In an unusual move for a sitting senator, John McCain (R-AZ) secretly traveled to northern Syria last weekend to speak with American military officials and Kurdish fighters at the forefront of the push to drive Islamic State out of their de facto capital of Raqqa. The short visit came in the middle of a regional trip that took McCain from Saudi Arabia to Turkey, where he discussed evolving plans to counter the Islamic State in the Middle East. Per the Wall Street Journal:
U.S. officials familiar with Mr. McCain’s trip said that the senator traveled to Kobani, the Syrian town on the Turkey border controlled by Kurdish forces since 2012.
In a statement, Mr. McCain’s office confirmed that a trip took place, saying the senator “traveled to northern Syria last week to visit U.S. forces deployed there and to discuss the counter-ISIL campaign and ongoing operations to retake Raqqa.”
Mr. McCain is believed to be the first U.S. lawmaker to travel to the Kurdish-controlled area of northeastern Syria since it became a hub for American special-operations forces who are aiding local forces in the fight against Islamic State.
Of course, this trip came just a couple of weeks after Trump issued a Presidential Memorandum giving his new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, 30 days to draw up a military plan to “defeat ISIS” declaring definitely that “it is the policy of the United States that ISIS be defeated.”
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is not the only threat from radical Islamic terrorism that the United States faces, but it is among the most vicious and aggressive. It is also attempting to create its own state, which ISIS claims as a “caliphate.” But there can be no accommodation or negotiation with it. For those reasons I am directing my Administration to develop a comprehensive plan to defeat ISIS.
Sec. 1. Policy. It is the policy of the United States that ISIS be defeated.
Sec. 2. Policy Coordination. Policy coordination, guidance, dispute resolution, and periodic in-progress reviews for the functions and programs described and assigned in this memorandum shall be provided through the interagency process established in National Security Presidential Memorandum – 2 of January 28, 2017 (Organization of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council), or any successor.
(i) Development of a new plan to defeat ISIS (the Plan) shall commence immediately.
(ii) Within 30 days, a preliminary draft of the Plan to defeat ISIS shall be submitted to the President by the Secretary of Defense.
(iii) The Plan shall include:
(A) a comprehensive strategy and plans for the defeat of ISIS;
(B) recommended changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS;
(C) public diplomacy, information operations, and cyber strategies to isolate and delegitimize ISIS and its radical Islamist ideology;
(D) identification of new coalition partners in the fight against ISIS and policies to empower coalition partners to fight ISIS and its affiliates;
(E) mechanisms to cut off or seize ISIS’s financial support, including financial transfers, money laundering, oil revenue, human trafficking, sales of looted art and historical artifacts, and other revenue sources; and
(F) a detailed strategy to robustly fund the Plan.
After traveling to Syria, McCain also met with Turkish President Erdogan who is pushing the Trump administration to sideline the Kurdish fighters that U.S. military leaders view as a vital ally in the fight against Islamic State.
As we previously noted, Trump has also supported plans to create safe zones in Syria for civilians fleeing the conflict there. Such safe zones could provide an alternative to admitting refugees to the U.S., according to Trump, but would also force greater US military deployment to the region.
According to the WSJ, the safe-zone proposal represents a significant policy reversal from the administration of Barack Obama, who long resisted pressure for such an approach from Congress and U.S. allies in the Middle East because he believed it would draw the U.S. too deeply into another war.
Establishing safe zones in Syria would mark an escalation in America’s military involvement there. In addition to the initial military buildup that likely would be needed to create the zones, ground troops and additional air power will be needed to protect them, military officials have said. Such zones would also put U.S.-allied forces in dangerous proximity to foreign troops, including forces from Russia and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As a reminder, gas-rich Qatar works alongside Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Western nations to back Syrian rebels in a military aid program overseen by the CIA that provides moderate groups with arms and training. A natgas pipeline project connecting Qatar to Europe has been often cited as the main reason for the relentless attempts to destabilize and overthrow the Assad regime, and to impose a puppet regime that would be aggreable to the project, one which would significantly reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian gas exports.