WASHINGTON — Senators emerged Thursday from a classified briefing with sharp critiques of the Obama administration's plans to arm and train Syrian rebels.
"Literally, this does make Pickett's Charge look like a good idea," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said after leaving a closed-door Armed Services Committee briefing. "The idea of degrading and destroying ISIL with this strategy is an illusion."
Graham says the administration's plan to take vetted Syrian rebels out of that country and train and provide them weapons in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar is akin to US Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee ordering Lt. Gen. Longstreet to lead an ill-fated charge on the final day of the American Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg.
Longstreet advised against the plan, and lost over 2,500 soldiers. Nearly 900 more were wounded.
"The problem does not lie with the [US] military. It lies with the political leadership," Graham said of the Obama administration. "This is militarily immoral what we're doing. We're about to train people for certain death.
"The idea that we're going to get people to fight [the Islamic State] only, given the fact that most of them want to rid the country of Assad and [IS] is absurd," he said. "Number two, if you don't support these people, if they don't have an air force, they don't have capability, these are going to be light-infantry people at best. If I'm Assad, I would take the first recruits we send and kill them in the cradle."
He also doubts the number of recruits for the train-and-equip program will be enough to counter Islamic State fighters and Assad's forces.
"The numbers that you would need to a serious change of momentum? Years away," Graham said. "The concept is fatally flawed. The concept of training an army that would be slaughtered by two enemies … is militarily unsound.
"The inability of this administration to understand that Assad is not going to sit on the sidelines and watch us build up an army that can beat ISIL and then turn on him without doing something at a critical moment is beyond absurd," said Graham, a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate.
SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., offered his own negative critique of the plan presented to panel members by Pentagon and administration officials.
"There still is no strategy," McCain told reporters. "I think … it's very weak and will not have significant impact.
"The most ridiculous thing is that they're telling them that they're only against ISIS, and Bashar al-Assad has slaughtered more than 200,000 of their countrymen, 3.5 million refugees, and they're not fighting against Bashar al-Assad? He's their enemy."
Some members were less sharp.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said a takeaway from the briefing was, "we're still in the early stages of this."
"I think there's a lot of work to do," she said. "And a lot of questions to be answered."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told reporters "the situation in Syria is very very challenging, very complex, and very difficult at this time."
Sessions would add one controversial element to the mission US military advisers are doing currently in Iraq.
"We don't need troops out leading in any battle. But the Sunni leaders out in the tribal areas, but the Baghdad areas and the Kurds will respond more positively and more aggressively if they know they have embedded Americans with their fighting units who can communicate with air support and provide confidence that they'll have support in any kind of activity they undertake," he said. "I think we're awfully slow on that.
"We stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Iraqis and Afghanis for over a decade," Sessions said. "We lost over 5,000 [troops] fighting with them. The idea that we cannot put an embedded soldier in with an Iraqi Army that we trained makes no sense at all."
Sessions was pressed on whether he worries about a slippery slope leading to another protracted US ground war if embedded American troops were killed.
"We always worry about that, but we already lost a lot of our soldiers in the front lines leading the effort," he said. "This [would be] a modest number of soldiers not leading but supporting the Iraqis."