WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Testifying at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, Acting Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs, David Satterfield, revealed a new US policy on Syria that took even the senators by surprise.
The long-standing US policy—going back to the Obama administration—has been to support the UN-mediated Geneva talks to secure a political settlement that ends Syria’s protracted civil war, as well as Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
However, as successive senators expressed their skepticism about prospects for the success of the Geneva talks, Satterfield revealed that the Trump administration, in fact, shared those concerns and had an alternative plan.
Toward the end of the hearing, pressed by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Satterfield stated, “We absolutely contemplate the kind of alternative outcome that you have laid out, in which the Geneva talks fail, because Russia does not cooperate, and Iran maintains a military presence in Syria, along with the militias it has trained and supported there.”
Satterfield stated that, in that case, the US would maintain an open-ended military presence in eastern Syria where it now has some 2,000 troops.
The US would support northeastern Syria—the area now controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—as a distinct political entity.
US objectives would be two-fold: to provide an alternative political model within Syria to Assad’s brutal rule and to counter “Iran and its ability to enhance its presence in Syria,” Satterfield explained.
Asked about Turkey’s likely reaction, he replied, “We very much understand” Turkish concerns with “the PKK association of many elements of the SDF.”
However, US-sponsored stabilization efforts would include “the emergence of a different kind of local governance-based political structure,” which would not be Kurdish, “but a multi-ethnic mix,” Satterfield said.
“We see significant receptivity” within the SDF leadership in how they “move beyond what they have been in the past and beyond the associations which Turkey finds so objectionable,” he stated.
However, the main purpose of the open-ended US military presence in Syria would be to counter Iran. This point most concerned the committee.
“You are operating under a flawed premise,” Murphy told Satterfield, “which is that there is any future for Syria that does not involve a substantial role for Iran.”
“It worries me that you are telling the committee that our military presence in Syria will continue as long as Iran’s does,” the senator continued.
Satterfield’s revelations came as news to the Committee, and its chairman, Sen Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) affirmed the need to “talk more fully about what may be contemplated.”
As the hearing ended, Corker explained that the Pentagon had refused the committee’s request to testify, giving them “a tremendous runaround.” Perhaps, he suggested, one reason was the seeming “contour change” in the military mission.
To an unusual degree, the Trump administration seems to be coordinating its policy in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia.
On Sunday, the London-based Arabic paper, Asharq Al-Awsat, owned by the Saudi royal family, reported that the US would “soon take concrete steps toward diplomatically recognizing” the region east of the Euphrates under SDF control.
Asked about that report, State Department officials seemed to deny it, reaffirming the US commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity.
However, it now seems to be true, even as Congress will want to hear more, to judge from Thursday’s hearing.
Editing by Nadia Riva