US military ceding influence in Syria to Russia, Iran: Senator

WASHINGTON • The United States military's hands-off approach on the ground in Syria is ceding influence to Russia and Iran, a top lawmaker has warned, as the Pentagon said it has seen the ISIS militant group "resurge" in parts of the country.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr Bob Corker, said Moscow and Teheran have "significant influence" in the war-ravaged Middle Eastern nation due to their years-long commitment, while President Donald Trump signals the US could be headed for the exits there.

When asked whether he wanted a greater US troop presence to shape events in Syria, Mr Corker was sombre.

"I think the administration's plans are to complete the efforts against ISIS and to not be involved," he said, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

A frustrated Mr Corker spoke after exiting a classified briefing by Secretary of Defence James Mattis and top generals, who explained the Pentagon's strategy to lawmakers following last weekend's missile strikes on Syria.

"Syria is Russia and Iran's now. They will be determining the future," Mr Corker said. "We may be at the table, but when you're just talking and have nothing to do with shaping what's happening on the ground, you're just talking."

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham expressed alarm about a lack of US engagement in the country where insurgents have waged a brutal civil war against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"There is no military strategy on the table to deal with the malign influence of Iran and Russia," Mr Graham said.

Democrats joined in the criticism, with Senator Chris Coons warning that Mr Trump's administration has "failed to deliver on a coherent plan" in Syria.

Meanwhile, Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, said Mr Assad's regime and Russia have not always been able to hold the terrain recaptured from ISIS.

"As we look at ISIS in areas where we are not operating, where we are not supporting our partners on the ground, there have been ISIS elements who have been able to come back and take territory (including in) some of the neighbourhoods in southern Damascus," Col Dillon said. "We've seen ISIS start to resurge in areas west of the Euphrates River."

The US military is closely watching ISIS in Syria and Iraq, where the militants have lost 98 per cent of the land they once held, according to the Pentagon.

Progress, however, has halted in recent weeks in areas where the US-led coalition is fighting ISIS through the Syrian Democratic Forces, a local proxy group, due to Turkish military action in the north.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2018, with the headline 'US military ceding influence in Syria to Russia, Iran: Senator'. Print Edition | Subscribe