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Obama, Congress, ISIL: Where Things Stand & What's Next

By Alexis Simendinger & Caitlin Huey-Burns - September 15, 2014

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By Alexis Simendinger & Caitlin Huey-Burns

As Congress heads into what it imagined would be a short two weeks of work during September, lawmakers are now trying to reckon with twin requests from President Obama for their support: He wants their backing for attacks on Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria, and for training and arming Syrian rebels to become “boots on the ground” against Sunni extremists inside Syria.

Pressure for action by the United States, the United Kingdom and other nations mounted Saturday after militants released a video to news media showing a black-masked executioner beheading British aid worker David Haines, held captive in Syria since last year. Haines’ death followed the similarly grisly murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, both assailed by name and in English in the recent videos, issued statements Saturday condemning the perpetrators and vowing justice.

In the wake of Obama’s address to the nation Wednesday announcing an open-ended and long-term war against ISIL, lawmakers across party lines expressed their general support, but debated the role Congress should play. Most of them, with their eyes on the November elections, are anxious to sidestep any showdown votes in Washington that could boomerang and cause them harm back home.

For the administration, building an international coalition to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) got off to a lukewarm start as Secretary of State John Kerry discovered some allies embraced the goals while taking careful measure of any specific commitments.

On Sunday, Kerry said the United States was soliciting international commitments for “the whole package” before revealing the coalition, and was gratified that unnamed countries said they would contribute to the overall war strategy, including to U.S.-led airstrikes. Asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” if some countries are ready to put combat forces on the ground alongside Syrian rebels to battle ISIL, the secretary said, “We are not looking for that, at this moment anyway.”

The U.S. outreach will continue this week and during Obama’s Sept. 23-24 meetings at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

As the Pentagon announced on Saturday the 160th U.S. airstrike in Iraq against ISIL targets, the administration and Congress left a number of important questions cloaked in fog. What follows summarizes some of those issues.

What is the president’s strategy to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIL terrorists inside Syria?

The administration, using CIA and military personnel, has trained about 2,000 Syrian rebels for more than a year inside Jordan, and Obama is seeking to “scale up” the effort to create an effective ground force comprised of rebels.

Some military analysts expressed skepticism over the weekend that ISIL can be defeated without relying on a significant army of well-trained ground forces beyond the Syrian rebels, whose loyalties and aspirations are focused on defeating the ruling regime more than the terrorist organization that is also an Assad enemy.

“We can put Syrian boots on the ground to take this fight to ISIL,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told CBS News, and “not have to rely on ours or somebody else's. Ultimately, the president has made his decision on that. We're going to provide our unique capability in airstrikes, in intelligence and in training. And then it will be up to the Syrians on that side of the border to finish the job.”

In June, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed to Congress a $500 million program in fiscal 2015 to train and equip Syrian fighters, but until the president’s decision to go on the offensive with the Iraqi government, the proposal gained little momentum. Now the Pentagon is seeking to establish a different training program and base it in Saudi Arabia, although details remain unclear. The White House says the train-and-arm program is still being developed with the Saudis and potentially other nations.

Because Syrian rebels are a ragged band of fighters with uneven skills and hatreds more welded to defeating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad than vanquishing ISIL, some lawmakers want to weigh details and potential consequences with care. The White House insists Obama, by declining to send lethal military assistance to the Syrian rebels a year ago, prevented U.S. arms and equipment from falling into ISIL’s hands, which the administration insists would have made the terror organization even more dangerous at this point. 

Regardless of whether that assertion is true, ISIL is well funded, well supplied and has grown. The CIA announced that the group’s estimated force mushroomed through August to between 20,000 and 31,500 terrorists operating in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon thinks it can hasten to train as many as 6,000 “vetted” Syrian rebels to help stop ISIL from establishing safe havens in Syria, but that effort will take months, if not longer.

The Pentagon says the key to defeating ISIL is to throttle its extremist “ideology,” which is a long-term challenge given the group’s burgeoning numbers, and the plan to achieve its defeat is based, according to the president, on years of combating al-Qaeda.

But the U.S. military insists ISIL’s size is not a worry.

“While the numbers certainly got bigger, and that certainly intensifies the scope of the enemy that you're facing, I don't think there's a direct line between that and the duration of the conflict or the difficulty of the conflict,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Friday.

When will the U.S. military begin bombing ISIL targets inside Syria, and what impact will those strikes have on Assad’s hold on power after three bloody years of civil war?

By all indications, the administration has drawn up plans to hit targets inside Syria soon, perhaps in a matter of weeks. White House officials said the Pentagon would disclose any such strikes when they occur, as U.S. Central Command has been doing since August with its air offensive in Iraq.

Obama on Wednesday will visit CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Fla., the White House announced.

A U.S.-led offensive inside Syria would be limited to crushing ISIL, and would not be aimed at toppling Assad from power, according to senior administration officials. Nonetheless, Obama a year ago vowed to help end the civil war in Syria, to try to expel Assad and to support a more representative government.

Training and arming Syrian rebels could have multiple benefits for U.S. interests -- and pose multiple risks. Assad’s forces have mobile air defense capabilities, and while Assad’s regime considers ISIL an enemy, it remains uncertain how Assad would respond. Syria has “no reservations” about the U.S. military battling a common enemy, the regime’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, told NBC News last week. He urged the United States to form a broad coalition against ISIL that includes Russia, China and Iran.

The administration has for several weeks conducted surveillance flights over Syria and developed intelligence to establish where airstrikes would be useful. Officials said before Haines’ murder that known Islamic State leaders were not bombing targets.    

How long will the U.S. military offensive against ISIL continue before objectives are met or victory achieved?

Based on the goals Obama laid out, the answer is “years.” The administration says his successor will inherit the war against ISIL.

 What has Obama asked Congress to do?

The White House asked lawmakers to insert language into a must-pass spending bill that would authorize the Department of Defense to equip and train vetted Syrian rebels to fight ISIL. The president has asked for $500 million for this effort.

By and large, members of Congress, with some exceptions, support the aim of aiding the moderate opposition fighters. But it’s not yet clear how, exactly, they will handle the request.

Many Republicans and some Democrats are calling for the aid language to be stripped from the continuing resolution -- a spending bill to keep the government operating past Sept. 30 -- and voted on separately. Lawmakers had carefully crafted the CR to gain enough votes to pass and avoid repeating the drama and disaster of last year’s partial shutdown. The White House’s last-minute request for an attachment threatened to throw those delicate negotiations off course, and irked House committee chairmen who have been asking the White House about the rebel aid for months.

Still, congressional authorization is likely. After gauging the temperature of his conference, House Speaker John Boehner said last week it is “important to give the president what he has asked for.”

An up-or-down vote on the president’s request could divide Democrats, with many members, and even some leaders, representing war-weary districts and concerned about how aiding Syrian rebels will fall on the ears of constituents. And attaching the proposal to the budget measure may drive away Republicans who oppose the spending levels and other attachments -- including the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank -- in the bill.

Progressives also want a stand-alone vote. “After more than a decade of war, the American people deserve straight up-or-down votes on the president's plan in Iraq and Syria, not parliamentary games designed to shut down debate, force the hands of our representatives in Washington, and obscure the very serious undertaking on which they're voting,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America.

Aside from the aid package, larger questions remain about a conflict that will outlive this Congress and this administration. While Boehner approved the arming of vetted opposition fighters, he was skeptical about the efficacy of the president’s overall strategy to eliminate the terrorist group. Republican members may want to put their own mark on approval legislation.

Hearings and briefings on this issue will dominate Congress’ time this week. Members are returning to Washington on Monday -- a day earlier than scheduled, forfeiting precious time on the campaign trail -- to begin processing the administration’s request. A vote could come this week.

Lawmakers are also raising questions about war powers and whether they should debate the issue of military force. The president has said he does not need authority to launch airstrikes against Syria. But some members want to weigh in on that action, especially if constituents have concerns about the prospect of another war.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday said it is important for Congress to vote on authorizing military strikes against Syria, where he said the “head of the snake” is located. McCaul said that while Congress and the public don’t want U.S. troops on the ground there, it is “unwise” for the administration to rule out combat help offered from foreign allies.

Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer suggested a two-step approach by Congress, with a vote this week on arming the rebels, and a vote by the end of the year on military action.

Many of his members “believe that we ought to have a vote before the end of the year on the authority of the use of military force, so the Congress can speak and represent the views of the American people in that regard,” he told C-SPAN over the weekend.


Does the president need authorization to arm the rebels?

The administration has already been training Syrian rebels for over a year. The authorization from Congress would move that program from the CIA to the Department of Defense, making it an overt operation. But there are varying opinions among lawmakers over whether the president has the constitutional authority to go it alone or if he needs the approval of Congress. There are questions about why the president is asking for legal authority on the opposition aid, but not for lethal military strikes. The administration has also said the funds for the operations are already available for the DOD and that a vote by Congress isn’t required to access the money.

Many lawmakers have expressed concern about returning to their districts for the October recess without a vote on counter-terrorism efforts, especially with high public interest. Republican Sen. John McCain said that while the president has authority to proceed with the rebel operation and airstrikes inside Syria, a vote from Congress would be a sign of national unity. “In order to get the support of Congress and the American people, I think it’s in his interest to come to Congress and ask for the authorization,” he told reporters last week.

Others disagree that the president has the authority on his own and can sidestep Congress.

“I’ve never believed the president should be able to conduct a large-scale, foreign military group without congressional authorization,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “If we are going to unilaterally scale up the arming and support of the Syrian rebels without any buy-in from regional players, then it’s a tough sell for me. I’m willing to consider engagement inside Syria if we have near unanimity amongst the regional players of that abroad strategy.” Others, like Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, agree with this sentiment.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the prominent defense hawks on Capitol Hill, believes the president has constitutional authority for arming the rebels and for airstrikes. But the White House’s overall approach to combating ISIL is “delusional,” he said, adding that ruling out U.S. combat troops in Syria is a “fantasy.”

"There's no way in hell you can form an army on the ground to go into Syria to destroy ISIL without a substantial American component," Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.” "This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home."


What’s the public’s reaction to the Islamic State terrorists and America’s intervention in Iraq and Syria?

Recent surveys show that the public is actively engaged with this issue, especially since the brutal beadings of two Americans at the hands of ISIL members. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found increased support since April for American intervention abroad. (Just 32 percent of voters approved of the president’s job performance on foreign policy, however.)

The president is also losing support among women -- a key constituency that twice helped to elect him. An ABC News-Washington Post poll found that just 37 percent of women approved of the job he is doing on foreign affairs -- an all-time low.

How do politics play in?

Given high public interest and concern, foreign policy could become an issue on the campaign trail. Republicans have already run ads hitting their Democratic opponents on the president’s foreign policy problems. GOP operatives say the situation feeds into their larger argument against the president and Democrats on competency and management.

An impending congressional vote could put vulnerable Democrats on edge. After the president’s speech last week, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich said he would not support the arming of Syrian rebels. Colorado Sen. Mark Udall said he “will not give this president -- or any other president -- a blank check to begin another land war in Iraq. As we have seen in the past, American boots on the ground cannot stamp out an extreme ideology and the Iraqis must take responsibility for defending their own people.” (Udall had to apologize for remarks made during a recent debate with Republican challenger Cory Gardener in which he said the two murdered journalists would agree with his cautious approach to dealing with ISIL.)

Last week, former Vice President Dick Cheney visited Capitol Hill to advise House Republicans on foreign policy and dealing with ISIL. Democrats took the opportunity to hammer the other side. “There are people here in Congress who are taking advice from Dick Cheney. I think they better be very careful with the advice that they take from Dick Cheney,” Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor. “Dick Cheney is more responsible than anyone else for the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the country: the invasion of Iraq."

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