In the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, U.S. forces are facing an increasingly risky and convoluted battlefield that pits them against pro-regime forces supported by Russia and Iran, a top military commander told lawmakers Tuesday.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, told a panel of senators that Russia and Iran are destabilizing the fight against ISIS in Syria.
Several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed concern that the U.S. role in Syria has become mired in the civil war fight to topple the Bashar Assad regime, which is being propped up by Russia and Iran.
“Our mission in Syria is strictly focused on defeating ISIS,” Votel said during a hearing to examine CENTCOM’s budget request for the 2019 fiscal year. “The biggest threat in Syria right now is all the other instability that is taking place that is preventing the country from moving forward …Certainly Iran is an aspect of this but so is Russia.”
Votel also repeated a warning that he issued to a House panel last month that Russia is trying to play “both arsonist and firefighter,” fueling tensions among forces in Syria and then attempting to arbitrate disputes. Tensions with Russia continue to escalate in the region as media reports revealed Russian mercenaries attacked U.S. special operation forces in eastern Syria in February.
Even as the U.N. issued a new cease-fire resolution in Syria last month, it appears to have had little effect, Votel has said.
Concerns in the region are further fueled by President Donald Trump’s threats to pull the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement, which was designed to temper Iran’s nuclear program.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking Democrat on the armed services committee, raised concern Tuesday about the potential withdrawal and the failing diplomacy in the region and elsewhere. Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was dismissed from his post.
Tillerson had vowed support for the JCPOA agreement, which didn’t address all of Iran’s “bad behavior,” but at minimum addressed the nuclear weapons concerns, Reed said. This is critical for the United States in light of other nuclear threats that it faces from North Korea, he said.
“The president risks creating a foreign policy crisis by threatening to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” Reed said. “Let there be no doubt, Iran continues to be a state sponsor of terror and an abuser of human rights. Iran continues to destabilize the region through its development of ballistic missiles and support for proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere. The JCPOA was not intended to address all of Iran’s bad behavior, just the nuclear aspect.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, expressed concern for U.S. forces in Syria, comparing it to the unclear role of Marines based in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Those Marines barracks were later attacked, leaving more than 240 dead.
“There seems to be a bit of a disconnect regarding what that mission is,” Sullivan said. “I get a little bit nervous when we have troops on the ground in a very complicated hostile region where it’s not 100 percent clear what the mission of our troops is. I don’t think any of us want to get back to the situation like we had with the Marines in Lebanon.”
Sullivan’s concerns followed an exchange between Votel and Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who said it’s unclear whether the United States should be focused on the Assad regime as well.
“With Russia and Iran’s help, Assad has won the civil war in Syria,” Graham said. “It is not your mission in Syria to deal with the Iranian-Assad-Russia problem. That is not in your things to do right?”
Votel agreed it wasn’t. And he did agree with Graham’s assessment that it appears the Assad regime is on track to win his civil war with help from Iran and Russia.
“Iran has been a key enabler of the regime for a while… (Russia) also is a key enabler of the regime,” the general said. If Russia, Assad and Iran do win in the region, “it means we will contend with this influence of Iran in this particular area and the influence of Russia.”
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