The U.S. is stepping up military operations against Islamic State remnants in Syria, along with other extremist organizations fighting to fill the vacuum in the wake of Islamic State’s defeat in the country, Pentagon chief James Mattis told Congress Thursday.
The escalation, outlined in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, comes after a raging internal debate in the U.S. government after President Trump expressed a desire to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria with the Islamic State terror group in his words nearly defeated.
But Mr. Mattis and U.S. military commanders pushed back, warning a U.S. withdrawal could allow Islamic State to regroup, while leaving the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies a free hand to re-establish control of the country.
“Right now … we are not withdrawing” from Syria, Mr. Mattis told lawmakers. ” … You will see a re-energized effort against the Middle Euphrates River Valley in the days ahead” against Islamic State, as well as other remaining pockets of territory still held by the terror group.
France has agreed to send a contingent of special forces to reinforce the mission against Islamic State in Iraq, said Mr. Mattis. The deployment comes on the heels of French President Emmanuel Macron’s first official visit to Washington earlier this week.
Asked if local allies working with U.S. forces against Islamic State could handle the mission, “I am confident that we would probably regret it.”
Recent battlefield successes by Mr. Assad’s forces have raised fears of a coming clash between Iran and Israel, which worries Tehran is building up its assets in Syria and Lebanon to draw a “noose” around the Jewish state. Hours after testifying on Capitol Hill, Mr. Mattis met with Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman at the Defense Department, the second high-level meeting between American and Israeli defense officials in as many days.
U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel, the top commander in the Middle East, made an unannounced visit to Tel Aviv on Tuesday for hold face-to-face talks with Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, general chief of staff for the Israeli Defense Forces.
Israeli officials claim Tehran has set up a 80,000-man strong proxy force, trained and equipped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, inside Syria and is funneling heavy weapons and material to those forces via the so-called “Shia Crescent” — Iran’s long sought land bridge linking Iran to Lebanon through Syria and northern Iraq.
Asked whether he agreed with Tel Aviv’s assessment that Tehran was arming and equipping a proxy force in Syria, Mr. Mattis replied: “I can’t think of any other purpose for them right now.”
Mr. Mattis also told lawmakers the Trump administration is still weighing whether to remain in the Iranian nuclear deal, with President Trump facing a May 12 deadline on effectively pulling out of the multilateral deal. He said a decision would likely come down before the May 12 deadline.
“The decision has yet to be made if we can repair it enough to stay in it,” Mr. Mattis said.
The defense secretary has said in that he believes the agreement is flawed but that the U.S. should stick with it. French President Emmanuel Macron, returning to Paris this week after three days of talks with U.S. officials in Washington this week, said he believes Mr. Trump remains determined to withdraw from the agreement.