On September 26, 2018, the Saudi London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published an exclusive interview with James Jeffrey, the new U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement, in which he addressed the situation in Syria, the Iranian forces' presence in Syria, the objective behind keeping U.S. troops in Syria, and the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. It should be noted that the English edition of the daily published only a synopsis of the interview.
In the interview, Jeffrey called the current situation in Syria "dangerous" and likened it to the situation that prevailed during the 1973 (Yom Kippur) war, when the military forces of several countries were operating in the region. He emphasized that the U.S. and Russia were in constant contact in all echelons in order to prevent clashes. Praising the September 18, 2018 agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with regard to Idlib, Syria, he nevertheless warned that military action in the region while the agreement was still in force would damage efforts to attain peace in the region.
Regarding the presence of Iranian and Iranian-supported forces in Syria, Jeffrey said that the demand that they withdraw from Syria was realistic, since the fighting in Syria was over. He emphasized that Russia alone was the key to their removal because of the influence it has on Iran. A contradiction in Jeffrey's statements emerged when he was asked about the possibility that the U.S. would use military force to remove the Iranian forces; while he stressed that his country would not use military force, he also stated that one of the objectives of the U.S. military presence in eastern Syria was to work diplomatically and militarily with allies to achieve the goal of expelling the Iranian forces.
According to Jeffrey, the U.S. forces in eastern Syria has two additional objectives: completely defeating ISIS and preventing jihadi organizations like it from reemerging, and implementing the diplomatic process.
As for the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Jeffrey clarified that his removal is not an objective for the U.S., and that his fate would be determined by the Syrians themselves. However, he noted that a U.S. objective was to hold the perpetrators of war crimes accountable, and that his country would apply economic and diplomatic pressure and would not take part in rebuilding Syria or diplomatically recognize the regime in the absence of an irreversible political process. He also emphasized that a solution in Syria must include a constitutional process and elections, and noted that there was a possibility that Assad would be ousted by his people in a constitutional process, just as former Iraqi president Nouri Al-Maliki was.
The following is the translation of Jeffrey's interview:
James Jeffrey (Image: Nadaa-sy.com)
Q: "Following the signing of the Sochi agreement and the establishment of a demilitarized zone around Idlib along with a ceasefire, have American fears of a possible military blow against Idlib and of the Syrian regime using chemical weapons been assuaged?"
A: "The sides that negotiated the Sochi agreement are Russia and Turkey. In our view, and based on the reports we have received, the agreement will lead to the removal of the threat for a time, to the reduction of fears of the use of chemical weapons, and to a reduction of the threat to [the lives] of some three million people, most of them civilians. In Idlib, there are 2.9 million civilians, in addition to 60,000-70,000 fighters. They say that 10%-20% of these [fighters belong to] the terror organizations, and the rest belong [to organizations] that oppose the Syrian regime. We believe that the achievement of this Turkey-Russia agreement is good and hope that it will be honored, will be maintained, and will represent a turning point in this conflict that will pave the way from the battlefield to the negotiating table, with commitment to the Geneva process and to UN Security Council Resolution 2254. But at the same time, the humanitarian situation must not be forgotten. President Trump was clear in his statements that any military process now would be an immoral deterioration [in the situation], not only because of the possibility of a large wave of refugees or of the use of chemical weapons, but because any military measure [taken in Idlib] while there is an Iran-Russia-Turkey agreement [defining Idlib] as a de-escalation area will be the last nail in the coffin of peace in the region."
Q: "How do you envision the Russian role in Syria? And do you think that Iran's exit from Syria is attainable?
A: "We are holding continuous contacts with the Russians on all levels. President Trump spoke at length with President Vladimir Putin during the [July 2018] Helsinki summit. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and the military commanders of the two sides communicate on a daily basis to calm any clashes. We want to see Russia support UNSCR 2254 and use its influence in Syria to guarantee the withdrawal of pro-Iran forces from Syria. We see no reason for the Iranians to stay in Syria once this war ends, and clearly the fighting [has already] ended, so we think that the Iranians should leave now. There is no element but the Russians that we can work with to get the Iranians out of Syria. The U.S. will not use military force to get the Iranians out of Syria. We have examples of withdrawal of military forces from areas of fighting when wars end, [such as] the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s after the end of that war. Demanding that Iran withdraw from Syria is not unusual, and it is achievable.
Q: "How long will the Americans remain in eastern Syria, and if the American forces [do] remain in Syria, what will be their aim? Is the aim restricted only to defeating ISIS?
A: " First of all, the aim of keeping [U.S. forces in Syria] is to defeat ISIS and to assure that what happened in 2012, when the American forces withdrew from the region and Al-Qaeda reappeared in the form of ISIS, will not recur. Keeping [forces] there is to guarantee that new ISIS-type organizations will not emerge. Second, we want to be partners in the diplomatic [moves] by means of [our] allies, and also on the military level, in actualizing the goal of getting Iran out of Syria. Third, [U.S. forces would remain in Syria to guarantee] that there is a political process, not to occupy [it]."
Q: "After the Russian aircraft was downed by Syrian regime fire, Russia blamed Israel and declared that it would supply Damascus with the S300 system. How do you view the situation, and how great is the danger that miscalculations will lead to clashes?
A: "There are five foreign forces involved in the Syria conflict: the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Israel. Each country has its own goals that it wants to achieve, and therefore each is after a different actor. Israel is after Hizbullah, the U.S. is after ISIS, the Russians and Iranians are after Assad's opponents, and the Turks are after the Kurds as well as ISIS. All these forces are successful in their attacks on these actors. Now, there is a dispute among the countries themselves. The Israelis are chasing Iranian positions in Syria, and likewise the U.S. has clashed with the Russians. Thus, any miscalculation or misjudgment always raises concern, and this is a very dangerous situation.
"The last time there was a situation similar [to that of today] was the 1973 war, when Israelis were on the verge of defeat by the Egyptians at the Suez Canal. At that time, five military forces were operating in the Mediterranean region – the Americans, the Egyptians, the Israelis, the Russians, and the Syrians – and all [were involved] in military clashes. Thus, this situation in Syria is dangerous."
Q: "In the shadow of this dangerous situation, how will the U.S act in the framework of the UN General Assembly sessions to tackle the crisis in Syria, and what strategy will it adopt?
A: "We are calling a meeting on Thursday [September 27] with foreign ministers, including from the U.S., Germany, Britain, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, that will focus on humanitarian efforts. We are acting behind the scenes – talking with Israel, Turkey, Russia, and other countries in an attempt to find a solution to this crisis that will bring Syria back into the international community. The aim here is to facilitate the next step [of extrication] from the military conflict between, on the one hand, the Syrian government and its friends and, on the other, the Syrian opposition and its supporters, and to move forward from this military conflict towards a political process in the framework of the Geneva process and UNSCR 2254."
Q: "How do you envision the political solution in Syria, and what power does the U.S. have to actualize the political solution it seeks?"
A: "A political solution in Syria requires forming a commission to draft a new constitution, achieving security, and holding elections. The U.S. and its allies demand that UN Special [sic] Envoy [to Syria] Staffan de Mistura form the commission as soon as possible, before October 31. The U.S. can actualize a political solution by saying to the international community: Are you happy with what has been happening in Syria since 2011 – the emigration of 10 million Syrians, the emergence of ISIS, 35,000 ISIS fighters taking control of areas in Syria and Iraq, and the scenario of a conflict among the countries involved in the Syria crisis[?] Our power or ability is to address the international community here in New York [at the General Assembly, and say] that we must put an end to this and that we have a different, political track. Second, the military situation in Syria is quite stable right now, and we can take this opportunity to move ahead. Third, neither the U.S. nor [the rest of] the international community will take part in rebuilding Syria – and Syria is in desperate need of rebuilding – unless they see that there is an irreversible political process underway from which a new Syria will emerge – one that does not threaten either its people or its neighbors.
"What took place during the Syria crisis gave rise to terrorism and to the use of chemical weapons, and brought Iran into Syria, [and from there it can] threaten Israel, Jordan and Turkey. All of this needs to stop. We will not help Syria unless it accepts a political solution, because neither Russia nor Iran can extend economic assistance to Syria."
Q: "Does this mean using economic pressure on Syria in order to push it into a political process?"
A: "It's not just about economic or financial pressure. They [i.e. the Syrian regime] needs international recognition so that it can again be a normal state. The international community, the Arab states, the European Union, and the U.S. do not view Syria as a normal state. Only Russia treats Syria like a normal state. Even China does not treat it as such, and voted against Syria in several Security Council resolutions. Therefore, the Syrian regime is diplomatically isolated and economically impoverished."
Q: "In light of this American perception of the political process, what will be Bashar Al-Assad's fate? Has the U.S. backed down from its demand that Assad must go?
A: "My country’s goal is not to remove Assad. We will be happy if he leaves and declares his departure voluntarily. But this is not our goal. Our goal is a different Syria that does not threaten its people or neighbors, does not use chemical weapons, does not expel refugees and displace people from its territory, and does not provide Iran with a platform to launch rockets against Israel. Another goal is to hold the perpetrators of war crimes accountable. Assad's fate will be determined by the Syrians. If Assad can lead Syria in that direction, perhaps the Syrians will take this into account."
Q: "U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the solution in Syria must include a constitutional process and elections. From your experience as U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, and [the experience of] the ratification of the Iraqi constitution, how will you be able to force the Assad regime to honor the constitution and hold free and fair elections?"
A: "[Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] Al-Maliki was removed from office through the constitution because he could not prevent ISIS from taking control of areas in Iraq. No country in the Middle East had removed a leader because he did not meet the expectations of his people... I was present when the Iraqi constitution was drafted, and I was skeptical; but the Iraqis believed in the constitution, and I do not know what prevents Syria from moving in this direction."
 Aawsat.com/English, September 26, 2018. While most of this article was translated from the Arabic, a few quotes from this synopsis in English were retained.
 The Aawsat.com English synopsis cites Jeffrey as stating that one of the objectives behind the American military presence in eastern Syria is "to expel the Iranian forces out of the country."
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 26, 2018.
 It should be noted that contradictory reports have recently appeared about the American forces remaining in Al-Tanf, at the Syria-Iraq-Jordan border triangle. The Russian outlet Sputnik has published reports in recent weeks stating that the U.S. was planning to evacuate its Al-Tanf base at the border triangle and would as a first step dismantle the Al-Rukban refugee camp, that was hosting U.S.-supported rebel groups. Sputniknews.com, September 20, 2018. On the other hand, on September 16, 2018 the U.S. CENTCOM reported on an exercise conducted by its forces at the base. Centcom.mil, September 16, 2018.