US envoy lays ground for potentially long term US presence in Syria, hails progress between Saudi and Iraq

Brett McGurk reiterated that no reconstruction money will go to the Assad regime without a political settlement

U.S. envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, Brett McGurk, speaks with media during a briefing to Defeat ISIS and an update on the Coalition's efforts during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
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The US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Brett McGurk, has presented a roadmap for both a potentially long term US military presence in Syria following the defeat of ISIL, and a far-fetched political settlement in accordance with UN resolution 2254.

In his end of the year briefing with reporters, Mr McGurk listed on Thursday central accomplishments for the Trump administration in Syria and Iraq leading up to the military defeat of ISIL. He also highlighted a new regional dynamic in place with improved relations and economic ties between Iraq and its Arab neighbours, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The US envoy, speaking from the State Department, envisioned long-term military arrangements in place in Syria that would maintain a US presence in the country. Earlier this month, the US Defence Department acknowledged for the first time the presence of about 2,000 US troops deployed in Syria, a number that’s almost four times the size of the 503 troops that has been provided for the last year.

The US envoy hinted that the current deployment and military status quo for the US and its military partners will stay the same. “The existing arrangements in these areas [liberated from ISIL] can remain in place, so opposition structures [Syrian Democratic Forces] remain in place pending a long-term political settlement to the civil war through the Geneva process; and also a commitment, very importantly, to remove foreign forces from sensitive areas of this zone” he said.

But such commitment, if it were to happen, would address Iranian-backed forces, and Iranian-backed militias who “should not be in this area”, explained Mr McGurk. Stressing a US-Russia understanding on that level, he added: “That’s something that the Russians have signed onto. And also, we need to remove foreign jihadi-like presence from this area.”

Mr McGurk mentioned by name the Tanf border area in southeast Syria as a critical location where the US will be present. “We are present in At Tanf, and we are going to be present in At Tanf to make sure that [ISIL] cannot return and also to manage this difficult humanitarian situation”.


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"We’ll also remain present in other areas of Syria to make sure that ISIL cannot return,” he said.

In 2017, the At Tanf airbase witnessed military clashes between the US military and SDF on the one hand, and the Assad regime and Iranian supported militias on the other.

Alternatively, Mr McGurk presented a roadmap for a political solution in Syria, also in cohorts with the Russian government. “We have agreed with the Russians that the only way – the only way – to bring an end to this conflict is through Geneva, through [UN resolution] 2254.”

The resolution calls for a comprehensive ceasefire, followed by political negotiations leading up to transition and UN monitored elections in Syria. The US envoy stressed that “there will be no international reconstruction assistance for regime-controlled areas of Syria absent that political process really moving ahead in a credible way that can ultimately lead to a political transition".

For the US, any future election in Syria also “means the entire diaspora votes. The 5 million people who were displaced from Syria can vote and the Russians have now signed up to that”, Mr McGurk said. Washington does not see this process materialising anytime soon but when it does “Bashar Al Assad will no longer be in power in Damascus,” the US envoy added.

In Iraq and while pointing on a map, Mr McGurk highlighted a much improved relations between the country and its neighbours Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

“This is the Arar border crossing with Saudi Arabia... what’s really significant there is that President Trump and the Secretary [Rex Tillerson] very early on, within the first weeks, identified an opportunity to really open – re-formalise an opening of ties between Iraq and Saudi Arabia,” he said.  “We now have, for the first time in 30 years, direct flights moving between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, two border openings, and this continues to move forward... that was a real significant breakthrough that we saw this year,” the envoy said.

The same model was pursued with Jordan, where the economic and political ties between Amman and Baghdad saw a boost this year, with reopening of the border last summer.

On the military demise of ISIL after loss of Mosul and Raqqa, Mr McGurk credited early directives from the Trump administration to prioritise this issue and escalate military pressure.

He still estimated remnants of ISIL fighters in Iraq and Syria to be around 3,000.

“I hate to put numbers on it, but in some of these areas where they still are, about 3,000 or so,” he said.