On March 13, General Joseph Votel briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee on the status of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) partnerships in the Gulf, Levant and fight against ISIS. Votel testified that that the Counter-ISIS Campaign is on track to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. "We will defeat ISIS militarily; however, a lasting defeat of this enemy will not be achieved unless similar progress is made on the political front," Votel said. "Instability all but guarantees a resurgence of ISIS or the emergence of other terrorist groups seeking to exploit conditions to advance their own aims," he added. The following are excerpts from his prepared statement on ISIS, al Qaeda and regional partnerships in countering violent extremist organizations. 



The turbulence across the region reflects a number of contributing factors or “drivers of instability,” including ethnic and sectarian hostilities between Shia and Sunnis, and Arabs and Persians; economic uncertainty and sustained low oil prices that severely strain energy-based economies across the region, contributing to reduced government services and weakened prospects for economic growth; a disproportionately large youth population facing increasing poverty and unemployment, which may make them susceptible to unrest, radical ideologies, and VEO recruitment; expanding ungoverned or under-governed spaces, exploited by VEOs; civil wars, which are “engines of instability” all by themselves; worsening humanitarian crises, contributing to growing refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) populations; and, competition among outside actors, including Russia and China, seeking to promote their interests and supplant U.S. influence in the region. While we must take the necessary actions to counter immediate threats, such as ISIS in Iraq and Syria, we also need to find ways to address these and other root causes of instability if we hope to achieve lasting positive effects in that part of the world. This cannot be accomplished solely through military means. 

The current evolving security environment in the Central Region is further complicated by the fact that most challenges transcend borders; they are trans-regional (cutting across multiple combatant commands (CCMD)), all-domain (land, sea, air, space, cyberspace), and multifunctional (e.g., conventional, special operations, ballistic missile defense, cyber). Of note, the Middle East remains the global epicenter for terrorism and violent Islamist extremism. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s 2016 Global Terrorism Index, the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) AOR accounted for 78% of all terrorism incidents worldwide, and the turmoil stretches across CCMD seams into Africa, Europe, South Asia, and beyond.

The security environment is further challenged by the emergence of a “virtual caliphate” and increased access and activity in the cyber domain. Ready access to the Internet, social media, and other messaging platforms has enabled a new generation of extremists to spread their radical Islamist views, incite widespread violence, and recruit new followers to their cause. As we have seen with the ongoing campaign to defeat ISIS, diminishment of the physical organization does not equate to the dismantlement of their virtual presence. To the contrary, terrorist organizations’ activities in cyberspace enable them to remain relevant despite setbacks on the battlefield, while reaching out to direct, enable, and/or inspire audiences well beyond the region’s geographic borders. Countering the “virtual caliphate” will require a concerted ‘whole 5 of government’ effort led by the people of the region. We can support our partners’ activities, but their voices and influence will be required to achieve enduring positive results.


U.S. Central Command Priorities

Disrupt and Counter Violent Extremist Organizations and their Networks – We must protect our Homeland from terrorist threats that emanate from the Central Region. We will accomplish this by degrading and defeating VEOs and their networks, including ISIS and al Qaeda and their associated forces, and by preventing the further spread of sectarian-fueled conflict and VEOs.

We continue to support the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Syrian Democratic Forces in their efforts to counter ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Also, in recent months we supported successful United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led operations in Yemen against the al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In terms of future opportunities, we need 12 to find ways to increase information sharing with key partners, like the UAE, to further enable their efforts. Enhanced information sharing with regional partners can also advance efforts against ISIS and other terrorist facilitation networks. We should pursue increasing our support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which have demonstrated tremendous return on investment in recent years. The need for improved communication between and among elements, particularly regarding common regional disputes (e.g., Sunni-Shia tensions, Kurdish expansionism) also presents opportunities and should be pursued by relevant elements of the U.S. Government (USG).


Key Focus Areas

Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (Iraq and Syria). The Counter-ISIS (C-ISIS) Campaign has entered its third year and we are on track with the military plan to defeat the terrorist organization in Iraq and Syria. Our “by, with, and through” approach and operational level simultaneity strategy are working, and our partner forces continue to build momentum across the battlespace as we pressure the enemy on multiple fronts and across all domains. Together we are forcing the enemy to deal with multiple simultaneous dilemmas (e.g., ground operations, airstrikes, cyber activities, information operations, and discrete interdictions of resource flows). This is putting increased pressure on their operations and command and control capability while stretching their limited resources.

The strength of the C-ISIS Campaign is the C-ISIS Coalition consisting of all branches of service and our Interagency and international partners, and the many contributions they willingly make to the fight against our common enemy—“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Without the support of the Coalition, our “by, with, and through” approach would not be doable.

Our stand-off fires, including Coalition air and artillery, remain another lynchpin of the CISIS Campaign. Improved intelligence has enabled the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) to increase the number of deliberate strikes conducted in recent months, targeting ISIS’s infrastructure, oil revenue sources, etc. Over the past year, the Coalition’s precision effects campaign has removed dozens more ISIS senior leaders from the battlefield, attrited large portions of the organization’s forces, further disrupted its command and control capability, and greatly degraded its pool of resources and access to replacements and personnel reinforcements. As the campaign progresses, and as ISIS shifts actions and behaves increasingly like a terrorist organization, hiding amongst civilians as a force protection measure, we will continue to make the necessary adjustments to our air operations. We want to target the enemy effectively, while also ensuring that we minimize collateral damage. International law requires it; and, when America’s sons and daughters go to war, they go with our values. Thus, it is imperative that when we conduct operations we do so in such a way that we limit the loss of innocent lives.

Over the past year, ISIS lost a significant amount of capability and large swaths of territory. The Iraqis are now in control of eastern Mosul, although clearing operations continue in several areas. In Syria, operations are ongoing in three key geographic areas—Raqqa, Manbij, and al 15 Bab; it remains a very complex fight given multiple simultaneous activities and the management of partners and battlefield effects. In Iraq, in the coming weeks and months we will continue to support the Iraqi Security Forces as they complete the seizure of western Mosul. After Mosul operations are complete, we expect the Government of Iraq to prioritize military operations to recapture Tal Afar, Sinjar, and Hawija, and to secure the border in order to diminish ISIS’ freedom of movement and ability to target major population centers. In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces have almost completed the isolation phase of Raqqa operations and will, in the coming months, begin operations to seize Raqqa, dismantling a key node in ISIS’ external operations network. Additionally, we would look to continue our security operations along the Jordanian border to prevent re-infiltration of ISIS remnants.

The cumulative effect of operations in Iraq and Syria has cut off key lines of communication for ISIS, while restricting their ability to bring in additional fighters and curbing their flow of financial resources. The terrorist organization is struggling financially and is experiencing low morale in its ranks and steady leadership attrition due to coalition airstrikes. There has also been a nearly 75 percent decline in ISIS’s media and propaganda as compared to a year ago.

Our efforts, in conjunction with our interagency and international partners’ efforts, to stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters – both into Syria and Iraq and also those attempting to return to their countries of origin – continue to bear fruit. The U.S. and Coalition member nations are highly concerned about the threat these experienced fighters present to our respective homelands. We have made considerable progress identifying and targeting fighters and insurgent networks, principally through our Joint and Interagency targeting processes, and this will remain a priority.

These processes will also help to combat the evolving hybrid threat (conventional and irregular warfare). U.S. Special Operations Command has been designated lead for external operations (EXOPs) for the U.S. military efforts and this has contributed greatly to organizing the broader efforts against this threat. Whole of government efforts and collaboration with partners have also played a key role in stemming the flow of foreign terrorist fighters (FTF). Spurred by the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2178 in September 2014, more than 60 nations have enacted laws to restrict FTF travel. The U.S. now collaborates through information-sharing agreements with 59 international partners to identify and track travel of suspected terrorists in real time.

While we continue to make great strides towards countering ISIS trans-regionally, we recognize that we are dealing with a highly adaptive enemy. In particular, ISIS’ use of chemical weapons and its evolving application of available off-the-shelf technologies that include unmanned aerial systems now used for both observation and to achieve lethal effects, poses a growing threat. For example, ISIS has reportedly used chemicals, including sulfur mustard and toxic industrial chemicals, in attacks more than 50 times in Iraq and Syria since 2014. Although the threat of chemical weapons has not slowed the Counter-ISIS Campaign, ISIS could further develop its chemical weapons capability. We are committed to working with partners to locate, secure, render harmless, eliminate or destroy any chemical and biological weapon materials found during the course of operations in Iraq and Syria, and to effectively remove this threat from our troops and civilian populations.

We will defeat ISIS militarily; however, a lasting defeat of this enemy will not be achieved unless similar progress is made on the political front. Instability all but guarantees a resurgence of ISIS or the emergence of other terrorist groups seeking to exploit conditions to advance their own aims. We remain fully committed to the “whole of government” approach and continue to ensure our actions are synchronized with and supportive of the efforts of our partners across the Interagency and the International Community.

Turkey remains an important NATO ally and Counter-ISIS Coalition member that supports the campaign through its operations and by providing access, basing, and overflight permissions. Some Turkish activities and rhetoric, however, have the potential to impact campaign momentum. Turkey’s actions in northern Iraq continue to strain relations between the GoI and the KRG, which serves to further complicate the C-ISIS Campaign. Likewise, in Syria, Turkey has helped clear ISIS from its border, but Turkish-backed forces have also clashed with the Syrian Democratic Forces near Manbij and al Bab and we continue efforts to resolve tensions.

We continue to see Iranian malign influence across Iraq and Syria. While they currently are focused on countering ISIS in Iraq, we remain concerned about Iran’s efforts to prop up the Syrian regime against the opposition and its desire to exploit Shia population centers to increase their malign influence, not just in Syria, but also in Arab states across the region. This supports their long-term aspiration to achieve regional hegemony. Moreover, we are watching closely for indications and warnings of decreasing Iranian concern regarding the threat posed by ISIS, leading to a potential shift to targeting U.S. and coalition personnel and infrastructure in an effort to influence a potential long-term U.S. security presence.

The military campaign plan to defeat ISIS is on track in both Iraq and Syria. The coalition’s “by, with and through” approach is proving effective. Recognizing that ISIS will be defeated militarily, we want to ensure that we have an enduring posture in the region to support and enable partners’ efforts to preserve security and stability. Iraq remains an anchor in the region and we would be wise to continue to support their efforts going forward. We have a willing partner in Iraq and Prime Minister al-Abadi has clearly articulated a desire for continued U.S. support post-ISIS. We are working with the GoI to finalize a Five-Year Plan to ensure enhanced cooperation. This presents an opportunity to preserve gains achieved to date, while strengthening key relationships and countering malign influence in the region.

Yemen. Yemen remains a critically unstable state engrossed in a civil war that has produced a significant humanitarian crisis and growing instability ripe for exploitation by VEOs, most notably al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the ISIS affiliate, IS-Yemen. The lack of a comprehensive peace agreement that leads to a durable resolution of the conflict under a unified Yemeni government further contributes to continued uncertainty in the country.

The civil war between the Republic of Yemen Government (RoYG) and the alliance of Former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh- and Huthis has entered its third year with little progress made towards achieving an enduring resolution despite concerted efforts by the United Nations, the broader International Community, and regional stakeholders. While the United States is not directly involved in the civil war, we are providing limited assistance to the Kingdom of 30 Saudi Arabia (KSA)-led coalition in an effort to help protect their territorial integrity and sovereign borders. Huthi forces have seized and attacked military border outposts inside KSA territory and continue to occupy Saudi lands. Ballistic missile attacks launched from Yemen have struck deep into the country causing casualties and potentially threatening the Islamic holy sites in Mecca. We will continue to work to resolve the conflict as an ending to the war through a comprehensive political agreement provides the surest security of Saudi’s Arabia’s border and territorial integrity , enables us to conduct counter-terrorism operations, allows the population to receive food and medicine, and blocks Iranian malign activities. Until the war is over, we will assist Saudi Arabia in its efforts to defend against these attacks and restore the territorial integrity of their country.

Our primary focus in Yemen remains protecting the U.S. homeland from threats posed by VEOs operating within Yemen’s ungoverned spaces, while ensuring freedom of navigation and commerce through the southern Red Sea and the Bab al Mandeb (BAM) Strait. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has indicated clear desire and ability to conduct attacks on the U.S. Homeland. Ongoing U.S. unilateral counter-terrorism operations and determined efforts by UAE in leading RoYG and Yemeni tribal forces, as demonstrated during the Mukalla offensive in April 2016, have degraded and disrupted AQAP’s operational networks and reduced their access to sources of financial support. Despite the complexity of the environment, our efforts aimed at degrading AQAP remain critical to protecting our national security interests in the region and must continue.

Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism. The Central Region remains the global epicenter for terrorism and violent Islamist extremism and the resulting turmoil continues to bleed across geographic combatant command “seams.” Terrorism and violent extremism represent trans-regional threats, where malign actors seek to exploit ungoverned and under-governed spaces and vulnerable, disenfranchised populations worldwide.

One aspect of this threat that makes it particularly challenging is the terrorists’ and VEOs’ ability to operate across multiple domains and in both physical and virtual spaces. Today, the unprecedented global access achieved through the use of the Internet and various social media platforms enables terrorist and violent extremist groups to promulgate their radicalized ideologies while reaching a vast pool of potential recruits, many willing to conduct lone wolfstyle attacks on behalf of these groups. Also, as we have seen with ISIS, the ability of violent extremist groups to operate effectively in the virtual battlespace, makes them more challenging to defeat due to the nature of that domain. As we degrade their physical capability, groups often shift focus to the virtual battlespace while their forces consolidate and regroup. We must continue to identify attributable and non-attributable methods and techniques for combatting groups in the virtual domain.

We must also find ways to address the drivers of instability that create the conditions that allow these groups to flourish. The root causes of instability must be dealt with if we hope to achieve a lasting defeat of terrorist and violent extremist groups operating in the USCENTCOM AOR. The people of the region must lead this effort; we cannot do it for them. However, we can and will continue to support and promote their efforts wherever possible.

We cannot allow terrorist groups and violent extremist organizations to operate uncontested, enabling them to grow stronger and expand their global reach. By working together with our Interagency Partners and the International Community, operating from multiple strategic platforms around the globe and across all domains, we will reduce the gaps and “seams” exploited by these groups and better protect our interests against this common threat. 


Our Partner Nations in the Central Region

The Gulf States – The Gulf States are among our best partners in the region. The Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) willingness to provide basing and access for U.S. forces is crucial to our ability to operate militarily in the USCENTCOM AOR. The GCC countries provide critical nodes for achieving operational objectives and continued success against ISIS. Their troops and aircraft continue to play a key role in the ongoing fight against this terrorist organization. At leader-level summits in 2015 and 2015, the GCC countries committed to pursue collective defense initiatives, including joint counter-terrorism and ballistic missile defense; however, progress towards those ends has been relatively slow.

Bahrain. The Bahrainis have actively supported coalition operations against ISIS in Syria since the start of the C-ISIS Campaign in September 2014, primarily by allowing us continued use and access to these facilities. They also continue to support Saudi-led operations in Yemen.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Having actively supported the fight against ISIS in the early stages of the campaign, KSA shifted its priority of effort to Yemen in 2015 where it leads the coalition against the Saleh- and Iranian-backed Huthis, who continue to pose a threat to Yemen’s internal stability, security in KSA’s southern border region, and the flow of commerce through the Bab al Mandeb Strait. The Saudis also are concerned about the threat posed by VEOs operating in Yemen, including the al Qaeda affiliate, AQAP, and the ISIS affiliate, IS-Y.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of our most steadfast and capable partners in the USCENTCOM AOR. While their primary focus has since shifted to support the ongoing KSA-led military campaign in Yemen, UAE continues to provide support to several of the C-ISIS Coalition’s key lines of effort, including counter-messaging, counter-financing, and stemming the flow of foreign fighters. In Yemen, the UAE serves as the leading ground element in ongoing operations against the Salehand Iranian-backed Huthis. The Emirates are also supporting our efforts to counter the al Qaeda affiliate, AQAP. In April, using local fighters and tribal militias, the Emirates played a critical role in liberating Mukalla, driving AQAP elements out of the port city and thereby denying them a key source of revenue.

The Levant – The Levant represents the epicenter of ethno-sectarian tension and conflict in the USCENTCOM AOR. Partner nations in this sub-region continue to struggle with the impacts of 39 the fight against ISIS, as well as the ongoing civil war in Syria, which is an “engine of instability” in and of itself.

Egypt remains a stalwart partner in pursuit of shared Middle East policy objectives that include counter-terrorism, counter-violent extremism, and improved regional stability. Of particular concern is the threat posed by the ISIS affiliate, IS-Sinai which conducts frequent attacks against the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) and security services. While the EAF has managed to contain violence in the Sinai Peninsula without a comprehensive strategy to defeat IS-Sinai, we have a vested interest in helping them to effectively address this threat to ensure that the Sinai does not become a safe haven for extremist elements, including by providing additional bilateral military and security training. Egypt is further challenged by a weak economy and widespread unemployment or under-employment, as well as an aggressive approach to countering internal threats which makes its population highly susceptible to radicalization by extremist elements. … In the coming months, we will continue to work closely with the EAF to further enhance their counter-terrorism capabilities and improve the security of their borders through continued engagement and our robust assistance and security cooperation programs.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) and the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) continue to make key contributions in support of the Counter-ISIS Campaign. With U.S. and coalition assistance, the JAF have fortified Jordan’s borders with Iraq and Syria, while enabling the International Community’s ongoing efforts to address the burgeoning humanitarian crisis manifesting inside of Jordan (~650,000 refugees) and in two camps located along the border in southern Syria (~55,000-65,000 IDPs) . It is imperative that we remain actively engaged with our Jordanian partners. Jordan provides a much-needed moderate Islamic voice in the region and is a trusted intermediary in efforts to advance progress between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Lebanon remains a key partner in our efforts to counter violent extremism in the Central Region, and their ground forces offer one of the greatest returns on investment in the region. They are routinely countering groups that include ISIS and Al Nusra Front, denying them freedom of movement, and strengthening the country’s border defenses with our continued support. U.S. security assistance to Lebanon has enhanced the Lebanese Armed Forces’ (LAF) ability to counter malign influences and terrorist elements operating within the country. A strong and capable LAF acts as a counterweight to the militant arm of Lebanese Hezbollah (LH), while diminishing LH’s claim as the sole “resistance” in Lebanon


Required Programs, Capabilities and Resources

Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems (C-UAS). The enemy Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) threat and employment in the USCENTCOM AOR is rapidly evolving. Numerous non-state actors including ISIS, al Qaida, Taliban, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Fatah al-Sham are using both commercial-off-the-shelf and military drones to conduct operations against U.S. and coalition forces. This threat has evolved from reconnaissance and surveillance missions to weaponized drone attacks resulting in battlefield casualties. State actors continue to increase the sophistication of their UAS with all countries in the USCENTCOM AOR utilizing various classes of UAS for operations. Given the evolving threat, the need for an effective CounterUAS capability that can defeat all classes of UAS remains a top priority. To address this problem, USCENTCOM is working with various Defense agencies and Industry through the Joint Urgent Operational Need (JUON) process to develop and acquire an effective system to employ against UAS. The ability to rapidly respond to this emerging threat is critical to mission success and requires increased funding to promote innovative solutions with expedited testing and rapid acquisition.


Joint Interagency Partners

Global Engagement Center – The best way to defeat an idea is to present a better, more appealing idea to vulnerable and undecided audiences. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) effectively coordinates, integrates, and synchronizes messaging to foreign audiences designed to undermine the disinformation espoused by violent extremist groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda, while offering positive alternatives. The Center is focused on empowering and enabling partners, governmental and non-governmental, who are able to speak out against these groups and provide an alternative to ISIS’s nihilist vision. To that end, the Center offers services ranging from planning thematic social media campaigns to providing factual information that counters disinformation to building capacity for third parties to effectively utilize social media to research and evaluation.


Required Authorities and Appropriations

Iraq Train & Equip Fund (ITEF). Iraq’s ability to defeat ISIS requires professionalizing and building the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), including military or other security forces associated with the Government of Iraq, such as Kurdish and tribal security forces or other local forces with a national security mission. Most notably, the ongoing Coalition Military Campaign to defeat ISIS relies on indigenous Iraqi Security Forces to conduct ground operations against the enemy and liberate ISIS controlled territory. They have risen to the task and are making progress in this ongoing endeavor. While the initial training and equipping of the ISF focused heavily on developing Iraqi Army (IA) Brigades to conduct offensive operations, future efforts will shift to sustainment of combat capability and hold forces to ensure that liberated areas remain under the control of the GoI and that these forces are able to counter remaining ISIS pockets and any other VEOs which may emerge and attempt to fill the void created by the defeat of ISIS. These hold forces will be a combination of local tribal fighters and police forces.

Syria Train & Equip Program. Protecting the United States from terrorists operating in Syria and setting the ultimate conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in that country will require the continued training and equipping of Vetted Syria Opposition (VSO) forces. Additional recruitment, retention, resupply, and support are central to our strategy to defeat ISIS in Syria. Our revised training approach is proving successful, improving the effectiveness and lethality of the force on path to a projected strength of up to 35,000 by the end of fiscal year 2017 and growing to 40,000 in 2018. Procurement and manufacturing lead times for non-standard weapons and ammunition and delivery from various foreign vendors complicates the already complex train and equip mission, so we appreciate as much flexibility as possible in authorizing and appropriating funds for this effort. The SDF and VSOs continues to advance in defeating ISIS and holding and defending liberated areas, while also assisting local authorities in providing humanitarian and security assistance to the populace.

Coalition Support. This authority remains critical to our strategic approach to Coalition operations, including, but not limited to, the ongoing military campaign to defeat 61 the terrorist organization, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and our transition in Afghanistan.

Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP). Going forward, we want to ensure commanders engaged in the Counter-ISIS missions can provide immediate, but limited, small scale humanitarian assistance to ISIS liberated areas, until national and international relief agencies can provide that support. Our responsiveness is critical to quickly stabilizing those areas in order to begin the holding phase of the campaign and to counter ISIS messaging.


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