By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers voiced deep skepticism on Wednesday about President Barack Obama's handling of the war against Islamic State rebels in Iraq and Syria, charging that his response had been slow and "dithering" and warning the strategy did not match the threat.
Ambassador Brett McGurk, the deputy presidential envoy for countering Islamic State, told lawmakers the administration was making progress in the effort to destroy Islamic State, defeat al Qaeda and encourage the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But members in the Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee questioned the Obama strategy. "These aren't realistic plans that can truly destroy ISIL, can defeat al Nusra and defeat the Assad regime," Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said.
McGurk testified that U.S. efforts to train moderate Syrian opposition fighters were expected to begin in March and produce some 5,000 troops a year. Lawmakers questioned whether they could hold out that long.
"We haven't even begun the train-and-equip mission," Ros-Lehtinen said. "And we're about a year away from even standing that minimal force up, if ever at all."
Representative Ed Royce, the California Republican who chairs the panel, said he worried "about the dithering" that was slowing the administration's response.
He said as Islamic State captured "city by city by city," members of Congress warned about the threat. But from the administration there was "still no action, still discussions, still dithering," Royce said.
McGurk said the effort against Islamic State would be a "long-term, multi-year campaign" and he said the air strikes and other elements of the strategy had produced signs of progress.
"ISIL's offensive has been halted, its ability to mass and maneuver forces degraded, its leadership cells pressured or eliminated," McGurk said. He said Islamic State was losing more than 100 fighters a week in combat, including top commanders.
Representative Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, questioned the slow movement of weapons to Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
"I'm really concerned that the president's actions don't match the threat," he said.
Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the panel's top Democrat, voiced concern about Iran's role in the fight, noting it was partly responsible for the sectarian strife that led to the rise of Islamic State.
"We need to be very wary of Iran," Engel said. "It's not simply the enemy of my enemy is my friend. ... I think we need to be very, very careful not to stumble down that path."
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Richard Chang)