US official says ‘Iran has got to get out’ of Syria

James Jeffrey blamed Iran along with Russia for the destruction of Syrian cities.
Tuesday 18/12/2018
US special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey attends a meeting at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, last September. (Reuters)
US special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey attends a meeting at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, last September. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON – The Iranian military must leave Syria in order to reduce tensions in the fractured country and enable a political settlement to Syria’s devastating civil war, the United States’ special Syrian representative said December 17.

“Iran has got to get out there,” James Jeffrey, the US State Department’s special representative for Syrian engagement said in remarks at a Washington think tank.

The presence of Iranian troops, missiles, rockets and air-defense systems in Syria is a serious threat to Syria’s neighbors, including US allies Israel, Turkey and Jordan, and escalates regional tensions, Jeffrey said. In mid-September, Syrian anti-aircraft guns inadvertently shot down a Russian military airplane over Syria, killing 15 people on board, in fighting that erupted after Israeli missiles hit an Iranian airplane delivering weapons to Damascus.

“This is the kind of escalation the Iranian presence brings,” Jeffrey said in remarks at the Atlantic Council. “It’s not that we just don’t like Iranians far from their shores. We just do not like the extremely dangerous situation that they introduce to a cauldron of danger and horror that is the Syrian conflict. So our position is that they need to go.”

Jeffrey’s explanation provided more nuance to the US policy in Syria, where several thousand US troops are stationed in the country’s northeast and diplomats are trying to negotiate an end to a war that has killed 500,000 and displaced 11 million Syrians. The administration of US President Donald Trump has said that it has three goals in Syria – defeating the Islamic State, replacing the Damascus government and countering Iran.

Jeffrey’s remarks point to the strategic importance of removing Iranian troops from Syria to create a stable environment that will enable a political settlement to the seven-year-old civil war.

“The presence of Iranian forces, particularly power projection forces in Syria, is first and foremast a concern for Israel but it’s also a concern for every other country that borders Syria and it’s a big concern for the United States as well,” Jeffrey said. “We see no reason to tolerate this. We see no reason for this to be there. We see this as sparking a conflict.”

Jeffrey blamed Iran along with Russia for the destruction of Syrian cities, which has created reconstruction costs estimated at $300 billion to $400 billion. “It’s largely rubble,” Jeffrey said, of the parts of Syria controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, “because of the way Iranians and particularly the Russians carried out actions in the cities against opposition.”

North American and European nations will not pay that cost as they paid to reconstruct Lebanon following its war with Israel in 2006. “We paid the bill for something than an Iranian surrogate launched,” Jeffrey said, referring to Hezbollah, which attacked Israel from positions inside Lebanon. “That’s not going to happen again.”