Former US secretary of defense Chuck Hagel says the limited number of American troops in northeastern Syria can do nothing to drive Iranian forces out of the Arab country.
“The US doesn’t even control half of Syria. You’ve got 2,000 [US] troops up in the northeast corner. I mean, come on, you’re not going to drive Iranians out of Syria with 2,000 American troops,” Hagel said, rejecting US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s call for the removal of Iranian forces from Syria.
“It’s complete folly to think you’re going to threaten the Syrians or the Russians or the Iranians into anything,” Hagel said in an interview with Defense One.
He said the Iranians live in this region as opposed to the Americans that had involved themselves in the Syrian war from afar.
“Unless you’re going to somehow eliminate the geopolitical realities of that—well, good luck Mr. Bolton. There is no other way around this, you’re going to have to find some resolution based on the common interests of those countries,” he added.
“You tell me what the foreign policy objective is over using 2,000 American troops stationed in Syria and then I’ll give you an answer. I don’t know what our foreign policy objective is in the Middle East or almost anywhere else,” said Hagel, one of the US Senate’s top Republican foreign policy leaders from 1997 to 2009.
“How do you accomplish some stability in Syria?…You’re not going to do that without the Russians, without the Iranians, without the other players in the country, in the region,” he added, questioning the US policy in the Middle East.
His comments came after Bolton ignited speculation last week that the Trump administration may be beginning to lay out legal justifications for military strikes against Iranian or Iran-backed forces.
Bolton told reporters on September 24 that the American forces were not going to leave Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders.”
Hagel’s criticism echoed earlier comments by US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey, who said last week that neither Russia nor the US could force the Iranians out of Syria as their presence was at the official request of the Damascus government.
“We are not going to force Iranians out of Syria. We don’t even think the Russians can force the Iranians out of Syria because force implies force, military action,” Jeffrey said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last Thursday.
“This is all about political pressure” and “technically this is the Syrian government that has invited the Iranians in,” he noted.
However, it was “our expectation that the Syrian government… at the end of the political process or at some point of the politics process will no longer feel the need to have the Iranian forces there,” he added.
Jeffrey said the US president wanted American troops to remain in Syria until Iranians left the Arab country but this did not necessarily mean having American boots on the ground.
At the request of Damascus, Iran has been providing military advisory assistance to the Syrian government forces who are fighting an all-out foreign-sponsored militancy.
In an interview with the al-Alam News Network in June, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Iran did not have any military bases in Syria, stressing however that Syria would not hesitate to give the go-ahead to the Iranians to have bases in the county if necessary.
Assad said Damascus had invited Iran and Russia to Syria, unlike the American, French, Turkish and Israeli troops who he described as “occupying forces”.