Question: How do you reconcile what the regime wants with what the SDF wants with what’s left of the opposition wants?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, I’m talking about the forces that are basically aligned with the United States, with the European Union, with the Arab League, with the UN effort, to achieve a political solution with a compromise result in Syria. That, sadly, does not include the Assad regime, and that’s where the problem begins. The Assad regime is pushing for a military victory. The posterchild, tragically and horribly, as you’ve seen and as I experienced a few days ago, is Idlib. With Russian and Iranian support, they are pushing to take over that entire province and squeeze some 3 million inhabitants, most of them already internally displaced, either into Turkey or into some terrible, inhumane border strip. We don’t know what, but what we do think is that they’re pushing for a military victory in Idlib.
Question: So given who you’re talking to, though, and in trying to sort of align all of that, I mean, what – what leverage does the U.S. have? Because then I assume you’re talking to the Turks, you’re talking to the Syrian opposition but not HTS, and you’re talking to the Kurds. But how are you leveraging those groups together?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, we’re talking to all of the Syrian opposition which includes the Kurds that are aligned with the – what we call the Syrian Democratic Forces. We’re talking to other Kurdish groups. We’re talking to various opposition groups here in Istanbul and Saudi Arabia, elsewhere, and on the ground. You’re right, we do not talk to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham because that’s a designated terrorist organization. But we talk with everybody else and what we try to do is to explain to them that, first of all, we will support a compromise outcome. We are presently on the ground fighting Daesh – another issue that has emanated from the Syrian conflict – in the northeast of the country and in the Al-Tanf area, and they have no intention of leaving. Turkish forces are active in the northeast, they’re active in other places in the northwest besides Idlib, and they have no intention of leaving. While it is often not announced publicly, Israel has carried out many airstrikes against Iranian and other targets in Syria. These are all military problems for Russia and the Syrian regime.
But our main effort in terms of what tools we have to try to push for a negotiated settlement are economic and diplomatic. It is the isolation of the evil Assad regime and it is our sanctions policy and a denial of reconstruction assistance to keep this – to keep the pressure on the regime and on the regime’s supporters, Russia and Iran, to come to a compromise result.
Question: When you say you’re going to support a compromise outcome, what – what does that mean? And in talking to opposition groups in Turkey and Saudi, from my experience covering Idlib for the last two years, those opposition groups don’t have much sway over what happens on the ground. So how does that work?
Ambassador Jeffrey: That’s true, but that is also, as you know from the many conflicts that you’ve reported on, you often have a political opposition that operates in capitals and people on the ground fighting. There’s often some differences of opinion between the two groups. But it’s nothing that we see as fundamentally threatening to the ability to maintain this coalition of interested parties that are pushing for a political settlement. That is, the political opposition that deals with the United Nations, that deals with us, and the opposition – the armed opposition, both have a goal of a Syrian regime that does not oppress its own people, does not drop barrel bombs on them, does not use chemical weapons, and does not threaten the region. And that’s the point that we all begin with, both the political opposition, the armed opposition, and the neighbors – Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq.
So we work from that basis and a compromise settlement would have free and fair elections run by the United Nations – those are stipulated in the relevant Resolution 2254 – and would see a new constitutional system in Syria that would provide much better protection to the individual, much better respect for human rights guaranteed by the international community. So that’s the goal that we are pushing for and that is exactly what the Assad regime and Russia reject.