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INTERVIEW: US envoy James Jeffrey on ISIS, the Syrian border, Idlib, Rukban and Iraq

US Ambassador James F. Jeffrey swears in as Special Representative for Syria Engagement, at the US Department of State on August 17, 2018. Image: US State Dept/Ron Przysucha

Following the partial drawdown of American ground troops in Syria, the top U.S. diplomat overseeing the anti-ISIS coalition says he’s convinced a few countries to pick up the slack.

Ambassador James Jeffrey, who serves as the State Department’s special representative to Syria, took on the additional role of Special Envoy to the Global Coalition Against ISIS in January.

His predecessor Brett McGurk resigned in protest following President Trump’s abrupt announcement that he would pull out troops from Syria. In the months since, Jeffrey has sought to persuade skeptical allies in the Coalition to replace outgoing U.S. troops with forces of their own.

Jeffrey’s expansive portfolio also includes negotiating with Turkish officials to implement a proposed buffer zone designed to keep U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters away from Turkey’s border in northeastern Syria.

And as a humanitarian crisis unfolds in the country’s northwest, Jeffrey says the State Department is reviewing its options. Since late April, a Russian-backed regime offensive on Idlib province, Syria’s last major opposition-held stronghold, has forced 500,000 civilians to flee their homes.

Jeffrey, a longtime diplomat whose career included posts as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, as well as Deputy National Security Advisor in the George W. Bush administration, spoke to The Defense Post on September 17 about whether U.S. troops are spread too thin in Syria and if he fears an ISIS resurgence in Iraq.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TDP: The Pentagon Inspector General recently concluded that fewer troops on the ground in Syria has decreased support for partner forces and undermined our ability to monitor ISIS activity at al-Hol. Do you agree with that?

JJ: Here’s the problem. What sport do you play? Any team sports growing up?

Soccer.

How many people does a team field on soccer?

A dozen?

If one of those people were taken off the field, would you be as effective?

No.

No, but gee, you probably could play a pretty good game. I mean, with basketball you take one, that’s 20%.

There is some reduction in forces in Syria. We are making up for that by keeping a very strong presence in Iraq. We’re making up for that with very strong air components. We’re making up for that with more Coalition forces on the ground. Denmark just announced that it would be in northeast Syria last week. So we’re finding ways to compensate for it.

I didn’t like that OIG report. I hope I’m making myself very clear here. They didn’t interview me or anybody else on the civilian side, at least back here in Washington, which is a little bit strange because we’re the partner of the military in carrying this out, and many issues – as you’ve been at pains to clarify to your readers – are more of a civilian or diplomatic nature than they are of a military nature, and I agree with you. So, why didn’t they interview us?

The other thing is, I actually look at the incident reports daily that are attributed to ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and I’m really good at reading at those things because I was responsible for thousands of people when we were getting 500, 600 incidents a week in Iraq. And these incidents are absolutely minimal compared to what was a good, a really good, day for me or week for me in Iraq back in the day.

That doesn’t mean we ignore these things. We have a lot of forces. We have a lot of Coalition forces. We have the whole Iraqi Army. We have for better for worse the PMFs [Hashd al-Shaabi militias] in Iraq. We have 100,000 people we’re arming and equipping in northeastern Syria. Gee, this is a huge effort for a foe that at times in the period of a week might do five, 10, 15 incidents.

And you know how it is … an incident is an IED goes off – whether it hurts anybody or not, it’s an incident. A sniper round passes over your head, that’s an incident. A mortar 200 meters away, that’s an incident. So, I think it’s pretty well in hand. Is it marginally less well in hand than when it was when we had some more people there? I don’t know how anybody can measure that. What I do know is, you hang at the DFAC and ask guys, because they’re always going to feel, ‘yeah, we always need more, you know? Then I won’t have to work double shifts and all that stuff.’ Come on.

But if I’m understanding your soccer analogy correct, the U.S. military presence in Syria and Iraq is less effective because of the reduced American footprint?

There is a possibility that it is less effective, but I just talked to all of our commanders who believe that they’re able to do the job with the forces that they have and that is the position that they are taking. And I think if you check with the Pentagon — because we’re deeply into Pentagon equities here — but I think if you check with DOD, they would say that that is the truth.

What I can tell you from the outside is, everything I have heard from talking to people is that we have the forces that we need to do the job. And the metrics — to use a word from 15 years ago — the metrics seem to be indicating that we’re still doing the job. So you can point to the OIG report. I can point to metrics, I can point to commanders’ comments. Meanwhile, the homeland is safe.

Then-Acting US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper talks with the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Ambassador James Jeffrey, before chairing a defeat-ISIS ministerial, at NATO headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, June 27, 2019. Image: US Department of Defense/Lisa Ferdinando

I want to talk more about the role of the Coalition going forward. Earlier this summer, I believe you said that you expected to see more troop commitments from members states in the Coalition. Have you been able to secure those pledges?

Yes.

From which countries?

Oh, I can’t tell you. The countries, when they’re ready to actually announce — which requires going through their own parliamentary and constitutional procedures, figuring out what their missions are, who’s going to pay for this, that and the other thing — will announce. We just had this done by Denmark.

A few countries — I can’t name them — have already indicated substantial increases or substantial forces on the ground, but they don’t want to make an announcement because they can within certain parameters not have to go public. But we’re quite pleased at the progress we’re making, and we’ll be making more progress. There will be more announcements.

By my count, it’s Denmark sending the medical personnel, France and the U.K. Can you say if there are additional countries beyond that?

We don’t confirm U.K. and France. I can say that there are considerably more countries that have taken, I believe … decisions to deploy that they’re still working through the details. They will announce, but that we’re pretty confident.

I want to move on to the U.S. presence at al-Tanf. There are some 10,000 Syrians living in a remote settlement, living in squalor. There are reports of some having starved. And yet there’s a U.S. military base some 10 miles away. Why hasn’t the U.S. simply stepped in and helped provide food?

Well, first of all because we’re not actually responsible for these people. The government of Syria is responsible for them. International agencies are responsible.

We were feeding them with the cooperation of the Jordanian government over the Berm [a miles-long earth mound that acts as a demilitarized no-man’s land at the Syria-Jordan border] up until early 2018. The government of Jordan decided that it couldn’t continue that anymore, other than one minor delivery of flour some months ago.

However, we finished our work through the Syrian Red Cross in Damascus, with the Russian authorities, the U.N., our own military forces and the Jordanians to do now we’re doing the third delivery of supplies. This is an on-again, off-again thing. It took us about five months each time to get these deliveries, and meanwhile the people are under considerable pressure. It’s a dire situation there.

We want to regularize this.

We want to regularize this first with the Syrian government and the Russians. It’s one of the major areas we’re pressuring the Russians on. The fact that the Russians did agree to essentially pressure the Syrian government to do this, that’s a good sign, as well.

Furthermore, we’re also working again with the Syrian Red Cross and the U.N. to get people out of the camp. It’s now 10,000, but we think when this tranche of assistance deliveries and interviews are over, we may be down as low as 7,000 people from 40,000 when I took the job. That’s progress.

But in the meantime, why not deliver food? Are there not airdropping capabilities that the U.S. has?

You know the answer to that. It’s a good question.

Meanwhile, we’re trying to work with the Russians, the Damascus government, and the U.N. to do it the way it’s supposed to be done. There are 40, 50, 60 million refugees and IDPs running around the world right now.

As a State Department, it’s really easy for us to call Big Army to come fix it with C-17s and other things. But we try very hard not to do it because Big Army has those airplanes to support military operations. They have the State Department to work with the international community to do the things the international community should do, like feed these people.

I think critics of the U.S. approach to Rukban would say that in exercising military control over the area, the U.S. has certain responsibilities, certain legal ones, as laid out under the Fourth Geneva Convention. But I take it you don’t see it that way.

First of all, on the Fourth Geneva Convention, I would check with that. I do not believe the Pentagon would claim that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to the refugees in al-Tanf. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, you’re absolutely right. The U.S has a certain responsibility, which is why aside from the $10 billion dollars we’ve provided since 2011 for refugees and IDPs in Syria, we put a very considerable amount of effort — like half of one of my offices — 25, 30 hours a week, into ensuring that we do get deliveries into Rukban.

It’s not that the U.S. government doesn’t care or isn’t trying or isn’t even succeeding. It’s that the U.S. government isn’t going to be immediately turning to the military. The military is a little tired of having everybody else in the U.S. government constantly turning to it to do civilian things. It has engineers, it has finance centers, it has police, it has water purification units, it has tents. It has all kinds of neat things that civilians — these 50 or 60 million of them — really want, but the U.S. people gave them the equipment to wage war, not to help all of the dire situations around the world.

I mean, you see what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to answer your questions, and I’m answering them fairly and legitimately. Also, you’re a serious reporter on big issues of how the military and defense fits into the larger scheme of things in America. And that’s what I’m trying to do is get to the point that it is always easy for all of us sitting here in suits to turn to the military because it has a huge service sector. It’s mobile. It can protect itself. It can exist and thrive in austere places.

Wow, the perfect instrument. Except it’s not the perfect instrument. We have our partners, and it usually works. It’s working in al-Hol in the northeast where we also have a certain responsibility. We have our own programs – USAID, the State Department’s refugee office. That’s how the system’s supposed to work. In Rukban, the problem is that the regime has a specific responsibility for these people, and it isn’t living up to it.

James Jeffrey, then US ambassador to Iraq, addresses the crowd at Sather Air Force Base, Baghdad, Iraq in December 2011. Image: US Army/John D. Helms

This week ISIS released an audio recording of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. What does it say about the group’s capabilities that after all these years he’s been able to evade capture?

As the ISIS chief — because he was captured as an al-Qaeda leader — so we got him, check that box. We then released him, but that’s another thing. As an ISIS leader, he’s been operating since 2013, so that’s only six years. Whereas how long was Osama bin Laden’s son on the loose before we got him?

But you’re not concerned that he’s still been able to hide out? Like, what does that say about their networks?

I’m concerned about, first of all, are they setting up another caliphate? Are they holding more territory? No. Are the incidents extraordinarily low by every measure we’ve made in Afghanistan and Iraq? Absolutely, yes. Do we have areas where they seem to be persistent, pervasive, resilient, especially in Iraq, yes? In certain areas. And that’s the thing that has concern.

You saw recently that there was an island in the Tigris that was simply blown to bits by the U.S. Air Force. Forty tons of bombs or something like that. That island had been attacked twice, and it was hard to clean them all out. These are very, very rare.

This is the only case I can think of in either country where we’ve actually had a little tiny military operation, or several military operations, to clean these guys up. Most of the time, they’re on the move. I know in the Badia desert, south of the Euphrates, and we’re very worried about that. We’ve taken certain actions that I can’t get into against them. They float around like desert nomads. They strike the Russians. They strike the regime. They strike the Iranians. They stay away from us because they know what’s going to happen.

It’s a very different kind of concern than what we have had before with ISIS. So what we’re basically watching is the Delta. Are they increasing their attacks? Are they showing more resiliency? Are they beginning to not dominate, but at least contest. That’s the word. Contest terrain. We don’t see any of that other than rare things like this stupid island.

In his audio recording [Baghdadi] called on this followers to target prisons. Has the U.S. taken any additional steps to further secure these detention centers that are holding ISIS suspects and their families?

You can assume, one, that the U.S. always takes steps to harden targets that have been identified as under attack. And you can take it as an assumption that I’m not going to confirm that in any way, shape or form.

In late August, U.S. Central Command announced it had struck what it referred to as al-Qaeda in Syria leadership.

Right, in the northwest.

Also the Department of Justice is offering a cash reward for information on the whereabouts of senior members of Hurras al-Din. What threat do al-Qaeda and its affiliates, specifically in Syria, pose to the U.S. right now?

There’s a long history. The Khorasan group a few years ago not far from there. There’s a long history of those groups actively, and I can think of some events, but I’m not so sure whether I read that in a classified or unclassified. Attacks have been foiled right on the spot far away from Syria that these guys launched. So we’re sure that they do have both the capability or the intention of launching these things, which is why we’re keeping them under pressure, with the military pressure.

Do you have any estimates on the number of Americans that are detained by partner forces in Syria right and were captured with ISIS? How many Americans are in al-Hol and detention centers?

The number of Americans who are family members that might be in al-Hol, we’re not sure. Frankly because in many cases they speak Arabic fluently at this point, and they maybe have come from the Middle East, spent some time in America, become a citizen, then gone back. They don’t have the al-Amerikani nomiker and such.

In terms of fighters, we don’t have anybody right now. A few have been brought back to the United States. I know of nobody among them, people we’re detaining, who is an American.

You’re aware of nobody?

I’m not aware of anybody.

It’s possible …

Yes, it is. There’s 10,000 fighters being detained at various detention facilities. Remember, the people detaining [them] in many cases are Kurdish or even if they’re Arabic, they’re speaking the dialect of northeast Syria. These people are Arabic speakers from all over the Arab world. Whether you’re speaking a lousy Arabic dialect with a Brooklyn dialect or a Moroccan dialect, it’s not necessarily going to be picked up by a northeast Syria Arab or northeast Syria Kurd.

Realistically, what do you see as the best case scenario for northwestern Syria and the three million people that live there? Is there sort of deal that both Russia and Turkey can live with?

Yeah, there’s a deal that both Russia and Turkey agreed to in September, the Sochi agreement. Now, the Turks have had a hard time reining in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham because they are all about attacking the regime. They have attacked the regime and the Russians from time to time.

We are not opposed to targeted Turkish operations against them, or for that matter targeted Russian or regime offensives against headquarters, nodes and others. As you know, we have taken several operations, attacks against al-Qaeda elements in Idlib in the past. So, that’s not the problem.

This is using that as an excuse for a ground offensive to take back territory for the regime, and push the IDPs, of which there are three million, ever closer to a mass exodus across the border into Turkey, which would destabilize potentially southeastern Turkey, and furthermore lead to a very large number of these people going on to Europe, leading to a repeat of the 2015 very destabilizing refugee flows.

So, it’s a disaster from several standpoints.

It’s a geo-strategic disaster because we do not want to see the regime violate 2254 [United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 adopted in December 2015 calling for a ceasefire and political settlement] and continue trying to get a military victory.

They probably would use chemical weapons. We’re very suspicious of the regime’s history on chemical weapons. We’ve watched that very closely, and we have made it clear we will react to that, so that’s another problem.

The third problem is, it will unleash thousands of terrorists, international terrorists, from Chechnya and God knows where, all over the region. Right now they’re kind of contained in Idlib.

And then finally, it would be a refugee and humanitarian disaster. This is the gift that keeps on giving, in a negative sense.

Thus, it is a major preoccupation of this Department of State to try to stop an offensive into Idlib. It is a position that the president has taken repeatedly from his tweet about a reckless escalation back in September to his statements in Osaka, that you don’t — even if there’s 30,000 terrorists in Idlib — you don’t attack three million people to deal with them. So that’s the position of our government.

What we’re doing about it – other than supporting a U.N. resolution that will place the blame squarely on those who are violating the ceasefire, other than working closely with the Turks, other than being prepared if chemical weapons are used – we’re reviewing our options.

US Special Envoy to the Global Coalition Against ISIS James Jeffrey speaks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany in February 2019. Image: Kuhlmann/MSC/CC-BY 3.0

Is there anything more that the U.S. could be doing to put pressure on Russia to stop helping the Assad regime indiscriminately bomb civilians?

The problem with this is we’re doing a great deal. We’ve got a very broad sanctions program that Treasury runs. We have very close coordination with the E.U., which runs its own sanctions program. We have blocked all reconstruction assistance from anywhere including UNDP [U.N. Development Programme], World Bank, any place, anywhere inside Assad’s part of Syria. We are pursuing aggressively a ‘no diplomatic recognition’ policy throughout the world. For example, the Syrians were not invited back into the Arab League. So we’re putting as much pressure on the regime, and on its supporters, Russia and Iran, as possible.

But also, although it’s not our purpose in being in northeastern Syria, we are in northeastern Syria and that by its nature keeps the regime out. The Turks are in northwest Syria for their own reasons, but that keeps the regime out. The Israelis are going after Syria’s ally Iran for its long-range systems that it’s introduced into Syria.  So there’s a great pressure we’re putting the regime under.

Whether that pressure will lead to the Russians to agree to the Constitutional Committee membership, (which they just agreed to) or a ceasefire in Idlib or better coordination with us on counterterrorism operations, which we’re asking for.

Or a true withdrawal of Iranians, which they committed to a year ago in the southwest and haven’t carried out.

I don’t know which of these they will do on which day. All I know is I have a broad brush pressure approach with many, many allies from the Turks, the Israelis, the Europeans, the Arabs and our SDF partners and the political opposition and the U.N., and we’re all kind of working together to put pressure on these people. And then it’s like, ‘bubble, bubble toil and trouble,’ and then good things pop out every once in awhile, and bad things too, like the Idlib offensive was a bad and very disappointing thing, but we’re hoping we’ll get a ceasefire.

How will the U.S. work with Turkey to ensure that any possible repatriations of Syrians to northeastern Syria are voluntarily, especially in light of reports this summer that Turkey deported unregistered refugees to parts of Syria, including Idlib?

There is no country involved in the tragedy — we’re talking six million refugees from Syria — that deserves more credit, and has done a better job with refugees than Turkey. That’s the first thing. And we trust Turkey’s record, and we’re sure that that record will continue.

We have looked very, very carefully at what has happened in what we call the Euphrates Shield area — Jarabulus, Al-Bab, and Afrin. We have seen no significant credible examples of any sizable forced repatriation of anybody for any reason.

The agreement we have with the Turks is couched in terms of refugees returning to the safe zone area in exactly the same terms — because we both took them from UNHCR [the U.N. Refugee Agency] standards for refugee returns. We’ll assume that the Turks, as they usually do, live up to their obligations.

As some point the Assad government will likely try to reassert itself in northeastern Syria. Recently, it labeled the SDF separatist terrorist militias. Should the Assad regime turn its attention to this buffer zone area, what kind of steps would Washington take to prevent that from happening?

First of all, we are connecting D-ISIS operations throughout the northeast. That includes the safe zone and the rest of the northeast. The Assad regime — as with the al-Tanf area in the south, as with the areas where the Turks are, or the areas where the opposition is — claims all of the territory for itself. However, the relevant international position which we adhere to is U.N. Resolution 2254, which makes it clear that there should be a nationwide ceasefire and nobody should be trying to obtain further terrain from anybody else, and that definitely includes the Assad regime. So, that’s our position.

When the Assad regime forces or the forces of their supporting allies, have tried to penetrate into the northeast, we have taken whatever, all necessary means to ensure that penetration ceases and that will continue.