The Lame Duck Congress and the Islamic State Offensive

November 3, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

With Congressional mid-term elections taking place tomorrow, the Congress as a whole is slated to get back to work immediately following the observance of Veterans Day after roughly two working weeks in a span from late July to November.  Congress then has only 15 working days left until it adjourns for the year to usher in the 114th class.  This will have to be a productive 15 lame duck days as there is exigent matters that must be addressed.

Chief among them is a new measure to continue to fund the government.  The last Continuing Resolution (CR) that was passed in late September, only funded the government through December 11.  Not only did the measure prevent the government from shutting down, but a key amendment included in the CR provided the necessary congressional approval for the administration to fund vetted Syrian rebels to fight against the Islamic State group.  The lame duck Congress will have to address this resolution as a whole to prevent major cuts from taking place and to continue the train and equip mission of the Syrian rebels.

The administration’s train and equip strategy, has been posed as one to negate American boots on the ground, a policy President Obama is vehemently against, and to allow local Syrians to serve as the necessary ground force that supplements the United States air campaign.  However, it appears as if the train and equip mission, which was always slated to be a multi-year endeavor, has been slow to start.  The New York Times reports that the mission, in fact, has yet to get started, which may undermine efforts in the region as American forces are looking to bolster Iraqi forces who are gearing up to take back portions of western and northern Iraq that have succumbed to the occupation of the Islamic State insurgency.

The efforts to roll back Islamic State gains have always been an “Iraq first” strategy according to administration officials.  But, in order to significantly and sufficiently address the Islamic State in Iraq, the group’s stronghold in Syria must also be taken into account.  It would be shortsighted and irresponsible to view the problem of the Islamic State from an Iraq and Syria issue separately (though from a tactical level the US does examine each country as a front in combating the group as a whole) given their spillover and success in both countries.  Since the Islamic State took over the Iraqi city of Mosul and the western province of Anbar, they have a clear supply line between their de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria and Iraq.

The Times also reported that given these gains in Iraq, the US is looking to expand its current advisers in Iraq to get the beleaguered Iraqi military ready for an offensive to oust the militants from their borders.

So far, the US led air coalition has received much criticism for its lack of coordination and intelligence.  As the Wall Street Journal reports, without US officials on the ground in Syria, it is difficult to assess the success of the bombing campaign, which includes verifying that key officials being targeted have truly been eliminated.  Currently, the Wall Street Journal estimates that there are about 1,000 Syrian rebels on the ground that have already been trained by the US covertly in Jordan who would serve as the human intelligence (HUMINT) sources (as a brief note, the current train and equip mission that was approved by Congress as an amendment in the CR would authorize overt training in Saudi Arabia and Jordan and provide appropriated funds as opposed to the covert CIA training operations that have previously taken place.)

It is difficult to estimate how reliable these rebels are and how reliable future rebels will be once trained.  The authorization to train vetted rebels outlines specific criteria used to vet rebels such as restricting individuals who are part of known terrorist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Hezbulla.  However, the Syrian civil war has become so muddled that some of these groups have grown intertwined and coordinate on a regular basis with each other.  In fact, in a riveting account of his time in captivity, journalist Peter Theo Curtis recounts that while trying to escape, several times he appealed to members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), thought to be the main rebel fighting force against the Assad regime and subject to US training, only to be brought back to the captivity of members of Jabhat al-Nusra.  In becoming somewhat amicable eventually towards his Nusra captors and their FSA allies, Curtis wrote, “I returned to the F.S.A. troops. One told me that his unit had recently traveled to Jordan to receive training from American forces in fighting groups like the Nusra Front… ‘I hope it was good training.’ ‘Certainly, very,’ he replied…After a few moments, I asked, ‘About this business of fighting Jebhat al Nusra?’ ‘Oh, that,’ one said. ‘We lied to the Americans about that.'”

In another blow to US policy in Syria pertaining to certain rebel factions, the Nusra Front has begun an offensive against a group associated with the FSA called the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF).  The SRF, who used to enjoy familiar relations and even coordination with the Nusra Front, is concerned that US aid has not come their way in their time of need.  “[Nusra Front] [m]ilitants overran the command centre of the SRF’s leader, Jamal Maarouf, in Deir Sonbol in a humiliating rout that came as US and Arab air forces continued to attack Isis in the Kurdish town of Kobani…The defeat of Maarouf is a serious blow to the US strategy of building a proxy coalition against Isis. It comes amid a groundswell of anger at the US strikes across the opposition-held north, which have done nothing to slow the intensity of attacks from Bashar al-Assad’s air force,” according to reporting from The Guardian.  Additionally, The Guardian reported that members of the SRF believe the US is aiding the Syrian regime on purpose because the US has only targeted the Islamic State, which inadvertently helps Assad – an unintended consequence of the campaign in which the US has so far denied to overtly attack the Assad regime.

In addition to renewing the funding measure for the train and equip mission of Syrian rebels, there has been some debate as to whether or not the lame duck Congress will take up an authorization for military force (AUMF) to address the current offensive in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State.  The current legal authority is suspect and thin, which is why many experts and members of Congress believe a Syria-specific AUMF would be more unifying.  However, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has stated that he wishes to address a new AUMF in the new Congress in January as he does not see fit to debate the issue with a lame duck Congress.  “Doing this with a whole group of members who are on their way out the door, I don’t think that is the right way to handle this,” Boehner stated in September.  By debating and passing a new AUMF, of which several have been proposed, Congress can have a real voice in shaping the Islamic State offensive.  This is important especially given reports that members of the military feel hamstrung by the administration who are shaping the current policy. 

At a time of mixed messaging from the administration, who says while the coalition is in its infancy it is having positive effects, and members of Congress and other scholars who criticize the administration’s handling of the Syria policy thus far, it is imperative the people’s representatives take action now.  Despite the fact that several members of Congress will be on their way out, they are still elected representatives that have a job to do.  It is important to set a tone early in the coalition, no matter how far off base some may believe the intervention strategy is, in order to increase effectiveness and confidence in American leadership.  The lame duck Congress has a lot on its plate and must do well to eliminate preconceived notions regarding their productivity based on the two most unproductive years in legislative history.