At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Friday, September 22, US Senator Lindsey Graham pressured Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff General Joseph Dunford for military intervention against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Senator Graham also asked about plans for the war in Syria.
Under pressure from Graham, Dunford admitted President Barack Obama has a political objective to remove Assad from power, but Dunford does not have a military objective to do so right now.
Graham asked if the plan for the US and proxies to take Raqqa includes holding the territory after it is liberated from ISIS. Dunford said there is a plan, but it is not resourced. The holding force would consist of 14,000 Arabs “we currently have” but Dunford declined to identify the rest of the holding force. The Kurds are not, at the moment, willing to fight against Assad. The Kurds will participate in the operation to take Raqqa but not in the operation to hold it.
Graham asked Dunford if there are military plans to remove Assad. Dunford said there are multiple plans and if the president changes policy objectives the military is ready. Graham claimed that if the US does not apply military pressure to Assad, he will still be there when President Obama leaves office, and “this war never ends.”
Graham, in the context of pressuring for military action, asked both Carter and Dunford if Russia bombed the humanitarian aid convoy in Aleppo. Dunford said there is no conclusive evidence, but both Dunford and Carter concluded that Russia is responsible for it whether they actually carried out the bombing or not.
Watch a video clip of the 5 minute exchange here. A transcript can be found below.
Dunford: .. They’re [Kurds] are the most effective force we have right now and a that we need to go in Raqqah, and we do have sufficient forces to be able to secure and seize Raqqah.
Graham: Do they support removal of Assad?
Dunford: Today that is not their stated political objective. Their focus is…
Graham: Wait a minute. Slow down. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. We have two objectives. To destroy ISIL and to remove Assad. Is that correct? Both of you.
Dunford: We have a military objective to destroy ISIL. I do not have a military objective to remove Assad.
Graham: Well the president has a political objective of…
Dunford: He has a political objective to remove Assad.
Graham: Okay, so do you agree with me that Assad is winning right now?
Dunford: I think Assad is in a much stronger place than he was a year ago.
Graham: Thank you. You’ve always been very honest to this committee. Do you agree Obama will leave office and Assad will still be in power in January, 2017?
Dunford: I don’t see a path right now where Assad would not be. in office.
Graham: Let’s talk about how you change the political equation. Do you agree with me that the only way Assad is ever going to leave is if there’s some military pressure on him that makes the threat militarily more real to him?
Dunford: I think that’s a fair statement, Senator.
Graham: Okay, so if the main fighting force inside Syria [Kurds] is not signed up to take Assad out, where does that force come from?
Dunford: Senator, I can’t identify that force but I do want to disinguish between what you’re suggesting with Assad and Raqqah. The reason why I support the SDF is, my number one priority is to stop the planning and conducting of [ISIS] external operations and moving forward against Raqqah with the SDF is the way to do that.
Graham: So let’s look at it this way. ISIL is Germany and Assad is Japan. We’re focusing on Germany. So, will this force that’s mainly Kurd but not all, can they liberate Raqqah and hold it?
Dunford: This force is not intended to hold Raqqah. No.
Graham: What is the plan to hold Raqqah?
Dunford: We currently have 14,000 Arabs that have been identified and when we…
Graham: Is that the holding force?
Dunford: That may consist of part of the holding force.
Graham: Do we have a plan to hold Raqqah?
Dunford: We have a plan. It is not resourced.
Graham: So, I just want everybody to know where we’re at in Syria. We’re making gains against ISIL. The main force that we’re using are Kurds who can’t hold Raqqah. The Arabs have to. You’re absolutely right about that. The Kurdish force, which is the main center of gravity inside of Syria, at this moment is not interested in putting military pressure on Assad. Other than that, we’re in a good spot [sarcasm]. Now I’m not blaming y’all. You didn’t create this problem. Years ago most of you recommended we help the Free Syrian Army when it would have mattered. We are where we are. I just want to make sure the country knows what’s going on in Syriais is going to be inherited by the next president if there’s not a change in strategy to create a ground component that not only can hold Raqqah and put military pressure on Assad, this war never ends. Ah, Russia, did they bomb this convoy? UN convoy.
Dunford: Senator, we… that hasn’t been concluded but my judgment would be that they did. They’re certainly responsible.
Graham: Do you agree with me, Sec. Carter, and we’ve been friends for years and I’m sorry so contentious…
Carter: That’s alright.
Graham: You’re a good man. What should we do about Russia, who was given notice about this convoy, if they, in fact, bombed a UN convoy delivering humanitarian aid? What should we do about that?
Carter: Well, I, ah, if, uh, let me put it even a little more harshly. Ah, and the chairman said this, ah, earlier. The Russians are responsible, ah, for this strike, whether they conducted it or not…
Graham: I totally agree with you.
Carter: … because they have taken responsibility for the conduct of the Syrians by associating themselves with the Syrian regime. What they’re supposed to do and what what Sec. Kerry has been indefatigably pursuing diplomatically is to, ah ah, get a true cessation of hostilities and get Assad to move aside in a political transition.
Graham: They’re not doing their part.
Carter: And I, I, I, that is, that is what Sec. Kerry is trying to achieve. Is that difficult? Absolutely. Does it look, in the last few days, that that’s the direction it’s headed? No, and he’s said as much. But that’s what he’s trying to accomplish.
Graham: Do you think the Russians are being helpful? My time is up. Do you think the Russians bombed this convoy? Most likely?
Dunford: I do, Senator.
Graham: Last question. Is there a Plan B, in terms of if diplomacy fails? A Plan B for Syria that has a military component regarding Assad?
Dunford: Senator, we have done and will continue to do a wide range of planning and should the president change the policy objectives, we’ll be prepared to support those.