US Envoy: Syria has relative ceasefire, needs to be made lasting

Jeffrey emphasized that in almost all of Syria—except where the US and its partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), are pursuing the Islamic State (IS) in the last area it controls, Hajin, just north of the Iraqi border—“there is a relative cease-fire.”

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan24) – The State Department’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement, Amb. James Jeffrey, updated reporters on Wednesday on US efforts and objectives in regard to that country.

Jeffrey emphasized that in almost all of Syria—except where the US and its partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), are pursuing the Islamic State (IS) in the last area it controls, Hajin, just north of the Iraqi border—“there is a relative cease-fire.”

This marks a significant change from just two months ago, when a massive and bloody offensive, conducted by Syria and its Russian ally and likely involving the use of chemical weapons, was widely anticipated against Idlib Province, the last rebel-held stronghold.

Jeffrey attributed the success in averting that assault to the summit between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi in mid-September, when the two leaders reached agreement on a demilitarized zone in that province.

However, it should be noted that Turkey was fully backed by a reinvigorated US policy on Syria, of which the appointment of Jeffrey to his current position in mid-August was a significant part.

Once the US protested that a bloody offensive in Idlib would not be tolerated, European powers joined in. Erdogan went to Sochi with strong Western support, and Putin backed off from the planned attack.

Jeffrey stressed the importance of transforming these multiple, ad hoc ceasefires into a nationwide ceasefire, as envisaged in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. There are many armed actors in Syria, both state and non-state, and conflict can easily re-erupt, whether by accident or design.

The basic US objective is the “enduring defeat” of IS, and that requires fundamental political change, Jeffrey said. It includes “a Syrian regime that is not as toxic as the current one” to its “own people and to the neighborhood,” as well as the departure of “all Iranian-commanded forces” from Syria.

Indeed, this reflects the most basic of military tenets, as expressed by the great nineteenth-century German strategist, Karl Von Clausewitz: “war is politics by other means”—that is, the proper objective of war is a political goal, not merely the defeat of an enemy force.

As Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and currently Senior Fellow at Soran University, remarked to Kurdistan 24, the Obama administration, under which the war against IS began, shrunk that objective to just the defeat of IS and never dealt with the problem of what comes afterward.

Jeffrey remarked that IS’ predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), “was almost totally defeated” in the period that he served as US ambassador in Baghdad, from 2010 to 2012.

Yet AQI “was able to regenerate itself, because there was no long-term strategy in either Syria or Iraq,” he said, “but particularly in Iraq,” where US attention was then focused.

Davis noted that, quite ironically, the US may be addressing the problem in Syria, but it persists in Iraq today. Citing the hasty US withdrawal in 2011, and the corrupt, sectarian government it left behind, Davis suggested that it is quite possible yet another iteration of AQI may appear in a few years.

Before the rise of IS, Davis explained, Iraq’s Sunnis were excluded from the political process, providing fertile ground for the terrorist group.

To avert such a scenario in the future, there needs to be political and social involvement down to the local level, which means “the locals buying into their own future.” Davis cited earlier structures, established under US auspices, designed to do precisely that, like the Sons of Iraq, the Sunnis who fought AQI.

They disappeared after the US left, even as it is far from clear that the new Iraqi government is prepared to address the problem and prove itself less sectarian than its predecessors. But “without real Sunni participation,” IS “will again have a base to build upon,” Davis concluded.

Others, including Gen. Michael Hayden, former Director of the CIA, believe that a fundamental restructuring of these state structures is needed because the changes in recent years “have been so fundamental that the status quo ante”—reestablishing a unitary Syria and a unitary Iraq—“will not be stable.”

Hayden suggests that four new political entities are required to reflect the area’s distinct populations: a Kurdistan, a Sunnistan, a diminished Iraq with a Shia identity, and a rump Syria with an Alawite identity.

Contemporary Syria and Iraq were created by the British and French, victors in World War I, out of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Given the dreadful losses of that war—recalled earlier this week in Paris on the 100th anniversary of its end—the victors were determined to squeeze all they could from the losers.

That led, as is well-known, to another world war, which produced political change in Europe and the seven decades of relative peace that have followed. However, no comparable change has occurred in the Middle East. Quite possibly, that is the underlying problem.

Editing by Nadia Riva