Petraeus: US Military Should Play Bigger Role Against Assad in Syria

Former CIA Director David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Middle East policy. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Former CIA Director David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Middle East policy. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus on Tuesday called for the U.S. military to take on a bigger role against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

He recommended grounding the Syrian air force, creating safe zones in Syria, and embedding U.S. advisors and close air support troops in Iraq to revive a faltering campaign to defeat militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

The U.S. should also directly arm the Kurds, loosen restrictions on U.S. airstrikes in the region, stop Assad's use of barrel bombing in Syria, and shift the U.S. military's operational headquarters from Kuwait to Baghdad, Petraeus said in more than two-and-one-half hours of testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

All of the proposals in Petraeus' wide-ranging critique of the Obama administration's current tactics and strategy in Iraq and Syria have thus far been rejected by President Obama and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

However, Petraeus said that without drastic changes, Russian influence in the region would grow and the spillover from unchecked violence would threaten Europe and the U.S.

The region does not play "by Las Vegas rules. What happens in the Middle East is not going to stay in the Middle East," he said.

"Some elements of the right strategy are in place," Petraeus said, referring to partnering with local forces on the ground and pressing political unity in Baghdad, but the overall effort has yet to produce sustained progress.

"In my judgment, increased support for the Iraqi security forces, Sunni tribal forces and Kurdish Peshmerga is needed, including embedding U.S. adviser elements down to the brigade headquarters level of those Iraqi forces fighting ISIS," he said.

"I also believe that we should explore use of joint tactical air controllers with select Iraqi units to coordinate coalition airstrikes for those units," Petraeus said.

The most forceful statements from Petraeus came in addressing the more than four-year-old civil war in Syria, which he described as a "geopolitical Chernobyl, spewing instability and extremism over the region and the rest of the world."

He said that the use of barrel bombs -- gasoline drums packed with high explosives and mostly dropped from helicopters -- by the air forces of al-Assad were one of the main reasons for Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe.

"We could, for example, tell Assad that the use of barrel bombs must end. And that if they continue, we will stop the Syrian air force from flying," Petraeus said. "We have that capability."

The grounding of Syria's air force could be accomplished by destroying air bases with cruise missiles fired from Navy submarines and surface ships in the Mediterranean, Petraeus said. "You don't even have to fly in the airspace necessarily," he said.

"We don't have to put 165,000 troops on the ground to do that," he said. "We have the capability to stop that and we should."

Petraeus also called for the creation of safe zones along the Turkey-Syria border where refugees could be protected.

Under questioning from Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the former general appeared to back up the initial testimony last week of Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, who suggested that Special Operations troops were already on the ground in Syria.

CentCom later put out a statement correcting Austin and saying that no U.S. troops were in Syria. But Petraeus testified, "We've already put boots on the ground in Syria, special mission troops."

On Iran, Petraeus said that there were good and bad elements to the recent deal worked out by Obama and the allies to curb Iran's nuclear programs, but the ultimate test will come in containing Iran's support for radicals in the region.

"The most immediate test for the credibility" of the nuclear deal "will be what we do in Iraq and Syria," he said.

Petraeus also urged the senators to dust off the plan he drew up as head of CentCom to attack Iran's nuclear facilities if evidence emerged that Iran was developing weapons grade material.

Addressing Moscow's recent military buildup in Syria, he said, "Russia's recent military escalation in Syria is a further reminder that when the U.S. does not take the initiative, others will fill the vacuum, often in ways that are harmful to our interest."

"I think that what (Russian President) Vladimir Putin would like to do is resurrect the Russian empire," Petraeus said. He speculated that Putin's main goal was preserving the Russian naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus and a safe corridor from Tartus to an airbase near Latakia.

Petraeus began his testimony with an abject apology for the extramarital affair with his biographer that led to his resignation as CIA director, but he quickly flashed the old self-assurance that won him support in numerous appearances before Congress.

Once again he stroked the egos of the senators, flattering them with compliment on the thoughtfulness of their questions. "You make a very good point, senator, a very good point," he said.

In summary, Petraeus noted that critics argue "that there is no military solution to Syria or the other conflicts roiling the Middle East."

"This may be true, but it is also misleading," he said. "For, in every case, if there is to be any hope of a political settlement, a certain military and security context is required, and that context will not materialize on its own. We and our partners need to facilitate it -- and over the past four years, we have not done so."

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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