WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) — Amb. James Jeffrey, US Special Representative for Syria and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the continued protection of its principle partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.)
“We are committed to those who have fought with us not being attacked and not being harmed by anyone,” Jeffrey said on Thursday, as he responded to a question from Kurdistan 24.
“The President made that clear publicly,” he continued.
That brief sentence is critical. President Donald Trump is the top decision-maker and invoking his position is to say that this really is US policy.
“That includes our concerns about the Turks,” Jeffrey added, before balancing his initial statement with expression of concern for Ankara.
“Equally, we’re very concerned about the threat of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] and offshoots of the PKK against Turkey,” he continued, in apparent reference to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who constitute the military leadership of the SDF.
Notably, the SDF’s Kurdish leadership has affirmed that it is not a threat to Turkey and that it would welcome talks with Ankara. As their spokesman, Mustafa Bali, told Kurdistan 24 they have expressed their “readiness to engage in a dialogue” with Turkey “on the basis of mutual respect and acceptance.”
Last week, Jeffrey held three days of talks in Turkey about the future of northeast Syria, but the two sides reached no agreement.
Jeffrey indicated that the main obstacle had been disagreement over the depth of the safe zone that is to run inside Syria along its border with Turkey.
“The Turks want a deeper zone than the one that we think makes sense,” Jeffrey explained. The US is proposing a security zone of five to fourteen kilometers, he said, “with heavy weapons drawn further back.”
A secondary issue is “how we—the US and the Turks—would operate in that zone,” Jeffrey stated. “But we’ve continued talking at various levels, including military-to-military,” and “we’re willing to work with them on this.”
“We think that this is a deal that we can sell to the people of northeast Syria” and “that’s very important,” he concluded.
In addition to the Kurds, other minorities in Syria, including Christians, are quite concerned about a Turkish assault.
Jeffrey detailed the ongoing efforts in northeast Syria to ensure the complete eradication of the Islamic State there. The terrorist organization no longer controls territory, but elements remain, and they have gone underground.
“We are working with the Syrian Democratic Forces, our local partner, to go after the cells that have been left behind,” Jeffrey said. “We are seeing a diminution of the remaining, limited ISIS capabilities in the northeast.” However, “ISIS elements are still very active” south of the Euphrates, where “the Assad regime does not have control,” and in Idlib province, as well, he explained.
Jeffrey also provided some insight into the nature of the Islamic State: it is primarily local. That is similar to what Najmaldin Karim, governor of Kirkuk province until the October 2017 Iranian-Iraqi assault on Kirkuk, told Kurdistan 24.
Jeffrey explained that the SDF holds some 10,000 “terrorist fighters” from the Islamic State. “Most of them, about 8,000, are Iraqi or Syrian nationals,” he said.
Similarly, the families of Islamic State members are predominantly Iraqi and Syrian. There are some 70,000 women and children at Al Hol camp, of which 60,000 are Iraqis or Syrians.
The Islamic State fighters from Iraq are to be moved to Iraq, Jeffrey explained, while the Syrian fighters are to be put on trial in Syria. He called on other countries to take their nationals back and put them on trial, as well.
Amb. Nathan Sales, the State Department’s Counterterrorism Coordinator, spoke alongside Jeffrey. Inadvertently, Sales suggested the inefficacy of the war on terror that the US has fought since the September 11, 2001, attacks: nearly 19 years ago.
The George W. Bush administration believed it would finish that war during its eight years in office. But, of course, that has not proven to be the case at all.
As Sales explained, the Islamic State may be largely defeated in Iraq and Syria, but its “brand lives on around the world.”
“ISIS-linked groups are on the rise,” he continued, citing Africa as a particular example. “ISIS branches and networks now span” the entire continent “from east to west and north to south.”
Asked about al Qaida, Sales responded that it “is as strong as it has ever been,” suggesting it has been rebuilding, while the US has been focused on the Islamic State.
The briefing concluded with the question: where have you been successful?
Sales responded, “Every time somebody is taken off the battlefield and incarcerated” and “especially every time one of those detainees is then taken back home and prosecuted, that’s a success story right there.”
A retired Army officer responded to that comment, asking “Does he remember Vietnam? That’s body counts!”
A key metric for the US military in Vietnam was the number of enemy killed in conflict. It proved meaningless.
Another retired officer, involved in post-Vietnam military reform, related a telling story. Older officers resented his efforts, which, in effect, were tantamount to the charge that their strategy had been fundamentally flawed.
They claimed the US had won in Vietnam. “How could they say that?,” this reporter asked in astonishment. “Because we killed more of them than they killed of us,” he replied.
But, of course, the US really did lose that war.
Editing by Nadia