Top US State Department envoys visit northeast Syria

A previous visit of US Deputy Envoy to Syria David Brownstein (center left) to the Foreign Relations Department of the local administration in the northern Syrian city of Qamishlo, April 14, 2021. (Photo: AANES)
A previous visit of US Deputy Envoy to Syria David Brownstein (center left) to the Foreign Relations Department of the local administration in the northern Syrian city of Qamishlo, April 14, 2021. (Photo: AANES)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – A high-level US State Department delegation visited northeastern Syria on Sunday to meet with local officials, Kurdish-led forces, tribal leaders, and partners in the US-led Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

The dignitaries included Acting Assistant Secretary Joey Hood, Deputy Assistant Secretary and White House National Security Council Director for Iraq and Syria Zehra Bell, Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Special Representative for Syria Aimee Cutrona, and Deputy Envoy for Syria David Brownstein, who is based in Syria.

US to stay in Syria

So far, it's the highest level visit of US State Department officials to the area. Throughout their visit, the envoys stressed that the United States will maintain a presence in northeastern Syria, echoing previous statements by the Department of Defence.

"We still have a presence in Syria to continue to go after ISIS as part of a Coalition effort," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters in March.

Read More: US affirms commitment to fight against ISIS—and reaffirms it after erroneous reports

"The U.S. wants to emphasize successes in the stabilization mission in northeast Syria, at a time when the ISIS insurgency in Deir Azzour persists," Nicholas Heras, a Senior Analyst at the Washington, DC-based Newlines Institute, told Kurdistan 24. 

"Sending the top White House official responsible for Syria policy to Raqqa sends a huge signal that the United States wants to build on good things, such as the rehabilitation of Raqqa, rather than remain focused on the bad things, such as ISIS's stubborn persistence in Deir Azzour."

"This trip is a declaration of Biden's intent to build with the SDF and the Autonomous Administration in northeast Syria."

"A visit by the most important U.S. official working on Syria at the White House is a big deal because the official is higher ranking than a CENTCOM (US Military Central Command) chief," he added.

The US team met with senior officials of the armed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi, the forces’ political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), tribal leaders from the embattled city of Raqqa, and humanitarian actors operating in the area.

"The Acting Assistant Secretary underscored the U.S. commitment to cooperation and coordination in the Coalition to Defeat ISIS, continued stability in northeast Syria, and the delivery of stabilization assistance to liberated areas to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS," the US State Department said in a press release.

"In his engagements, the Acting Assistant Secretary emphasized the U.S. commitment to support all efforts toward a political resolution of the Syrian conflict," the statement said.

Cross-border aid

Moreover, the US Acting Assistant Secretary underlined that "the United States will continue to be a leader in the Syrian humanitarian response while working with like-minded countries to ensure the reauthorization of cross-border assistance into Syria."

In December 2020, Russia and China both vetoed a Security Council resolution that would keep the al-Yarubiah border crossing open, which connects areas in Syria governed by the local Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) eastward to Iraq.

As a result, this crossing was closed on Jan. 10 2020. In July 2020, Russia pressured Germany and Belgium to remove the demand to reopen the al-Yarubiya border in a draft resolution on border aid.

This came amid urgent calls for additional humanitarian aid to Syria due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a worsening economic situation, and severe water shortages. The US has underlined the need in the past to reauthorize cross-border assistance from Yarubiah.

Nadine Maenza, Commissioner at the Official US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), told Kurdistan 24 about her earlier recommendation that the US government expand engagement with AANES.

"So it is encouraging to see a senior US delegation visiting northeast Syria. USCIRF has documented the positive religious freedom conditions under AANES, but it is important for government officials to see this firsthand."

The US delegation also visited the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and met with regional Prime Minister Masrour Barzani on Sunday.

Read More: High-level US delegation meets Kurdistan PM in Erbil

In an earlier interview with Kurdistan 24, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood explained that the US was working "very hard" to help resolve the differences between the federal Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on the budget and oil.

Kurdish dialogue

During their visit to the Kurdistan Region, the delegation and KRG officials "agreed on the importance of continued dialogue between Kurdish political factions (in Syria)."

The Kurdish National Council (KNC) previously held several months of US-backed talks with parties affiliated to its rival, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

The talks were suspended due to the absence of US officials in the run-up to American elections in November and have, so far, not resumed.

Special Envoy to Syria Brownstein previously told Kurdistan 24 the US is ready to facilitate a return to the stalled intra-Kurdish dialogue.

Editing by John J. Catherine