State official indicates US military role in Syria post-ISIS centered on Iran

State official indicates US military role in Syria post-ISIS centered on Iran
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A State Department official on Thursday suggested the U.S. military’s role in Syria post-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will be focused on Iranian activities.

David Satterfield, acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, was responding to a question from Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Overnight Defense: Details on Senate's 0B defense bill | Bill rejects Trump plan to skirt budget caps | Backfills money for border wall | Defense chief says more troops could head to Mideast Dem senator plans amendment to restrict military action against Iran MORE (D-Conn.) about what function U.S. troops serve in Syria besides fighting ISIS, as Satterfield and other U.S. officials have indicated the military will be staying the country past the terrorist group’s defeat.

Satterfield first declined to answer at all, saying he would prefer to do so in a classified setting.

But committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerJeff Daniels blasts 'cowardice' of Senate Republicans against Trump Corker: 'I just don't' see path to challenge Trump in 2020 Ex-GOP Sen. Corker: Trump primary would be 'good thing for our country' MORE (R-Tenn.) interjected to say “that won’t pass muster,” demanding Satterfield provide at least a general answer. 

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Satterfield then offered: “We are deeply concerned with the activities of Iran, with the ability of Iran to enhance those activities through a greater ability to move materiel into Syria. And I would rather leave the discussion at that point.”

The Pentagon did not send a witness to Thursday’s hearing, despite committee requests.

Senators in both parties expressed concern about both Satterfield’s suggestion and the Pentagon’s failure to send a witness.

After Satterfield’s answer to Murphy, committee ranking member Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinHouse votes to boost retirement savings On The Money: GOP angst grows over Trump's trade war | Trump promises help for 'Patriot Farmers' | Markets rebound | CBO founding director Alice Rivlin dies | Senate to vote on disaster aid bill next week Senators offer bipartisan retirement savings bill MORE (D-Md.) interjected to say that such a role for the U.S. military has not been authorized by Congress.

“It’s hard to understand your response with even the most broad use of an (authorization for the use of military force) covering anything close to what you’re saying,” Cardin said.

Added Murphy: “I would share those concerns to the extent that your answer suggests that the future role of the U.S. military in Syria will be aimed at addressing Iranian and Iranian-backed military presence.”

As the hearing wrapped up, Corker expressed a similar sentiment.

“I would agree that, if it’s what you said — and I’m not sure exactly what you said — but if it’s what you indicated, certainly the authorizations are not there for that kind of activity,” Corker said.

Corker said he was told by the Pentagon that it did not send a witness because it has not briefed the Senate and House Armed Services committees on Syria yet.

“The Defense Department, with all due respect, did give us tremendous run around,” he said.

Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOvernight Defense: Details on Senate's 0B defense bill | Bill rejects Trump plan to skirt budget caps | Backfills money for border wall | Defense chief says more troops could head to Mideast Senate defense bill would pull Turkey from F-35 partnership if it buys Russian missile system Trump, Europe increasingly at odds on Iran MORE (D-N.H.), a member of both the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees urged Corker and Cardin to pen a letter to the Pentagon on their unwillingness to send a witness.

“We have heard consistently from [Defense] Secretary [James] Mattis that he and Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson talk on a regular basis, almost daily, and that they are working closely together to address the conflict areas we have in the world,” she said. “So it seems to me that it’s in everyone’s interest to present that united picture before Congress.”

Asked about the hearing at a briefing later, chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said she will look into the decisionmaking process of sending a witness. 

“We will continue to communicate with Congress as much as we can and when we can as often as we can,” she said. “They are very important. They’re our board of directors so if we have more work to do we’ll do that work.”