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.”