On September 26th, US Department of Defense leaders discussed Syrian strategy at a House Armed Services Committee subcommittee hearing. Present were Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Robert Karem and Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Scott F. Benedict.
Among many things, Robert Karem was asked if the fact that US has threatened to respond to any attack on Idlib, not just a chemical one means that the US is actually protecting al-Qaeda and ISIS militants, among other groups named as “terrorists,” despite US military being there for the precise reason of fighting ISIS.
Robert Karem initially asked to answer the question in a closed session, not confirming the numbers of 20 to 30 thousand terrorists in Idlib, provided by Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Scott F. Benedict. Afterwards Karem commented: “There is no dispute that Idlib has become a hornet’s nest of multiple terrorist organizations. Regrettably, this is the product of the Russian and Regime[Bashar al-Assad’s government] approach to consolidating control on the ground in Syria. They have used de-escalation zones and local negotiated deals to purge areas in Syria and used Idlib as a dumping ground. And they have allowed the free transit of the worst terrorists to go to Idlib.”
Thus, accused of the alleged chemical weapons usage and blamed for the growth of the terrorist threat, without providing evidence. Both Damascus and Moscow have repeatedly denied any and all accusations of alleged chemical weapons use. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN earlier accused Russia and Syria of attacking civilian areas and dubbing them “terrorist,” while also providing no proof whatsoever.
Robert Karem also claimed that 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.
“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, despite the US doing precisely that.
Also, he repeated other officials’ claims that US forces will remain in Syria until Iran departs, which contradicts the supposed mission of simply defeating ISIS.
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.”
However, Karem said that the US is not seeking war with Iran, it just wishes to defend itself and its regional work with allies.
In his UN Security chairmanship on nuclear proliferation, US President Donald Trump accused Russia and Iran of enabling Bashar al-Assad’s government’s “butchery” in Syria, however he also thanked them for “slowing down” a new offensive on the Idlib province.
On September 26th, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that an agreement between Turkey and Russia to avert a Syrian Army assault on the Idlib province is a “last chance” for a political solution in Syria. “We should not miss this opportunity,” he said, after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations headquarters.
On September 17th, Turkey and Russia agreed to establish a demilitarized zone in Idlib, Syria’s last opposition stronghold, following a meeting in the Russian city of Sochi between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Turkey and Russia also signed a memorandum of understanding at the meeting calling for the “stabilization” of Idlib’s de-escalation zone, in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited.
Under the pact, opposition groups in Idlib will remain in areas where they are already present while Russia and Turkey will carry out joint patrols in the area to ward off renewed fighting.