The United States will stay in Syria as long as rival Iran maintains its presence, but the US role will not necessarily involve troops, a senior official said Thursday.
James Jeffrey, the US special representative on Syria, was clarifying recent comments by senior officials who appeared to suggest that troops would stay indefinitely to counter Iran.
Such an objective would drastically alter the mission in Syria first authorized by president Barack Obama who set a goal of defeating ISIS, which also considers Iran a foe.
Asked if President Donald Trump was making US withdrawal contingent on the removal of Iranian forces, Jeffrey told reporters on the sidelines of the United Nations: “The president wants us in Syria until that and the other conditions are met.
But he added: “‘This is not necessarily American boots on the ground.”
“There are many ways that we can be on the ground. We’re certainly on the ground diplomatically,” he said, while adding that no options were definite.
“Boots on the ground have the current mission of the enduring defeat of ISIS,” he said.
The United States has some 2,000 troops in Syria, mainly training and advising both Kurdish forces and Syrian Arabs opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, long hawkish on Iran, said Monday on Syria: “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders.”
Iran, which is ruled by clerics, has been giving both direct support to Assad, a secular leader hailing from the Alawite minority sect, and backing him through the Shiite Lebanese movement Hezbollah.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said Tehran was out to defeat ISIS and would stay as long as requested by the Syrian government.
He rejected the Trump administration’s warnings, questioning why the United States was involved militarily so far from home in the first place.
The Trump administration has withdrawn from a deal on ending Iran’s nuclear program and vowed to challenge Tehran’s influence in Syria as well as Yemen and Iraq.