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McCollum Statement in Opposition to the McKeon Amendment to H.J. Res. 124

September 17, 2014
Statements For the Record

Mr. Speaker, yesterday, Defense Secretary Hagel stated, “We are at war with ISIL.”  He also said, “this will not be an easy or brief effort.”

The current debate on the McKeon amendment does not address the “war with ISIL,” but rather solely training, arming, and supporting Syrian fighters.  The CIA is already training and arming Syrian fighters in Jordan, without congressional approval. How well has that worked?  We are not discussing that as a body because this is a policy debate that has been rushed.  The Republican majority in the House is determined to adjourn on Friday so their Members can return home and campaign for re-election. 

Yes, Congress needs to pass a continuing resolution to keep the federal government funded and prevent another government shutdown before the start of the new federal fiscal year on October 1st.  But, a “must pass” continuing resolution should not be the legislative vehicle for sanctioning the training of Syrian fighters in what is certainly to be a long war against the Islamic State’s terrorist army.

Over and over during the debate on this amendment we have heard how ISIL is a threat to the United States, expanding its reach into Iraq and strengthening its hold in Syria, while committing brutal and widespread acts of extreme violence. All Members agree that ISIL has grown into a vicious terrorist army that must be stopped and destroyed.  Yet, this chamber’s response is to vote on the McKeon amendment to train and arm Syrian fighters, and then leave town for seven weeks?   

I have heard over and over again Republican colleagues condemning ISIL and then going on to disparage President Obama efforts.  Based on this rhetoric it appears that before this House can become fully engaged in authorizing a military campaign to defeat ISIL, campaigning against our President prior to Election Day comes first. 

Yes, the mid-term election will take place on November 4th and many of us are on the ballot.  But until then, we have an obligation to do our jobs which in this case is a matter of committing to U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria based on an authorization that is outdated and demands Congressional action. 

I want President Obama to conduct airstrikes against ISIL – in Iraq and in Syria if need be.  I want Iraqi forces trained and equipped so they are confident and competent to take the fight on the ground to remove ISIL from Iraq.  I want a broad coalition of nations sharing intelligence, working to stop the flow of foreign recruits into Syria, and cutting off the financing of ISIL.

All of this should be done based on an updated authorization approved by this Congress for the use of military force against ISIL.  I voted for the 2001 authorization following the attacks on September 11th and I opposed the 2002 authorization which took the U.S. into Iraq.  But today more than half of the Member in this House were not in Congress for those votes.  The war against ISIL is not the war against Saddam Hussein.  This Congress has an obligation to define the scope, duration, and oversight of what will require a significant and long-term use of military force and resources.

With regard to the McKeon amendment, I have serious misgivings about training and arming some thousands of Syrian fighters with the belief that they will defeat ISIL while they are also intent on removing the Assad regime from power.  The New York Times on September 11, 2014 (“U.S. Pins Hopes on Syrian Rebels With Loyalties All Over the Map”) said the plan to train Syrian rebels “leaves the United States dependent on a diverse group riven by infighting, with no shared leadership and with hard-line Islamists as its most effective fighters.”  This description of the fighting force at the foundation of our anti-ISIL policy leaves me profoundly disturbed.

The Government of Germany is training and arming the Kurdish pesh merga forces in Iraq, but refused to train the Syrian forces.  They are concerned that providing arms to the Syrian rebels could end up in the hands of ISIL.  According to Germany’s ambassador to the United States, “We can’t control the final destination of these arms.” 

Secretary Hagel is aware of this danger and assured Congress yesterday that, “We will monitor them (Syrian forces) closely to ensure that weapons do not fall into the hands of radical elements of the opposition, ISIL, the Syrian regime, or other extremist groups. There will always be risks in a program like this, but we believe the risks are justified.”

While I respect Secretary Hagel immensely, I must disagree with him.  The risks in this instance are significant and out weight the prospects of success.

The McKeon amendment’s concept of vetting focuses solely on ensuring that recruits are not known terrorists themselves.  That is hardly a standard of conduct the U.S. should be proud of.  No one should be naïve about this, there is no mention of human rights or international standards of conduct because these recruits will be sent back to a war in which they will likely be committing barbarous acts of violence.  And how is this is in the interest of U.S. national security?

Another issue that profoundly concerns me is the porous border between Syria and Turkey in which foreign fighters and recruits are allowed to pass freely.  A New York Times report on September 15, 2014 in an article entitled, “ISIS Draws a Steady Stream of Recruits From Turkey”, highlights this serious problem.

ISIL has grown into a force of between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters according to published CIA estimates and it appears their numbers will continue to grow, far outpacing the modest numbers to be trained by agreeing to this amendment.  Unless Turkey, our NATO ally, shuts off the flow of fighters and commits to preventing the stream of new recruits from crossing into Syria, ISIL will only grow stronger in numbers.

Yesterday, in testimony before a Senate committee, General Martin Dempsey said that if airstrikes were not effective against ISIL he would recommend to the President the deployment of U.S. troops on the ground.  Now, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Dempsey has an obligation to make recommendations that will allow U.S. policy goals to be achieved.  In this case that means the destruction of ISIL. 

We should all expect that there will be some U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq and quite possibly Syria.  Special operations forces, military trainers, and spotters to direct air strikes may all be required to enter the battle field at great risk. They need our support to achieve their missions. But a full commitment of U.S. troops on the ground to directly engage ISIL is unacceptable.  This fight needs to be won on the ground by Iraqis and the Arab allies who know the risk ISIL poses to the entire region. 

There is no reason why Congress cannot work with the administration, military leaders, and intelligence experts over the coming weeks to develop and approve the necessary authorization for the use of military force to demonstrate to the American people that we are united in this fight against ISIL and there are clear limits to our engagement in Iraq and Syria.

I want our Commander-in-Chief to have Congress’ full support for a strategy to destroy ISIL, but I will not write a blank check to any president.  Unfortunately, this amendment and the decision by Republican leadership to prioritize campaigning for re-election rather than passing a clear authorization to take the fight to ISIL should give the American people great concern about the priorities of this Congress.

Right now millions of people in Iraq and Syria are living under the oppressive, violent rule of ISIL.  It is in our national interest to join the fight to stop their reign of terror.  But we need real, credible allies with military forces willing to take on the fight, the fight on the ground.  This amendment does not require a commitment by any other allied nations, only desperate Syrians and U.S. taxpayers.  That is not enough to earn my support.

I yield back my time.