US recalibrates Syria policy, won’t pull back troops soon
The appointment of James Jeffrey as the United States State Department’s special envoy to Syria and his first visit to the region say lot about the new Washington approach on the Syrian question. Jeffrey, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ankara between 2008 and 2010 and to Baghdad between 2010 and 2012, is a senior American diplomat with vast knowledge on the region.
His appointment has been welcomed by the Turkish government, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying, “I see Mr. Jeffrey’s appointment as a correct decision.” He noted that his friendship with Jeffrey dates back to the latter’s post in the Turkish capital a decade ago.
In Ankara, Jeffrey had talks with senior Turkish officials, including defense and foreign ministers, over a broad array of issues in regards to the developments in the Syrian theater and how a permanent solution can be found to the problem.
Jeffrey’s appointment and messages he conveyed during his first trip to the region suggest an important change in U.S. policy. Contrary to U.S. President Donald Trump’s earlier statements that U.S. troops would soon be pulled back from Syria once the fight against ISIL is fully over, the American military presence will continue to exist in eastern Syria for an indefinite period of time.
A news report by the Washington Post after Jeffery’s first tour to the Middle East suggested that the new strategy - also agreed by Trump - envisages the continued U.S. military presence until the exit of all Iranian military and proxy forces from Syria, and the establishment of a stable, nonthreatening government acceptable to all Syrians and the international community.
The Post informed that the U.S. currently has about 2,200 troops in Syria and quoted Jeffrey as saying, “The new policy is we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year… That means we are not in a hurry.”
His remarks also hint a more active U.S. 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 U.S., 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. Jeffrey explained this as the use of a “new language” and that the U.S. will not tolerate a chemical attack.
This new U.S. 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 U.S. that Assad has no future in Syria and that the departure of all Iranian soldiers and proxy troops from Syria needs to be ensured. It’s also a relief for Ankara to have the backing of Washington against the potential large-scale military operation by the Syrian army.
However, the indefinite presence of the U.S. troops also means a much more intensified and continued cooperation with the YPG/PYD under the name of the Syrian Democratic Forces. With the support of the U.S. military, the YPG controls around 40 percent of the Syrian territory where it is in a process of setting its own administrative structure.
Turkey and the U.S. have long been disagreeing on the latter’s partnership with the YPG as Ankara considers the group as an affiliate of the illegal PKK in Syria and therefore terrorist. There are still Turkish troops in Afrin and al-Bab cities from where the YPG troops have been wiped out.
Furthermore, the Turkish government has long been vowing more military operations inside Syria, including east of the Euphrates River, in order not to allow what it calls a “terror corridor” by the YPG. That was why a bilateral deal between Turkey and the U.S. over Manbij was crafted with considerations that a success in its implementation would ease ties between the two allies.
From these perspectives, it may be considered that the new U.S. strategy in Syria would introduce fresh disputes between Ankara and Washington but at the same time new opportunities in the case of the continuation of a sound dialogue between the two capitals. The Syrian question is likely to enter a new phase in which major powers in the Syrian theater would face each other.
Turkish-American dialogue and their intensified cooperation, particularly as a large-scale operation into Idlib is looming, are more than necessary.