With his signature Friday, President Trump cleared the way for Congress to begin a monthslong review of his evolving strategy in Syria.
The creation of a 12-member Syria Study Group was tucked inside an unrelated bill Trump just signed into law, the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. The legislation allows Republicans and Democrats to appoint experts to the panel, which is mandated to hand a final report to Congress in six months.
The review panel, championed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., comes as the U.S. military works to eliminate remaining Islamic State forces in Syria after four years of war and the Trump administration pushes a new policy aimed at keeping a presence there until Iran leaves.
It “will bring outside experts together to finally develop a U.S. strategy in Syria,” Shaheen, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, said in a statement.
The senator’s office did not return repeated requests for comment.
Trump said earlier this year he wants the roughly 2,000 troops in Syria to return home “very soon,” but his own advisers, cabinet members, and military leaders have indicated in recent days that the U.S. may remain involved for the foreseeable future.
James Jeffrey, Trump’s special envoy to Syria, said the administration’s goals in Syria now include countering Iran, which has moved into the country amid the seven-year-old civil war at the invitation of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Iran is pursuing its own long-term presence. The U.S. will remain to counter that, but the strategy does not necessarily mean American “boots on the ground” and could include oversight of local or regional Arab forces, Jeffrey said.
“While we don't have any direct military tasks that have been given to us in terms of that, we do recognize that our presence on the ground, our development of good partners on the ground does have an impact on Iranian activities,” Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, said on Thursday.
The legislation signed by Trump on Friday orders that the Syria Study Group, which will be co-chaired by a Republican and Democrat, should get “full and timely cooperation” from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
The final report will include a full assessment of activity by Iran, Russia, and others in the country, military and diplomatic recommendations, and “options for a gradual political transition to a post-Assad Syria,” according to the legislation.
The panel of experts will make a progress report to lawmakers in January.