“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 in an interview with Defense One. “It’s complete folly to think you’re going to threaten the Syrians or the Russians or the Iranians into anything.
“The Iranians live there,” he continued. “The US doesn’t live in the Middle East. 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.”
“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.
So what is US policy in the Middle East?
Hagel’s criticism came at a moment of intense scrutiny of the Donald Trump administration’s strategy to box in Tehran, an objective that officials have made a cornerstone of the president’s foreign policy in the region. National Security Advisor John Bolton last week ignited speculation that the Trump administration may be beginning to lay out legal justifications for military strikes against Iranian or Iran-backed forces when he told reporters at the United Nations General Assembly in New York that the US would maintain its presence in Syria as long as Iran-backed forces were present in the country — an apparent policy shift that appeared to reverse years of Pentagon assertions that US forces are only there to fight Daesh.
“This is not the Obama administration, would be my message to Iran and anybody else,” Bolton told reporters at the White House later on Thursday while rolling out the Trump administration’s new strategy, which makes Iran a focus.
Hagel — one of the Senate’s top Republican foreign policy leaders from 1997 to 2009 and later defense secretary for Barack Obama — scoffed at the notion that the presence of 2,000 US troops in Syria would be sufficient to ensure the departure of the thousands of forces and proxy militia leaders operating in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
“You tell me what the foreign policy objective is to 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,” Hagel said.
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.
The US admits the presence of Iranian advisers in Syria is at the request of Damascus, expressing hope the government would discharge them.
“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.
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 terrorism and militancy.
In an interview with Iran’s 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 country 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".
The US military long has claimed that Congress’ authorization to fight Al-Qaeda and its affiliates gives it permission to fight Daesh in Syria. But Congress has passed no legal authorization for US military forces to directly engage with Iranians or Iranian-backed forces.
Defense One and Press TV contributed to the story.