US said planning targeted economic sanctions to push Iran out of Syria

New Trump administration strategy will deny reconstruction aid to areas hosting Tehran’s forces, sanction Russian and Iranian companies delivering aid, TV report says

A US soldier sits on an armored vehicle at a newly installed position in Manbij, north Syria, April 4, 2018. (Hussein Malla/AP)
A US soldier sits on an armored vehicle at a newly installed position in Manbij, north Syria, April 4, 2018. (Hussein Malla/AP)

The Trump administration is reportedly planning to impose economic pressure including targeted sanctions in a bid to push Iranian forces out of Syria.

The new plan, part of a broader White House strategy to contain Iran in the region, stops short of endorsing military force against Iran or its proxies in Syria, NBC News reported Tuesday.

The new strategy employs targeted sanctions and the withholding of reconstruction aid to pressure Syrians to push foreign powers out of their war-ravaged country.

It calls for sanctions against Iranian or Russian companies working on reconstruction in Syria in a bid to limit their influence after the end of the civil war. It also calls for withholding American reconstruction aid to areas that continue to host Iranian or Russian forces, according to NBC News, which cited “five people familiar with the plan.”

Curbing “Iranian malign influence in Syria so that it cannot threaten the region, to include ensuring the withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces from Syria” is a key element of US President Donald Trump’s Syria strategy, according to an unnamed administration official quoted in the report.

The official mentioned three additional goals: Deterring the deployment of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, advancing a political transition after the war’s end, and defeating the Islamic State group.

“The United States will continue to seek to hold Assad accountable for his crimes,” the official added. “Pursuant to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, the administration will soon submit to Congress a strategy for Syria that reflects the president’s key priorities.”

“There’s a real opportunity for the US and its allies to make the Iranian regime pay for its continued occupation of Syria,” Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, was quoted as saying.

The US is limited in its options against Iran’s presence in Syria in part because of US law. US operations in the region are regulated under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) law passed in 2001 by the US Congress.

But that law allows the use of force only in defensive situations or against groups responsible for the 9/11 attacks and their associates.

“If the new strategy means opening the door to using force against Iran or Iranian military forces in Syria there needs to be a new Authorization for Use of Military Force,” NBC quoted Yale Law School’s Prof. Oona Hathaway as saying. “Targeting Iran clearly falls outside the scope of the current AUMF which only includes groups with ties to 9/11. Iran doesn’t meet that test. It would be amazing if [the Trump administration tries] to make the claim this falls under the current AUMF. That would be stretching this AUMF way past its breaking point.”

Instead, the Trump administration will use sanctions and other economic levers, which fall under the president’s legal purview and would be administered through the State Department and White House, to pressure Iran to leave Syria.

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