The Islamic State Group and the Next Congress

December 29, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

The 113th Congress has not done much to aid in the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria for reasons partly attributable to the executive and legislative branches.  Aside from a single committee’s passage of a use of force authorization (AUMF) against the group, approving funding for broad train and equip missions, and harsh rhetoric, the 113th Congress has been conspicuously absent from the fight.  Congressional leaders have stated in the past that approving an AUMF will be a top priority when the 114th Congress convenes in January, meanwhile, US military personnel continue to fight without the formal approval and authorization from their representatives.  The previous Congress already passed funding bills for the military and the government, which include train and equip provisions in Iraq and Syria as well as humanitarian aid.  The US is already the greatest donor of humanitarian aid in Syria.  When the new Congress convenes after the holiday break, how will the fight against the Islamic State group and the stabilization of the region be shaped?

In the Senate, new committee chairs will be more hawkish than in previous years.  In addition, several veterans were elected to the Congress as a whole in November with 22 vets winning.  Incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) has been highly critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the situation in Iraq and Syria, namely support for beleaguered rebels against the regime of embattled Bashar al-Assad.  Senator McCain has called for stronger measures to protect rebels from the barrel bombs that the Assad regime reigns from above in addition to measures the Obama administration has announced to make the rebels a more formidable fighting force against the Islamic State group.  The situation on the ground is constantly changing.  A broad group of rebels in Aleppo have announced they will ban together and fight under a single moniker, dropping all their names and emblems (though this only applies in Aleppo as elsewhere in Syria these groups will continue to fight under their individual names.)  The loose umbrella group of rebels thought to be the strongest and most moderate, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has been subject to critical losses against al-Qaeda’s official Syrian entity Jabhat al-Nusra and the Assad regime.  Senator McCain has voiced aggressive support for this group, who enjoys tactical ties with more radical groups, because Senator McCain believes if support is not given soon, there will be no (moderate) rebels left.

The military dimension is just one small piece of this large and often ambiguous puzzle.  There are also concerns of countering the messaging of the Islamic State group and similar radical organizations that inspire disillusioned individuals to join their cause.  A top US general has announced that he wants to target the “psychology” of the Islamic State group.  “We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it,” Major General Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East stated.  This dimension is arguably the most important and to this point the most neglected strategy in combating the radical Sunni Islamist group.  While the challenge the Islamic State group presents appears on a basic level to require a military solution – defeating the group on the ground in areas it controls – their ideals are much more potent and dangerous.  If the Islamic State is dispelled from the territories it controls, another similar group is sure to take its place eventually seizing on the grievances of large populations to mobilize fighters for its cause.  By combating its messaging, the coalition can take the wind from the sails of the Islamic State group while simultaneously addressing the growing ailment of the foreign fighter crisis.  Up to this point, the Congress has mostly aided on the military side of the fight.  It will be immensely important for the administration to include the people’s representatives in the messaging portion of the overall strategy.

There are also political considerations that must be addressed.  The administration has stated their strategy is Iraq first, simply because the political climate there is easier.  The Congress could look to work with the executive branch to court key allies such as Turkey to aid in the removal of Assad and the integration of a new government that will be inclusive to all ethnic and religious groups.  Without a stable political institution in either country, the conflict will never cease.

The stakes are extremely high in terms of the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group.  With a Republican Congress taking over in January, the GOP will likely take some time to bask in their new majority and project their ideas.  Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has stated that he is willing to work with the president on many things, though the fight in Iraq and Syria was not one of the areas mentioned by name.  The House on the other hand, is much more partisan than the Senate and Republicans control a far greater majority than their Senate counterparts.  Compromise is possible and it will be up to both sides to meet in the middle.  However, if history is any indication, it is unlikely that the two sides will see eye to eye as the schism is too great.  Most Republicans do not agree with the administration’s current strategy.  Early January will truly be an important test for the future of this multi-year offensive.