US Congress sounds alarm over unclear Syria policy

Lawmakers are creating a Syria Study Group that would recommend military and diplomatic strategy.
Sunday 24/06/2018
Filling the void. The US flag flutters on a military vehicle in Manbij countryside, on May 12. (Reuters)
Filling the void. The US flag flutters on a military vehicle in Manbij countryside, on May 12. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - While US President Donald Trump and Defence Secretary James Mattis contradict each other about a Syria strategy, members of the US Congress are growing impatient and are demanding answers from the Trump administration.

Frustration among Democrats and Republicans has been swelling since April when Trump said: “I want to bring our troops back home” from Syria but was contradicted three weeks later by Mattis, who said: “We are not withdrawing,” and vowed “increased operations” in Syria.

Trump’s comments sparked concern in Congress and prompted a committee to demand that the administration describe its intentions and submit an overdue report on US strategy in Syria. Lawmakers are creating a Syria Study Group that would recommend military and diplomatic strategy.

“We’re very concerned that we don’t have a strategy,” US Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, told The Arab Weekly. “We’ve ceded a lot of ground to Russia and Iran [in Syria] and that’s a major concern.”

At a hearing June 13 in the US House of Representatives, US Representative Bob Schneider, a Democrat from Illinois, told a US State Department official that he feared a US withdrawal from Syria would empower Iran.

“I do worry very much about Iran’s presence in the region but in particular in Syria as they are increasingly developing a permanent presence of their forces and indigenous missile manufacturing capability,” Schneider said. “If we are withdrawing from Syria, it is harder for us to have influence in the outcome in the long term.”

Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield provided little clarity when asked about the administration’s Syria policy. He said Trump wanted to “continue the ISIS [Islamic State] campaign and continue to solicit the greatest support possible from regional, local and international parties for the enduring, ongoing mission.”

Cardin, a senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said lawmakers were pushing Trump to request congressional authorisation to use force following the US-led missile strikes in April against suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities. The strikes came one year after a US-led missile attack on another Syrian chemical weapons facility.

The limited nature of the strikes reflects Trump’s reluctance to immerse the United States in the 7-year-old Syrian civil war and his desire to shift US spending from foreign affairs to domestic matters. At a news conference April 3, Trump indicated he thought the United States was nearly finished in Syria.

“As far as Syria is concerned, our primary mission in terms of that was getting rid of ISIS. We’ve almost completed that task, and we’ll be making a decision very quickly in coordination with others in the area as to what we’ll do,” Trump said.

Asked if he was inclined to bring the approximately 2,000 US troops home from Syria, Trump said: “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation.” Adding that the United States had spent $7 trillion in the Middle East since 2001, Trump said: “We get nothing — nothing — out of it… So it’s time. It’s time.”

At a Senate hearing April 26, Mattis said: “You’ll see a re-energised effort against the Middle Euphrates River Valley in the days ahead… We’re continuing the fight. We’re going to expand it and bring in more regional support.”

The US Senate Armed Services Committee lashed out at the apparent contradictions and wrote in a defence-spending bill for 2018-19: “The committee is deeply concerned by the lack of clarity and conflicting messages from administration officials related to the Middle East and, specifically, Syria.”

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from Maine on the committee, inserted into the bill a measure to create a Syria Study Group to formulate a US policy. “Syria has been entrenched in conflict for five years. It’s past time to develop a plan that keeps our forces safe and continues efforts to clear ISIS from Syria,” Shaheen said. “This independent review will help provide the information we need to achieve these critically important goals.”