WASHINGTON (CN) – A day after Defense Department officials told a House panel the United States’ primary goal in Syria is defeating Islamic State group, a second panel of experts testified on the precarious way forward.
On Wednesday,, Assistant Defense Secretary Robert Karem said a continuing U.S. presence in Syria would have the “residual benefit” of deterring Iran. A day later, a second panel of experts warned the U.S. must be careful to avoid an indefinite stay in the region.
Seven nations, including the United States, have proclaimed “no military solution to the war in Syria and no alternative political solution” would be available there without free elections.
Well over 500,000 people have been killed in Syria since the civil war there began in March 2011, and 11 million have been displaced, according to testimony offered to lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday.
The panelists offered lawmakers a broad perspective of the challenges plaguing Syria, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has retaken control of the country’s highly-populated western coast.
But Assad is now poised to launch a campaign retaking a rebel stronghold known as Idlib, a province located in the northwest part of the country.
Iran, Israel, Russia and Turkey are now entering a new phase of what Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Penn., on Thursday called a “mini world war” for control of the Idlib province.
According to Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor for Syria at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the province makes up 25 percent of Syria’s oil and gas reserves, water resources and boasts “valuable agricultural land.”
President Donald Trump said in March that the U.S. will exit the Syrian conflict “very soon” but in the months since he’s been persuing a much different court, said Nicholas Heras, fellow for the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a national security think tank based in Washington, D.C.
The United States use of sanctions against Iran and the U.S. refusal to provide reconstruction support to Syria is designed not only to put pressure on Iran to pull out of Syria, but ultimately, to target Russia, a powerful Assad ally who has vested interests in the region, Heras explained.
“While it might work, the process of putting enough pressure on Russia to remove Assad will likely take years, perhaps even decades. That reality should be stated clearly to the American people by this administration and congress should consider that if the U.S. should remain [there] for many more years to pursue that end goal, it may not be achievable,” Heras said.
The Trump administration is also cognizant of the challenges that comes from asking Russia to apply pressure to Assad and Iran.
And then, he said, there’s the another problem, Heras said. Russia’s enhanced position in the region.
Moscow’s forces have expanded along the Syrian west coast and are deeply embedded with Assad’s forces, he explained. Russia has also “weaponized” refugees flowing from the war-torn nation, he said.
“The major challenge for Russia is to normalize Assad,” he said.
The longer that takes, the chance Russia will see reconstruction assistance from other nations increases. And then it becomes even harder break their alliance, he explained.
Heras also told lawmakers that even with some success in normalizing Assad, it still may not be enough to incentivize Russia to remove Iran and its proxies from Syria.
In lieu of waiting, Heras said it might be prudent now for lawmakers to considers one question: will U.S. time, lives and investment be spent productively as it attempts to stabilize areas of Syria under U.S. control?
Lawmakers also expressed concern about the devastating humanitarian crisis in Syria, asking Yacoubian if the establishment of a no fly zone over Idlib would quell bloodshed or serve as disincentive to Russia’s interest there.
Yacoubian said the situation was “delicate.”
“When Russia entered the Syrian war in 2015, that was a watershed event because it turned the tide of war in favor of the Assad regime. I think Russia’s control in skies in that area would make it a very precious endeavor. We should continue to look at demilitarized zone options and bolster our efforts with Turkey to ensure diplomacy succeeds,” she said.
If there isn’t a “third party” who manages the conditions on the ground, the threats to peace increase.
Idlib is still the largest haven for al Qaeda in the region, Yacoubian said.
According to a joint statement issued Thursday by the U.S., Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, “a credible, inclusive, constitutional committee” will soon begin drafting a “new Syrian constitution and [lay] the groundwork for free and fair UN-supervised elections in a safe and neutral environment.”
The nations called on the United Nations and its Office of the Special Envoy for Syria to issue a progress report to the U.N. Security Council no later than October 31.
“We affirm in the strongest terms that those who seek a military solution will only succeed in increasing the risk of dangerous escalation and wider conflagration of the crisis to the region and beyond,” the joint statement said.