US Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department’s special representative for the Syrian war and the fight against ISIS, said the US supports “in every possible way”, diplomatically and logistically, Israeli raids on Iranian sites in Syria.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Jeffrey said that “Iran has very established footholds in the Syrian state and within Syrian society, “noting that many Arab countries” will never be in harmony with a man like (President Bashar) Assad. They can claim that they can distance him from the Iranian orbit, but I see that this is absolutely not possible.”
The American envoy emphasized that his country will continue to impose sanctions on Damascus, and “we support the entry into force of sanctions on the Syrian regime until its acceptance of a political solution,” explaining: “Economic sanctions make the situation worse for the circle of people very close to the head of the regime, and this is what we are always trying to reach.”
And we want to make it clear to these figures that there is no clear future for them if they continue to support Assad. They should rather press for political transition. ” He pointed out that the recent Russian media campaign against Damascus is evidence that Moscow is also aware of “what kind of ally” they have in Syria today. He said that Idlib is “the citadel of opposition” and will not return to Damascus soon.
Here is the text of the exclusive interview that Asharq Al-Awsat did by Phone Thursday:
Let’s start with Covid-19. Could you give me your assessment? Also, yesterday in the Security Council the Russians once again rejected reopening Yarobiyeh, the crossing between Iraq and Syria. What is your assessment on that as well?
First of all, we’re following the situation of the coronavirus throughout Syria. We have to look at it in three different areas; the northeast where we have the best eyes on, the northwest where we rely on Turkish information, and of course the regime areas which are totally under-reported and under-represented. We have only notional information from the regime areas. We think that there’s a considerable amount of cases there, but we can’t measure it. We do not see at the moment a significant outbreak of the virus in the northwest, but of course with so many people jammed together and with such bad medical support, particularly as the Russians and Syrians have bombed most of the hospitals and other medical facilities there, that would be of great concern.
In the northeast, there have been one or two reports of infections but we are yet to see a significant outbreak.
To some degree the few reported cases are due to the limit on travel in and out of the country, other than for the Iranians who we think spread it initially in regime areas. So the effects of it have been limited but that can change at any time. The UN is worried about this, the WHO is worried about this, and we are as well.
The Russians and the regime by blocking the transfer of medical supplies to those areas where Assad does not hold sway of course have made the situation worse. It’s Assad’s fault. It’s his fault in his own areas for having devastated his own country and not caring about its people. He is even more at fault in those areas not under his control that he denies assistance to, even though that is his responsibility as the sovereign entity in Syria.
Do you think being in this pandemic paves the way for renewal or updating of the UN Security Council resolution regarding the humanitarian border crossing? Because I think we’re supposed to be in June/July, and directions in December?
In July, UNSC 2504 has to be renewed. It is our hope that Russia will renew at a minimum the two crossings in the northwest. We are very, very insistent on that, and we would also like to see a new crossing to service the northeast. As you know the crossing there, the Rabia crossing, was blocked from being included in the new resolution by the Russians and Chinese so that is where we are.
As you may know in the last few weeks, even months, since the beginning of the pandemic the Russians and the regime twisted the whole argument. They’re saying now that they’re blaming the US and the European sanctions. What is your reaction to that?
The collapse of the Lebanon monetary and financial system has nothing to do with our sanctions, and that is perhaps the biggest impact on Assad. Frankly his own bad management is the second reason he is in such dire economic shape, and then thirdly, it’s the fact that this country is still at war and important areas, including agriculture and energy-producing areas, are not under his control, nor should they be until he accepts a compromise political settlement. That is why he is faced with great economic difficulties that are impacting all of the people. Our sanctions do not include sanctions on humanitarian or medical goods, those items can flow freely. And the sanctions are carefully selected and packaged to target regime figures and not the average person.
In May/June I think the Europeans, the EU are supposed to renew their sanctions, so what is your view on that?
We are very much in favor of these sanctions staying in place until the Regime accepts a political solution. We see the glimmer of hope in the longer-term ceasefire in Idlib and the regime’s acquiescence in a common agenda for the constitutional committee in Geneva. These things would not have happened without the tough position of the international community, be it the Turks in Idlib or all of our efforts maintaining our sanctions. So we are really happy that the EU is maintaining them.
What would you tell some Syrians who buy the narrative of the regime and blame the US for their suffering?
I cannot help anyone if after almost a decade of Assad’s terror, they still believe Assad over the international community.
In this regard, we saw some new developments by some Arab countries who reconnected with Damascus and they took the pandemic as a pretext. Did you speak with those Arab countries? And if you did, what did you tell them?
That’s kind of vague without identifying which Arab countries. The Arab countries I am thinking of, and I do not want to disclose them publicly but we know who they are, we are talking to them constantly.
We think two things. First of all they will have no impact. They will not win any prizes from Assad. We saw when one of them, and this one I can name because it has been discussed in the media, the UAE extended diplomatic recognition and they got nothing from Assad. I think they barely got a thank you. We know as well that they’re not going to change his policies nor are they going to undercut our policy.
We think that some people in the region have the mistaken idea, even though I am in media all the time, and Secretary Pompeo and President Trump speak out frequently on Syria, that maybe there is another American policy that allows us to be friends with Assad. There is no such American policy. There will never be such an American policy. There wasn’t even such a policy under the Obama administration.
In this regard what do you expect from the Arab Summit that is due in June but might be delayed a little bit. The Algerians are now working hard to bring the Syrians back to the Arab League.
Our question to the Arab League is: What has changed from when you took the decision (to freeze Syria membership in 2012)? Have fewer people died now had died then? We think the number now is almost 500,000 Arab citizens of Syria. That is not a very encouraging thing to invite them back. Has the Regime complied with any of the UN calls for reconciliation? No.
What percent of the population has been ridden from their homes or fled their homes due to the regime in 2012 when the Arab League took the decision? Perhaps 5-10 percent of the population. What percentage of that population today? 50 percent.
The Arab League has to ask itself: Does it just have as an interlocutor states or does it also have as an interlocutor people of those states? Because the people of this state, Syria, have shown repeatedly their courage and their commitment by half the population fleeing Assad’s rule.
Some Arab countries believe that by bringing the regime back to the League, maybe they would distance it away from Iran. What do you think?
It’s a crazy idea. First of all, Iran is deeply embedded in the Syrian state and society. It’s not as bad as Hezbullah in Lebanon or with the Militias in Iraq, and I know both situations, particularly Iraq, very well. But it is very concerning, not just to us, we know it is also concerning to the regime and the Russians. You have militias that are created and paid for by the Iranian government and reports to the Iranian government.
But the other thing is, and people really need to think about this, Syria is a state where Assad’s brutality to his own people is unique in the world, even faced with Venezuela or North Korea. Assad only knows one tool, butchering his population, particularly the Sunni Arab population.
Now, does anybody think he’s going to change his ways? It is one thing to think he is going to change his alliance with Iran, I don’t think he can but at least theoretically it is possible. But does anyone think he is going to change the way he rules and the population is going to accept this mass murderer, this uber torturer as leader? No. He has to run an absolutely horrific brutal totalitarian state.
What country is willing to accept a partnership with a brute like that? We only know of two, Russia and Iran. We do not think the decent countries of the Gulf and the Arab World would be in the same bed with someone like him. They can claim they can wean him away from Iran, I doubt that very much. Will these countries provide the ground forces, the Hizbullah troops, and the Shia from Afghanistan and other countries to keep the Sunni Arab and many other ethnic groups in the opposition from attacking Assad? No, they won’t go that far and I don’t think they will sign up to support a government as terrible as Assad’s. They won’t bear the responsibility. That is something Iran and Russia will have to do.
Recently, there were a lot of Israeli airstrikes around Damascus, Damascus – Beirut highway, and in Palmyra. What is your view on this?
The US supports Israel’s efforts to secure its self-defense. Israel is facing an existential threat from Iran, as they have said a thousand times that their mission is to destroy Israel. The Iranians are in Syria in large numbers, passing on long-range weapon systems to Hezbullah that threaten Israel. We know probably two elements associated with the Iranians, also in Syria, and Israel has the right to take whatever action it needs, being careful about Syrian casualties which the Israelis are, for the goal of saving Israel. Therefore, we are supportive of them in any way we can.
What kind of support? Political or Logistical? Through the Tanf military base?
We give the support that is needed for effective Israeli actions to protect itself, and in protecting itself it is protecting all neighbors of Assad: Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon.
The Israeli Minister of Defense said recently that this is to finish, not limit, the Iranian influence on Syria. Do you think that is possible?
Our policy is that all Iranian-commanded forces have to leave Syria, along with frankly all other military forces that entered after 2011. This includes the United States, if all of the reports are correct about the Israeli Air Force that would include the Israelis, and it would include the Turks.
And the Russians?
The Russians entered before 2011, therefore they are exempt. Everyone else came after the war had begun. If there is a political solution to the war, and neighbors such as Israel and Turkey no longer feel threatened by the situation in Syria, we think they would be willing to let the country return to normal. As far as we are concerned, returning to normal is our goal and that means, among others, all Iranian-commanded forces have to leave.
You said earlier that the sanctions are working, and that there are indications proving that. What are they?
Given the incompetence of the Assad administration, who is good at sucking the blood, literally and figuratively, in terms of money, goods, and property from its own people and in running a corrupt financial and economic system, but are not good at holding the country together and attracting foreign investments, they have done much of the damage themselves. Who would invest in a country Assad runs? They have also destroyed much of their own infrastructure, driven away a large percentage of the country’s doctors, and on and on.
It’s hard to say if you look at the unlimited fall of the Syrian pound (now 1300 to the US dollar) and the claims by people who are trying to support the regime that they have lost $244 billion, four times the GDP of the country, in the last few years because of the war, it is very hard to say what is due to the Regime’s own actions and what part of it is due to the sanctions. I would say that in general, in terms of the economy, it is mainly what the Regime has done to itself. Sanctions make life hard for those people in the inner circle, and that is what we are trying to get at. To make it clear to them that they don’t have an economic future by supporting Assad. They need to push for a political transition in Syria.
You say the sanctions will push the regime to change its behavior?
We think it is a combination of everything. The 50 percent of the population that’s fled, stripping the country of most of its demographic resources, or much of it. The major swaths of territory that are not under Assad’s hand and unlikely to come into his hands because significant outside powers, including the US, who are on the ground. The pummeling (attacks) that the Iranians and the Syrians are getting from the air (Israeli Strikes) with ever more aggressive and effective airstrikes. The lack of reconstruction assistance. The ostracism of the Regime by the Arab League and by the Europeans.
We think that at the end of the day this formula will push the regime to eventually seek a negotiated settlement rather than claim a military victory and no compromise, which is what they have been doing up until now.
You just said that keeping regime out of Idlib is a strategic thing. Right?
Yes. That is correct
And you said that you want Turkey to fight extremists in Idlib?
Yes, we do. And we see signs that they are, more effectively.
How can you combine those two goals, keep Idlib out of the regime’s control and fight terrorism? And what do you think of the Turkish Russian deal over Idlib?
I think the deal will maintain as long as Turkey continues pressure on HTS. We do not see HTS as a serious threat to Russian forces, as they claim. It is a threat to all of us because it is a terrorist organization, and it is a threat to the more moderate and armed opposition in Idlib, which is of concern to us.
We see no reason, no excuse, no justification for this offensive (regime in Idlib) to start up again. By the same token, we are happy that the Turks are dealing independently with HTS. They committed to that in September 2018 and in the most recent agreement and that is a good thing.
And you think that deal is holding?
I think that it will hold for the next few months, at least.
Let move to North East of Syria which is where the American forces are. Recently we have noticed the Russians sending more military enforcement and they took a Qamshli military base and are getting closer and closer to the Americans. What is your assessment of the situation?
The Russians have some lightly armed military police units, they travel around in three, four, five vehicles, and sometimes they’re here, sometimes they’re there, but there is no Russian significant military force on the ground. There is no Russian occupation. Frankly, the Syrian government, other than in a few bases in Qamishli and the city of Deir El Zoor, has no real presence either. There are a few outposts and a few patrols. The people with the large, tens of thousands forces on the ground is the SDF, our partner against ISIS.
In December, President Trump spoke of withdrawing from the North East of Syria and the Americans are there now. How long will they remain?
We will remain there until we have completed our military mission of the enduring the defeat of ISIS.
Can we say it is an open-ended presence there?
I would never say the word open-ended. I would say only what I have just said.
What would you tell your allies, the SDF, in advance before pulling out?
Pulling out of northeast Syria is not on the agenda, as we have not seen yet the enduring defeat of ISIS.
Back to the current relationship between Washington and Moscow. There were some talks between some American officials and Russian officials in Washington, Moscow, and Vienna. Where are we in that regard? Is the step-by-step approach still valid?
As you know, we have various levels of talks with the Russians. We maintain generally our radio silence on these talks. One exception was when Mike Pompeo traveled to Sochi to meet with FM Lavrov and President Putin to talk about Syria and to talk about our efforts to get a compromised solution. We laid the whole thing out to both Putin and Lavrov and we did a joint press conference with Lavrov. It’s all on the record.
What do you make of the Russian media criticism of Assad?
We think that Russia knows very well what’s going on in the country. We think Russia knows what sort of ally they have in the Syrian President. And we think those articles speak for themselves.
Do you think the Russians are upset with Damascus?
I think the articles speak for themselves. You are a journalist and when you write your articles, you want us to read what you write. Right? Then, believe what is printed in the papers.
Did the Russians convey the same thing with you?
We do not share the details of diplomatic exchanges with our valued Russian interlocutors.
We Know the OPCW report blamed Damascus for Ltamneh (Hamah) chemical attack in 2017 and we know that Damascus dined that. What is the next step?
The OPCW is reporting its findings to the UN Security Council, which were dramatic, and talk not just about Regime forces using chemical weapons but that the decisions were taken at the highest levels of the government to do so.
Meanwhile, the Security Council is also dealing with the UN Board of inquiry that foundhe regime, and to some degree the Russians, culpable for exploiting the UN’s passing of coordinates of humanitarian installations that should be on a no strike list, but in fact were deliberately struck.
We see the UN, from OCHA Chief Mark Lowcock to Secretary-General Guterres himself, speaking out in very clear and tough terms of the humanitarian risks of closing these border crossings from Iraq and eventually Turkey and the failure of the regime to allow crossline transfers of humanitarian goods to those areas. We see German courts pursuing Assad’s torturers who had gone after Syrian citizens. These citizens and their torturers now find themselves in Germany with cases open against them.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of all of the accountability efforts that we, the UN, the international community, and the media are doing to expose, that’s the word I would use, expose the absolute moral bankruptcy of that regime and those who are associated with it.
What about the UN peace process? We hear UN special Envoy Mr. Gier Pederson saying that he made a deal between regime and opposition about agenda of the constitutional committee?
Pederson has this account and we support him 150 percent, including his call for a nationwide ceasefire. We support his efforts to build on the agreement on the agenda. That is a small, but important step forward.
Do you think that it is realistic to talk about presidential elections under UN auspices in 2021?
We think the elections are the right way to go. If Assad holds his elections, this year or next year, they will have none, zero international credibility. They will be dismissed by the international community. The international community will redouble its efforts to pursue real elections monitored by the UN. That is the way forward. That is what the US supports.
The policy that we are pursuing is not going to change. We look very much forward to working with the media and the voices and people of the entire Middle East in speaking as one to call for a political solution and an end to the fighting.
It this realistic?
Some people think it is not realistic. I don’t know but two years ago people thought that it was unrealistic to think that the last citadel of the armed opposition in Idlib would hold out for very long. Two years later there it is. Some people thought it was impossible for the Syrian Opposition and representatives of the Syrian government could meet together in Geneva, they have done so. Trust us that we are not only pursuing this policy, we think it has had some limited success and we think it has the potential to have a great deal more success.
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