In a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Sen. John Barrasso had a chance to question Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on issues including Iranian oil sanctions, the recent Turkish acquisition of Russian missiles for use on F-35 fighter jets and the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 Gas Pipeline — the development of which some feel could undermine the West’s plans to loosen Russia’s energy dominance in the region.
Wyoming’s junior senator also had a chance to question the Secretary of State on the administration’s plans to defeat the terroristic Islamic State group in Syria, a topic on which he has been particularly vocal during both the Obama and Trump administrations.
Where he was once a critic of Obama on Syria, however — once calling him out for his “weakness” in the region — the junior senator from Wyoming has become a soft-spoken ally in Trump’s corner, maintaining support for conditional troop withdrawal from the region in spite of warnings from top military officials of a potential resurgence in terrorist activity in the region.
The morning after the president announced his administration would be downsizing America’s presence in the region during his State of the Union speech in February, Barrasso — a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — was interviewed on Fox News, where he said he supported the president’s efforts to bring the troops home “as soon as we can” and “as safely as we can,” adding we need to “fight them here rather than fight them there.”
No date was set for that drawdown, with Barrasso saying he supported maintaining a presence there for as long as it took to ensure IS did not reform in the region. However, he expressed reason to be optimistic, citing in that interview figures presented by the commander of CENTCOM that the Islamic State group’s physical command of the region had been almost completely eliminated under the Trump administration.
However, the threat of a resurgence of the terrorist group — or a similar one — in the region is still very real, former CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph Votel told members of the House Armed Services Committee last month, presenting a stark contrast to the attitude of a president who has largely maintained that IS has been defeated.
This has been the position of military leaders since the beginning. In February, Votel told members of Congress that while the U.S. partnerships in the region with the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi security forces was “instrumental” in these gains against IS, it was important to understand that even though territory had been reclaimed, “the fight against ISIS and violent extremists is not over” — a stance maintained by numerous U.S. officials and members of Congress like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who expressed her disagreement with the president’s position in December.
Barrasso — who declared “mission accomplished” in an interview on Fox News after Trump’s initial announcement in December — has maintained the United States should keep up a presence of troops in the region. However, the benchmarks he would accept for complete withdrawal are uncertain.
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On Wednesday, Barrasso questioned Pompeo on whether he could share how the administration had shifted in terms of its strategy in recent months to deal with insurgents and rid the region of any “additional violent extremism” that could potentially harm the United States.
The plan offered by the Secretary of State, however, was vague, saying that his department was working to “see if there are ways we could get the global community to underwrite stabilization and reconstruction efforts” to tamp down on future flare-ups of terror in western Iraq, which has been a hotbed of activity in the region.
“The Iraqi government is in support of this,” Pompeo said. “The Iraqi security forces, our military works closely with them to build out security institutions, so that the risk of the next variant of Sunni extremism — Sunni terrorism — in the region doesn’t march on Baghdad again.”
Policy in the Middle East from the Trump Administration has often been contradictory in the past few months, with increasingly apparent differences between Pompeo and the president over troop drawdowns. Notably, in a fact-challenged January speech in Cairo, Pompeo bashed the Obama administration for their strategy in defeating IS, saying “that when America retreats, chaos often follows.”
The following month, as U.S. troops began to withdraw, allies expressed they would not be willing to stay in the region — making troop withdrawal seem easier said than done — and despite reports to the contrary, troop drawdowns were continuing into late last month to what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called a “residual presence.”
However lacking in specifics Pompeo’s response was Wednesday, Barrasso expressed satisfaction with his answer in a statement on Wednesday, telling the Star-Tribune much of what he’s said before: that the caliphate has been defeated and that the United States should maintain its commitment to the region.
How much of a commitment, however, was still unclear.
“While ISIS no longer controls territory in Syria, Sec. Pompeo and the Trump administration understand the conflict is not over,” Barrasso said. “The U.S. intelligence community reports that ISIS still commands the support of thousands of ISIS fighters across Syria and Iraq. It is critical that we focus on ensuring ISIS is not able to regenerate and pose a threat to American security.”