Iran is the leading source of instability in the Middle East, and ISIS also remains a threat to the region, even though the organization does not hold territory anymore in Iraq and Syria, the deputy assistant secretary for defense for the Middle East said April 5, 2022, at the Wilson Center.
Dana Stroul said Iran’s continued sponsorship and cultivation of violent proxies and terrorists, its proliferation of increasingly advanced and lethal unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, its ballistic missile program, maritime aggression and smuggling activities at sea all comprise reasons why Iran is a threat.
“U.S. forces specifically, who remain present in northeast Syria to assist in the fight against ISIS through local partners, experience on a very regular basis threats from Iran and Iran-backed proxies,” she said.
ISIS remains intent on reconstituting and continues to direct and inspire attacks in the region and beyond it, Stroul added, she said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has reaffirmed U.S. commitment to maintaining U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria in an advise-and-assist capacity to support partner forces in their fight against ISIS.
The Middle East is a key theater for competing with China. It’s not a pivot, but rather, it’s how DOD “thinks through competing with China in the Middle East,” she explained. “Second, we as a department are leaning into multilateral security cooperation to effectively deter against Iran and Iran-backed threats, violent extremist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda, and other transboundary threats; and third, we support the State Department in implementing proactive diplomacy to reduce tensions and de-escalate ongoing conflicts.”
DOD’s Global Posture Review particularly emphasized the United States will maintain its presence in Iraq and Syria to support its partners’ efforts to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS, Stroul said.
“The [Syrian President Bashar Assad’s] regime’s continued pursuit of a military solution to the conflict enabled by Russia and Iran has left the Syrian people more vulnerable today than ever before,” she said. “Syrians today are more hungry, more impoverished and further away from achieving any measure of political reform than they have been at any point in [the Syrian] conflict,” she said.
“Assad remains intransigent, untouched and unmoved by the misery around him. In recognition of this reality, the [President Joe Biden’s] administration’s approach to Syria is grounded in several essential priorities: expanding humanitarian access throughout Syria, preserving and maintaining our military presence in partnership with local partners, including the Syrian Democratic Forces to maintain pressure on ISIS,” Stroul said.
Stroul said the United States will not lift or waive sanctions on Syria. “We do not support the reconstruction of Syria until there is irreversible progress toward a political solution.”
On the DOD mission, she said, the specific authorization for DOD to be in northeast Syria is to defeat ISIS, and the goal for U.S. partners is for them to independently maintain pressure to prevent ISIS from reconstituting in Iraq and Syria. “But the reality is this is not going to be achievable in the short term, which is why we continue to emphasize in every policy and strategy document our commitment to maintaining U.S. force presence in Iraq and in Syria,” she added.
DOD continues to operate as part of the global coalition to defeat ISIS, which brings together 79 nations and five international organizations to provide an array of military capabilities, funding and political support to the campaign against ISIS, Stroul said.
“As the nation looks at the continued brutal imagery and reports coming out of Ukraine, those in the Middle East and those displaced by the violence in Syria know all too well what prolonged and sustained Russian support for an aggressor looks like in Syria,” she said.
“And we know what it looks like for the international community to not stand together and demand accountability for those actions. It seems to me incredibly important that those in the Middle East committed to a rules-based international order from which we have all benefited; now’s the time to stand up,” the deputy assistant secretary said.
“Know that this is a black-and-white situation when it comes to Russian aggression in Ukraine,” she said. “When it comes to displaced persons, war crimes and atrocities, we have seen this before since 2015, when Russia decided to back Assad in Syria. And now, of course, is the time to stand together not only in demanding accountability and pushing back across information operations, humanitarian aid [and] punishing sanctions in the Ukraine context, but to reaffirm our commitment to not letting Assad’s atrocities in Syria stand.”