Air Force Gen. Paul Selva said Wednesday the U.S. could impose a no-fly zone over Syria to save civilians from attack but only at the risk of conflict with Russian and Syrian warplanes.
The comments by Selva, the new vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing drew a stinging rebuke from Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and the panel's chairman, who said it was "embarrassing" for the U.S. to calculate risk when lives were at stake.
"We have the military capacity to impose a no-fly zone," Selva said, but "the question that we need to ask is, 'Do we have the political and policy backdrop with which to do so?'"
A no-fly zone could lead to "direct conflict" with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and "a miscalculation" that could result in dogfights with Russian aircraft, the general said.
McCain interjected, "I must say, it's one of the more embarrassing statements I've ever heard from a uniformed military officer, that we are worried about Syria and Russia's reaction to saving the lives of thousands and thousands of Syrians who are being barrel-bombed and massacred."
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who testified with Selva, also renewed U.S. rejection of calls by Turkey and other allies for setting up a so-called "safe zone" along the border between Turkey and Syria so displaced Syrians and refugees could be protected.
Carter said substantial U.S. ground forces would be required to protect a safe zone and warned that the zone would become a magnet for attack by militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
The hearing was marked by numerous testy exchanges as Carter and Selva sought to portray a record of steady progress in the effort to degrade and defeat ISIS.
Carter stressed that the U.S. was "intensifying" its efforts and was willing to provide more assistance to Iraqi Security Forces in the current effort to retake Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, "including attack helicopters and accompanying advisers."
Carter effectively ruled out one suggestion frequently offered by critics -- the formation of an international ground force to fight ISIS – which he said would only result in allies standing aside to let U.S. troops take the combat lead.
"We have the capability" to organize and contribute to a ground force with Arab state partners, Carter said, but "realistically, we would embark upon that largely by ourselves."
In addition, "There is nothing ISIL would welcome more," the secretary said, using another term for ISIS.
The commitment of major U.S. ground units would boost ISIS' recruiting, trigger more terror attacks in the U.S. and fulfill ISIS' propaganda visions of an apocalyptic final battle with the West, Carter said.
Instead, Carter supported President Barack Obama's strategy of airstrikes and a light troop footprint while working with local ground forces as the best way forward.
Carter steered clear of saying that the U.S. was winning against ISIS, saying only that the strategy was "building momentum" against the terrorist group.
McCain countered that the U.S. was losing and cited the recent ISIS-inspired terror attacks in San Bernardino, California, Beirut, and Paris, and against a Russian airliner, as evidence of the group's expanding threat.
The attacks make clear "that we are not winning this war," McCain said. He agreed that "tactical progress" had been made in the effort to retake Ramadi and in advances by Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, but ISIS was still capable of mounting counter-attacks and there was no timeline for its ultimate defeat.
"In Syria, what the administration calls a strategy still looks more like a hope," he said. "That conflict will likely grind on in Syria, ISIL will grow stronger and the refugees will keep coming."
Under questioning from McCain, Carter backed Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who disagreed last month with Obama's assessment that ISIS had been "contained." Carter said, "I agree with what Gen. Dunford said, yes."
Selva substituted before the committee for Dunford, who was on a USO holiday tour of overseas bases.
The Air Force general cautioned against giving timelines for taking Raqqa, the proclaimed ISIS capital in northeastern Syria, or other objectives. "To provide a timeline would deny the fact that the enemy gets a vote," Selva said.
He also rejected calls for "carpet bombing" ISIS, as suggested by Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas. Selva said the U.S. took pains to avoid civilian casualties and carpet bombing "is not the way we apply force in combat. It isn't now nor would it ever be."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com