Mattis seeks approval from Congress for IS fight

Richard Lardner
Associated Press

Washington — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told lawmakers Wednesday that Congress should approve a formal authorization for U.S. military forces to fight the Islamic State militants in Syria, but he wouldn’t say whether and when more American troops may be sent to the war-torn nation.

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, Mattis called the Islamic State group a “clear and present danger” and said he wonders why Congress hasn’t acted already. He said an authorization from Congress to fight the extremists would show resolve and the consent shouldn’t be constrained by time or geography.

“A firm statement by the U.S. Congress would hearten our allies as well as give our troops a sense of purpose,” Mattis said.

Congress in 2001 gave President George W. Bush approval to attack any countries or groups involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. The Trump administration, as the Obama administration did, relies on that nearly 16-year-old authority to send U.S. troops into combat against the Islamic State group.

Obama proposed a new authorization in February 2015, but the Republican-led Congress largely ignored it and lacked the votes to craft a new version.

Mattis declined to provide the panel with specifics about how the U.S. campaign in Syria may expand, noting that discussions are underway to coordinate the efforts of the 68-nation coalition fighting the Islamic State militants. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is hosting Iraq’s prime minister and top diplomats from the coalition partners in Washington.

While President Donald Trump has announced no changes to the U.S. approach, the Pentagon in recent months has incrementally increased its footprint in northern Syria, where it is backing a coalition of Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters closing in on the Islamic State group’s self-declared capital at Raqqa. Trump is reviewing options for accelerating the recapture of Raqqa, which includes proposals for more U.S. troops, greater firepower and tweaks in the existing strategy. There are roughly 1,000 U.S. forces in Syria.

The Trump administration is seeking $2 billion in additional military spending for 2017 to accelerate the defeat of IS, according to budget documents. Mattis said the extra money would allow the U.S. and its allies to “confront the enemy with an increased number of fights in various locations so they have cascading problems.”

As far as committing any additional American forces, Mattis said he would have “to see the specific military problem.”

“But I’m not at that point right now,” he said.

Mattis’ testimony before the panel marked his first appearance before a congressional committee since his January confirmation.