Announcement represents a reversal of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s aim of ousting the Syrian dictator
United States special representative for Syria James Jeffrey confirmed that the Trump administration is not seeking to oust dictator Bashar al-Assad and accepts that Iran will play a diplomatic role in the process aimed at achieving a political solution to end the nearly eight-year conflict.
Jeffrey nevertheless stressed that Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers need to create a “fundamentally different” atmosphere in the country if they expect Washington to fund reconstruction projects once the war concludes. He estimated it will cost $300-400 billion to rebuild the war-torn country and contended that Western powers will not commit funds if their demands are not met.
The Syrian peace process has been focused around the so-called Astana talks between representatives from Moscow, Tehran and Ankara, with parallel United Nations-backed negotiations in Geneva being long-stalled in large part due to infighting within the Syrian opposition.
Though acknowledging Tehran’s diplomatic role, Jeffrey reiterated the U.S. demand that all Iranian military forces vacate Syria, a position strongly advocated by Israel which over the past two years has conducted hundreds of aerial raids targeting the Islamic Republic’s military infrastructure therein. Jerusalem has repeatedly stated that it will not allow Iran to establish a military foothold in Syria from which its proxies can carry out attacks against the Jewish state.
In many ways Jeffrey’s comments can be construed as an about-face regarding U.S. policy on Assad, given that former U.S. president Barack Obama explicitly called for his removal from power in 2011.
“Yet it is not a total reversal of Washington’s stance,” Dr. Christopher Phillips, a Syrian specialist at the London-based Chatham House think-tank, told The Media Line.
“Since 2013, when Obama refrained from launching strikes on Damascus after the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, there has been a gradual softening of U.S. policy against Assad.”
The Trump administration’s goal of remaining in Syria to block Iranian expansionism is a fairly new development, Phillips added. “Jeffrey’s statement is a recognition of the reality that pushing the Islamic Republic out of the country altogether is extremely difficult. Therefore, if Washington acknowledges that Assad is here to stay, it must also grant the Iranians a role to play.”
What is problematic about Jeffrey’s statement is that it damages U.S. credibility, according to Phillips. “The Americans made a commitment to remove Assad under Obama, but, unfortunately, it is not rare for dictatorial regimes with blood on their hands to remain unprosecuted for long periods of time and the outside world doesn’t seem willing to do much about it.”
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a Syrian expert at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, believes that Syria is on the verge of descending into further anarchy. “There has not been much reporting on Turkey’s threat to invade Syria in order to fight the Kurds,” he stressed to The Media Line.
In the event, such clashes could ignite wider hostilities between Turkish and American forces. “This explains the policy change because America is now torn between supporting the Kurds and trying to keep Turkey part of NATO,” Dr. Kedar explained.
In 2011, pro-democracy demonstrators in Syria staged a series of protests inspired by the “Arab Spring” in neighboring countries. Following a major crackdown, the ensuing civil war pitted pro-regime forces—including Assad’s army, Russian air power and Iranian-backed groups like Hizbullah—against primarily Sunni rebel fighters. It also saw the rise and near fall of Islamic State, one of the most brutal terrorist regimes in modern times.
In recent months, the Syrian regime has recaptured rebel-held territories except the last remaining holdout in northwest Idlib Province. Nevertheless, Damascus and its opponents still need to hash out a political deal to officially end the conflict, which has left more than 350,000 people dead—although some estimates peg the number at 500,000—and displaced millions.
(Charles Bybelezer contributed to this report)