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 MurphyKavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Democrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' Senate Democrats to hold the floor to protest inaction on gun violence 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 CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' 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 CardinCongress passes bill to begin scenic byways renaissance GOP lawmaker: 'Dangerous' abuse of Interpol by Russia, China, Venezuela Senators pressure Trump to help end humanitarian crisis in Kashmir 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 ShaheenLewandowski launches campaign-style website during Capitol Hill hearing Democrats headed for a subpoena showdown with White House Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine 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.”