Lawmakers chastised senior Pentagon leaders for not having a military strategy for Syria that would include a no-fly zone aimed at stopping the regime from barrel-bombing its citizens.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. testified on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Service Committee to discuss the current strategy for the Middle East.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who's running for the GOP presidential nomination, and others were visibly frustrated with the recent failure of an effort to train and equip moderate forces to fight in Syria against militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
But what seemed to exasperate them even more was what they said was the Obama administration's lack of a military strategy for helping Syrian rebels unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Graham was uncharacteristically short as he questioned Carter and Dunford if there was a strategy to protect the U.S. trained forces put into Syria to fight ISIS and shouted at times for answers over whether the U.S. military would support their fight against Assad.
"Are we going to supply air support for the people we trained to fight ISIL?" Graham asked, using the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, to describe ISIS.
"We are senator," Dunford said.
"Do those same people want to take Assad down? Do they have a goal to take Assad down?
"Senator I don't know, Dunford said, a reply that seemed to anger Graham.
"What do you mean you don't know?" Graham said, interrupting Dunford when he tried to answer. "Don't you think people in Syria want two things -- they want to fight ISIL and get rid of the person that has killed 250,000 of their family?
"Is that really a mystery? It's not a mystery," Graham added. "When the people we train to fight ISIL turn on Assad, which they surely will, are we going to fight with them to replace Assad?"
Dunford said he couldn't answer that question. Carter tried to answer, but Graham spoke over him.
"Do you see a scenario where the people of Syria don't take on Assad?" Graham asked. "Do they want to take Assad down? Do they want to take Assad down? … Have you asked them? Carter said, "We know what their intent is, and their intent is to fight ISIL."
"Come On!" Graham countered. "You know as well as I do, both of you do, that the average Syrian not only wants to destroy ISIL, but they are intent on destroying Assad because he has killed 250,000 of them.
"And there is the question for this committee. How do we leverage Assad leaving when Russia is going to fight for him, Iran is going to fight for him, Hezbollah is going to fight for him, and we are not going to do a damn thing to help people take him down!"
Is there any credible military threat to Assad now that Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are on his side? Dunford replied, "I think the balance of forces right now are in Assad's advantage."
"Not his advantage, he is secure as the day is long," Graham said. "So this is what has happened folks -- the strategy has completely fallen apart Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are going to fight for their guy, and we are not going to do a damn thing to help the people who want to change Syria for the better by getting rid of the dictator in Damascus.
"Do you see a scenario Secretary Carter where we would fight to take Assad down?"
To which, Carter replied, "Our approach to removing Assad … is principally a political effort in Syria."
"So the answer is no! So let me just end this. If I am Assad, this is a good day for me because the American government has just said without saying it that they are not going to replace me," Graham said. "So what you have done gentlemen, along with the president, is you have turned Syria over to Russia and Iran. You told the people in Syria who died by the hundreds of thousands that we are more worried about a political settlement than we are about what follows. All I can say is this is a sad day for America and the region will pay hell for this … this is a half-assed strategy at best."
Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the committee, wanted to know if the U.S. military was planning on protecting the forces it is training, equipping and sending into Syria from Russian and Syrian airstrikes.
"Are we going to protect them from being barrel-bombed by Bashar Assad and protect them from Russia? he asked. "Anyone we send in and have trained, we are going to protect from Russian air attacks?"
"We have an obligation to do that," Carter said. "And we have made that quite clear from the beginning."
McCain disagreed, saying that the U.S. has not protected rebels who have come under attack.
Carter maintained that U.S. trained rebels have not come under attack.
"They have," McCain argued. "I promise you they have. You will have to correct the record."
Retired Gen. David Petraeus and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates have said publically that they think the U.S. should establish a no-fly zone to stop the regime for dropping barrel bombs on the civilian population and protect civilians that are being driven into refugee status, McCain said.
Carter said the Pentagon has analyzed buffer zones and no-fly zones, but no recommendation has been made to the White House.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, was also interested in establishing a no-fly zone and asked what the limitations of such an effort given the Russian air defense weapons that have been supplied to Syria.
"From a military perspective, we can implement a no-fly zone, and we have the capability to do that," Dunford said.
Carter said that President Obama has not taken a no-fly zone off the table, but such a move would have its challenges.
"A no-fly zone would be intended to prevent the Syrian Air Force from … barrel-bombing or otherwise using air power -- fixed-wing and rotary-wing -- against the civilian population," Carter said.
Barrel-bombing is occurring in the western part of Syria, an area that is protected by significant Syrian air defenses, Carter said.
"So were we to fly by there, we would need to deal with the Syrian integrated air defense system, which is a substantial undertaking of its own," he said. "Then we would be interdicting both fixed-wing and rotary wing aircraft that were attacking the Syrian population."
Carter noted that most of the casualties inflicted on the civilian population have been from artillery.
The Pentagon has also studied creating humanitarian zones, which would be in Syria where people driven from their homes could congregate, but they would have to be protected by ground force and an accompanying air force, the secretary said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.