using barrel bombs and rockets against civilian targets in Aleppo and elsewhere.”  He added, “People feel there is a hidden agenda and cooperation between the coalition and Assad’s forces because Assad assumes he has a free hand.”

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, how would you respond to President al-Bahra’s concern that the limited scope of the mission against ISIS and President Obama’s reported pledge to Iran’s Supreme Leader that the U.S. will not target the Assad regime has given Assad “a free hand?” 

Secretary Hagel reportedly sent a “sharply critical” memorandum to National Security Advisor Susan Rice, in which he “warned that the administration’s Syria policy was in danger of unraveling because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward President Bashar al-Assad.”

  • Secretary Hagel, what are the administration’s intentions toward Assad in this conflict?  What actions will the United States take in the near term to accelerate his removal from power? 


On the Situation in Iraq

President Obama authorized last week the deployment of 1,500 additional U.S. military personnel to Iraq to help train, advise, and assist the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish forces in Anbar province.

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, will the United States deploy these forces to lower echelon units to bolster the capabilities of the ISF and Kurds?
  • Has the United States committed sufficient forces to training the ISF in order to prevent it from collapsing on the battlefield, as it did in Mosul this past June? Will the President order additional deployments in the coming months, or are these 1,500 troops sufficient?

The New York Times reported last week that “Iraqi security forces, backed by American-led air power and hundreds of advisers, are planning to mount a major spring offensive against [ISIS] fighters…The goal is to break the Islamic State’s occupation in northern and western Iraq, and establish the Iraqi government’s control over Mosul and other population centers, as well as the country’s major roads and its border with Syria by the end of 2015.”

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, how confident are you that the offensive will actually take place when scheduled? What will be your standard for measuring the success of the spring offensive?
  • What role do you anticipate the United States will play in this counteroffensive?
  • In what ways can the United States use the Kobani model of Arab-Kurdish cooperation against a common enemy in this offensive?

The new Iraqi Interior Minister, Mohammed Ghabban, is a member of the Badr Organization, which is the political wing of an Iranian-backed Shi’a militia.

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, what has the reaction of Iraq’s Sunni population been to Ghabban’s appointment as Interior Minister?
  • How will the United States be able to persuade Iraq’s Sunni population to reject ISIS and reconcile with Baghdad if, as many fear, Ghabban reflects the views and wishes of an Iran-backed paramilitary group?

Recent media reports have detailed the ease by which General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, is operating in Iraq, and the strong degree of influence that Iran has in Iraq’s Shia militias. 

  • Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, can you detail the degree to which Iran influences Iraq’s politics and the Shia militias operating in Iraqi territory?

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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