The US will not withdraw its military presence from Syria, as announced by the US special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey on September 6th.
According to Jeffrey, the Trump administration is shifting towards a more expansive plan for Syria that involves not just the defeat of ISIS, but also reducing Iranian influence and preventing Bashar al-Assad from consolidating power.
According to James Jeffrey, President Donald Trump supports the strategy that envisions an indefinite military and diplomatic presence in Syria, contrary to the President’s previous inclination to withdraw US troops after defeating ISIS.
“The new policy is we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year,” he told reporters in Washington. Initially the 2,200 US troops deployed to eastern Syria in support of the multi-national coalition against ISIS was supposed to leave. Instead, they will remain in support of a combined military and diplomatic effort to limit Iranian and Russian influence over post-war reconstruction. “That means we are not in a hurry,” Jeffrey said, adding that he was “confident” Trump supports what he called a “more active approach” in Syria.
As reported by the Daily Caller, the strategy had reportedly been under consideration for within the Trump administration for months, however it was not employed mostly because of Donald Trump’s reluctance to deepen the US involvement in Syria.
As reported by Hurriyet daily news, James Jeffrey’s remarks also hint at a more active US diplomacy against the Bashar al-Assad rule and its main supporters, Russia and Iran, in the new term. This new policy has already been observed at the U.N. Security Council in the last few days where the US, France and Britain have taken a very sharp position against the potential use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in Idlib and elsewhere in the country.
According to the Turkish outlet Hyrriyet, the new US strategy has some aspects that would please Ankara but also some aspects that would further deep dissenting positions of two allies. It’s good for Ankara to hear from the US that Assad has no future in Syria and that the departure of all Iranian soldiers and proxy troops from Syria needs to be ensured. However, the indefinite presence of US troops also means “a much more intensified and continued cooperation with the YPG (People’s Protection Units) /PYD (Democratic Union Party) under the name of the Syrian Democratic Forces.” According to Turkey they are affiliated with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.
The announcement comes as Syrian security forces, supported by Russian forces are preparing an attack on Idlib, which is the last militant stronghold in Syria. The province is home to about 3 million people, more than half of whom were already displaced by fighting elsewhere. According to numbers provided by UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura there are approximately 10,000 terrorists, mostly al-Qaeda and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, present in Idlib.
The Daily Caller reported that there are also at least 70,000 rebel militants also concentrated in Idlib. According to the outlet, a large-scale offensive there could easily turn into the bloodiest battle of the seven-year civil war.
US Foreign Policy officials have warned Assad that continued attacks on Idlib could lead to a US military response. Assad can expect “dire consequences” if he fails to heed Washington’s warnings, Haley said at the UN on September 7th.
The forceful warnings are “new language” meant to signal the U.S. will not tolerate “an attack. Period,” Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey repeated a warning to Russia, saying any offensive in the northwestern province of Idlib is “objectionable” and would be seen as a “reckless escalation.” Jeffrey said a US response to a Russian assault would involve “all of our tools,” but did not elaborate further.
“Any offensive is to us objectionable as a reckless escalation,” he said. “You add to that, if you use chemical weapons, or create refugee flows or attack innocent civilians … the consequences of that are that we will shift our positions and use all of our tools to make it clear that we’ll have to find ways to achieve our goals that are less reliant on the goodwill of the Russians.”
The US Treasury Department, on September 6th, announced the imposition of sanctions on on four individuals and five companies that have facilitated weapons or fuel transfers, or provided other financial or material support, to Assad’s government. They include Muhammad al-Qatirji and his Syria-based company Qatirji Company, said to facilitate fuel trade between the Assad government and IS, and companies based in Syria, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates that procure fuel for the government. “The United States will continue to target those who facilitate transactions with the murderous Assad regime and support ISIS,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
Despite Trump’s pledge to keep US out of foreign wars prior to him being elected and his statements saying it was time for American troops to “get out” of Syria, after being elected, his words once again contradict the Trump Administration’s actions.
The leaders of Iran, Russia and Turkey met in Tehran on September 7th reportedly to look for a way to avert an all-out war, however no outcomes have been reported as of the morning of September 8th.