US representative for Syria: We’re not going to put this country back together
James F. Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria engagement in the US Department of State, answered on Tuesday (30 October) the questions of a small group of Brussels journalists about the state of play in and around Syria.
Jeffrey, a career diplomat who has also served as a US Army infantry officer in Germany and Vietnam, was in Brussels to meet with EU representatives on Syria issues, as part a tour of capitals in the coming days. He explained that this diplomatic effort was a follow up of the recent Istanbul summit on Syria, and an effort to exploit its results for advancing the cause of peace in Syria.
The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Turkey gathered for a summit in Istanbul on Saturday to discuss Syria, where violence this week in the last remaining major rebel stronghold in Idlib has highlighted the fragility of a deal to avert a massive government offensive.
Asked why the US was not represented at the Istanbul summit, Jeffrey said the Turkish hosts didn’t invite it, but added that both France and Germany consulted with their US ally, and made it plain Washington was happy with the summit results. In particular, he mentioned the Idlib ceasefire agreement, and the call for UN envoy Staffan De Mistura to call for a Constitutional Committee by the end of this year. He said that the US was “very much engaged” in Syria with 2,000 troops on the ground and that it was “essential” after seven years to end the war.
Jeffrey described the Syria conflict a a dangerous one in which five forces from the outside were involved: Iranian, Israeli, Russian, US and Turkish. The Idlib situation, he said, could have evolved into a conflict between Iran and Russia on the side of Syria, and Turkey on the other side. “This is large military forces of important countries facing off against each other”, he said, adding that it was very important to control that.
EURACTIV asked if Russia’s message that they had done the job of pacifying Syria and that now it was time for the West and the EU in particular to step in and reconstruct the country, and for the refugees to return, was fair.
“I don’t know what Europe is doing during the Idlib thing, but Donald Trump spoke up and said this would be a reckless escalation. And when Donald Trump says this is reckless escalation and this is followed by Mike Pompeo and others, the Russians listen to it”, he said.
Regarding Russian’s claim that they have pacified Syria, the US diplomat said the Syrian regime controlled 60% of the territory and half of the population, but doesn’t control any oil or gas fields. The other half he said was in areas where the US, Turkey and their allies are located.
On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that his country had completed preparations for a new operation in northern Syria to “destroy” the US-backed Kurdish militia YPG that Ankara considers a terrorist group.
Regarding the Russian call for refugees to come back, the US diplomat said there was nothing to prevent refugees from returning, but of the 10 million refugees and internally displaced persons only 55,000 had returned, because in his words nobody wants to be ruled by Bashar al-Assad, whom he labelled a “mass terrorist and mass murderer”.
“The Russians want us to push those people back, same with reconstruction”, he said.
“Who blew this country apart? It was the Assad regime, with the support of the Iranians and the Russian airforce who blew it apart, we are not going to put it back together, and we are going to do everything we can, and that’s a lot, to ensure that nobody else does”, Jeffrey said.
“We reconstructed Lebanon, in 2006, I was involved in that”, he said, adding that now this country was under Iran’s control through Hezbollah.
Asked about what role the EU should play, the US diplomat said it was important that the Union doesn’t get “blackmailed” by Turkey threatening to flood Europe with refugees. “We don’t want to see 3 million people pushed out of Idlib, many would come here”, he said.
As conditions for reconstruction to begin, the US diplomat said an irreversible political process was needed, including a commitment by the Syrian government to allow the Constitutional Committee to be formed and to work, as well as free and fair elections organised by the UN.
“Once they start doing that, and we have a nation-wide ceasefire, and they don’t try to nibble away the areas where our troops are, or where our allies and the Turks are, we can have another discussion about reconstruction”, he said.
About the return of refugees, he said the US didn’t ask any country to stop refugees from returning, but added the return should be “safe, dignified and voluntary”. “They would not go back with that regime, unless countries push them out, and that’s what Russia wants countries to do”, he said.
There were several takeaways from the recent Quadrilateral Summit in Istanbul on finding a peaceful settlement to the war in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin convened with his counterparts from Turkey, Germany and France for a two-day summit last weekend in a convivial and constructive atmosphere.
The four powers signed a communique emphasizing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. It was Putin who underscored the inviolability of the Syrian government of President Assad as the internationally recognized authority in the Arab country. The communique also endorsed the right of the Syrian nation to self-determination over the future political settlement, free from external interference.
These principles have been stated before in a previous UN Security Council Resolution 2254. But it seems more than ever that the sovereignty of Syria has been widely accepted. Recall that not too long ago, Turkey and France were calling for President Assad to stand down. That demand is no longer tenable, at least as far as the four powers attending the Istanbul summit are concerned.
The upholding of Syrian self-determination bears the stamp of Russia’s long-held position. The acceptance of this position by Turkey, Germany and France is testimony to the key role Russia has established in ending the nearly eight-year war in Syria and now creating the framework for a peace settlement in the war-torn country. This framework has been made possible after Russia’s principled military intervention nearly three years ago, which prevented Syria from being destroyed by Western-backed insurgents.
Ironically, the US and Britain have been pursuing a policy of trying to isolate and delegitimize Russia in international relations. Evidently from the Quadrilateral Summit in Istanbul, Moscow is far from isolated. It is perhaps the linchpin power for the reconstruction of Syria. Furthermore, Russia has emerged as having newfound leadership on the international stage owing to its laudable contribution in salvaging Syria from a foreign-sponsored war to destroy that nation.
Another important takeaway from the Istanbul gathering was that Washington and London were not invited to attend. That speaks to the diminished role these two powers have previously claimed in international politics. Their absence also speaks to the tacit recognition that the US and Britain have played a destructive part in fomenting the war in Syria. Turkey and France have also blood on their hands from likewise sponsoring regime change. But at least, it seems, the latter two have come significantly some way to accepting that the illicit objective of regime change is now a dead-end.
It remains to be seen if the Istanbul communique can be translated into substantive results in terms of Syria’s reconstruction. Both Germany and France appeared at this stage to not commit to providing financial aid. Berlin and Paris appeared to with-hold specific aid, perhaps as a way to maintain some kind of leverage over shaping a final political settlement. That contradicts the principle of recognizing Syrian self-determination. Nevertheless, if millions of Syrian refugees are to return to their country – a paramount issue for the European Union – then the EU must do much more in financing Syria’s reconstruction.
Another glaring contradiction in the communique is that the territorial integrity of Syria is being violated by the US and Turkey. Both have troops occupying swathes of Syrian territory in what is an egregious breach of international law. For a comprehensive peace settlement, all foreign powers present in Syria without a legal mandate must be withdrawn from the country.
While the US was excluded from the Quadrilateral Summit, Washington still exerts a baleful obstacle to peace.
Days after the Istanbul conference, the US envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, made provocative statements that do not bode well. He gloated in the fact that the US has some 2,000 troops in the country, and the State Department official warned that Washington would not permit a normalization of Syria by giving up occupied territory.
Jeffrey told media in Brussels. “We are not going to put it [Syria] back together, and we are going to do everything we can, and that’s a lot, to ensure that nobody else does.”
It was a staggering admission of criminality by the US diplomat. It flies in the face of UN resolutions and the Istanbul communique endorsing Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
However, the threat of further destabilizing Syria by Washington illustrates that US objectives are in direct conflict with those of its European allies.
Germany, France and the rest of Europe need a peaceful reconstruction of Syria if they are to mitigate the refugee crisis that has destabilized the EU. A major political challenge to German Chancellor Angela Merkel from within her own country stems from the refugee crisis that the Syrian war has generated. The US policy of interminable interference in Syria is deeply incompatible with Europe’s interests for restoring peace to the Mediterranean and Middle East region.
Russia has helped decisively to win the war in Syria. But to win the peace, other powers must play a constructive role. Moscow has also decisively led the way to finding a peaceful settlement, from its diplomacy in previous summits in Astana and Sochi.
Far from being isolated or delegitimized, Russia has demonstrated an admirable leadership with regard to Syria. It is the US and Britain that are seen to be woefully isolated, and still pushing a destructive policy.
The Istanbul summit was a vindication of Russian policy. The coming together of Turkey, Germany and France with Russia is further vindication. What these four powers must do is insist on Washington abiding by international law and respecting Syria’s sovereignty. By getting illegal American forces out of Syria that would also go towards solving Turkey’s concerns over US-backed Kurdish separatists occupying territory in northeast Syria.
Washington is the one that is isolated over Syria, not Russia. The Europeans and Turkey are right to recognize Russia as a viable partner with regard to Syria’s future and their own security. By contrast, Washington as currently positioned, and for the foreseeable future, has nothing to offer except a dead-end.