WASHINGTON (CN) - U.S. policy to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant needs a major course correction, experts told Congress on Wednesday, predicting that the region could otherwise further disintegrate.
"More than four years into the war in Syria, as the administration continues to fumble for a strategy - and I think that's apparent by all - the devastating effects of the war are starting to confront us in the form of a refugee crisis," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said, delivering the opening statement at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chairs.
More than 4 million refugees have fled Syria, with an additional 7.6 million displaced within Syria, according to
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The hearing on the U.S. role and strategy in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was the first in a new series examining the U.S. role in the Middle East. Panelists stressed an urgent need for more coherent U.S. military and diplomatic strategies in the region, and urged the U.S. to do more to address the growing refugee crisis.
"Syrians and Iraqis are worse off today than they were a year ago," said panelist Michael Bowers, senior director of strategic response and global emergencies at Mercy Corps.
U.S. humanitarian contributions so far are "a drop in the bucket" of growing humanitarian need, Bowers said. "To be frank, we're nearing a breaking point," he added. "The sheer number of people is staggering. Their needs are greater, and more desperate by the day, and there is still no end in sight."
Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, put part of the blame on regional actors - especially the gulf states.
Chiding their failure to prioritize the fight against ISIL, Katulis noted that Saudi Arabia diverted resources to Yemen just after the start of the U.S. bombing campaign.
He also cautioned against sending more U.S. arms to the region in the wake of the Iran nuclear agreement, and said the U.S. needs to first synchronize and integrate all aspects of its articulated strategy against ISIL. These efforts need to be coordinated with other security and diplomatic efforts in the region, Katulis added.
"Otherwise our efforts could end up accelerating the fragmentation happening in Iraq and Syria," he said.
Katulis also attributed part of the problem to a lack of capable and motivated ground forces in the region.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier on Wednesday, Gen. Loyd Austin III, the head of the United States Central Command, told the Senate that only four or five U.S. trained fighters remain engaged in the anti-ISIL campaign, despite the $500 million Defense Department program to train them.
This testimony came amid allegations that senior military officers manipulated reports about the progress of the fight against ISIL to paint a rosier picture. The New York Times reported
that the Pentagon's inspector general is investigating these claims.
In written testimony to the Foreign Relations committee, Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, said: "The opportunity to defeat it [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria in ways that collapse its global reputation and capabilities is fleeting."
She cautioned that the U.S. needs to also acknowledge and deal with other actors in the region - Iran and Jabhat al-Nusra, a group in Syria linked to al-Qaida - that she said drive the spread of sectarian war and instability in the region.
Though Kagan said she supports greater use of U.S. military capabilities, she advised against a large-scale reinvasion or large numbers of troops on the ground. More modest means should be used, she testified, adding that the U.S. needs a long-term strategy to defeat ISIS.
"Defeating ISIS requires using military force, diplomacy, and all the instruments of U.S. national power to break the organization's capability to fight, since the will of an apocalyptic enemy is not likely to break," Kagan's written testimony said.
Noting that the direction of U.S. policy right now is cloudy, Katulis urged the U.S. to carefully think through its next steps and examine the potential consequences of escalation.
"I don't think anyone has a clear idea right now," Katulis said in an interview after the hearing. "Right now the lean is toward more escalation, and I'm not certain that will contribute to stability."
As refugees continue to flee the region, Bowers speculated that the situation could worsen. The pressure on host countries in the region - especially Lebanon and Jordan - will likely continue, and millions more could become displaced, he said.
"Every worst-case scenario has come true that we've put together over the last four years of this conflict," Bowers said. "Four years ago I would not have thought we would see a disintegrated, failed state of Syria, and now it is. So essentially take that as an indicator of things to come."