US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has explained his country’s decision not to withdraw troops from Syria during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, referring to increased Daesh offensives in the region.
“Right now we are not withdrawing [US troops from Syria],” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We are continuing the fight, we are going to expand it and bring in more regional support.”
According to the top US defense official, the United States will expand its anti-Daesh operation with the help of regional states.
Amid Trump’s statements concerning the mulled pullout of US troops, Defense Secretary James Mattis has previously outlined the possibility of terrorist groups regrouping in remote positions in Syria, saying to the US president that the withdrawal would reverse the progress achieved so far.
On March 3, US President Donald Trump announced his plans to pull the country’s troops out from Syria in the near-term, which was met with a conflicting reaction from the president’s special envoy to the US-led coalition, Brett McGurk, as well as incoming US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, as well as a number of other officials.
Following the strong reaction from the officials, Trump decided to keep troops in Syria. However, according to a representative of his administration, “he wasn’t thrilled about it, to say the least”.
The United States has maintained a military presence in Syria since 2014, leading a coalition of allies in the fight against Daesh, without a UN mandate or authorization from the Syrian government. Damascus has consistently called the US military presence in the country “illegal.”
Communication With Russia in Syria
Speaking about the communication line between Russian and US forces in Syria, Mattis noted that it has never been interrupted.
“Right now in Syria, we have an open and never interrupted deconfliction communication line that has worked pretty well to make certain we do not run afoul of one another’s forces or one another’s operations,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The US and Russian military commanders set up deconfliction communication channels last year, aimed to avoid any accidents between their forces as both sides recaptured territory from Daesh along opposite sides of the Euphrates River. As part of these efforts, US and Russian forces maintain three telephone lines of communication — one for ground troops, another for air forces, and a third for senior commanders.
*Daesh, also known as ISIL/ISIS/IS, is a terrorist group banned in Russia and many other countries
Sanctions Against Allies
The US Secretary of Defense went on by speaking about a national security waiver that would exempt certain US allies including Vietnam and India from secondary sanctions when they conduct arms trade with Russia.
“There are nations in the world who are trying to turn away from formerly Russian-sourced weapons and systems. We only need to look at India, Vietnam and some others to recognize that eventually, we are going to parallelize ourselves. So what we ask for is the Senate and the House pass a national security waiver in the hand of the Secretary of State,” Mattis said.
Under the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, countries that conduct arms deals with Russia risk secondary sanctions. Some US allies including Vietnam and India have Russian-made weapons hardware that they want to modernize without risking sanction.