Mattis dismisses fears US being dragged into a broader conflict

Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius Aphrem II, gives a sermon during mass at the heavily damaged Syriac Orthodox church of St. Mary in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. (AFP)
Updated 10 February 2018

Mattis dismisses fears US being dragged into a broader conflict

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has dismissed concerns that the US is being dragged into a broader conflict in Syria, after a major clash with pro-Syrian regime forces in Deir Ezzor province that may have left 100 or more dead.
The US-led coalition said it repelled an unprovoked attack near the Euphrates River by hundreds of troops aligned with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who were backed by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.
Mattis described the attack on the US-backed fighters, who were accompanied by US special operations forces, as “perplexing.” But he described the retaliatory US-led coalition strikes as defensive and limited in nature.
Asked whether the US military was stumbling into Syria’s broader conflict, Mattis said: “No. This is self-defense.”
“If we were getting involved in a broader conflict, then it would have had an initiative on our part,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.
“For some reason, pro-regime forces — and again, I cannot give you any explanation of why they would do this — moved against SDF positions” where US special forces were also on the ground, Mattis said.
The pro-Damascus forces “began shelling it with artillery,” he added. “They were moving with tanks, obviously in the same direction as they were firing.
“At the end of our effort to defend ourselves, their artillery was knocked out, two of their tanks were knocked out, they had casualties.”
Mattis did not offer a specific death toll. The Pentagon would not confirm the figure given by the US official late Wednesday.
The US-led side quickly contacted their Russian counterparts to attempt to ensure the situation did not escalate, Mattis said, adding: “The Russians, at that time, were telling us they did not have forces there.”
The fighting took place less than 10 km east of the so-called “deconfliction zone” set up by the US and Russia along the Euphrates River, with Russian forces to the west and US forces to the east.
Moscow and Washington coordinate their air and ground operations against Daesh in this zone.
Mattis said he could not identify the attackers.
“We know they were pro-regime forces but... Iranian, Assad, Russians, mercenaries... I can’t tell you,” he said.
He explained that the US-led coalition had picked up on the movements of pro-regime forces in the area a few days before, but they were not immediately hostile.
Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told a news briefing that Washington was not “looking for a conflict with the regime.”
The incident underscored the potential for further conflict in Syria’s oil-rich east, where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias holds swathes of land after its offensive against Islamic State.
Assad, who is supported by Russia and by Shiite militias backed by Iran, has said he wants to take back every inch of Syria.
The pro-regime forces were “likely seeking to seize oilfields in Khusham” east of the Euphrates in Deir Ezzor province, said a US official on condition of anonymity.
US Sen. Tim Kaine, who sits on Senate foreign relations and military oversight committees, said the episode raised serious concerns about the open-ended US military presence in Syria.
“I am gravely concerned that the Trump administration is purposefully stumbling into a broader conflict, without a vote of Congress or clear objectives,” Kaine said.
No US or US-backed forces died but the US official who spoke anonymously estimated that more than 100 pro-Syrian regime forces were killed in the counter-attack.
The US-led coalition was set up in 2014 to battle Daesh in both Syria and Iraq, who were largely defeated last year. Some 2,000 US forces remain on the ground in Syria, allied to the Kurdish-led SDF alliance, which holds the largest swathe of territory still outside the control of the government.

Iran scrambles for European lifeline

A special meeting of the Joint Commission of parties to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) on Iran’s nuclear deal is in progress in Vienna. (Reuters)
Updated 24 min 1 sec ago

Iran scrambles for European lifeline

  • ‘Noose is tightening on Tehran’ in face of US sanctions, expert tells Arab News
  • US President Donald Trump has long criticized the deal with Iran saying it failed to do enough to curtail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

JEDDAH: Signatories of the Iran nuclear deal met in Vienna on Friday in a bid to save the agreement after Washington’s dramatic withdrawal earlier this month.

For the first time since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) came into force in 2015, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany gathered — at Iran’s request — without the US, which pulled out of the agreement on May 8 and said it would reinstate sanctions.

US President Donald Trump has long criticized the deal with Iran — concluded under his predecessor Barack Obama — saying it failed to do enough to curtail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Speaking to AFP after Friday’s meeting, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Abbas Araghchi, said: “We are negotiating... to see if they can provide us with a package that can give Iran the benefits of sanctions lifting.” 

“Practical solutions” were required to address Iran’s concerns over its oil exports, banking flows and foreign investment in the country, he said.

Russian delegate Mikhail Ulyanov struck an upbeat note after the meeting, saying: “We have all the chances to succeed, provided we have the political will.

Harvard scholar and Iranian affairs expert Majid Rafizadeh told Arab News that it would be against Europe’s interests to stay in the deal.

“The European nations should be cognizant of the fact that the beneficiary of the nuclear deal is Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and its militias,” he said. “Staying in the deal or submitting to the Iranian regime’s new demands will inflict damage on the EU’s geopolitical and national security interest in the short and long term.”

The EU could not thwart or skirt US primary and secondary sanctions against Iran, he said. Rafizadeh said Iran’s hard-liners were attempting to obtain concessions from the EU by threatening to pull out of the JCPOA.

“But from the perspective of the Iranian leaders, giving concessions means weakness. And although Iran is playing tough, it needs the deal to support Bashar Assad and its proxies.

“The European governments should be aware that the Iranian leaders — moderates and hard-liners — are playing a shrewd tactical game.

“The regime is playing a classic ‘good cop, bad cop’ game. The moderates set the tone on the international stage through their shrewd diplomatic skills and softer tone, while the hard-liners take a tougher stance to help the moderates win more concessions,” said Rafizadeh.

Oubai Shahbandar, a Syrian-American analyst and fellow at the New America Foundation’s International Security Program, said the noose was tightening on Tehran.

“European firms simply cannot afford the penalties imposed by US secondary sanctions on Iran. The Iranian plan to press Europe to compensate for President Trump’s policy decision to restart a crippling sanctions regime is unlikely to prove fruitful,” he told Arab News.

Recent revelations of a covert Iranian facility designed to develop long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles that can be fitted with nuclear warheads will only complicate matters for Tehran as it scrambles for a European lifeline, Shahbandar said.

“The collapse of the JCPOA is likely to prove a major shock to the Iranian economy in the long run,” he said.