US to expand Syria operation: Defense Secretary

French special forces reinforcing U.S.-led operations in Syria, says Jim Mattis
WASHINGTON: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday the U.S. will expand its operations in Syria despite President Donald Trump’s stated willingness to withdraw from the war-torn country.
“We are continuing the fight [against Daesh],” Mattis said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Defense Department budget.
“We are going to expand it and bring in more regional support; [it] is probably the biggest shift that we are making right now.”
Emphasizing the presence of anti-Daesh coalition members in the region, he said the fight will continue until Syria is completely cleared of Daesh.
Mattis also said operations against Daesh would increase on the Iraqi side of the border while France had reinforced the U.S. in Syria with special forces in the last two weeks.
Earlier this month, Trump said U.S. troops would be leaving Syria “very soon” since Daesh had been defeated, arguing that U.S. spending in the Middle East was futile and detracted from domestic spending.
But the Pentagon described reports of plans to pull American troops out of Syria as “rumors”, adding the U.S. would continue fighting Daesh there. Trump later agreed to keep them in the country for the short term.
At a recent joint news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron at the White House, Trump again noted that he wanted American troops to return from Syria but also did not want Iran to strengthen its influence in the region, especially after the defeat of Daesh.
During the hearing, Mattis was also asked for his opinion on whether the U.S. should stick with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran deal.
Clashing with Trump, who considers the 2015 Iran nuclear accord “insane” and the “worst deal ever”, Mattis highlighted the value of some parts of the agreement, adding that Washington is working with its European allies to see if there are ways to improve the pact.
But Trump has repeatedly attacked the deal and has threatened to pull out of it unless Washington and its European allies strike a side deal with conditions largely unrelated to the original agreement that would cover Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional activities.
When asked, Mattis said no decision had been made on any U.S. withdrawal.
“The decision has not been made whether we can repair it enough to stay in it, or if the president is going to decide to withdraw from it,” he said during the hearing.
The U.S. recognizes that the nuclear pact was an “imperfect arms control agreement”, he said.
“I will say it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat. So the verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust,” he added. “Whether or not that is sufficient, I think that is a valid question.”
The pact’s other signatories – Britain, France, Germany, the European Union, China and Russia — view the deal as the best way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran has adamantly denied its program was intended to develop nuclear arms.
Trump has until a May 12 deadline to decide whether he will continue to extend sanctions relief on Iran with or without the side deal he has sought. Should he fail to extend relief, the deal would almost certainly collapse.–AA

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