US ‘still in tough fight’ against ISIS

Some members of Congress expressed scepticism that there could be a diplomatic solution in Syria because of competing interests.
Sunday 07/10/2018
Unfinished business. A 2017 file picture shows a member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic  Forces (SDF) removing an Islamic State flag in the town of Tabqa. (AFP)
Unfinished business. A 2017 file picture shows a member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) removing an Islamic State flag in the town of Tabqa. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The United States has sharply reversed its policy in Syria, saying it will stay in the war-torn country as long as Iran is there and doubling the number of diplomats it has in Syria to press for a political resolution to the 7-year-old war.

The US policy marks a dramatic turnaround from US President Donald Trump’s vow in March to begin pulling US troops out of Syria “very soon” and “let other people take care of it.” The new resolve to stay in Syria also is an acknowledgment that, despite Trump’s boasts of having forced Islamic State (ISIS) fighters out of territory they held in Syria and Iraq, the jihadist group remains a threat.

“We are still in a tough fight,” US Defence Secretary James Mattis said. “Make no mistake about it: As ISIS has collapsed inward, in their own way, they have reinforced a centre as they’ve been forced into what is now less than 2% of their original territory that they held.”

US Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs Robert Karem told Congress on September 26 that “ISIS remains stronger now than its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq was when the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011.” Karem said ISIS “has begun its transition into an underground insurgency.”

The approximately 2,000 US military personnel in Syria will fight “to restrict ISIS” to promote a UN-led diplomatic solution to establish peace and stability in Syria, Mattis said.

“Our diplomats there on the ground have been doubled in number. As you see the military operations becoming less, you will see the diplomatic effort now able to take root,” Mattis said at a briefing in Paris with French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly.

Mattis’s comments were made days after James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria, said US troops and diplomats would stay in Syria until ISIS was defeated and until Iran-led forces were removed “from the entirety of Syria.”

“The president wants us in Syria until that and other conditions are met,” Jeffrey said.

Some members of Congress and Middle East experts expressed scepticism that there could be a diplomatic solution in Syria because of the competing interests of Iran, Russia, Turkey, the United States and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“There’s no general consensus because Syria is no longer Syria. The parts under Assad’s control are a rump state. The area under Turkish control is functionally a state,” Oubai Shahbandar, a former US defence intelligence officer, said October 3 during a panel discussion on Syria. “Russia wants Assad restored to all of Syria. That’s probably not going to happen.”

Mattis acknowledged that “we’re under no illusions about the challenge” of stabilising Syria through the United Nations. “We will have to do this, obviously, despite Russia’s efforts to marginalise the United Nations in this effort,” he said.

At a hearing September 26 of the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, many congressmen expressed frustration with the Trump administration’s changing goals in Syria.

“We don’t even know what your long-term objectives are,” Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts and former Marine officer in Iraq, told Karem.

Karem said “it’s going to be very difficult to end this war” as long as Iran “continues to engage in destabilising activities [and] continues to foment sectarianism in Syria.”

The diplomatic effort received a setback when Russia said it had transferred to Syria S-300 missile-defence systems aimed at helping the Assad regime counter Israeli air strikes. Russia announced the sale after Moscow accused Israel of indirectly causing the crash of a Russian military jet in Syria, killing 15 Russian troops.

“We consider this a very serious escalation,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said after the missile-defence systems were transferred. “Having the Russians deliver the S-300 into Syria presents greater risk to all of those in the affected areas and to stability in the Middle East.”

16