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As Syrian Cease-fire Falters, Anti-IS Campaign Questioned on Capitol Hill

  • Michael Bowman

FILE - A youth looks at Turkish army tanks holding positions near the border with Syria in the outskirts of the village of Elbeyi, east of the town of Kilis, in southeastern Turkey, July 23, 2015.

FILE - A youth looks at Turkish army tanks holding positions near the border with Syria in the outskirts of the village of Elbeyi, east of the town of Kilis, in southeastern Turkey, July 23, 2015.

A senior Republican lawmaker on Thursday challenged the Obama administration's upbeat assessments of progress against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

While not disputing recent battlefield improvements, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain accused the administration of a myopic focus on calibrating anti-IS tactics that misses the larger threat profile America faces.

"I worry we are staring at our challenges in the broader Middle East through soda straws," the Arizona Republican said at a committee hearing.

"Despite the real tactical gains we have made, we must ask ourselves: Is this working? Are we winning? Are we getting ahead of the threats and problems we face, or are they getting ahead of us?" the senator added.

Testifying before the panel, Defense Secretary Ash Carter detailed multiple facets of a ramped-up campaign against Islamic State, from cyber warfare to additional special operations forces deployed to Syria. But he cast doubt on the wisdom and feasibility of forging a large coalition ground force to battle the militants, as McCain urged.

Carter said that "a significant foreign ground force" would be "hypothetically international, although almost certainly preponderantly American."

FILE - Syrian soldiers celebrate the capture of Achan, Hama province, Syria, Oct. 11, 2015.

FILE - Syrian soldiers celebrate the capture of Achan, Hama province, Syria, Oct. 11, 2015.

"And it would be ceding our competitive advantage of special forces, mobility and firepower, instead fighting on the enemy's terms of ground combat amidst a local population that has previously responded violently to such an approach," the secretary added.

Progress affirmed

Earlier this week, U.S. intelligence sources told VOA that IS “is at its weakest point since its rapid expansion in 2014" and that it “is no longer able to replenish its ranks at the rate its fighters are dying on the ground."

Testifying alongside Carter, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, affirmed progress has been made.

"We've reduced ISIL's territorial control, undermined its brand and aura of invincibility, and destroyed much of its war-fighting capability," Dunford said, using an acronym for Islamic State. "The enemy's resources and freedom of movement have also been significantly reduced, and the pressure we are applying is degrading the enemy's morale."

In light of a faltering cease-fire in Syria, several senators asked about possible actions to limit the Syrian government's ability to conduct airstrikes. Dunford affirmed that the United States has the ability to decimate Syria's air force. But he declined to say whether he would recommend such an action, noting that neither Congress nor President Barack Obama has authorized direct military strikes against the Syrian regime.

Carter said that America's military campaign remains focused on Islamic State and that the end of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule will be achieved politically.

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