WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - On Thursday, Amb. James Jeffrey, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, described the Trump administration’s thinking about the future of Syria, including Syrian Kurdistan.
Jeffrey, speaking to reporters in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, laid out three well-known US objectives: 1) “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State (IS); 2) “reinvigoration of the political process;” and 3) “removal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria.”
Questioned as to whether President Donald Trump had formally approved the idea that “a condition for US withdrawal from Syria will be the removal of Iranian forces and their proxies”—a big and difficult task—Jeffrey replied, “The President wants us in Syria until that, and the other conditions are met.”
“But I want to be clear here,” Jeffrey continued, as he revealed a new dimension to US thinking, particularly relevant to the Kurdish position in Syria.
“Us [remaining] in Syria is not necessarily American boots on the ground,” he explained. “Boots on the ground have the current mission of the enduring defeat of [IS.]”
But “there are many ways we can be on the ground,” Jeffrey continued, giving several examples, including, “for many years” the US “had local allies on the ground in northern Iraq, and we provided air support.”
Jeffrey was referring to Operation Provide Comfort—which helped deter Baghdad from attacking the Kurdistan Region from 1991 through 2003, when the US-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein and his regime.
Those twelve years of self-rule laid the basis for governance in the Kurdistan Region today—widely considered far more successful than governance in Iraq proper.
Indeed, speaking late last year, former National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, said, “It’s a miracle, almost, what happened in Northern Iraq,” referring to the Kurdistan Region.
So, as Jeffrey proposed, one possible outcome of the current situation is a prolonged stand-off between a US-led coalition, with a minimal presence on the ground, and a hostile Baathist regime. That would offer an opportunity to Kurds in Syria, similar to what Kurds in Iraq enjoyed (as Kurdistan 24 has suggested.)
Jeffrey also affirmed that Syria’s Kurds “should participate” in the UN-led political process to determine Syria’s future.
Asked whether Kurds would be part of the talks led by Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Syria, Jeffrey replied, “The SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces], which involves both Kurdish and Arab forces, are our allies in the fight against [IS.]”
“There is a position that we take, and that everyone else takes,” Jeffrey continued, “that all of the people in Syria, including the people in the northeast, should participate in the political process.”
Jeffrey is known as a very capable and tough-minded diplomat, but he has good relations with Turkey, while he has never been particularly friendly toward the Kurds. It is perhaps notable that he addressed two questions involving the Kurds, while scarcely mentioning the word. However, the substance of his reply was otherwise positive from a Kurdish perspective.
Jeffrey’s press conference was part of a reinvigorated US effort that began with his appointment in late August to shape the outcome of the Syrian conflict.
Also, on Thursday, six countries—Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Great Britain—joined with the US to issue a statement calling on de Mistura “to convene, as quickly as possible, a credible, inclusive constitutional committee” to start “drafting a new Syrian constitution” to lay “the groundwork for free and fair UN-supervised elections.”
That is resisted by Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies. Jeffrey explained their perspective of just a few months ago—which has now been upended by the tough, new US policy on Syria, in which he is a central player.
Damascus and its allies believed the US was pulling its troops out of Syria, Jeffrey explained, as they prepared for their final military offensives.
“They would pretend to be participating in the political process,” placating the international community while creating new facts on the ground, which would make “the regime a reality.”
“Live with it,” would be the message, Jeffrey continued, and “let the reconstruction money flow.”
Indeed, the influx of refugees into Europe as a result of the upheavals in the Middle East, including in Syria, has had major political consequences in several European countries, and both Turkey and Russia use that as leverage: do what we ask—or there will be more refugees.
It may appear that the regime has succeeded in re-establishing control over most of Syria, but Jeffrey highlighted the extent to which that was not so.
Bashar al-Assad holds only half of the Syrian territory, and “half the population is not under his control,” Jeffrey said.
Those people are “either in areas controlled by our allies and the partners in the northeast or by Turkish allies or Turks themselves in the northwest, a few even in our area around al-Tanf in the south.”
Including the refugees outside of Syria, “that’s over 10 million people,” he stated.
Assad is “sitting on a cadaver state with almost no economy, no access to his fuel and gas resources,” and “no hope” of reconstruction aid, because the US, “supported by a very strong majority in the European Union, is blocking that.”
Editing by Nadia Riva