Over the past five years we have seen the rapid deterioration of peace and security in Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the Middle East. President Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq, and his consistent inaction in Syria, have destabilized the region and contributed to the rise of ISIL (IS, ISIS or Daesh) – a more ambitious, more violent, and more radical offshoot of al-Qaeda.

ISIL has now created a terrorist safe haven in Iraq and Syria that has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, including hundreds from Western Europe and the United States.

This poses a direct risk to U.S. national security and threatens to erase the gains in Iraq that nearly 4,500 brave young Americans have given their lives to achieve.

In the President’s State of the Union address he severely and detrimentally downplayed the threat from ISIL, arguing that it does “not threaten our national existence.” But as we’ve seen in Paris and San Bernardino, ISIL’s threat to U.S. national security interests and our homeland is real, direct, and growing.

While our current actions may degrade ISIL’s capabilities in Iraq and Syria over time, they cannot achieve the President’s goal of destroying ISIL as it continues to spread across the region.

To do so, more must be done.

  1. U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq should be expanded to 10,000 troops to assist the Iraqis through intelligence, target acquisition, and Special Forces support.
  2. On top of this, we should expand aid and military assistance to moderate Syrian rebels and to other coalition partners such as Jordan to help them fight back against ISIL.
  3. We must also find economic, cultural and religious means to motivate young people in the Middle East to reject violent extremism and prevent ISIL from attracting new recruits.
  4. We must also consider establishing safe zones or no-fly zones in Syria to protect civilians from airstrikes launched by the Syrian government.
  5. The reality is that we cannot defeat ISIL without forcing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave power and creating conditions on the ground for a negotiated end of the conflict and a political transition in Syria. Assad’s barbaric war on the Syrian people has created the conditions for ISIL to grow and gain strength for years, and this will continue as long as he remains in power.

To this end, the United States and the international community have negotiated a cessation of hostilities in Syria that many hope will ultimately lead to successful peace talks.

This cessation of hostilities took effect in late February, with Russia and the Syrian government agreeing to halt their air strikes and military operations in Syria. The temporary ceasefire, which excludes Coalition operations against ISIL, has also led to the withdrawal of some Russian armed forces from Syria. Yet, this agreement and the withdrawal of Russian troops signals President Vladimir Putin’s belief that the murderous Assad regime can now ensure its survival on its own, and it comes only after the Russians have helped create military facts on the ground that will ensure terms for a political settlement more favorable to their interests. The likely result is not successful peace talks, but instead continued conflict that will grind on as ISIL grows stronger and refugees flow to Europe and the United States.

While I remain hopeful that the cessation of hostilities and peace talks will be successful, we cannot rely on diplomacy alone in the fight against ISIL.

It is imperative that the President make it his top priority to develop a comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.

I am passionate about this issue and take my positions and responsibilities very seriously.

  U.S. Senator John McCain is a national hero and represents the state of Arizona in the Senate. He was a presidential hopeful in 2008, and is the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee