US strategy in Syria post-ISIS beginning to take shape but Congress may not be on board
The United States appears committed to maintaining an indefinite presence in Syria, senior US State Department officials say, with the Syrian government and Iran replacing the Islamic State (ISIS) as the principal opponents.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking January 16 at Stanford University, outlined a strategy based on maintaining an indefinite military presence in Syria with the goal of ousting the regime of Bashar Assad, countering the Iranian presence and ensuring that new militant groups do not rise up.
Taking dead aim at Damascus, Tillerson said: “Total [US] withdrawal would restore Assad and continue the brutal treatment of his own people… Such oppression cannot persist forever.”
Tillerson’s remarks reflect a more aggressive position against the Assad government by the United States. Because the government in Damascus remains allied with Moscow, the strategy poses a challenge to Russia as well.
Tillerson advocated for the UN-mediated Geneva peace process culminating in UN-supervised elections — without Assad’s participation — and the return of Syrian refugees.
Prior to Tillerson’s speech, David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, told a US Senate hearing the primary role of US military forces in Syria would be countering Iranian activities.
While insisting that “our job is not done” in dealing a final blow to ISIS, Satterfield claimed that coalition-backed efforts have liberated more than 98% of territory previously controlled by the terrorist organisation.
Nevertheless, US forces would remain in Syria for the indefinite future, Satterfield said, because “a premature US departure from Syria would enable ISIS to return… and enable Iran to expand its malign influence throughout the region, especially to threaten Israel through Iran-backed proxies like Hezbollah.”
Even more specifically, Satterfield said: “We seek to not only diminish Iranian foreign influence in Syria generally but to protect our allies from the very real threat Hezbollah poses in south-west Syria.”
He added that “it is absolutely our policy to see Syria able to move forward free of all foreign forces and that specifically includes Iranian forces.”
When pressed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Chris Murphy for details about what actions US forces in Syria would take to counter Iran, Satterfield replied that he would prefer to discuss the issue in a classified setting, not a public hearing. However, he gave an indication of US worries: “We are deeply concerned with the activities of Iran, with the ability of Iran to enhance those activities through a greater ability to move material into Syria.”
Satterfield challenged the notion that Iran had established a land corridor across the region. “We see minimal movement by Iran across land borders,” he said, adding that this was the result of the US military presence in Syria.
The US Department of Defence declined to send a witness to the hearing, frustrating senators from both political parties. Senator Ben Cardin told Satterfield that Congress had not authorised the use of US military forces to carry out the mission in Syria that Satterfield appeared to be describing. Congress, Cardin said, “has not authorised anything close to what you are saying.”
Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agreed with his Democratic counterpart, saying “certainly the authorisations are not there for that kind of activity.”
Satterfield said Washington continued to view the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a new Syrian constitution and UN-monitored elections, as the only way to end Syria’s devastating civil war. He called on Moscow “to pressure the [Assad] regime to work seriously towards a political resolution to this conflict or face continued isolation and instability indefinitely in Syria.”
Satterfield insisted, however, that a stable Syria would require new leadership in Damascus with the departure of Assad and his family and called on Russia to join the international community in demanding Assad’s removal. Senator Jeanne Shaheen however, was sceptical: “I’m still not clear on how we think we’re going to get Russia to accomplish what you’ve laid out in terms of Syria.”