The Situation in Iraq and Syria

September 25, 2014

Dear Friend,

I am writing to update you on the situation in Iraq and Syria and the threat posed by the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” or ISIL.

As you know, violence in Iraq and Syria has escalated significantly over the last few months. ISIL, which is a terrorist group active in those two countries, is responsible for this violence as part of a campaign to create a self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate in the region. Unfortunately, Iraqi Security Forces initially faltered in the face of ISIL combatants, allowing many towns and military bases to fall under the group’s control. In Syria, ISIL has gained territory by taking advantage of the chaotic civil war between Syrian rebels and the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Initially, the United States responded to the ISIL threat by launching several military and humanitarian missions to protect American personnel, innocent civilians and religious minorities under siege. More recently, President Obama has ordered air strikes against ISIL targets in both Iraq and Syria and those strikes have been carried out in conjunction with a number of our Arab allies in the region. I agree with the President’s strategy of putting together a broad and diverse coalition of international partners to meet the ISIL threat.

From the first launch of air strikes, the President notified Congress of his actions pursuant to the War Powers Act. However, that authority is time limited and Congress must debate whether to grant the President authority for the continued use of military force.

Before Congress adjourned last week, the President requested authorization to provide training and equipment to vetted, moderate elements of the Syrian rebel forces. He did so recognizing that, while air strikes and limited special operations can significantly degrade ISIL’s capacity in the region, the only way to permanently displace ISIL from Iraq and Syria is to have partners on the ground that can consolidate and hold territory. While the Iraqi Security Forces represent such a partner in Iraq, there is currently no such counterpart in Syria and the President made a strong case that we must explore that potential as soon as possible.

I voted to provide the President with the authority to begin training and equipping Syrian rebels, provided that they have been properly vetted as moderate and reliable. I know how difficult that vetting may be, but believe it is worth the effort given how serious the ISIL threat has become.

I also know that, after two protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, our nation is war weary and there is an understandable reluctance to recommit American combat troops into the region. If we can establish credible partners on the ground, it will reduce the pressure to introduce American forces and enable President Obama to maintain his pledge of “no boots on the ground” in Iraq and Syria. 

That said, the United States must be clear-eyed as it embarks upon this training and equipping mission. One reason that I was willing to support the President’s request is that the authorization being granted is time limited (expiring in December) and the authorized training will not occur in the chaotic combat zone of Syria. Instead, Syrian rebel forces will be trained at facilities in Saudi Arabia – reducing the danger to American personnel and the potential for incidents that would deepen U.S. involvement. Later this year, Congress will consider whether to extend this training operation and what overall role U.S. personnel and resources should play in addressing the threat that ISIL poses to our country and the global community.

I believe the threat from ISIL is real and that the United States and the international community have a deep stake in addressing it. I also know that, ultimately, the only viable solution is the establishment of functional and inclusive governments in the region, which is the responsibility of the people who live there. As Congress debates the President’s strategy going forward, I look forward to receiving your valuable input. 


Congressman John P. Sarbanes
Maryland's Third Congressional District