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.