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Fight Against Islamic State Not Going So Well, Say Former Administration Officials

At a Congressional hearing on progress against the Islamic State, three former administration officials paint a grim picture about progress so far.

by Kate Brannen
Jan 12 2016, 5:50pm

Fighting in Ramadi on January 6. Earlier this month, the Iraqi government said it had retaken the city from IS. Photo via EPA

A trio of former Obama administration officials painted a grim picture of the fight against the Islamic State group, on the day of the president's State of the Union speech.

"I would not be surprised if I woke up one morning and ISIS in Libya had grabbed a large portion" of territory there, similar to the Blitzkrieg-style push it made in Iraq in 2014, former acting CIA Director Michael Morell told the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing on Tuesday.

His comment echoed the concerns of the committee's chairman, Texas Republican Mac Thornberry, who said that while there has been some success in reclaiming towns in Iraq and Syria, more broadly, the Islamic State's influence has grown in countries like Libya and Afghanistan, and even in the United States.

With the help of airstrikes from the US-led coalition, Iraqi troops wrested control this month of a major city, Ramadi, from the group also known as IS or ISIS.

This battlefield victory is one of the wins Obama may highlight in his annual speech to Congress, as he makes the case that the White House's current strategy against ISIS is working.

Another win came on Tuesday with news that a US airstrike had recently destroyed a building containing millions of dollars in IS cash.

But Morell, along with former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers and former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, argued that airstrikes and battlefield victories alone will not defeat the Islamic State.

Removing the leadership is easier than denying the group a safe haven, Morell said.

Related: US to Put Special Forces on Ground in Syria to Fight Islamic State

Denying IS its safe havens in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere will require complex military actions, but it will also take political solutions in Damascus and addressing the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq, Morell said. "We really can't have military success without political solutions in both places."

Ford agreed that without political solutions in Iraq or Syria, the fight against IS would not end.

"We need to get to peace talks," said Ford, adding that in Syria, what's really needed are "deep concessions and compromises" and Russia's increasing participation in the war, bolstering the regime of President Bashar Assad, has made those kind of concessions harder to achieve.

Morell, Ford and Vickers all agreed that Assad has to go, but did not put a deadline on his departure. One internal timeline prepared for U.S. officials painted a scenario that did not foresee Assad stepping down as the country's leader before March 2017.

As for who could follow Assad, "initially, it would be a very wobbly government," Ford said. But "I do not believe that if Assad goes, it's inevitable that IS takes over."

As for the military component of the strategy, the problem remains the lack of a strong enough ground force, especially in Syria, Morell said.

There is a strategy in Iraq to build a ground force, and the victory in Ramadi is an example of its potential, he said. But "there is no strategy in Syria for a ground force with that same potential."

He suggested that following Assad's departure, Syrian government forces, "as degraded as they are," should be turned into the force to take on IS.

Even in Iraq, the ability to create a large enough ground force with the will to fight ISIS remains in question.

"My sense is that in Iraq there is military progress," Ford said. But low oil prices are putting serious pressure on the ability of the Iraqi and Kurdish governments to wage war against the Islamic State.

"Some of the Peshmerga [Kurdish] fighters had not been paid in three months," Ford said.

Watch VICE News' Under Siege in Ramadi:

Iraq and Syria will also need money and resources to help local authorities step in and provide services to local populations as territory is reclaimed from ISIS, he said.

In his remarks, Vickers argued that the US strategy could no longer afford to put Syria on the back burner.

Syria is where "the battle for the future of the Middle East is largely being waged," and the U.S. should adopt a "Syria-first" strategy, he said.

He called for an intensification of airstrikes and more raids by US special operations forces.

In October, the White House announced a handful of modifications to its anti-ISIS strategy that largely matched Vickers' recommendations.

"The changes we're pursuing can be described by what I call the three Rs: Raqqa, Ramadi and raids," Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at the time, promising more US-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, focusing on the two cities where ISIS has its de facto headquarters.  

Over a year ago, Pentagon officials described Iraq as the focal point of the U.S. military's effort, but since then, the effort in Syria has slowly started to receive more attention.

Morell issued a particularly bleak picture of the danger posed by ISIS.

"I believe IS poses a significant and lethal threat to the United States of America," he said.

It is so dangerous because it is a combination of things, including a quasi-state, a terrorist group and a revolutionary political movement, according to Morell: "We have not faced the likes of it before." And it had more sympathizers in the US, according to Morell, than al Qaeda ever had. 

Follow Kate Brannen on Twitter: @K8brannen

Watch: VICE News Interviews the CIA's former Deputy Director Michael Morell

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