Iranian presence in Syria is empowering ISIS in the region, Washington’s special envoy to Syria told reporters on Wednesday.
In a telephone conference Ambassador James Jeffrey said the Trump administration will focus on pressuring Iran financially and contesting its activities in the region in a bid to push Tehran’s military and proxies out of Syria.
“We see that [ISIS and Iran] are closely linked,” said Mr Jeffrey. “ISIS to a large degree, certainly in Syria and Iraq, is based upon the populations – the Sunni Arab population,” he added, alluding to Iranian influence in the Syrian and Iraqi governments and its effect on their respective disgruntled Sunni populations.
“Iran’s encroachment into Arab areas gives no other alternative to pushing it out,” Mr Jeffery said.
In Syria, Tehran joined Moscow and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in backing President Bashar Al Assad during the country’s seven-year war.
Mr Jeffery stressed that Washington’s strategy would not involve the direct military targeting of Iranian soldiers and proxy groups. Instead, he said, the new list of sanctions against vital oil exports, banking and transport industries would squeeze the country’s financial sector.
President Donald Trump in May pulled the US out of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal to curb what he said were Tehran’s damaging activities in the region.
Washington, said Mr Jeffrey, would contest “more actively Iran’s activities particularly in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.”
The ambassador also linked the future withdrawal of American troops from Syria to the departure of Iranian forces from the country. Tehran enjoys influence in several countries in the region where it backs well-armed militias.
US policy is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS, work on a solution to the conflict under the terms of United Nations Security Council resolution 2254 and ensure all Iranian-commanded forces leave Syria entirely, he said.
Resolution 2254 is the main internationally-agreed upon document defining how to end the Syria war through a political transition.
“The US is pushing for the launch of a constitutional committee by end of December through the UN resolution of 2254 and to the regulation of a ceasefire,” Mr Jeffrey said.
But Mr Al Assad has resisted previous attempts to end the conflict through political settlements, and has held on to power for over seven years with help from Iran and Russia. Both have helped turn the tide decisively in favour of Mr Al Assad, especially during the last three years, with rebel forces being routed out in many areas.
Washington says that a continuation of Mr Al Assad’s regime will not lead to a political settlement.
US will only cooperate with a Syrian government that does not drive half of its population away, does not wage a criminal war on its people, does not use chemical weapons and does not threaten its neighbours or provides a base for Iranian power projection, he said.
“If they show us a Syrian government that could meet this criteria, then that would be a Syrian government that we can work with,” said Mr Jeffrey.
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Ambassador James Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria Engagement.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Thank you for tuning in, and the exchange that we’ll have on U.S.-Syria policy.
This policy is one of the key components of President Trump’s approach to the situation in the Near East. It’s very closely tied to our overall approach to Iran, but also to our approach to defeating terror throughout the region, but specifically with Syria.
The approach was developed over the past, at this point, nine or ten months but it really gained momentum when the President talked about Syria with President Putin in Helsinki and emphasized that the U.S. would be staying on in the long run in Syria to try to come up with a solution that meets the needs of the Syrian people, meets the needs of the region, and the international community in line with the relevant UN resolutions.
The policy, as summed up by the President in New York, thereafter at the UN, is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS, to work on a solution to Syria under the terms of the 2015 UN Resolution 2254 that would involve, again this is a Trump quote, “de-escalating the military situation”, and revitalizing the political track for a constitutional committee and eventually elections in Syria to try to get to the underlying problems in Syria, that has led to half a million people dying, a huge flow of refugees throughout the region, and into Europe and the rise of Daesh.
Finally, as part of this, to ensure that all Iranian-commanded forces leave the entirety of Syria because we see the Iranians as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
So, our approach to this has been to strongly support the UN effort. We welcome the decision by the French, British, Turks and Russians at the Istanbul Summit now ten days ago, to call for a long-term ceasefire in Idlib, which is a key area in the conflict right now in the northwest of the country, and to launch the constitutional committee by the end of December.
Our focus is to try to encourage these two processes ultimately through a UN process, and it is actually all sketched out pretty well in 2254, to regularize the ceasefires, work on that to develop the political situation, and finally, have a situation where all foreign forces that have entered the conflict since 2011 will withdraw.
The Russians, having been there before, would not themselves withdraw, but you’ve got four other outside military forces — the Israeli, the Turkish, the Iranian and the American — all operating inside Syria right now. It’s a dangerous situation as we saw with the shoot-down of the IL-20 Russian aircraft by the Syrian military who thought they were shooting at the Israeli military who allegedly were shooting at Iranian military targets. So, that’s the kind of dangerous situation we have right now in Syria.
Our immediate effort is to try to calm that situation down and then work for a long-term solution.
Question: Deputy Secretary General of United Nations, Mr. Voronkov has said that over 20,000 terrorists from around 110 countries across the world are looking for ways to leave Syria and return to their countries of origin or go to other destinations which pose serious threat of the spreading of terrorism around the globe. Is the United States aware of these threats, and do you have any consultations or other actions to prevent it?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Yes, we do. Our focus is on defeating the last Daesh elements along the Euphrates, right across the border from Iraq, and that fight is going on right now with our partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces. But we’re also very aware of the presence of some al-Nusra, or they now call themselves Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and as well Daesh forces in Idlib and we’re in constant consultations, particularly with the Russian government and the Turkish government, about ways to deal with that.
We’re very concerned about these people, particularly the foreign fighters, leaving Syria and spreading out throughout the world. Good question.
Question: Massive divergences in the threat perception especially over the role of YPG remains between Ankara and Washington. After exchanges of fire in Northern Syria we saw U.S. and YPG joint patrols, and on one of the uniforms there was a small Öcalan picture. On the other hand, U.S. offers rewards for three senior members of PKK. Isn’t this a contradiction? Ambassador, can you please clarify how you explain offering rewards for three senior members of PKK while cooperating with YPG? Is YPG the armed wing of the PKK Syrian offshot or not?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Our position on the PKK is clear. We have not designated the YPG as a terrorist organization the way we have the PKK and we never did. We didn’t do that in the period before we entered into Syria either. We understand Turkey’s concerns about its security. We understand Turkey’s concerns about the links between the BYD and the PKK. Thus we’re being very very careful in several areas.
First of all, in informing Turkey on what we’re doing and why we’re in the Northeast. Secondly, in the area that Turkey has raised the most concern, in Manbij where Syrian Democratic Forces and thus PYD forces, went across the Euphrates to the west. We’re working on now joint patrols. We had been doing coordinated patrols. And we’re looking to execute the rest of what we call the road map for the withdrawal of the PYD from the Manbij area back across the Euphrates.
In terms of why we’re in the Northeast, we’re there for the enduring defeat of Daesh. This is an important objective. Turkey is a member of the coalition with us against Daesh. Daesh has done a great deal of damage to Turkey including the attack on the Istanbul Airport. We don’t want to see it do that again.
And again, we’re coordinating our overall policy very closely with Turkey. Turkey agrees with us on the need for a political solution. Turkey was a participant in the Istanbul Summit. We support those conclusions. Turkey is not happy with Iran’s presence in Syria. Turkey is not happy with the nature of the Syrian government. So there’s a great deal of commonality of view between us and Turkey.
Question: As Turkey wants YPG withdrawn from its borders, from Manbij, it seems that U.S. continues support for YPG. But recently you said that the U.S. resumed effort to solve the problems between the Turks and the YPG, but there [inaudible] escalating on the border, on Syrian-Turkish border. How do you plan to solve this problem? Do you really believe Turkey is open to reach a coalition with the YPG?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, we are in constant communication with all sides.
Secondly, we are at pains to reassure Turkey that we will do everything we can. That there is no security threat coming, concrete security threat coming out of the north against Turkey, people raiding across the border and such.
Thirdly, we’re doing the Manbij program.
Fourthly, we are limiting, very, very carefully the weapons that we are giving the Syrian Democratic Forces because Turkey has concerns. We tell the Turks what weapons we give those people. We give them only light weapons. That’s one reason why they have not been as successful recently against Daesh as they have been in the past. They do not have tanks. They do not have artillery. We do not give them such heavy weapons.
Question: Iran has been in Syria for six years, and without its support and Russia for the Syria regime, to [inaudible] the early days. The question is why you left Iran to expand into Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon and now want to trim its nails and hold them accountable at this time? Thank you very much.
Ambassador Jeffrey: America has a broad set of alliance partners and friendly countries and security relationships throughout the region. They all feel threatened by Iran’s activities in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, other places as well from Afghanistan to Bahrain. And they turn to us to work with them to try to find a way to push back.
The last administration saw the solution in negotiating a nuclear deal with the Iranian regime. The nuclear deal was achieved. The problem is that that had no effect, or it actually had a bad effect on Iran’s behavior throughout the region. That is, Iran accelerated its activities.
Based upon that, the Trump administration is now focusing on, first of all, reversing the nuclear deal in order to put Iran under financial pressure; and secondly, contesting more actively Iran’s activities, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and that’s much of our policy right now in the Middle East.
Question: What is the blockage on appointment of the constitutional committee given that this was once seen as a Russian initiative?
Ambassador Jeffrey: He’s absolutely right. This was an initiative decided at the Sochi Agreement between the ISTANA3 — Turkey, Russia and Iran — and the UN in the form of the Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura. The idea is that three groups representing the Syrian population would be set up. One, opposition supporters, which is already in place. There’s 50 names, they’ve been approved by everybody. Two, a government list that’s also in place. Three, a list appointed by de Mistura that would basically be a neutral list or a civil society list of people who are neither opposition nor government.
The problem is that the Syrian government has objected to de Mistura putting that list together without getting prior approval from Damascus, but that’s not what was agreed at the Sochi meeting, and therefore we were very heartened by President Putin accepting at the Istanbul Summit with Turkey, France and Germany, that in fact the constitutional committee could be launched before the end of the year which means that Staffan de Mistura can make any final decisions he wants on who is on that third list, but then he can go ahead and issue the invitations and stand up this constitutional committee.
Question: Was the only subject upon which there was genuine agreement between Russia and the United States. Did the situation change after the S-300 missile system had been sent to Syria?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We’re concerned very much about the S-300 system being deployed to Syria. The issue is at the detail level who will control it. What role will it play?
In the past Russia has been permissive in consultation with the Israelis about Israeli strikes against Iranian targets inside Syria. We certainly hope that that permissive approach will continue. But let me be clear. Israel has an existential interest in blocking Iran from deploying long-range power projection systems such as surface-to-surface missiles, air defense systems to protect them, and drones in Syria aimed at and used against Israel. We understand the existential interest and we support Israel.
Question: About the fight that’s taking place currently in Hajin. began on September 10, I believe, and so far they have not been able to make major advances. Why is it that slow? And do you believe that now with the arrival of the Special Forces of the SDF from other areas, this will speed up the operation? Thank you.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Thank you. I was recently in the northeast. I was down in Raqqa some distance from there, but I’m generally aware of the tactical situation.
What happened around Hajin is a tactical reverse. It’s nothing serious. The Daesh or ISIS forces there basically are still surrounded and reinforcements are coming in.
One other reason for the reverse there was unusually bad and sustained weather that limited our use of air power, which is very, very important in our fight against Daesh.
As the weather changes and as additional troops are introduced, I expect the situation will change and that we’ll see advances against Daesh. I’m confident of that.
Question: I was wondering if the U.S. is ready to accept president Bashar Al-Assad to stay in power during this transition? And if the answer is yes, do you have a deadline for him to stay in power or not?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, there are a set of deadlines in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. We would hope that those deadlines could be met once the constitutional committee is set up and particularly once elections are organized.
In terms of the Assad regime, our policy is not focused on personalities per se, but on what the Syrian government does. We need a Syrian government that does not drive half its population away, which is what this one has done. Does not wage criminal war on its own population. Does not use chemical weapons. And does not threaten its neighbors. And does not provide a base for Iranian power project. And does not either create or cause to be created terrorist movements like Daesh.
If you show us a Syrian government that meets these criteria, then that would be a Syrian government that we could work with. So it’s not about personality.
Question: You mentioned the IL-20 and the S-300. Were you worried by Russia’s response to that incident? And have you told Russia that Israel would have U.S. backing in any future incidents of that kind in Syria?
For the recent bounties put on the heads of certain PKK members and what the significance is, if any, of the timing of that in terms of reassuring Turkey with regards to Northern Syria.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Sure. Let me take the second one first.
The U.S. understands that Turkey is facing a formidable foe in the PKK and that Turkey has every right to defend itself and we are supportive of Turkey in various says. One of the ways is these terrorist designations of individuals in line with our other actions including designating the entire PKK as a terrorist organization.
As I said, we understand and we talk to the Turks all the time about the Turks’ concerns about the YPG relationship with the PKK and we’re trying to be as careful as we can on that whole operation.
In terms of U.S. support for Israel, I think the best statement of that was at the Helsinki Summit in the press remarks made by the President. If you take a look at those, you’ll see very clearly that the U.S. supports Israel’s security needs.
Question: The Department of Defense’s Inspector General recently reported that ISIS has upped its recruitment activity. How concerning is the increase in ISIS activity? And is the fight going to go on longer than has been predicted or projected so far?
Ambassador Jeffrey: You’ve got the conventional fight against ISIS as an armed force of at one point 35,000 strong in Iraq and Syria. The last real battle of that campaign is being conducted now along the Euphrates as we discussed a moment ago.
However, as that Inspector General report and as other U.S. government and other members of the Coalition Against ISIS have said, ISIS is active in many different places, from Afghanistan to the Sinai to North Africa to Somalia. And we’re concerned about ISIS as an insurgent force, as a terrorist force. And also ISIS’ ability to infiltrate back into areas as a terrorist force, both in Iraq and in Syria in particular.
So that’s why we say that U.S. troops will stay on in Syria we say until the enduring defeat of ISIS which means to establish the conditions so that local forces, local populations, local governments, can deal with ISIS as a terrorist or as an insurgent movement, and we’re not there yet.
Question: At the beginning you mentioned that your mission is about getting rid of ISIS completely, but it looks like Iran is as important as that because in every other sentence you repeated Iran’s name and its influence in Syria.
Could you clear for us, what is your stand on Iran? And how much you’re happy to go to make sure Iran doesn’t have any presence in Syria? What is the end line?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, the end line is Iran not having, Iranian-commanded forces have departed the entirety of Syria. Obviously, that has to come in conjunction with various other developments. Eventually there should be a ceasefire in one or another way, overseen or executed by the UN, a new political regime for Syria which is what 2254 points towards. And in conjunction with that we see an Iranian withdrawal of forces as absolutely necessary to preserve the peace.
When I keep talking about Iran as a parallel objective to the defeat of ISIS, we see these in many respects as very closely linked.
ISIS, to a large degree, certainly its success in both Syria and Iraq, is based upon the populations, at least the Sunni Arab populations of much of Syria and Iraq seeing Iran’s encroachment into Arab areas and seeing no alternative to push back Iran than to throw support behind ISIS, unfortunately. So therefore Iran and ISIS are both linked.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Just that I want to underscore that Syria is right now in a fragile ceasefire country-wide, other than the fighting along the Euphrates against Daesh or ISIS. We want to see that ceasefire continue and become more formal and more reliable and sustained.
Secondly, we also realize that there are five outside military forces in close proximity in Syria, and that makes this conflict, even if right now it’s fairly quiet, potentially very dangerous. It’s very important that we make progress on a political solution.
Thank you very much.