Pentagon officials draw sharp questions from GOP on Syria

Defense Secretary Ash Carter appears at a news conference at the Pentagon. [Photo Credit: AP Photo | Jacquelyn Martin]

The nation’s top military officials faced sharp questions on Thursday from Republicans angry that the Obama administration is not taking more aggressive steps to end the 5-year-old-civil war in Syria. A senior GOP senator dismissed Secretary of State John Kerry as “intrepid but delusional” for trying to work with Russia.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the GOP-led Senate Armed Services Committee after the latest attempt to secure a cease-fire in Syria all but collapsed. Republicans are skeptical, even hostile, to the idea that Russia is a willing partner for peace and would work with the United States to combat Islamic State militants and al-Qaida.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee’s chairman, opened the hearing by saying that the administration “still has no plausible vision of an end-state for Syria.”

Instead, McCain said that while Russian and Syrian aircraft “bombed hospitals, markets, aid warehouses, and other civilian targets, President Obama sent his intrepid but delusional secretary of state to tilt yet again at the windmill of cooperating with” Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a defense hawk and one of President Barack Obama‘s most vocal critics, said he anticipated the hearing will be contentious because of mounting frustration among lawmakers over a lack of a coherent strategy for ending the conflict.

“I expect this to be confrontational,” Graham said. “At the end of the day, I think Congress needs to challenge what’s going on in Syria.”

The failure to establish a no-fly zone in the country’s north to protect Syrians from the bombing has been a mistake, according to Graham, and he also criticized the reliance on Kurdish fighters the U.S. has been supporting in the fight against the Islamic State. Although the battle-hardened Kurds have proven to be effective, their success has alarmed Turkey, which is grappling with a Kurdish insurgency in its southeast.

Although Turkey has repeatedly called for a no-fly zone, the Obama administration has resisted, unwilling to wade too deeply into an intractable conflict.

Tensions between Russia and the United States have only heightened in recent days after authorities in Washington determined with a very high degree of confidence that an attack on a humanitarian aid convoy in Syria earlier this week was carried out by a Russian-piloted aircraft.

The assessment laid more deliberate blame on Moscow for the strike on the Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy, which killed 20 civilians.

Washington had said Tuesday that Russia was to blame, but that the strike delivered by a Russian-made Su-24 could have been carried out by Russia or Syria. Both militaries use Su-24 fighter jets. But officials said Wednesday the U.S. has gathered enough intelligence to say that it was Russia, not Syria, that launched the airstrike.

Kerry called for all warplanes to halt flights over aid routes and at a U.N. Security Council session he raised “profound doubt” about the willingness of Russia and Syria to abide by the cease-fire.

The Sept. 9 truce envisioned a U.S.-Russian military partnership against the Islamic State and al-Qaida if violence was reduced and aid delivered over the course of seven continuous days.

The Pentagon, however, voiced reservations about coordinating air strikes and sharing intelligence with Russia.

McCain assailed the potential partnership, saying it would “mean that the U.S. military would effectively own future Russian airstrikes in the eyes of the world.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.


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