Senior Pentagon officials struggled on Wednesday not to contradict national security adviser John Bolton’s bellicose declaration this week that the U.S. won’t leave Syria until Iran does.
Those officials are pushing ahead with the war’s original aim: defeating the so-called Islamic State. But while the goal of defeating ISIS is closer than ever, Bolton has pushed its end even further back.
“I would disaggregate overall U.S. policy objectives from our military activities,” Robert Karem, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told a congressional panel on Wednesday. “We are not seeking war with Iran. … We are not conducting operations against Iran.”
He was backed by Marine one-star general Scott Benedict. “In Syria, our role is to defeat ISIS. That’s it,” Benedict, a senior officer on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, testified to the same House armed-services subcommittee.
With a simple assertion on Monday—“we're not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias”—Bolton redefined the goals of the war.
And while the Pentagon officials said Bolton isn’t speaking to any new operational mission, they also indicated that Bolton is indeed stating the latest revision of the Trump administration’s approach to Syria—one that, ironically, gives Iran substantial influence over the U.S. troop presence.
Just months ago, Trump was talking about rapidly pulling out of Syria. And defeating ISIS, the stated objective of the American slice of the war there, looks achievable with the collapse of the caliphate. But now, while operations against remnants of ISIS continue, the U.S. troop presence in Syria over the long term amounts to a diplomatic chit, the Pentagon officials indicated.
Karem and Benedict, who were not accompanied by their State Department counterparts, told a handful of highly skeptical legislators that the 2,000 troops in Syria provided the “secondary benefit” of expanding “leverage” U.S. diplomats possess in prompting a negotiated settlement to a Syrian civil war that the U.S. is not supposed to be fighting.
But when it comes to Syria in 2018, the U.S. is a marginal player yoked to a moribund United Nations-led diplomatic process. With the aid of his Russian and Iranian patrons, Syrian President Bashar Assad has all but triumphed in a devastating civil war. Russia, alongside Iran and Turkey, have an alternative diplomatic track for a future political settlement that has left the U.S. and Europe all but irrelevant.
The leverage that Karem and Benedict said U.S. troops provide to special Syria representative James Jeffrey, beyond the fact of their presence, is the territory in the country’s northeast they’ve aided their largely Kurdish allies in reclaiming from ISIS. Karem said while the U.S. is “not looking to create an independent country,” neither is it prepared to “simply abandon our partners to the regime.”
While neither Karem nor Benedict said so, their testimony in the context of Bolton’s comments suggested that at some point, the U.S. will seek to barter that territory to Assad in exchange for some form of Iranian withdrawal.
The realism of Bolton’s gamble is open to question. Iran’s ties to Syria, particularly in the context of an Assad triumph, are far deeper than America’s. And the order of battle in Syria favors Iran: according to senior State Department official Brian Hook, the Iranians have 2,500 fighters in Syria managing 10,000 Shia militants.
ISIS was practically an afterthought in Wednesday’s hour-long hearing on Syria strategy. Karem and Benedict suggested that for all the years of talk about separating the U.S. war against ISIS from the broader Syrian civil war, the endgames of both are inextricable. They argued that only a lasting political settlement amongst Syrian combatants can prevent an ISIS resurgence. And “as long as Iran continues to pose a threat” in Syria, Karem said, “it’s going to be very difficult to end this war and secure the conditions for the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
That prompted bipartisan skepticism over how this latest U.S. war can end. “I’m not sure how much influence we have in the political process in Syria, and I’m sure we have very little if any control over it,” said Georgia Republican Austin Scott.
Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Bolton wasn’t merely making an “analytical judgement”: “You’re telling troops when they can come home. You’re telling the parents of these troops when they can come home. If your son or daughter was in Syria right now, and the national security adviser said ‘your daughter can come home when Iran leaves,’ it seems to me that’s pretty dependent on Iran.”
While the Pentagon might not seek war with Iran in Syria, that’s no guarantee against one emerging. The U.S. troop deployment “constrain[s] Iran’s freedom of maneuver,” Karem said. While they don’t have legal authority to combat Iran, the senior Pentagon official noted, U.S. troops possess the right of self-defense should they come under Iranian assault. It remains to be seen whether Iran will decide to test Bolton’s proposition.