For US in Syria, end game gets murkier as IS shrinks

WASHINGTON (AP) — The closer the U.S. gets to its original goal in Syria of defeating the Islamic State group, the murkier its end game. New layers of complexity are descending on a shifting battlefield, as demonstrated by a deadly barrage of American air and artillery strikes on a shadowy attacker.

The Pentagon insists it is keeping its focus on defeating IS, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday U.S.-backed fighters in eastern Syria faced a “perplexing” overnight assault by about 300 pro-Syrian government fighters whose nationalities, motives and makeup he could not identify. A number of U.S. military advisers were present alongside local allied forces, and the Americans led a punishing response that other officials said killed about 100 of the assailants.

Mattis asserted the episode was an aberration that should not be seen as an expansion of the U.S. war effort. But Trump administration critics disagreed. The Pentagon boss also dismissed any suggestion that Russia, the Syrian government’s most powerful military ally, had any control over the mysterious attacking force.

“I am gravely concerned that the Trump administration is purposefully stumbling into a broader conflict, without a vote of Congress or clear objectives,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, who has challenged the legal grounds on which American troops can operate in Syria for post-IS operations.

Mattis rejected Kaine’s suggestion the U.S. is being drawn into a broader war.

“It was self-defense,” he said. “We’re not getting engaged in the Syrian civil war.”

The Pentagon says there are about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Many are operating with local allies, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, in the eastern oil-producing Deir el-Zour region along the Euphrates River. A stronghold of Islamic State militants until late last year, the area was the group’s main source of oil revenue. U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces have been competing for control of Deir el-Zour with Russian-backed Syrian troops that are reinforced by Iranian-supported militias.

This is essentially the Islamic State’s last stand in Syria, having ceded most of its Syrian and Iraqi territory over the past couple of years.

While Washington’s mission is to finish off IS and ensure it does not return, the U.S. also has a stake in stabilizing swaths of Syria. In that endeavor it is encountering friction with Turkey, a NATO ally that opposes any cooperation with Syrian Kurdish fighters. It sees them as an existential threat to Turkey.

Beyond fighting IS in its few remaining pockets of influence, the U.S. has been working in areas of Syria liberated from IS to restore basic services and set up interim governing structures until the war between Syria’s government and rebel groups can be quelled. Mattis said Thursday the goal is to create conditions for a U.N.-led political resolution, though there are no indications one could be achieved anytime soon.

Keeping U.S. forces on the ground in areas that President Bashar Assad’s government hopes to reclaim inherently increases the probability of more clashes. But the United States argues that if it were to pull out, a fight for control over these areas would ensue.

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