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(Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The United States must establish a comprehensive strategy and vocalize its goals for the increasingly complex, multifront war in Syria, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers said Thursday.

Republican and Democratic members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs urged top officials with President Donald Trump’s administration to appear before the committee to explain its priorities in Syria following its dramatic shift in policy this month toward Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Days after the White House signaled Assad’s removal from power was not a priority for the administration, Trump approved a U.S. missile strike April 6 on a Syrian government air base. The strike was in response to the regime’s chemical weapons attack two days earlier on Syrian civilians and the adminsitration has since indicated Assad should be removed from power.

Committee members from both parties expressed support for the Tomahawk missile strike that destroyed more than 20 Syrian warplanes at al-Sharat air base, but they questioned the administration’s actions – or lack thereof – in the three weeks since the attack.

“I think the response was appropriate,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the committee’s ranking member. “But a few weeks down the road we are left asking where do we go from here? What are our objectives in Syria? What’s the strategy? The short answer is this – at this point there seems to be no strategy.”

Engel said the administration must seek Congress’ approval for any further military action in Syria, and urged a vote on an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, an act that would directly support military operations within that country.

“I think it’s very important that the president tells Congress what his plans are on Syria, and Congress needs to give him authorization to make any kind of military moves,” he said.

Top administration officials have indicated further use of chemical weapons by Assad’s troops would bring another U.S. strike. However, there is some evidence that the Syrian government has launched at least three attacks using chlorine-filled barrel bombs since the April 6 assault, said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who testified to the committee.

Lister urged the administration to develop a “holistic approach” to dealing with Assad, the threat of terrorism – including the Islamic State and al-Qaida – and the influence of Russia and Iran on the country.

“The first step to developing a more effective Syria policy is to acknowledge that Syria can be divided into dozens of unique, semi-contained conflicts and that countering terrorism isn’t enough to protect our interests,” he said. “We need a holistic strategy that treats all of Syria’s various symptoms as inter-linked components of one big root cause.”

Until the April 6 attack, the United States had focused its military actions in Syria exclusively on terrorism with occasional strikes on al-Qaida targets and a massive campaign against ISIS that includes air and artillery strikes and special operations support for partnered forces known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The counterterrorism fight alone is not enough to end the war that has killed some 500,000 civilians and displaced about 12 million more, Lister said.

He urged the Trump administration to play a larger role in ending the conflict.

“Clearly the status quo is not working,” he said. “Determined U.S. leadership backed up by the credible threat of force and a holistic underpinning strategy represents the best opportunity to strong arm actors into a phase of meaningful de-escalation out of which a durable [peace] negotiation process may eventually resolve it.”

The Republican chairman of the committee agreed.

“The United States and our allies must work together to advance a plausible vision of a post-Assad Syria,” said Rep. Ed Royce of California. “This won’t be easy, but Syria can’t keep going on and on like this. That’s not in our humanitarian interests, it’s not in the interests of the region or of America’s national security. This has to change.” Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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