U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) visited the National Council of Jewish Women, Los Angeles (NCJW/LA), on Tuesday and gave an update on foreign policy matters that the U.S. is facing.
Schiff, a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, opened by discussing the situation in Iraq and Syria. While President Barack Obama has recently ordered reconnaissance flights over Syria, Schiff doesn’t believe the move will lead to airstrikes in that country.
“But I’m concerned because things do have a momentum of their own,” Schiff said.
The decision to allow surveillance over Syria followed airstrikes in Iraq that were ordered to protect Americans in Iraq and prevent the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from committing genocide against the Yazidis, a group of Kurds who were “isolated on a mountaintop,” Schiff said.
In June, ISIS, a successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq, began marching on Baghdad, seizing cities along the way. Schiff said Iraqi forces fled when ISIS began to march, and the terrorist organization now controls large parts of Iraq and Syria. However, the march on Baghdad has since slowed, he said.
Schiff said ISIS attempted to strike the Kurds, who he referred to as “very fierce” fighters who are not well equipped, military-wise. He said the Kurds lost key towns and ethnic minorities, such as the Yazidis, were forced to flee into Kurdish territory.
The congressman said Obama ordered airstrikes on key positions in Iraq to protect Americans in Baghdad and the Yazidis. However, officials are worried that the strikes could lead to “mission creep,” which refers to a mission expanding beyond its original goals, he said.
“I think the reality is the mission has already expanded, and it expanded very quickly,” Schiff added.
He said the airstrikes started to focus on helping the Kurds and Iraqi forces retake the Mosul Dam. The justification was that if the dam broke, a wall of water could impact Baghdad some 280 miles away, Schiff said.
“The reality is the motivating factor was much more the strategic loss that would be represented by the ISIS seizure of that dam and holding of that dam,” he said, adding that the group could use it to extort the population or create mayhem.
While some are speculating that Obama will order airstrikes on Syria, Schiff believes otherwise. The situation in Syria is quite different, especially given that the U.S. does not have a fighting force to work with. In Iraq, the U.S. has coordinated with ground troops to occupy positions after airstrikes, he said.
“Otherwise, it’s kind of like Whac-A-Mole,” Schiff said, adding that the U.S. only had an “uncoordinated band of so-called moderators” who have not proved to be effective fighters. “And that’s a very significant point, because there’s only so much you can accomplish from the air.”
In Syria, ISIS occupies urban centers, which would create a lot of civilian casualties in the event of a U.S. airstrike, he said. The military does not have a government that it can work with either, Schiff said.
He said the U.S. needs to deploy stronger outreach to peel Sunnis away from ISIS.
“That’s going to have to happen if anything is to be successful,” the congressman said. “We’re not going to be able to defeat ISIS in Iraq as long as they are married to the Sunni tribes, because that’s a huge part of the country and a huge part of the population.”
Schiff said Obama may need authorization from Congress if the mission goes beyond protecting Americans or becomes a prolonged affair. Even if Congress could give a consensus, it would be difficult to tailor the authorization so that it is not too broad or too narrow, he said.
“How you thread that political and legal needle is a very tough question with a very functional Congress, let alone the disaster we have right now,” Schiff added.
An audience member asked him why Jordan and Saudi Arabia are not doing more to help. Schiff said the biggest problem that Jordan faces from ISIS comes from its own population, as there have been a couple demonstrations in favor of the group in Jordanian towns.
He said Saudi Arabia is a different story. Schiff said the U.S. warned its allies not to fund the wrong groups during the Syrian civil war. Ultimately, some of that funding wound up in the hands of ISIS, which has been ex-communicated from Al Qaeda, Schiff said.
“It’s this horrible toxic mix — a bizarre mix where you’ve got Hezbollah fighting Al Qaeda, which is fighting ISIS, which is fighting Assad,” he added, “and it’s another reason why you look at it and [wonder], ‘We want to step into the middle of this?’”
Schiff said the U.S. needs a worldwide coalition to go after ISIS. Specifically, America needs Turkey to close its border to the handful of Americans and thousands of Europeans who are going to Syria to become further radicalized, he said.
“Now, some of those people may not mean us harm, and a lot of those people may mean us grave harm,” the congressman added. “Keeping those people out of Syria is of great importance to us and is of great importance to putting an end to this conflict, and the Turkish border has been a sieve. That’s where you go. If you want to get into Syria, you go to Turkey.”
As for the situation in Gaza, Schiff noted the recent ceasefire between Hamas and the Israelis and said he would not be surprised if this one held, as both sides have been worn down by the conflict.
He said it’s hard to visualize at the moment, but he would like to see both sides begin to discuss a two-state solution.
“I just don’t think there’s any alternative, and it concerns me that there seems to be a growing number of people in Israel and the Palestinian territories who favor a one-state solution,” Schiff said.
Prior to the fighting, Hamas was on the ropes, he said. The congressman said the organization had lost a key ally in Egypt and had produced nothing of value for Gaza.
“What’s the best way, if you’re in the Middle East, to resurrect yourself? Attack Israel. And sadly it works,” Schiff said.
He said he understands why Irsael is offering Hamas no concessions, as the country does not want to reward a group for starting a war. An audience member asked Schiff how Israel is to negotiate with a group that does not want Israel to exist.
“I think it can be done, but the pessimists are always proved right, and there’s a lot of reason for skepticism,” he said.
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