Top general: Countering Iran in Syria not a US military mission

Top general: Countering Iran in Syria not a US military mission
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The general in charge of U.S. Central Command said Tuesday that countering Iran is not a mission of the American-led coalition fighting ISIS.

Asked by Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Stopgap spending bill includes military pay raise | Schumer presses Pentagon to protect impeachment witnesses | US ends civil-nuclear waiver in Iran Cruz, Graham and Cheney call on Trump to end all nuclear waivers for Iran Pompeo: US ending sanctions waiver for site where Iran resumed uranium enrichment MORE (R-Wyo.) about what the United States can do in Syria to address threats posed by Iran, Gen. Joseph Votel replied: “As you know, countering Iran is not one of the coalition missions in Syria.”

Still, Votel added, the coalition’s relationships with the government of Iraq and with the Syrian Democratic Forces “put us in a position where we can impede Iran’s objectives of establishing lines of communication through these critical areas and trying to connect Tehran to Beirut, for example.”

Votel’s distinction during a House Armed Services Committee hearing comes after Trump administration officials have said the U.S. military will stay in Syria past the defeat of ISIS in part to prevent Iran from gaining influence in the region.

Specifically, Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonReport: Trump UK ambassador fired deputy for mentioning Obama in speech Overnight Defense: Ex-Navy secretary slams Trump in new op-ed | Impeachment tests Pompeo's ties with Trump | Mexican president rules out US 'intervention' against cartels Pompeo-Trump relationship tested by impeachment inquiry MORE last month laid out a U.S. strategy in Syria that includes an indefinite stay for troops.

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“U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria,” Tillerson said in the January speech. “As we have seen from Iran’s proxy wars and public announcements, Iran seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally, Israel. As a destabilized nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit.”

Pressed by Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardCastro hits fundraising threshold for December debate Saagar Enjeti ponders Hillary Clinton's 2020 plans The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi says House will move forward with impeachment MORE (D-Hawaii) to reconcile his statement with Tillerson’s, Votel said he believes Tillerson was not talking about U.S. military objectives.

“My understanding, as the secretary of State laid this out, is he laid it out not as a U.S. military objective; he laid it out as a U.S. objective,” Votel said.

But, he reiterated, U.S. relationships in the region do allow for the military to “indirectly” counter Iran.

“I think I would characterize it more in that regard than us actively doing something militarily against Iran,” Votel said.

Gabbard, who has been highly critical of U.S. operations in Syria, was unconvinced.

“I believe Secretary Tillerson was quite specific in speaking about this within the justification of a maintained U.S. military presence there,” she said.

After the hearing, committee Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon watchdog says Syria withdrawal hurt ISIS fight | Vindman testifies on third day of public hearings | Lawmakers to wrap up defense bill talks this week Lawmakers expect to finish defense policy bill negotiations this week Impeachment battle looms over must-pass defense bill MORE (R-Texas) told reporters there are “a lot of legitimate questions” about U.S objectives in Syria.

“He’s clear his assignment from a military force standpoint has been to defeat ISIS,” Thornberry said of Votel. “But obviously you have that larger U.S. policy goal of containing and limiting Iran, maybe not necessarily with military force at the moment, but we’re going to have to-- there’s a lot more discussion to have on that topic.”

Updated at 2:39 p.m.