US official: ISIS can’t be defeated in Syria as long as Iran has a foothold

Joel Rayburn said Iranian presence gives ISIS “breathing room”

FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2019 file photo, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters stand guard next to men waiting to be screened after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State group militants, near Baghouz, eastern Syria. The U.S.-led coalition says it has supported its Kurdish-led Syrian allies during an "incident" in a prison in northeastern Syria where Islamic State militants attempted to escape. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)
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One of America's main aims in Syria remains pushing Iranian forces and its militias out of the country, a top United States official told The National, adding that "there are a lot of tools we can use."

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn said his country’s “priorities haven’t changed” in Syria, adding that “we continue to do our planning about the means we use to accomplish our strategic objectives”.

Mr Rayburn outlined US objectives as “an enduring defeat of Daesh [ISIS] and other terrorist groups like it; to try to bring about a withdrawal from all of Syria of all Iranian commanded forces; and to support a political settlement of the conflict under United Nations security council resolution 2254”.

He added that “If there is ever to be a stable and sustainable Syria, there has to be a political process.

“You cannot fight your way out of this, there has to be a political settlement”.

Joel Rayburn, Deputy Assistant Secretary and Special Envoy for Syria, U.S. Department of State speaking during the Session "Reconciliation and Reconstruction" at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Centre before World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2019. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Jakob Polacsek

Last December, US President Donald Trump announced a full troop withdrawal from Syria, only to scale this back and agree to maintain some 400 troops in the country.

On the decision, Mr Rayburn said the president’s move was “in order to continue to take part, under the auspices of the coalition and with local partners, in this next stage of the campaign [against ISIS]”.

Mr Rayburn, who has military experience in Iraq, said he expects the next phase to look a lot like Iraq in 2009 and 2010 as US forces handed over security operations to local partners but stayed on to assist and advise.

The United States expects continued military actions against ISIS that are closer to guerrilla warfare. “The physical caliphate is destroyed but what it means in military terms is that you will see the campaign shift to a phase that will look somewhat different,” Mr Rayburn said.  “You will not see major combat operations with tens of thousands of troops engaged, as Daesh reverts to previous manifestations… to an insurgency”.

He added: “you will continue to see some kinetic action, just as you would against clandestine terror group”.

The capture of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi is, the US official noted, “important but not decisive”.

The American assessment is that Al Baghdadi and his inner circle remain important to “Daesh’s attempt to reconstitute themselves and to keep the networks alive, but as a phenomenon, if he is captured or taken off the battlefield, that doesn’t spell the end. It is not like the organisation will collapse without him”.

To fully defeat ISIS and work towards a political settlement, Mr Rayburn said that it is vital to get Iranian troops and allied militias out of the country. “Their very presence gives Daesh breathing room… it gives Daesh a political cause. So they must go,” he said. “Their presence is a destabilising factor, they perpetuate the civil war so it is harder to get a political settlement, they write the Assad regime a blank cheque, making it easier for him to stay away from a political solution”.

He also said that the presence of the Shiite forces and militias backed by Iran “create friction on the ground, taking part in sectarian cleansing… that created a backlash.”

Mr Rayburn said that what the Iranians are currently doing in Syria is “what they did in Iraq but it is even more intense in Syria”.

Mr Rayburn said the international community largely supports the American position on Iran. But when asked if Russia – a crucial backer for President Bashar Al Assad alongside Iran –was a partner in this effort, he was not definitive. “They should be,” he said. “I wouldn’t say they are yet”.

Although, he said it is unlikely that Moscow shares Tehran’s aims on the ground. “The Iranian regime’s vision for Syria is that it becomes a strategic outpost for the [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps], to establish military bases with medium-range missiles, with drones, radars, large militia formations and to use Syria to dominate the northern tier of the Arab world in an unprecedented way,” he said.

Getting the Iranians out of Syria is “part and parcel of the Iran strategy” that the United States is pursuing.

Last May, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the withdrawal of Iranian troops and Iranian-backed militias was on the list of US demands. Mr Rayburn said that “economic and political pressure and isolation” brought by American-led sanctions efforts would continue to mount on Iran unless it responded to those demands, including withdrawing from Syria. They must, he said, “give up their dreams of setting up strategic outposts in Syria that they can use to threaten Syria’s neighbours”.

The interview was conducted before Mr Trump announced the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group on Monday. As such, Mr Rayburn declined to address the rampant speculation that the designation was imminent.

One major US change in policy on Syria is Mr Trump’s surprise announcement on March 21 to recognise Israeli sovereignty of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, captured in 1967.

Despite the significance of the move, Mr Rayburn refused to speak to the impact of this decision, but said it was wrapped up in the political settlement to the 8-year old Syrian civil war. “When we think of the political process and when we exchange views about it with like-minded countries and the Syrian opposition, the US input to the thinking about the political settlement is that you go through a political process [and] you get to a settlement, the political process produces a differently-behaving Syrian government and there is a true settlement of the civil war and all the elements of the broader conflict and that includes reverting to the status quo that existed before 2011 in regards to foreign troop presence”.

Mr Rayburn said that he didn’t believe it was time to start sitting down with Mr Al Assad or re-admit Syria it to the Arab League. “We hold the same position as some of our key Arab partners, including Saudi Arabia, which is the time is not right for the embrace of the Assad regime... without the Assad regime fulfilling any of the conditions to make peace possible”. The Arab League Summit held last month in Tunis did not agree to proposals for re-admitting Syria to the body, eight years after it was expelled over spiralling violence in the country.

“We continue to believe that the idea of the Assad regime, which does not alter its behaviour inside Syria and without, being embraced again by the Arab League, that would undermine the prospect for a political settlement”.