June 20, 2017

The U.S. is Backsliding into War in Syria

Recent events have clarified that the U.S. is at tremendous risk of backsliding into war with Syria, Iran and Russia. Now is not the time for Congress to add fuel to the fire by escalating new Iran sanctions. What is urgently needed is for Congress to debate the war in Syria before the Trump administration stumbles into a regional conflagration that would be disastrous for the region and U.S. security.

The U.S. is backing into a regional conflagration in Syria:

  • U.S. forces training rebels near al-Tanf in Syria have struck pro-regime, Iranian-backed forces three times in the past month.
  • As counter-ISIS operations in Mosul wind down, the tacit cooperation and de-confliction that has existed between U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias could end – potentially teeing up a dramatic escalation between U.S. and Iranian forces.
  • On June 18th, a U.S. Navy warplane shot down a Syrian warplane after it had engaged U.S.-backed forces operating near Raqqa, a first since the U.S. entered the conflict in Syria in 2014.
  • Russia has responded by indicating that all U.S. forces operating west of the Euphrates will be tracked by Russian anti-aircraft forces and treated as threats.
  • A crisis could quickly drag the U.S. into war with not only the Syrian regime, but also a global power in Russia and a regional power in Iran.

Certain Trump administration officials are clearly pushing for war with Iran:

  • Secretary of Defense James Mattis has reportedly pushed back repeatedly on plans from National Security Council staff to escalate against Iranian-backed forces in Syria, which would detract from the fight against ISIS and endanger U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.
  • Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for Intelligence on the NSC, and Derek Harvey, the top Middle East advisor on the NSC, are reportedly pushing the plan to escalate with Iran in Syria.
  • Cohen-Watnick’s hawkish views on Iran have received substantial scrutiny – including for his eagerness to support covert regime change against Iran and his dismissiveness of the possibility of Iranian retaliation in response to U.S. escalation.
  • Sec. Tillerson, in remarks before Congress last week, both dismissed engaging Iran in serious diplomatic negotiations and suggested that the U.S. will support regime change against Iran.
  • Aside from these deeply concerning reports, the Trump administration’s visit to Riyadh, its statement essentially blaming Iran for the ISIS terror attacks in Tehran and the Senate passage of new sanctions shortly thereafter has only succeeded in antagonizing Iran.

Iran struck ISIS in Syria with ballistic missiles:

  • In response to ISIS’ terror attacks in Tehran, Iran struck the ISIS stronghold of Deir ez-Zour with several ballistic missiles. Iran described the targets as an ISIS command center and a facility for preparing cars for suicide bombings.
  • Iran also used the launch as a warning to the U.S and Saudi Arabia. According to one IRGC general, “The Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of this message…Obviously and clearly, some reactionary countries of the region, especially Saudi Arabia, had announced that they are trying to bring insecurity into Iran.”
  • In a potential escalation of the destabilizing proxy war between the U.S. and Iran, Saudi Arabia claims it captured Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members with explosives offshore of an oil field. Iran claims that Saudi Arabia instead attacked fishing vessels that drifted off course.

Strikes on ISIS highlight divided views on Iranian missiles

  • The missile strike against ISIS comes at a time when Congress is considering levying new sanctions on Iran for its missile program. Yet, Iran’s striking of ISIS complicates the narrative in Washington on Iran’s missiles.
  • While threatening to the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East, Iran has demonstrated both a conventional use for its missiles and what many would deem a legitimate target in ISIS.
  • It would be very hard to convince Europe, let alone Russia or China, of the need to escalate multilateral pressure on Iran over a conventional weapons system being used to target ISIS.

Now is the time for Congress to debate the war in Syria, not new escalatory sanctions:

  • Congress has not authorized the use of military force against Syrian, Iranian or Russian forces in Syria or elsewhere, a notion confirmed by Sec. Tillerson in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.
  • The Obama administration claimed it was authorized to wage war against ISIS based on the 2001 and 2002 AUMF’s passed by Congress, though these do not by any stretch extend beyond the narrow scope of the fight against ISIS.
  • New Iran sanctions appear to be the priority for Congress, yet such steps will not convince Iran to rein in its missile program or back down from its goals in Iraq and Syria. Amplifying sanctions at this time will only escalate tensions at a dangerous time.
  • Congress must urgently debate the scope of existing AUMF’s and clarify that opening a new front in the Syrian war is not authorized, lest the Trump administration lead us into yet another disastrous war in the Middle East.
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