White House officials want to expand war in Syria by pushing U.S. troops to confront Iranian-backed forces

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17 June 2017 | Foreign Policy | War in Context

Foreign Policy reports: A pair of top White House officials is pushing to broaden the war in Syria, viewing it as an opportunity to confront Iran and its proxy forces on the ground there, according to two sources familiar with the debate inside the Donald Trump administration.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top Middle East advisor, want the United States to start going on the offensive in southern Syria, where, in recent weeks, the U.S. military has taken a handful of defensive actions against Iranian-backed forces fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Their plans are making even traditional Iran hawks nervous, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has personally shot down their proposals more than once, the two sources said.

The situation in southern Syria has escalated in recent weeks, after a U.S. warplane shot down an Iranian-made drone that had attacked U.S. forces on patrol with Syrian allies near an American outpost at al-Tanf. The drone attack came after two U.S. airstrikes on Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which had moved too close to the Americans’ garrison.

Despite the more aggressive stance pushed by some White House officials, Mattis, military commanders, and top U.S. diplomats all oppose opening up a broader front against Iran and its proxies in southeastern Syria, viewing it as a risky move that could draw the United States into a dangerous confrontation with Iran, defense officials said. Such a clash could trigger retaliation against U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Syria, where Tehran has armed thousands of Shiite militia fighters and deployed hundreds of Revolutionary Guard officers.

Mattis, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Brett McGurk, the U.S. diplomat overseeing the anti-Islamic State coalition, all favor keeping the focus on pushing the Islamic State out of its remaining strongholds, including the southern Syrian city of Raqqa, officials said. “That’s the strategy they’ve signed off on and that’s where the effort is,” said one defense official.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

The Pentagon has publicly asserted it has no intention to fight forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, unless provoked.

“The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime or pro-regime forces but remains ready to defend themselves if pro-regime forces refuse to vacate the de-confliction zone,” U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said in a June 6 statement.

It’s not the first time Mattis and Dunford have found themselves having to push back against White House proposals for aggressive action they consider ill-conceived and even reckless. Earlier, the two opposed a tentative idea that would have sent a large U.S. ground force into Syria to oust the Islamic State instead of relying on local Syrian Kurd and Arab fighters backed by U.S. commandos. [Continue reading…]

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