Recent statements from the White House regarding a long-term presence of troops in eastern Syria to counter Iranian influence in the country should not be interpreted as a shift to a war-footing, Pentagon leadership said Thursday.
During a remote press conference, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the chief of U.S. Central Command, told reporters he doesn’t view the focus against Iranian influence as a signal of an impending conflict.
“I don’t think we’re seeking to go to war with Iran,” Votel said. “I think the president has made it very clear that the Iranian regime needs to cease its destabilizing behavior and policies that spread violence and human misery throughout the Middle East.”
“The principal way that we are approaching that right now is through diplomatic and economic pressure,” he added. “And I support that. I don’t see that necessarily as being on the road to war with Iran. I don’t think we are.”
U.S. troops have been in eastern Syria for several years to help partner forces eliminate Islamic State militants. ISIS fighters in the U.S. area of operations are reportedly surrounded in their final pocket of resistance.
Syria also recently received new anti-aircraft missiles in the form of several S-300 launchers from Russia. The air defense upgrade comes two weeks after a Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down in the country. Russia blamed Israel for the incident. Israel denied the allegation.
“We assess this to be a needless escalation,” Votel said of the S-300 deployment. “I would note that this has really nothing to do with the defeat of ISIS, which Russia has purported as a principal reason and purpose for being in Syria. And I do think it is a bit of a knee-jerk response to the downing of their aircraft a couple of weeks ago.”
Monday's strike comes as tensions rise ahead of renewed U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Votel said his command is well-aware of the capabilities of the S-300 system.
"Our forces here have been operating under a latent anti-air threat for some time and we will continue to do so,” he said.
Votel added that the missile deployment “appears to be an effort to cover for Iranian and Syrian regime nefarious activities in Syria.”
Robert Karem, the assistant defense secretary of international security affairs, testified before Congress last week on Iranian influence in Syria, and why the administration views it as an impediment to a peaceful resolution to the Syrian civil war. He cited Iran’s proliferation of advanced conventional weapons and funding for Shia militias as reasons to counter its influence in the region.
“Our presence in certain places can constrain Iran’s freedom of maneuver, it can empower our diplomats to put more pressure on Iran, but our purpose in being there and our military operations are not being conducted against Iran,” Karem said.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, remained concerned about mission creep in Syria to counter Iran — a mission for which there is no current legal justification.
“If we’re going to counter Iran ... we might have operations against Iran or we might simply have troops in the region. But either actually requires an authorization” from Congress, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton said during the hearing.
Votel, though, said Thursday that a continued presence is necessary to prevent a resurgence of ISIS, as well as countering Iran.
That will mean continuing to work with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, who have carried out the majority of fighting against ISIS in eastern Syria.
“We’ll make the appropriate assessments on the forces that we need to have on the ground," Votel said, adding that he wouldn’t preview what a stay-behind force of U.S. troops will look like after ISIS' last territorial holdings are liberated.
The White House signaled a fundamental shift in the military mission for troops in Syria that would focus on Iran rather than ISIS.
“But what I would tell you [that] we will not keep unnecessary things on the ground,” he said.
Votel reiterated that U.S. forces are not conducting operations against Iran.
“While we don’t have any direct military tasks that have been given to us in terms of that [countering Iran], we do recognize that our presence on the ground and our development of good partners on the ground does have an impact on Iranian activities,” he said.
Votel added that the very presence of U.S. troops in eastern Syria provides a deterrent effect. Other U.S. officials have cited the benefit of restricting Iranian proxy forces' movement through the region as a reason to keep troops in-country.
Control over eastern Syria blocks a possible path from Iran, through Iraq and to Lebanon, by which Iranian weapons exports and proxy forces could travel.