ISIS is down to its last few hundred fighters and less than a square kilometre of land in a battle for its final Syrian stronghold, although it may have 15,000-20,000 armed adherents in Syria and Iraq, U.S. envoy James Jeffrey said on Friday.
“We are just about finished with the campaign along the Euphrates to defeat the last territorial holdings of the ‘caliphate’. They’re down to a few hundred fighters and less than a square kilometer of land,” said Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS (Islamic State).
Jeffrey said the United States was helping the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria to secure IS prisoners but was also launching a campaign to get countries to take back foreign fighters and their families, to prosecute or re-educate them.
Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared its ultra-radical Sunni Islamist “caliphate” and established a rule known for mass killings, sexual enslavement and meting out punishments such as crucifixion.
“We believe that there’s between 15,000 and 20,000 Daesh armed adherents active, although many are in sleeper cells, in Syria and in Iraq,” Jeffrey said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Speaking to reporters on a video call after attending a Syria humanitarian conference in Brussels, Jeffrey said the struggle to defeat Islamic State ideology would go on and there was no timetable for a full U.S. withdrawal from Syria.
The United States would also maintain a force at al-Tanf close to the Iraqi and Jordanian borders to bolster local forces against Islamic State.
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Ambassador James Jeffrey, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
Ambassador Jeffrey: It’s a pleasure to be here today because we’ve got exciting news about the European Union-UN Conference on Donors for Syria Humanitarian Assistance that was held here yesterday, and I was the head of the U.S. delegation.
We saw representatives of over 60 countries and many international organizations commit to continue to help the terrible conditions of roughly half the Syrian population with pledges of over $7 billion including approximately $400 million that the U.S. government made yesterday. This is an extraordinary humanitarian response to what in many respects is the biggest humanitarian crisis we have in the world today.
But the other thing that’s important is, the participants in this conference recognize that this is not just a humanitarian crisis. This crisis has a cause, and the cause is the behavior of the Assad regime and those who have supported Assad. Therefore, there was a very strong commitment alongside the humanitarian donations to pursue a de-escalation of the combat and a political process under the UN where all of us would support the UN Envoy, Geir Pederson. He was newly nominated to try to find a solution to what is now an eight-year-old conflict.
Question: Could you please describe the actual cost of the troop withdrawal from Syria as well as for the residual force that’s left there? Also, is there a time table?
Ambassador Jeffrey: A, there is no time table. B, costs are complicated when you’re talking about military operations. The total cost of our military operations in Syria last year was approximately $2 billion out of a defense budget of $700 billion. So therefore, a very small part of it. And that was primarily for our precision guided munitions to ensure that we were hitting Daesh or ISIS targets and not the civilians.
We anticipate with a smaller force going on into the future and with far less combat because the final battle against Daesh is about to finish, that we will have far less costs going into the future on a yearly basis than we have now. But again, there is no time table.
Question: What commitment is the U.S. looking for from European allies on military presence in Syria? And which European countries have agreed to what so far?
Ambassador Jeffrey: The President in withdrawing our forces in December, and that withdrawal in principle stays but we’re keeping some of the forces on for an indefinite period of time to continue the core mission that our forces and our coalition members who are also in Syria with us were carrying out, which is the enduring defeat of ISIS. As I said, we are just about finished with the campaign along the Euphrates to defeat the last territorial holdings of the Caliphate. They’re down to a few hundred fighters in less than a square kilometer of land.
But, the struggle to defeat the ideology, the struggle to defeat super cells, the struggle to secure and stabilize regions that have been terrorized by ISIS for years, both in Iraq and in Syria, particularly in the northeast where we feel we’re responsible, will continue. Thus, aside from a small number of American troops we’ve asked other members of the coalition to provide certain troop contingents as well, as part of the President’s very important goal of burden-sharing among our alliance members and coalition members. We’ve gotten what I would call very positive responses from a good number of countries, but no one has made a final determination because we’re still working out the specific missions and the specific military needs. But I think that this will be in the end, a good news story.
Question: There are American assurances about the impossibility of normalization with the Assad regime, but the political solution is still faltering or elusive. Does the U.S. have plans to speed up the political process since you spoke earlier about the importance of forming a Syrian Constitutional Committee?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, we’re absolutely committed, and what I heard yesterday from, as I said, over 60 countries and international organizations, is that the international community is committed to holding the Assad regime’s feet to the fire on the political process that was laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 for a Syrian government that behaves differently. Because we can trace back the rise of ISIS, the huge refugee flow — 6.5 million people, as many as that plus millions more displaced within Syria — all back to the behavior of the regime.
So there’s no purpose in trying to deal with the consequences of this tragedy, humanitarian assistance, as an end in and of itself. We have to work on the political process. But in the end, that is a process by and through the Syrian people facilitated by the UN which has appointed an envoy for that purpose, Geir Pederson, and supported by the United States and other countries. So it is not America’s job to lead this process, it is America’s job and that of many other countries to support it, and we are supporting it in every way possible. We are meeting constantly with people from other key countries that have stakes in the Syrian conflict, and that’s many countries, to ensure that the UN and that the Syrian people move in the right direction.
We, again, are confident that in the end we will prevail.
Question: Turkey wants the ultimate control in the proposed safe zone in Northern Syria, but the U.S. military officials, especially CENTCOM, dislike that idea. How will you convince Turks about not having the last say in the safe zone?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, diplomacy is diplomacy. You take various positions and you try to find bridging strategies and bridging solutions.
The President has made clear that he is very concerned about Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. The Turks are afraid that the SDF, our local partner in Northeast Syria which is partially Kurdish and largely commanded by Kurdish individuals, does have ties with the PKK and thus Turkey has legitimate security concerns. The President has pledged, and the rest of us have, to meet these Turkish security concerns. We’re also very concerned, however, that we do not see any mistreatment of the Kurdish population who has risen up with us against Assad, not Assad, against Daesh and to some degree also against Assad. So we’re trying very hard to find a way to meet both these sets of concerns.
Again, we’re confident that we’ll find a solution but we have not yet.
Question: What is being done to counter the regrouping and strengthening of Daesh within Iraq? Is there a concern that Daesh will rise once again, even after the Caliphate in Syria is retaken?
Ambassador Jeffrey: There is a great concern. We believe that there is between 15,000 and 20,000 Daesh adherents, armed adherents active, although many are in sleeper cells in Syria and in Iraq. The good news is that other than this small stretch of territory along the Euphrates, Daesh no longer controls terrain. They no longer have a Caliphate or a state. They longer have an organized army, heavy weapons. But they are able to function, if you will, as a terrorist organization and as a low-level insurgency and they’re very active in parts of Iraq.
We’re concerned, the Iraqi government is concerned, the other members of the 79 nation, an organization coalition against Daesh are concerned. Thus many of us, including the United States, have military presence in Iraq to assist the Iraqi government against Daesh as well as economic programs, training programs, and other civil society, stabilization assistance to Iraq to defeat this threat.
Question: Iran is among the countries you know well. How can Iran be prevented from continuing its destabilizing role in Syria?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Iran’s destabilizing role begins not just in Syria but throughout the region. Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen.
First and foremost, we have to accept that Iran has no long-term role as a power projection force throughout the Middle East. Thus, our call for all Iranian-commanded forces to be withdrawn from Syria.
Iran entered Syria initially to try to prop up the Assad regime. To some degree it succeeded. But then it introduced long range weapon systems like we have seen in Southern Lebanon and like we’ve seen in Northern Yemen, and our partner Israel feels very threatened by this. Thus we’ve seen a set of strikes against Iranian targets in Syria and an escalation of tensions. We’re trying to calm these tensions while at the same time making it clear that part of our core policy towards Syria is all foreign forces since 2011 have to leave. That specifically means the Iranians, and we will hold to that.
Question: Does the administration have a plan on Syria aside from pulling troops? How does the administration see Syria and cooperation on Syria with Turkey and other countries in the region in the coming weeks?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, we’re pulling some of our troops but we’re keeping a contingent on in Northeast Syria, along with coalition partners, along with control of the airspace to continue the fight against Daesh and to ensure that we do not have a destabilizing vacuum in that area that we have fought so hard and our partners fought so hard to clear of Daesh.
Secondly, we’re also maintaining a force in Al-Tanf which is in the tri-border area in Southern Syria adjacent to Iraq and Jordan.
Our goal is, again, to be certain that local forces are capable of dealing with the remnants of Daesh and making political contributions to the UN effort to find an overarching settlement to the Syrian conflict. These two are tied.
Daesh is a product of the Syrian conflict. It’s a product of the way the Assad regime treated its own population, because its own population are the people who turned to Daesh in the first place. So you cannot solve one problem, Daesh, definitively without solving the other which is the way that Assad regime treats its own people.
Question: How long do you anticipate the SDF will need to hold more than one thousand foreign terrorist fighters in Syria? And how confident are you that countries will take back their nationals? How great a risk does holding large numbers of foreign fighters pose?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, we have faith that the SDF has a very confident and well thought out plan to secure these prisoners. They are being helped by us. We’re reaching out to other countries to ensure that those countries help the SDF as well.
Secondly, we’re making a major campaign to have other countries take back prisoners to deal with them either through prosecution, through reeducation, whatever their constitution and legal system allows, but we do not think it’s fair to keep these people simply under SDF control indefinitely. We think they’re secure while they’re there, but we think that this is an unfair division of labor, frankly, internationally by putting the burden on the SDF which is essentially a local fighting force. So thus our appeal to countries to take back both the families of fighters and the fighters themselves.
Question: How do you see Syria’s new politics curtailing Iran’s role? How do the Israelis like the prospect of the U.S. pulling out?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Again, I know of no country in the Middle East other than Iran and Syria itself that want to see the United States pulling out of any country in the Middle East. We make our decisions on deploying troops and particularly combat roles based upon specific missions. In the case of Syria it’s fighting Daesh. But overall, we well understand that an American military presence and the numbers and the functions can go up and down, is a force for stability and collective security in the region, and that’s recognized by all of our partners.
In terms of Syria and the Iranian issue, essentially our position, and I think that’s the position of the international community is, we need an overall settlement of the, a political settlement of the Syrian crisis, and part of that crisis along with the behavior of the Assad regime is the behavior and the policies of Iran. It has deeply troubled the neighbors, most obviously Israel but also Jordan, Turkey and others, and we think that this is a force for instability, it’s a force for chaos in the region, and thus it’s part of our policy to see that the Iranian presence ends.
Question: How does the work of the Manbij road map between Turkey and the U.S. look? Does the U.S. self-criticize the slow improvement on the field? And is there any improvement that is made regarding to the situation in the last two months?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Yes, the Manbij road map has moved forward. The road map has certain, and I can only be general here, the road map has certain requirements designed to meet Turkish security concerns, our own security concerns, and ensure that the Manbij region is stable. That’s very important because we’ve seen, and we still see, a very significant Daesh presence in the Manbij area. We lost four Americans recently there. We’ve had a number of attacks on the local security forces. We also see Russian regime and Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements attempting to challenge the borders of the Manbij lines from the south.
So it’s a very complex environment. Nonetheless, we have a road map with Turkey that involves the pull-back of certain leadership of the YPG which is the core element of the SDF which Turkey argues with some logic is related to the PKK, and we also have procedures in place to do joint patrols with the Turks in the Manbij area. We have done many of them for the last three months.
So we’ve seen considerable progress in the last three months. Were we slow getting off to a start? Yes, but this is very complicated. We’re talking about imagine joint Turkish-American combat units in the middle of a combat zone moving across the country. That’s complicated. Changing the leadership of security forces in a very sensitive and dangerous environment, that’s complicated too. But we’re confident that we’re making progress and we’ll make more.
Question: Do you maintain contacts with Turkey and Russia about the situation in Northern Syria? How would you characterize these contacts?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Diplomatic contacts by their nature are often not fully characterized to the public, but we have daily contact with both Turkey and Russia at various levels including military and diplomatic on the Syrian situation, on various aspects of it. I’ve mentioned Manbij, I’ve mentioned Al-Tanf, I mentioned Idlib, I mentioned the Northeast. All of these are subjects of our conversations. They are very, very productive technically at the military to military level. At the political level, to the extent we can come to agreed positions on specific issues we make progress, particularly with the Turks, our NATO allies.
With Russia we have good exchanges of views. We understand each side’s position. But how much progress we’ve made, I would say that’s been limited on the political solution to Syria.
Question: U.S. forces have begun the process of deliberate withdrawal from Syria. So what is your strategy to prevent a permanent ISIS presence in parts of Syria? Iran is among the countries you know well, how can Iran be prevented from continuing its destabilizing role in Syria?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Again, we will be keeping some troops on. We’ll be working with our local partners, both the Syrian Democratic Forces and local security forces along the Euphrates and Manbij in particular, as well as with other coalition partners who we believe will be contributing forces to the mission to keep the region secure in the Northeast.
In the rest of Syria we are concerned about that as well, because there is an ISIS presence, for example, in Idlib and in the South. Occasionally we do military actions of one or another sort. But generally we don’t have control over that area. The regime and its Russian and Iranian allies do. And we hope that they are successful in defeating ISIS, but ISIS is hard to defeat. Thus we watch that very closely.
In terms of getting Iran out, is the second question. This requires a political solution to the crisis. It requires a recognition by all sides, beginning with the Syrian people, of what the political situation in Syria will be. What its relationship with its neighbors will be, and why an outside force such as Iran is not contributing to that model or that vision. At that point we think that Syria itself would invite Iran to leave.
Question: What is the road map for the U.S. withdrawing from Syria, taking into consideration possible patrolling activities of Russia and Turkey in Idlib?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We’re not in Idlib itself. We welcomed the Sochi Agreement between Russia and Turkey which includes patrolling, joint or coordinated patrolling between Russian and Turkish forces along the perimeter of Idlib back in the September 2018 agreement. We’re happy that that element of the agreement has now begun. We believe that Idlib is extremely important. We have said at every level beginning with President Trump, that any major intervention into Idlib by the regime and its supporters would be a reckless escalation of the entire situation in Syria. It would unleash millions of new refugees or IDPs. It would be a humanitarian disaster. There would be a risk of terrorists being spread around all of Eurasia. So we’re urging caution on all sides, and we’re in standing contact with both the Russians and the Turks on Idlib.
Ambassador Jeffrey: As this conference that we have participated in proudly yesterday shows, the United States, however powerful it may be, cannot have a real impact in issues like Syria without the support of if not all, most of the international community. That begins with the Syrian conflict with the UN. That also begins with the European Union. It begins with our partners in the Arab world. It includes Turkey, it includes Israel. We believe that we have a strong international coalition not only to fight Daesh, that’s obvious, but also to find an ultimate political solution to the situation in Syria that is the root cause of so many of the issues we discussed here today and we have to face throughout the Middle East.