US envoy affirms ‘maximum pressure campaign’ in Syria; ‘residual force’ to remain in northeast

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Laurie Mylroie

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Speaking on Tuesday, Amb. James Jeffrey, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, stressed that the US remains committed to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which provides for a political settlement in Syria.

Jeffrey also said that “for the foreseeable future” a “residual force” of US troops would remain in northeast Syria.

Jeffrey’s remarks came as he addressed a major international security conference in Herzliya, Israel. In the course of the discussion, it emerged that Israel was among those parties which were disturbed by President Donald Trump’s announcement last December that the US would be withdrawing its troops from Syria.

The moderator of the discussion, Tommy Steiner, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy, which hosted the event, explained that Trump’s statements had “created some concern here in Israel,” before he asked Jeffrey, if the US forces in Syria were “there to stay for the foreseeable future” or “are they about to come out?”

Jeffrey first qualified his answer by noting that Trump, as US President and Commander-in-Chief, can decide at any time what he wants to do with those forces. However, Jeffrey’s answer, most simply put, was that US troops would remain in Syria.

That the Israeli government apparently believes that its own security would be endangered by a US pullout from northeast Syria adds a significant reason for Trump not to take such a move, given the close relationship between him and Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Jeffrey explained that Trump “never intended for the US to pull out of Syria” entirely, but “always intended” to keep forces in al-Tanf, which is in the south, near Syria’s border with Iraq, and which occupies a strategic point, straddling the main highway from Baghdad to Damascus.

And even in the northeast, Jeffrey said, Trump always intended to maintain “our critically important air cover,” as well as the ability to conduct “the high end” of special operations against the Islamic State in Syria.

Trump’s statement, Jeffrey said, was an attempt to get others in the coalition “to come in and take over some of this burden.” However, America’s allies, including, presumably the French and British, who also have troops in northeast Syria, were unwilling to remain, if the US pulled out, he revealed.

“We had to report back to the president,” Jeffrey explained, that they were “all saying, ‘In with you, out with you. We need some of your folks here.’”

So in February, Trump decided the withdrawal of US forces would be carried out “in and deliberate and careful way, and we would leave for the foreseeable future—to be defined—a residual force of Americans,” he said.

Jeffrey stressed that “the withdrawal of Iranian forces from the entirety of Syria” remains one of America’s top three objectives in Syria. Another is the “enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Both objectives suggest the need to maintain the status quo in northeast Syria. A US pullout—and resulting vacuum—could allow Iran to expand its presence into that area, while it would also create political instability, creating an environment in which the Islamic State could more easily re-emerge.

The third US objective in Syria, Jeffrey explained, is the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which was adopted unanimously in December 2015, shortly after Russia’s intervention in Syria began.

Although the situation in Syria has changed significantly since then, Jeffrey stressed that Assad is not victorious, as many believe. The regime controls only 60% of the country, while 50% of the population has fled—either outside the country or to areas of Syria not under the regime’s control.

The fighting on the battlefield is basically frozen, Jeffrey stated, and the US seeks now to move the issue “into the political realm” and “reinvigorate the political process.” That involves standing up a constitutional committee, followed by “UN supported free and fair elections.”

To achieve those objectives, the US, along with its allies and partners, are using extreme diplomatic and economic pressure—what Jeffrey called a “maximum pressure campaign” against Damascus, akin to its campaign against Tehran.

However, as Jeffrey explained, this also involves cooperation with Moscow. Since the US does not speak with either Damascus or Tehran, it relies on Russia to act as an intermediary and use its leverage with them.

“The Russians have indicated a real interest” in this, he said. “I accompanied [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo to Sochi in May, where we met with President Putin and talked primarily about Syria and Iran’s role in Syria,” the US envoy explained.

He also noted that the US, Russian, and Israeli national security advisers met last week in Jerusalem to discuss Syria, including the presence of Iranian forces there, and that Trump continued that discussion three days later, when he met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Japan.

But little has emerged regarding what Putin told Trump about Syria in Japan, and the Jerusalem meeting appeared to produce no positive result. Rather, in the press conference that followed, the Russian envoy, Nicolai Patrushev, repeatedly sided with Iran, asThe Times of Israel noted.

Indeed, the panel at the conference that preceded Jeffrey’s talk was entitled, “Russia in the Middle East—Friend or Foe?” There were two Israeli panelists (along with an American and Russian), and both Israelis expressed skepticism about Russia’s intentions.

Ehud Evental, a reserve colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces, noted Patrushev’s statements in support of Iran, suggesting that it indicated “some division” in the talks.

Dr. Dmitry Adamsky, a professor in Herzliya at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, concluded “more keeps Iran and Russia together than keeps them apart.” He also suggested that Russia seeks to maximize its influence by simultaneously positioning itself “as part of the problem and also as part of the solution.”

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