The Trump administration is said to be developing a new strategy to focus more heavily on pushing Iran’s military and its proxy forces out of Syria. According to an NBC News report, five people familiar with the new plan said that it will further increase of political, economic and diplomatic efforts to force Iran out of Syria and to punish Russia for its support to the Assad government.
“It would withhold reconstruction aid from areas where Iranian and Russian forces are present, according to three people familiar with the plan. The U.S. would also impose sanctions on Russian and Iranian companies working on reconstruction in Syria,” NBC News said.
Also quoted by the NBC News report was Mark Dubowitz, chief executive at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which the outlet described as “a think tank strongly opposed to the Iranian regime”.
“There’s a real opportunity for the U.S. and its allies to make the Iranian regime pay for its continued occupation of Syria,” Dubowitz said.
U.S. defense officials worry the increased focus on Iran and the presence of both militaries in Syria could pull U.S. forces closer to open conflict, bit that as of now it is not seeking an open confrontation with Iranian forces in the war-torn country.
The U.S. is not allowed to specifically expand the U.S. military mission in Syria to directly target Iranian assets, according to legal experts, because that would put the U.S. on the wrong side of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in 2001. That authorization, which permitted the use of military force against ISIS in Syria, limits U.S. action to targeting groups responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and their associates.
“If the new strategy means opening the door to using force against Iran or Iranian military forces in Syria there needs to be a new Authorization for Use of Military Force,” said Professor Oona Hathaway of Yale Law School. “Targeting Iran clearly falls outside the scope of the current AUMF which only includes groups with ties to 9/11. Iran doesn’t meet that test. It would be amazing if [the Trump administration tries] to make the claim this falls under the current AUMF. That would be stretching this AUMF way past its breaking point.”
A defense official said under the new plan the military would continue to talk about the mission in Syria as counter-ISIS, downplaying the fight against Iran, while the White House and State Department would increase their focus on countering Iran by squeezing them economically and diplomatically.
An administration official said that since last year Trump’s Syria strategy has pursued four goals — defeating ISIS, deterring Assad’s use of chemical weapons, creating a political transition in Damascus, and curbing “Iranian malign influence in Syria so that it cannot threaten the region, to include ensuring the withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces from Syria.”