US sees potential in Syria’s ‘relative peace’

“We’re very close to a potential breakthrough or a breakdown this week,” said James Jeffrey, the US State Department’s special representative for Syrian engagement.
Tuesday 18/12/2018
In this June 5, 2014, file photo, a man rides a bicycle through a part of Homs, Syria, devastated by the country's civil war. (AP)
In this June 5, 2014, file photo, a man rides a bicycle through a part of Homs, Syria, devastated by the country's civil war. (AP)

WASHINGTON – An unprecedented period of calm in Syria is creating an opportunity for warring parties and the international community to achieve a diplomatic end to the country’s devastating civil war, the United States’ special Syrian representative said December 17.

“We’re very close to a potential breakthrough or a breakdown this week,” James Jeffrey, the US State Department’s special representative for Syrian engagement, said in remarks at a Washington think-tank.

“What we have for the first time is… relative peace and relative calm throughout all of Syria,” Jeffrey said, noting some exceptions such as shelling in Idlib and ongoing fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. “Compared to the fear that this conflict has dished up since 2011, it is relatively peaceful. We believe that this allows a brief opportunity for diplomacy to work,” he added.

Jeffrey’s remarks at the Atlantic Council were far more optimistic than his grim outlook in early December after parties meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, failed to initiate talks about a new or revised constitution for Syria. At the time, Jeffrey said negotiators from Russia, Turkey and Iran failed to break a stalemate about who would sit on a constitutional committee for Syria and that countries should prepare to “pull the plug” on the so-called Astana process.

Jeffrey’s latest remarks came three days before UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is scheduled to issue his final report to the UN Security Council on whether Russia, Turkey and Iran have assembled a credible constitution-writing panel consisting of representatives of the Syrian government, opposition supporters and civil society. De Mistura leaves his post-December 31 and will be replaced by Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen.

Russia and Turkey have told US officials that a proposed constitutional panel meets criteria established by the UN, but Syrian opposition supporters “do not accept the list,” Jeffrey said. “That’s a huge problem for de Mistura.”

“There is a chance that we could see a breakthrough with the constitutional committee,” Jeffrey added. “But right now we’re not there.”

Jeffrey also said the United States, which has several thousand troops in north-eastern Syria, was in no rush to resolve the Syrian conflict, particularly if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tried to dictate the outcome of a political settlement.

“This is something that’s certainly sustainable for us,” Jeffrey said, referring to the situation in Syria. If Assad tries to set the terms of a political solution, “he’s going to have to wait an awfully long time,” Jeffrey said. “And meanwhile, the resources we’ll devote to this conflict compared to the resources we will devote to trying to contain Russia, trying to deal with China, even trying to deal with the situation in Afghanistan are very very limited and [are] mainly in the area of taking care of refugees.”

The United States in August rescinded $230 million in planned funding for stabilising Syria as other countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, agreed to spend $300 million on Syrian stabilisation.

Steven Heydemann, a college professor who formerly directed the Syria programme at the nonprofit United States Institute for Peace, told the Arab Weekly that Jeffrey was sending a message to Assad and to Russia.

“The US is in a position in which it can maintain its current posture indefinitely,” Heydemann said in an interview after Jeffrey’s remarks. “If the Assad regime thinks we’re going to accept an outcome in which the regime’s preferences guide where the country goes, they’re kidding themselves. We don’t have to act.”

“The US isn’t in any particular rush,” Heydemann added. Jeffrey is signalling to Russia “that we’re not going to respond to their efforts to push us to act on the issue of reconstruction or normalisation. We feel no need to move on those issues any time soon.”

The question that will determine the outcome of negotiations in Syria, Jeffrey says, is whether Assad will compromise with international efforts to resolve the more than 7-year-old civil war that has killed about 500,000 Syrians and displaced 11 million people. “The international community is not going to resolve this on terms favourable to the regime unless it has to, and it doesn’t have to,” Jeffrey said.

Reconstruction funding from Western nations such as the United States and European countries would depend on Assad’s willingness to compromise, Jeffrey said. Reconstruction costs have been estimated at $300 billion to $400 billion, and Western nations will not make substantial payments “unless we have some kind of idea that government is ready to compromise and thus not create another horror in the years ahead,” Jeffrey says.

Jeffrey, a well-regarded veteran US diplomat, was named the State Department’s special envoy in August. He had denounced US President Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential election as potentially dangerous to US national security and since his appointment has operated largely independently of the administration.

The State Department did not announce Jeffrey’s appearance at the Atlantic Council or provide a transcript afterwards, as it customarily does when officials speak publicly.