I share the serious concerns regarding the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria, and the threat that ISIS poses to our nation. ISIS represents true evil and is the number one threat in the region to our allies and to the United States. Among other atrocities, ISIS publicly and systematically targets communities on the basis of their religious identities using a crusade of violence that includes executions, arbitrary detainment, forced displacement, torture, enslavement, rape, and other sexual violence. ISIS has also made clear its intent to plan and encourage attacks against Europe and the United States, and we have already seen its destructive power in places like San Bernardino and Paris.
Defeating this brutal terrorist organization must remain our focus – we would betray our core principles and responsibilities if we ignored it simply because of weariness here at home with military engagement overseas.
Ultimately, defeating ISIS requires a comprehensive strategy that I believe must include several key elements.
- The United States should help stand up an inclusive Iraqi fighting force capable of taking the fight to ISIS; continue airstrikes and special operations missions against key ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria; significantly ramp up our humanitarian assistance; and work with our allies and others in the region toward a political solution to end the Syrian civil war. We also need to devote significantly more resources to countering violent extremism both at home and abroad, and preventing the ability of groups like ISIS to recruit young people online.
- No part of this strategy requires a large-scale expansion of American ground troops in the Middle East, which experts and military leaders agree would further radicalize the conflict. Deploying American troops to Syria in the middle of a civil war inevitably risks drawing U.S. forces into direct combat with a proliferating number of armed groups and foreign militaries, a quagmire that could involve us for years to come.
- Limited military power is an essential part of a counter-ISIS strategy, but only to give space for the local political and economic reform that will ultimately stamp out this terrorist threat. We cannot defeat ISIS without the commitment of the local forces and populations that live next to them, and we cannot win this fight for them. But we can and must lead the international coalition to defeat ISIS and change the conditions that led to their rise in the first place.
- Accordingly, I strongly believe that Congress must debate and vote on an explicit authorization of the administration’s strategy in Iraq and Syria; the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in the days following the 9/11 attacks was never intended to authorize this new fight against a new enemy. I also believe that we must learn from our mistakes of the last 13 years, and avoid getting dragged into another open-ended ground war in the region. Any new authorization needs to make it crystal clear – to this administration and successive ones – that U.S. combat troops cannot be sent back into the Middle East as part of this conflict.
- But America must still play the leading role in bringing the Syrian civil war to an end. In Syria, Congress and the administration should remain focused on concerted diplomatic, political, and economic pressure to effectuate a ceasefire and negotiated political agreement with buy-in from all stakeholders. In May, 2015, I voted in favor of S.Res.173, a Senate Resolution supporting international diplomatic efforts to achieve a political transition and preserve the government institutions necessary to restore Syria’s stability. I am cautiously optimistic that a December 2015 United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing an international road map for peace talks between Assad and the opposition can eventually lead to a ceasefire and a peaceful political transition.
- I also believe the United States and the international community should do more to help the millions of innocent Syrians suffering at the hands of both Assad and ISIS. In 2014, I was an original cosponsor of S.Res.384, a Senate Resolution urging the international community to continue humanitarian support to Syrians affected by the conflict. To date, the United States has contributed over $4 billion in humanitarian assistance to help the victims of the Syrian crisis, including internally displaced individuals and refugees in neighboring countries seeking safety and stability.
- The United States has long been a leader in humanitarian assistance and refugee resettlement, and I strongly support U.S. plans to admit an increased number of Syrian refugees. After accepting around 2,000 refugees in 2015, the United States plans to admit close to 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. But, I believe we can and must do more, which is why I have cosponsored legislation to provide emergency funding for humanitarian relief and increased capacity for refugee admissions to the United States.
- In the wake of recent ISIS-related terror attacks, I share the belief that the United States should never allow someone to enter this country – from Syria, Iraq, or any other part of the world – who poses a threat to our nation’s security. That’s why I support the continued application of a robust security screening process to every refugee who applies for shelter in the United States. It’s important to note that refugees – those fleeing terror and torture – are subject to the most rigorous vetting and security screening processes of any traveler to the United States. Every refugee goes through a thorough, multi-step vetting process that usually takes 18-24 months. It is the most difficult way for people to enter our country. This process includes multiple security checks from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and U.S. agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and other intelligence agencies. Mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis, Syrian refugees go through yet additional forms of screening.
- It is equally important to note that the real gap in our immigration security matrix is within the program that allows 20 million people a year to travel to this country without a visa. To help ensure the safety of Connecticut families, I have been leading the fight to strengthen the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) by requiring more intelligence sharing with participating countries and enhanced security measures for millions of travelers entering the United States. As you may know, the VWP currently allows citizens from 38 countries to travel to the United States for a period of up to 90 days without visas. These visitors are not subject to the same rigorous methodology we use to screen other groups, like refugees, and they represent a much larger percentage of foreign visitors to the United States – roughly 20 million people each year compared to 2,000 Syrian refugees. Changes to this program will increase scrutiny over travelers from VWP countries so that terrorists attempting to enter this country can be detected and detained. On December 12, 2015, at my urging, Congress passed legislation to dramatically reform the VWP. The reforms will begin to close existing security gaps in the program by barring visa-free access for individuals who have traveled to certain countries since March 2011 or are dual nationals of those countries. Affected countries include Iraq, Syria, any country designated as a state sponsor of terrorism – currently Iran, Syria, and North Korea – or any other country designated by the Department of Homeland Security. The new legislation will also require everyone who participates in the VWP to have an electronic passport in order to allow the United States to more easily track individuals that enter our country. Every country that participates in the VWP will be required to increase information sharing with U.S. law enforcement in order to improve the accuracy of our No Fly List.