WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's authorization to send a small group of US special operations troops into the fight against the Islamic State group in northern Syria Friday, met criticism on Friday from congressional lawmakers in Congress on both sides of the aisle.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, called the move "another insufficient step in the Obama Administration’s policy of gradual escalation," insufficient to address Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the growth of Russian and Iranian influence, or al-Qaida affiliate, al-Nusrah.
"Such grudging incrementalism is woefully inadequate to the scale of the challenge we face," McCain said in a statement Friday. "Syrian and Iraqi civilians are dying on the battlefield every day, hundreds of thousands of refugees are flooding into Europe, the erosion of America's credibility is accelerating, and America's foes are rapidly destabilizing the rules-based international order."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas, said "a more serious effort against ISIS in Syria is long overdue" — but intimated that this was not it.
"Absent a larger coherent strategy, however, these steps may prove to be too little too late," Thornberry said. "I do not see a strategy for success, rather it seems the administration is trying to avoid a disaster while the President runs out the clock."
Presidential candidate Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, and a presidential candidate, who had hammered the administration's strategy as "half-assed" earlier in the week, said Friday that the troop deployments are "an incremental change that will not change conditions on the ground," and that the Islamic State group would view it as "weakness."
"ISIL will not be intimidated by this move," Graham said in an MSNBC interview. "They're all in for their agenda and their view of the world, and President Obama is not all-in when it comes to degrading and destroying ISIL. This just reinforces that."
House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, said that Obama's decision to send special operations forces to Syria comes "after years of neglect of our Syria policy and a failed Syrian training program."
"Putting small numbers of troops in Syria is yet another tactical move in the absence of a comprehensive strategy for Iraq, Syria, and the broader Middle East that does nothing more than create the appearance of serious action," McCarthy said in a statement on Friday. "What the President has failed to address is a proper response to increased Russian-Iran cooperation in Syria, including Russia's willingness to help Iran smuggle weapons to Iran's proxies in the civil war."
Obama's decision received support from two key Democrats on defense, the ranking members of the Senate and House Armed Services committees: Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, and Rep. Adam Smith, of Washington sState. Each mentioned the that troops would have an advisory role against the Islamic State.
"The president’s decision to send advisors to Syria makes sense because it will make Syrian forces opposing ISIL more effective," Reed said. "Their mission is to provide advice and assistance and then let the Syrian commanders — through their forces on the ground — engage with and push back against ISIL. These kinds of operations can also result in critical intelligence to support the coalition’s broader campaign against ISIL."
Reed tempered his support, noting that after nearly a decade and a half of US military involvement overseas, "Americans are rightly concerned about being drawn deeper into a seemingly intractable Middle East conflict." He noted that such support is typically through advice, assistance, airpower, equipment, and resupply," and that the fight on the ground, "can only be won by the local populations as they are fighting for their homes and their future."
"The situation in Syria and Iraq is extremely complicated, but our goals are clear—combatting ISIL and a negotiated political settlement that brings the civil war in Syria to an end and closes the door on the Assad regime," Smith said. "No American would prefer to have any troops in Syria, but the small number the president is deploying should help to achieve those goals, and for that reason in this incredibly complex solution, I support this decision."
Some C congressional Democrats, who had previously decried the US involvement in Syria without the legal authorization of Congress, condemned the announced plans as an escalation under an already-thin legal authority for US military action against the Islamic State group.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, said that as the war escalates beyond 3,500 deployed service members, and airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that have cost billions of taxpayer dollars, the administration must propose "a unified strategy that addresses the intertwined challenges posed" by the Islamic State group and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In a statement on Friday, Kaine said he supports talks in Vienna to resolve Syria's civil war, but noted "the incongruity to pursuing political discussions while at the same time ramping up our US military presence in Syria." Foreign ministers from nearly 20 countries are taking part in the talks, including diplomats from Washington, Tehran, Moscow and Beijing.
(Graham, on the other hand, said the talks would only strengthen Assad and the influence of Russia and Iran's influence in the region.
The US Congress has failed its constitutional duty, Kaine said, to debate and vote on an authorization for the president’s use of military force. Kaine, an Obama ally, has for months pressed both Congress and the president on the issue and . Earlier in the week, he criticized the administration’s foreign policy as being in "reactive mode," and stressedstressing the need for an overarching foreign policy doctrine.
"We are now one year, two months, and 23 days into an unauthorized and executive war," Kaine said in a statement on Friday. "It is time for Congress to do its most solemn job — to debate and declare war. It is also time for the administration to detail to the America people a comprehensive strategy to bring both the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, which are metastasizing around the globe, to a peaceful end."
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, similarly called the deployment, "a major shift in US policy," that threatens to embroil the US in Syria’s civil war and could bring a direct confrontation with Russian and Syrian government forces. He said the US should instead be strengthening the regional coalition against the Islamic State group.
"In the 16-months since the United States began its participation in the regional fight against ISIL, our military involvement has escalated without a clear sense of how our escalating involvement will achieve our strategic objectives," Schatz said in a statement on Friday. "With ISIL's control of northern Syria, we cannot reasonably expect that the deployment of Special Operations Forces would be limited in scope or duration."
This story was updated to include Reed's Reed and Smith's comments.