Kerry: Congress Has Shown 'Absolutely Zero Willingness' to Support Ground Troops in Syria

By Patrick Goodenough | July 18, 2016 | 4:15am EDT
U.S. Army soldiers with Iraqi counterparts. (Photo: U.S. Army/Spc. William A. Joeckel)

( – The Obama administration has declared repeatedly that there will be no U.S. “boots on the ground” in Syria, but on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Congress for showing “absolutely zero willingness” to vote for troops to be deployed.

Defending the administration’s response to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) in the light of a spate of mass-casualty terror attacks around the world, Kerry said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the terrorist group was “on the run” in Iraq and in Syria.

When asked whether the U.S. could be doing more to put pressure on ISIS, however, Kerry faulted Congress for not being more supportive of a stronger military response.

“A lot of people have talked about American troops going in, etc.,” he said.

“Congress displayed absolutely zero willingness to vote to do that. And if people have a willingness to show that now that has changed, the administration will listen to any legitimate plan, any legitimate way to do more,” Kerry added.

The implication in the comments was that the administration has been eager to send in U.S. troops, only to be stymied by Congress.

Indeed, many lawmakers have been reluctant to support authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS in Syria.

Criticism against Obama’s requested AUMF in 2015 ranged in scope, but included a wariness of a three-year time limit and language which some Republicans feared would restrict commanders’ actions on the ground.

In the absence of a new AUMF, the administration has been relying on a post-9/11 AUMF – something which officials since the start of the airstrike campaign against ISIS in 2014 made clear the administration believes provides statutory authority.

Some lawmakers have called for U.S. ground troops in Syria. Late last year Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) called for 10,000 troops in Iraq and another 10,000 in Syria as part of a multinational force including Europeans and Arabs.

For its part, the administration has stressed repeatedly that there will not be “boots on the ground” in Syria or Iraq – even as the actual number of troops on the ground has swollen, to around 4,600 in Iraq and 300 in Syria.

Administration officials maintain that those deployed troops do not constitute “boots on the ground” in the conventional sense, since they are not there as part of a combat mission, but rather to train, advise and assist local forces as they confront the ISIS jihadists.

Kerry told CNN that the administration would welcome input from informed quarters on how it could be “moving faster” in confronting the challenge.

“I believe that the pressure is mounting on a steady basis, with more and more being done on a consistent basis. And we welcome additional thoughts from members of Congress, from anybody in the intel community, in the defense community who knows or suggests,” he said.

“President Obama is open to any legitimate ways of moving faster that meets the test of our security needs and of what the Congress is willing to support.”

During the interview, Kerry repeated his contention that the carrying out of terrorist attacks in various parts of the world was a sign of ISIS’ weakness, not strength.

He said the attacks indicate that ISIS “in Syria and Iraq is under great, great pressure.”

“People are acting out in various places. But they are not growing in their ability to do things. They are shrinking,” he said, citing the recapturing of ISIS-held territory in both countries.

“We’re squeezing town after town. We have liberated communities. We're making progress now advancing on Mosul. In Syria, likewise, they're not able to attack and hold towns,” he said.

“They are on the run, and I believe what we're seeing are the desperate actions of an entity that sees the noose closing around it.”

Kerry said just because people were able to carry out terror attacks and claim to be inspired by ISIS that was not an indicator of the group’s mobility in Iraq or Syria.

“Is it capable for people to be inspired by them and go out and do great harm to people? I said that. I acknowledge that. Yes, there is that danger,” he said.

“But the core of ISIS is in Al-Raqqa, and it’s in Manbij. It’s in Syria. It’s in Iraq. And we are doing everything in our power to put additional pressure them. And I believe their days are numbered.”

Outside of Congress, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump called in a debate last March for 20,000-30,000 troops to be deployed in the fight against ISIS, citing the advice of generals including the head of U.S. Central Command. A number of other erstwhile Republican presidential hopefuls raised similar proposals during the campaign.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton stated in a debate last October, “We don’t want American troops on the ground in Syria.  I never said that.”

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