New Syria advisers welcome, but can they reassure skeptics?

New Syria advisers welcome, but can they reassure skeptics?

The US last Friday announced the appointment of two senior officials to lead its engagement with Syria, stressing at the same time that it will not be pulling out of the country despite rumors to the contrary. The US needs to do more to reassure regional allies, and especially the Syrian people.
Jim Jeffrey, a retired diplomat who most recently served as US Ambassador to Iraq, was chosen as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Representative for Syria Engagement” — a new position created by Pompeo. Jeffrey will serve as an adviser to Pompeo and the State Department’s primary contact on all aspects of the Syria conflict, apart from the Syria components of the Daesh campaign, which will remain with the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh, Brett McGurk.

The second appointment was that of Joel Rayburn, who is moving from the National Security Council, where he served as senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. He will be the new “Special Envoy for Syria,” as well as serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Levant Affairs. According to the announcement, Rayburn will be focusing on issues related to ending the Syrian conflict, while emphasizing US opposition to Hezbollah and its commitment to “a strong Lebanese government.” Rayburn is a retired US Army officer and military academic who authored several books and articles on the Iraq War. 

The appointment of these two high-profile officials is meant to dispel notions that the US was disengaging from Syria and allowing others to decide its future. Those notions were fueled by President Donald Trump’s tweets about withdrawing troops and freezing funds previously earmarked for Syria. In a widely circulated tweet, Trump wrote on Saturday: “The United States has ended the ridiculous 230 Million Dollar yearly development payment to Syria. Saudi Arabia and other rich countries in the Middle East will start making payments instead of the US.” 

The president was referring to agreements reached over recent months to increase contributions from other Global Coalition members to fund stabilizing activities in Syria. A total of $300 million was mobilized, a third of which came from Saudi Arabia. The rest was from Australia, Denmark, the EU, France, Germany, Italy, Kuwait, Norway, Taiwan, and the UAE.

Syrians need US support while the search for a political solution continues, and walking away may end up costing far more than the $250m in funding the White House has saved.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

But stabilization needs sums far exceeding this and freezing the US contribution will adversely affect those efforts and threaten the good work that the US-led military coalition has so far achieved in defeating Daesh in Syria. Thus, as the Global Coalition was winding down its fight against Daesh in northeastern Syria, the president’s announcement could see peace slip away. Either Daesh could regroup in some form in that region or the Assad regime and its backers will be able to return and commit more atrocities. In particular, Iran and its militia proxies would be the main beneficiaries, thus defeating an important part of the US’ new strategy on Iran, aimed at preventing Tehran’s meddling.

The US-led coalition was in fact closing in on the last Daesh stronghold — the town of Hajin, near the Iraqi border — when the news about US disengagement began to circulate. Whatever goodwill local inhabitants had about being liberated from Daesh could evaporate if food, medicine and basic services are not provided, if refugees and internally displaced people do not return, and if security and the rule of law are not restored. All of these stabilization activities require considerable funds.

Meanwhile, Assad’s forces, supported by Russia, Iran and its proxies, swept away US-backed rebels in the southwest, and US-allied Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces were reported to be in talks with Assad, who was making renewed threats to attack other parts of Syria, with predictably devastating results if he were to carry out those threats.

Thus, the US announcement on Friday was meant to reassure that “we’re remaining in Syria,” according to McGurk. He stressed that the US focus was still the enduring defeat of Daesh. “We still have not launched the final phase to defeat the physical caliphate. That is actually being prepared now and that will come at a time of our choosing, but it is coming,” he said. After Daesh’s defeat: “You have to train local forces to hold the ground to make sure that the area remains stabilized so ISIS cannot return. So this mission is ongoing and is not over,” McGurk added, using another term for the terror group.

Despite those reassuring words, Trump’s tweets about the withdrawal of personnel and funds have raised doubts about the US’ future commitment to Syria. While Washington makes a valid point about reconstruction being premature before a political solution is reached, Syrians need the support of the US, and the rest of the Global Coalition, while the search for a political solution continues. They need protection from Daesh, the regime and its backers. The liberated areas need to be stabilized and the cost of stabilization is peanuts compared to the cost of a future military campaign, should one be needed to check the reappearance of Daesh in Syria. The $250 million of funds the US has frozen is equivalent to the cost of just a few fighter jets. This is not the time to be pennywise.

The appointment of the two new officials, Jeffrey and Rayburn, is certainly welcome news. They have a formidable enough task of carrying out their new responsibilities, but they also need to reassure skeptical allies and the Syrian people that the US is not abandoning them.

  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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