Senators spar with Dunford over Middle East fight

A top Senate Republican blasted the Joint Chiefs chairman for ignoring tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Syria during his assessment of progress of U.S. military operations in the Middle East on Thursday.

The tense exchange between Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and Gen. Joseph Dunford was the culmination of a series of angry statements by the longtime lawmaker on the current fight against Islamic State group fighters in the region, and the lead-in for a litany of complaints by Republicans on the committee about the president’s ability to handle the threat.

Dunford said he is pleased with the U.S. military’s campaign against the Islamic State group thus far, calling it a “success” in pushing back the extremist fighters from numerous strongholds in the region.

But those comments enraged McCain. “So as far as you’re concerned, we ignore the 400,000 dead and the 6 million refugees caused by (Syrian president) Bashar al-Assad.”

Dunford — amid repeated interruptions from McCain — said those political issues are outside his scope but acknowledged that Assad is unlikely to leave power in the near future, leaving little hope for a short-term solution to the Syrian civil war.

McCain called U.S. strategy in the region “an unmitigated disaster” and blamed the White House.

“I have no doubt that ISIL will eventually be expelled from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. “This will be a tactical success, but it is unlikely to lead to strategic gains because the administration has still failed to address, and at times has exacerbated, the underlying conflict — the struggles for power and sectarian identity now raging across the Middle East.”

Defense Secretary Ash Carter offered a more optimistic take on the fight, saying that military progress is just one part of the overall plan for stability in the region.

“We continue to take the fight to ISIL across every domain, including cyber,” he said. “We’re putting ISIL on the path to a lasting defeat in Iraq and Syria, particularly as we embark on a decisive phase of our campaign, to collapse ISIL’s control of Mosul and Raqqa.”

Several Republican lawmakers complained that the administration’s approach to the region has not been comprehensive or well-planned. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said a “wiser statement would have seen in advance the problems we’re dealing with today.”

But Dunford insisted that “it is clear we have the momentum” in the fight against the Islamic State group, and said he is encouraged by progress in the region.

Neither Carter nor Dunford spoke about reported plans to add 500 more U.S. troops for operations in Iraq, which would bring the American military footprint there to nearly 5,000 service members in coming months.

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