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Senators push Pentagon on Syria strategy after withdrawal uproar, Soleimani strike

Senators push Pentagon on Syria strategy after withdrawal uproar, Soleimani strike
© Greg Nash

A bipartisan pair of senators is pressing the Pentagon for “clarity” on the U.S. military mission in Syria.

In a letter to the top officials at the Pentagon, Sens. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoDemocrats break COVID-19 impasse with deal on jobless benefits Rosen to lead Senate Democrats' efforts to support female candidates OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 | Kerry presses oil companies to tackle climate change | Biden delays transfer of sacred lands for copper mine MORE (D-Nev.) and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDemocratic centrists flex power on Biden legislation Ron Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Romney's TRUST Act is a Trojan Horse to cut seniors' benefits MORE (R-Utah) cited both the recent spike in U.S.-Iran tensions and last year’s firestorm over President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Albany Times Union editorial board calls for Cuomo's resignation Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout MORE’s order to withdraw from Syria when seeking answers to a dozen questions on the U.S. strategy in Syria.

“We would appreciate further clarity about the mission of U.S. troops currently deployed to Syria,” the senators wrote to Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Former Trump Defense chief Esper to join McCain Institute CORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report MORE and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley in a letter obtained by The Hill ahead of its release. “Until now, the administration has not articulated a coherent and consistent strategy to Congress.”

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In October, Trump ordered U.S. forces in northeast Syria to withdraw ahead of a Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces, who had been instrumental in the U.S. fight against ISIS.

Later, Trump said he would withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria, save for a couple hundred at a garrison in southern Syria.

The orders sparked a fierce bipartisan backlash, as lawmakers fumed about abandoning Kurdish allies and warned of leaving a vacuum in which ISIS could reemerge.

Amid the opposition, Trump backtracked on a full withdrawal and left about 800 U.S. troops in Syria. But Trump sparked a new round of confusion when he said those troops were staying to “secure the oil,” leading to questions about whether the United States had changed its objective in Syria from fighting ISIS.

Meanwhile, the United States and Iran were on the brink of war earlier this month after a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Following the strike, which took place on Iraqi soil, U.S. operations against ISIS in Iraq have been paused.

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Iranian and Iranian-backed forces operate in Syria to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad, and U.S. officials have argued the U.S. military presence in Syria helps curb Iranian influence.

In their letter, dated Thursday, Cortez Masto and Romney asked for unclassified answers to several questions “given the confusion over the mission of U.S. troops in Syria, particularly amid heightened regional tensions and strain on counter-ISIS operations, as well as the lack of clarity over how the mission connects to the administration’s articulated strategic aims.”

The pair asked what the “primary” U.S. mission in northern Syria is, what the mission is at the al Tanf garrison in southern Syria and whether U.S. troops in Syria have any “secondary” missions.

The senators also asked whether there are enough forces on the ground to both protect oil fields and fight ISIS, and what the rules of engagement are for the troops at the oil fields when facing forces associated with the Syrian government, Russia or Iran.

They further asked whether threats to U.S. troops in Syria have changed since the Soleimani strike, what steps are being taken to protect troops in Syria from Iranian retaliation and whether anti-ISIS operations have paused as they have in Iraq.

Alluding to Iraqi calls for a U.S. troop withdrawal following the Soleimani strike, Cortez Masto and Romney also asked about the viability of the U.S. mission in Syria if troops leave Iraq.

The senators asked Milley and Esper to respond at their “earliest opportunity” but by Feb. 13 at the latest.