WASHINGTON — One Cabinet members says the U.S. will be in Syria for a long time. Another Cabinet member says, not really.
Left in the middle to explain to Congress was Robert Karem, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.
Karem and Brig. Gen. Scott Benedict, the deputy director politco-military affairs, Middle East at the Pentagon, testified Wednesday on Capitol Hill to provide clarity on the U.S. policy vis-a-vis Syrian. Karem’s short explanation: U.S. troops in Syria are there to defeat ISIS but also could help put pressure on other parties to reach a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war.
“I would disaggregate overall U.S. policy objectives from our military activities,” Karem told the House committee. “Our presence in certain places can constrain Iran’s freedom of maneuver, it can empower our diplomats to put more pressure on Iran, but our purpose in being there and our military operations are not being conducted against Iran.”
Their appearance came two days after John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters this week, on two occasions, that the U.S. effort in Syria is not open-ended. Mattis said that the defeat of ISIS on the battlefield is not the end of effort, but that U.S. military and diplomatic support is critical to rebuild liberated areas of Syria and ensure local forces will be able to thwart any attempts by ISIS to return.
“Our role is to defeat ISIS,” Benedict told the committee. “Certainly being on the ground and creating a stabilized situation there limits the freedom of maneuver of anybody who has malign intentions. That includes Iranian proxies as well as violent extremists.”
The U.S. has roughly 2,500 troops in Syria, part of an international anti-ISIS coalition. It operates primarily in eastern Syria and northeast Syria. The Pentagon is operating in Syria based on an authorization to combat terrorist organizations.
Some in Congress are concerned that the U.S. mission is entering a slippery slope to a deeper involvement beyond fighting ISIS and other terrorists.
“We’re seeking clarity on President Trump’s Syria policy,” Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a committee member said, according to news reports. “My question to the Trump administration is this: “What is your strategy?”
The issue seems poised to loom for Congress. This week Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) added a provision in the Federal Aviation Administration bill to establish a Syria Study Group to review U.S. military and diplomatic strategy in that conflict.