US policy on Assad raises red flags for Syrian opposition

While quickly adding that the present government in Syria was “unacceptable,” US special representative James Jeffrey stressed that behavioural change was on his agenda, rather than regime change.
Sunday 19/05/2019
James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria, attends a session during the third day of the 55th Munich Security Conference, last February. (dpa)
Maintaining pressure. James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria, attends a session during the third day of the 55th Munich Security Conference, last February. (dpa)

BEIRUT - An interview with James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria, raised eyebrows in Damascus and red flags among the Syrian opposition.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Jeffrey said: “We don’t want to replace [Syrian President Bashar] Assad. We are demanding constitutional change and elections under UN auspices.”

While quickly adding that the present government in Syria was “unacceptable,” Jeffrey stressed that behavioural change was on his agenda, rather than regime change.

In what is starting to look and sound like administration policy in what remains of US President Donald Trump’s term at the White House, Jeffrey noted that economic pressure would continue but that the solution was political, “not military.”

This is a far cry from what Barack Obama had said during his presidency, when he insisted that Assad step down. Since becoming president in early 2017, Trump has followed a more nuanced policy, shifting his focus on Syria from regime change to three main objectives.

One was the eradication of the Islamic State (ISIS) and all terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, a task that Obama started but failed to achieve through aerial bombardment.

Trump has done a relatively good job on that front, with US-backed forces demolishing ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Raqqa and tearing down its remains, via Kurdish proxies, throughout Syria.

Second, Trump wanted to empower his Kurdish allies, whom he saw as vital in the war on terror. Ideally, he wanted to carve out a mini-state for them where they could patrol their own borders and ward off external threats.

Despite statements of unwavering support and a regular supply of arms, the US president realised there were limits as to how far he could go on that front, because of strong reservations from Turkey, his ally at NATO.

He has more-or-less downsized that ambition, keeping 400 troops in north-eastern Syria, which he hopes — but cannot guarantee — will scare off a Turkish incursion against the Kurdish strongholds.

Third, Trump wanted to curb the influence of both Hezbollah and Iran, in anticipation of their withdrawal from Syria. On that, Trump failed rather miserably, with no indication of progress in the foreseeable future.

Increased economic pressure on Damascus aims to achieve that objective — rather than decapitation — and so do renewed sanctions on Tehran. Both have backfired.

Instead of breaking away from the Iranians, Syria signed a series of long-term economic agreements with Tehran, the only country in the neighbourhood helping to solve Damascus’s chronic petroleum shortages.

What Jeffrey said in his Asharq Al-Awsat interview basically means that the United States will maintain the status quo on Syria until Trump is ejected from office or re-elected in November 2020. That’s an early signal for the Russians, who milked US election year to death in 2016, taking giant leaps on the Syrian battlefield, while certain that nobody in the US administration was paying real attention.

Once the province of Idlib is finished, however, there will be no big battles in Syria. Syrian Kurds will probably go for a negotiated settlement with Damascus, after their historic leader, Abdullah Ocalan, called on them to go for a peaceful solution.

With battles off the table, the real work will be on the political process, which the Russians are embracing and the Americans are increasingly walking away from. The Trump White House has been “soft” on the UN-mandated peace talks in Geneva, seeing them as the brainchild of former US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Although taking part in all negotiation rounds, the Americans put very little effort into influencing their outcome, attending more as observers, rather than decision makers. They did not object to the emergence of two parallel tracks — one in Kazakhstan, co-led by the Russians, Turks and Iranians and one in Sochi, Russia, led by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Without admitting it bluntly, the Americans seemed to be saying that they did not really care how the Syrian endgame worked out if the last of their three goals on Syria was achieved, being the withdrawal of Iran.

The Russians don’t seem to mind that US condition, not too happy about sharing influence in Syria with Iran or anybody else, but they are far more realistic and trying to achieve that calmly, by encouraging Arab states to re-engage the Syrians, for example, to dilute Iranian influence in stages.

They might try to talk the international community into contributing money for Syria’s reconstruction, pointing to a wobbly constitutional committee that is expected to start work soon, saying that, through it, a political process has started and, thus, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 is on its way towards implementation.

If Trump is re-elected 16 months from now, we will have to see whether he renews the policy outlined Jeffrey or radically changes it, either in favour of peace with Damascus or an all-out confrontation.

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