In a complex part of the world, the U.S. strategy in Syria is simple to state: the enduring defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the deterrence of the use of chemical weapons and countering Iran’s malign influence in the region.
Robert S. Karem, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, detailed the way forward in Syria for the House Armed Services Committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee today.
“The United States also seeks a peaceful resolution to the multifaceted conflict in Syria in a manner that protects U.S. interests, preserves a favorable regional balance of power, protects our allies and partners and alleviates suffering,” Karem told the panel.
Limited DoD Role
The Defense Department’s role in Syria is limited, with a small number of American service members in the country working by, with and through local forces. Those forces have driven ISIS from stronghold after stronghold, but that is only one part of the complex situation in the nation, Karem said.
“While we are not intervening in the Syrian civil war, because our combat operations target ISIS, this underlying conflict inevitably affects our efforts,” he added.
The Syrian regime of Bashar Assad has been propped up by Russian and Iranian intervention, and has taken swaths of rebel-held territory back. This endangers international efforts to get the parties to the peace table, the assistant secretary said.
That there has been progress against ISIS in Syria is undeniable. ISIS swept across much of the country and into Iraq in 2014 and declared the area to be its new caliphate. Coalition efforts have contributed to the liberation of more than 99 percent of the territory ISIS took then, Karem noted.
“Despite this progress, we assess that even after the defeat of the physical caliphate, ISIS remains stronger now than its predecessor – al-Qaida in Iraq – was when the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011,” he said.
Tough fighting remains in the middle Euphrates River valley, he said, and the hard-won gains in Iraq and Syria remain vulnerable.
“The enemy is adaptive,” Karem told the panel. “Even though operations against the last pocket of ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria are underway, ISIS is transitioning to an underground insurgency. A sustained, conditions-based U.S. presence will allow us to pressure the terrorist insurgency and prevent ISIS’s resurgence while simultaneously facilitating diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict.”
In the northern part of the country, the United States is working with Turkey to ensure security and a sustainable solution that addresses Turkish security concerns, the assistant secretary said. But the United States and its allies are still “gravely concerned” about a possible Syrian regime offensive – backed by Russia and Iran – into Idlib, he added.
He reiterated that the United States will respond to any use by the Syrian regime of chemical weapons. “We urge the regime and its Russian partners to refrain from the use of chemical weapons or risk the international consequences for doing so,” he said. The United Kingdom and France share in the U.S. resolve, he told the House panel, and the United States urges other international partners to join the diplomatic and political efforts to deter Assad from using these weapons.
The United States remains concerned by Iran’s significant military, paramilitary and proxy involvement in Syria, Karem said. This directly threatens Israel and Jordan “and risks dangerously escalating the tensions in the region,” he said.
“Iran is no friend of the Syrian people,” he added, “and if its behavior in Iraqi is any indication, its militia proxies and malicious agenda will only marginalize Syria’s Sunni population, inflame tensions and sow seeds of further radicalism.”
The United States maintains a regional force posture and military plans designed to deter and, if necessary, respond to aggression, the assistant secretary told the legislators. “We are not seeking war with Iran,” he said. “That said, we will take steps to defend ourselves and work with allies.”
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