Three Questions with Ambassador James Jeffrey, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS
On June 27, Senior Fellow Kadri Tastan sat down with U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Ambassador James Jeffrey, during the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum to discuss the U.S. political and military engagement in Syria. The special envoy focused on President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, de-escalation of the Syrian conflict, political process, a safe zone in the northeastern Syria, and tension with Iran.
The U.S. administration has stated to pursue three objectives in Syria: ensuring the defeat of Islamic State, the complete withdrawal of Iran, and pressuring the regime to cooperate on the political process. Against the backdrop of President Donald Trump having introduced a number of soldiers on the ground, could you please clarify whether the United States has the necessary long-term political commitment to achieve this goal?
Absolutely. President Trump is committed to a de-escalation of this conflict and a reinvigoration of the political process. He made that very clear at the UN General Assembly in September. He feels very strongly about this personally. You may remember several weeks ago he tweeted specifically and quite strongly to the Russians to stop their offensive in Idlib. He follows this closely. He understands the key role of Syria and our overall Middle Eastern policy.
Now, on this withdrawal it’s very clear. First of all, it’s been reversed in the sense that, while the president is continuing with the withdrawal, his plan is to keep for an indeterminate time a residual force in the northeast. But even when he was talking about withdrawing he wasn’t giving up on the northeast. What he said was that he wanted to promote burden sharing and, as we were about to finish the conventional fight against Islamic State along the Euphrates, he thought that a different mission—less combat probably requiring fewer forces—could be taken on by our many allies. And he’s interested in seeing them do things. A good example is that he’s turned to our allies for stability funding in the northeast. In the last two years, we’ve gotten donations of $600 million. We had funded almost $1 billion before. At the same time, we’re continuing our humanitarian funding related to Syria and the refugees and displaced persons. That’s $10 billion. So, it’s not unreasonable, considering all military efforts we’ve made and our financial efforts, to look for a little help.
But when he said we were withdrawing our ground forces he made it clear we were not leaving all towns in the south. So that’s why we’re not leaving Syria totally. We continue to provide air cover over that region, which is by far our most important military action. And thirdly, if we needed to go in to support our partners in the coalition or our local partner’s arm to conduct city raids, we would do so. So, even in December and January, we were very clear that we were simply trying to pull the ground troops out to replace them with other ground troops as part of our coalition—that we would still leave. So, therefore, this had no effect on it.
Now we have decided to keep a residual force and fight in part, to be honest, because what we heard from most of our allies was “We went in with you, we will come out with you.” So, therefore, we said “OK, if we leave some people, will you keep more people in?” And what we’re getting is a very encouraging answer. We’re not ready yet to announce publicly or have the countries announced publicly. But we think you will see that President Trump had a very strong and positive impact on burden sharing. And that’s important because we can’t achieve these three goals alone. We have to achieve them with our friends in the European Union and NATO; we have to achieve them with the UN, with Turkey, with Israel, and with the Arab states. So, the more we get their contributions and their participation in this, the stronger we are, not the weaker.
The area controlled by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the backbone of which is composed of the People's Protection Units (YPG), is under U.S. protection, especially by the U.S. Air Force. Turkey is at odds with the mainly Kurdish YPG. Do you believe that there is a realistic chance to change the Turkish position on the YPG? What would this mean and what would it take? How is the negotiation process with Turkey on the safe zone going?
That’s an interesting question. That’s what I used to do when I was ambassador to Turkey. But in my current role I don’t do that, and I have no idea because my efforts to negotiate a safe zone have nothing to do with a change of heart on the part of the Turks toward the YPG or the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), or a change of heart of the PKK or the YPG toward Turkey. This is a functional military accommodation where the YPG would withdraw from the border with Turkey, because we understand under the right circumstances why on the YPG—given its ties to the PKK and given the extremely negative effect a PKK enclave to the south of Turkey has had on the situation in Turkey over the past 37 years—Turkey has a real security interest. And President Trump knows that, and he stated that publicly.
By the same token, we have certain obligations to those people who fought with us. I would even argue that the YPG is not so much the backbone but an important part of the SDF, and it’s very hard to distinguish between them. What we know is that they all fought with us and without them we would not have defeated Islamic State. So, we want to ensure that they are not mistreated in some way. The safe zone is the best way to do this.
I had a meeting on this subject with Minister Akar yesterday. This surely will come up probably as we’re talking in Osaka at the G20 summit. We’re continuing to negotiate. One major difference is the question of how deep the safe zone would be. Turkey would like a deeper one; we would like a less deep one.
How does the tension between Iran and the United States influence your efforts in Syria?
I would put it into reverse. Our efforts in Syria in many respects are a product of tension with Iran. There is tension because of Iran’s behavior in the region and our decision, particularly by this administration, that we would no longer tolerate it. And thus we have pushed back against all of Iran’s aggressive, illegal, and dangerous activities in the region because they’re all part of one game plan. The game plan exists in the mind of the supreme leader and in particular in the mind of his henchman, Qasem Soleimani. It’s all of a piece. The long-range missile tests; what’s happening in Yemen; what’s happening with ever more precise rockets and missiles in southern Lebanon; everything we see in Syria—it’s all part of a game plan. And thus we have a game plan to confront them. Part of that game plan is an aircraft carrier, part of that game plan is pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, part of that game plan is sanctioning, and part of that game plan is the package that we have for Syria.
That’s not the only reason we’re concerned about Syria. There is the presence of Islamic State, there is the evil of the Assad regime, there are the tensions and dangers involving Israel, and related to the Iranians is the Turkish interest in security on its southern border. But almost all of this one way or another is tied to the actions of the Assad regime and those actions have been very much influenced by Qasem Soleimani. So, we need a policy that aims to either push back Iranian influence or restore Syria to something like a normal state that is going to have to confront Iran, and that’s what we’re doing every day.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.