The retiring chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee praised Arab countries for joining the U.S. in launching airstrikes in Syria against Islamic militants.
Sen. Carl Levin, 80, the longtime Democrat from Michigan who plans to retire when his term ends in January, hailed the level of cooperation between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar in agreeing to attack the Islamic State.
"Without that support, this effort ... would be significantly weakened and its mission significantly in jeopardy," Levin said during a briefing Wednesday with defense reporters in Washington, D.C.
"It's going to be an historic moment when the war on terror is joined by countries that have been the place where the terrorism has emanated from -- where Sunni governments take on Sunni groups because those groups threaten those governments and a lot of other governments," he added.
The U.S. started attacks on Monday in Syria against targets of the Islamic State, the al-Qaeda-inspired militant group that controls portions of Syria and Iraq.
The operation is notable in many ways -- it marked a significant expansion of the U.S. policy toward the Islamic State and also the civil war in Syria, and it featured the combat debut of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet. As to Levin's point, it involved Saudi Arabia bombing fellow Sunni Muslims as part of a teaming arrangement with multiple nations including Qatar, a country that has drawn rebukes for funding Islamists throughout the region.
While Levin acknowledged that during the opening wave of the attack, the U.S. dropped the vast majority of the bombs, missiles and rockets fired from Navy ships and aircraft flying from host bases in the region, specifically he also played down the importance of how much ordnance came from the Arab states.
"The significant thing is that they're flying and they're dropping bombs," he said. "You've got Arab countries up there flying F-16s and F-15s and F-18s and dropping ordnance."
In a conversation earlier in the day, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, told Levin the countries continued to participate in the air campaign, the senator said.
Levin said he wasn't surprised that Turkey or Britain weren't part of the initial allied coalition. The latter may have been willing to take part but turned away as part of a White House effort "to dramatize that this is not a Western operation," he said.
The senator also shed some insight into the strikes west of Aleppo against the al-Qaeda cell known as the Khorasan Group, which was reportedly "nearing the execution stage" of attacks against America or Europe.
"I can only tell you that the briefings that we had indicated that there was a growing ability, near ability, to put together explosive devices which could get through the security of airports," he said.
The Pentagon requested a fiscal 2015 defense budget of about $554 billion, including a base budget of $496 billion and a war budget of about $59 billion. Congress hasn’t yet approved the spending plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
What’s more, the White House requested a separate $5 billion counter-terrorism fund, of which, $4 billion would go to the Defense Department and $1 billion would go to the State Department — presumably for exactly the type of missions currently underway in Iraq.
Congress last week authorized providing some $500 million to train and equipment 5,000 members of the Free Syrian Army as part of a stop-gap funding measure to keep the U.S. government running through mid-December.
Levin didn't touch on the issue of boots on the ground.
While President Obama has repeatedly pledged to avoid using ground troops to fight the Islamic State, both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey have suggested otherwise.
"We are at war and everything is on the table," Hagel said during a hearing last week of the House Armed Services Committee.
Dempsey earlier last week told Levin and his panel that U.S. ground troops – in certain scenarios – could become involved in attacks against the Islamic militants. What’s more, he said, U.S. commanders have already sought permission to deploy small teams of U.S. advisers into battle with Iraqi troops and that the president might be persuaded to change his mind, according to an article by Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post.
Dempsey is joined by other a handful of influential military and defense experts who oppose ruling out the use of combat troops in Iraq or Syria, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, and retired Marine Corps Gens. Anthony Zinni and James Mattis, both of whom headed up Central Command.