Special Representative for Syria and for the Coalition to Defeat Islamic State militants Jim Jeffrey, second left, meets with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini at EEAS headquarters in Brussels on Friday.

Special Representative for Syria and for the Coalition to Defeat Islamic State militants Jim Jeffrey, second left, meets with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini at EEAS headquarters in Brussels on Friday. Olivier Hoslet/AP

Countries May Begin Backfilling U.S. Troops in Syria Within Weeks, Envoy Says

In an exclusive interview, Amb. Jim Jeffrey also confirmed a breakthrough agreement that could restart the Geneva peace process.

BRUSSELS — Several member states of the counter-ISIS coalition are expected to announce within weeks that they will backfill U.S. ground troops withdrawing from Syria, in what would be a major development for President Trump’s desire to limit American military involvement in the conflict. 

"There’s something pending to look forward to. Very pending,” said Amb. Jim Jeffrey, top U.S. envoy to Syria and the counter-ISIS coalition, in an exclusive interview with Defense One on Friday. The envoy declined to reveal which countries he expected to provide the troops, leaving it to individual governments to make their own announcements. 

“I would say in the next weeks it is likely we would be more open” to announcements, he said, adding that  some countries may elect to participate “quietly, and that’s fine by us.”

Jeffrey also said there is hope for the Geneva peace process, even though just one day earlier  Acting U.S. Ambassador to the UN Jonathan Cohen told the Security Council that it was time to scrap the effort.

“The time has come for the council to encourage [U.N.] Special Envoy [Geir] Pedersen to try other routes to achieving the political solution," Cohen said

But on Friday, the Syrian regime reportedly had — at Russia’s urging — accepted a suggestion that would allow the appointment of the final six members of a constitutional committee. To be composed of 50 members each from the Syrian regime, the opposition, and civil society, the committee would meet in Geneva to hash out a way forward for the divided country. 

Jeffrey confirmed the development, saying if the committee could form it would change the course of the entire conflict.

“We are very close to standing up a constitutional committee,” he said. “The next step, if resolved, is to have an inaugural ceremony in Geneva and to begin a political process that will represent a dramatic change in the whole Syrian conflict, and I think will begin inexorably moving this conflict away from a potential military solution, which is where Assad’s mind has been up until now.”

“I am hopeful,” that ceremony could occur this year, Jeffrey said.

The ambassador spoke as he wrapped several days of meetings in Paris and Brussels with political and defense leaders of the global counter-ISIS coaltion’s member states. That group reaffirmed its commitment to stamp out the terrorist organization and its influential ideology. But skeptics have questioned the U.S. commitment to the coalition’s effort ever since President Donalt Trump tweeted in December his intent to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria, only to reconsider a less drastic total withdrawal of troops. 

“The drawdown is continuing,” Jeffrey said. “The president is committed to maintaining a residual force for an indeterminate time as we continue this careful and responsible drawdown. But this drawdown was always only of American ground troops. Our expectation is the slack will be taken up by coalition forces — and we are getting a very encouraging response from them — and that we will continue to maintain our critically important air control and air operations over Northeast Syria, we will continue our ground presence at al-Tanf, and we will be ready to introduce forces to go after specific terrorist targets. 

“So, therefore, this is simply President Trump’s principle of burden-sharing being carried out on the ground, and people are just ‘Oh, shocked,’ but he’s serious about it and we’re getting good results.”

Until now, U.S. allies and partners have balked at Trump’s demand, in part because most feel that without American support, they do not have the necessary air, intelligence and rescue forces to protect ground fighters, advisers, or trainers they may send into Syria. 

The commitment of additional non-American forces would come at a critical moment. While ISIS has lost its territory of the previous few years, Jeffery said a worrying insurgency has emerged in Iraq. 

A report estimating the group’s current strength released by the Institute for the Study of War this week claimed that "ISIS likely has the capability to seize another major urban center in Iraq or Syria.” 

Jeffrey called the estimate “bullshit.”

But the group also argued that “ISIS’s insurgency will grow because areas it has lost in Iraq and Syria are still neither stable nor secure.” That prediction, Jeffrey said, “concerns us.”

“In Iraq,” he said” despite a huge security presence ISIS has shown the capability to exploit fissures in the kinds, the flavors of security forces – Peshmerga versus Arab, regular army vs militia, Shia versus Sunni areas — and we are seeing a degree of insurgency that has not quite risen to holding terrain, particularly urban terrain, but is certainly well beyond incidental small hit-and-run attacks like laying IEDs and sniper rounds.”  

“They’re well beyond that in Iraq,” he said, but “not so much in the northeast of Syria. In other parts of Syria, particularly in the south and east of the Euphrates, these guys are running amok.” 

In the northeast, Jeffrey said he felt U.S. talks with Turkey to negotiate a safe zone for civilians on the ground were making progress. The rift over Turkey’s intent to purchase Russia S-400 anti-aircraft missile system “has not blocked us having fruitful discussions.”

But the ISIS resurgence is not a result of the Trump drawdown, Jeffrey insisted. “No, of course not. I mean, it’s not like we had 150,000 troops [and] we drew them down to 50,000. I mean, these were advisory teams,” he said of the American presence. “The Iraqi army is bigger than ever, the [Syrian Democratic Forces] is bigger today. [The insurgency] is a result of the nature of trying to stamp out a very resilient terrorist operation that operates as an insurgency.”

Jeffrey would not comment on the effort to secure the release of American journalist Austin Tice, who was kidnapped in 2012 and is believed held hostage in Syria. He said Tice’s continued detention is “not because of a lack of effort” by U.S. hostage special envoy Robert O’Brien, “who is indefatigable on this and other issues. But because, my own view is, the situation in Syrian and the general attitude of the Assad regime, regardless of where he is or who’s holding him, the Assad regime is a huge impediment to any human, decent, humane or moral outcome of any issue.” 

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.