The general in charge of U.S. Central Command said Tuesday that countering Iran is not a mission of the American-led coalition fighting ISIS.
Asked by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) about what the United States can do in Syria to address threats posed by Iran, Gen. Joseph Votel replied: “As you know, countering Iran is not one of the coalition missions in Syria.”
Still, Votel added, the coalition’s relationships with the government of Iraq and with the Syrian Democratic Forces “put us in a position where we can impede Iran’s objectives of establishing lines of communication through these critical areas and trying to connect Tehran to Beirut, for example.”
Votel’s distinction during a House Armed Services Committee hearing comes after Trump administration officials have said the U.S. military will stay in Syria past the defeat of ISIS in part to prevent Iran from gaining influence in the region.
Specifically, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month laid out a U.S. strategy in Syria that includes an indefinite stay for troops.
“U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria,” Tillerson said in the January speech. “As we have seen from Iran’s proxy wars and public announcements, Iran seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally, Israel. As a destabilized nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit.”
Pressed by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) to reconcile his statement with Tillerson’s, Votel said he believes Tillerson was not talking about U.S. military objectives.
“My understanding, as the secretary of State laid this out, is he laid it out not as a U.S. military objective; he laid it out as a U.S. objective,” Votel said.
But, he reiterated, U.S. relationships in the region do allow for the military to “indirectly” counter Iran.
“I think I would characterize it in that regard than us actively doing something militarily against Iran,” Votel said.
Gabbard, who has been highly critical of U.S. operations in Syria, was unconvinced.
“I believe Secretary Tillerson was quite specific in speaking about this within the justification of a maintained U.S. military presence there,” she said.
After the hearing, committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters there are “a lot of legitimate questions” about U.S objectives in Syria.
“He’s clear his assignment from a military force standpoint has been to defeat ISIS,” Thornberry said of Votel. “But obviously you have that larger U.S. policy goal of containing and limiting Iran, maybe not necessarily with military force at the moment, but we’re going to have to– there’s a lot discussion to have on that topic.”
Updated at 2:39 p.m.