There are some 2,000 Iranian troops currently on the ground in Syria, the US’s top US military officer estimated Tuesday, suggesting that they were helping cement embattled president Bashar Assad’s hold on power together with Russian airstrikes.
Newly minted Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph L. Dunford, fresh from a trip to the Middle East that included a visit to Israel last week, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the “balance of forces” is currently in Assad’s favor.
He also said some thousand Iranian troops were in Iraq.
“I think there’s more than 1,000 that are on the ground in Iraq,” Dunford said. “In Syria, we think the numbers are probably something less than 2,000.”
Iran, which together with Russia is one of Assad’s staunchest backers, has acknowledged sending military advisers to Syria and Iraq to help beat back the radical Islamic State group, but insists it has deployed no actual fighters on the ground.
However, Israel has expressed worries that Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, which has been mired in Syria for years, have been using the fighting in Iran as a pretext to set up bases along the Golan border from which to launch attacks against the Jewish state.
Russia, which recently began a bombing campaign in Syria, also insists it is targeting Islamic State fighters, but critics, including US officials, have charged that Moscow is mainly targeting other rebel groups to help Assad maintain power after nearly five years of bloody civil war.
Dunford said that when he was in Baghdad last week, leaders had assured him they had not asked Russia to extend airstrikes into Iraq.
Pentagon chief Ashton Carter, who also testified at the hearing ahead of a meeting with visiting Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, said that the US was preparing to up its fight in Syria against the Islamic State, including intensified airstrikes and some boots on the ground.
“We won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL, or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground,” Carter said.
But Republicans at the hearing expressed disapproval at the US’s strategy, saying Washington should actively seek to overthrow Assad.
“Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are going to fight for their guy and we are not going to do a damn thing to help the people who want to change Syria for the better by getting rid of the dictator in Damascus,” Senator Lindsey Graham said, calling the US approach “half-assed” at best.
Lawmakers asked why America hasn’t established no-fly zones or protective buffer regions in Syria.
In Syria, Carter said, the US would support moderate Syrian forces fighting IS militants, who have made territorial gains near Raqqa. He said the US hopes to better equip anti-IS forces, further bolster Jordan and intensify the American air campaign with additional US and coalition aircraft to target IS with heavier strikes.
“In the new train-and-equip effort that we described today, we will look to identify and then support capable and motivated forces on Syrian territory that are willing to take on IS,” Carter said. “We have identified some of them already. And the new approach is to enable them, train them and equip them, rather than trying to create such forces anew, which was the previous approach.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report