Trump Says "Pull the Plug" on Syrian Peace Talks: Prefers Another Endless War . . . or WWIII
December 5, 2018 Tom O'Connor / Newsweek & AntiWar.com & Laura Rozen / Al-Monitor
Donald Trump came into office harshly critical of endless wars in the Middle East, but seems to be staring down the barrel of another such conflict in Syria. In addition to wanting ISIS defeated, the US wants Iran ousted, and all Shi'ite militias out of Syria. On top of that, they also want regime change, and a role in determining Syria's future. In the meantime, Trump's US envoy James Jeffrey wants the world to "pull the plug" on peace talks involving Syria and Russia.
US Could Be Set for Another Iraq War in Syria,
Despite Donald Trump Complaining About
'Endless Wars' in Middle East Tom O'Connor / Newsweek
(December 3, 2018) -- The US may be headed down a similar path in Syria as it was in the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003, a conflict that vastly changed the dynamics of the region and entrenched the Pentagon in the country to this day.
In a press briefing following a meeting of the so-called United Nations "small group" on Syria -- the US, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom -- US special envoy James Jeffrey outlined what many had criticized as a vague approach to Washington's true goals in the conflict.
Since 2015, the US has led a coalition tasked with bombing the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), but officials have said they did not plan on removing the military until forces allegedly under Iranian control were withdrawn and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was ousted.
"The United States forces are in Syria for one mission, which is the enduring defeat of ISIS/Daesh, that is a military mission that flows from congressional authorization in 2001 against terror post-9/11. That's the military mission of our military there," Jeffrey told reporters.
"When we say we're going to be present, not forever, in Syria, but present until our conditions -- enduring defeat of ISIS . . . the withdrawal of Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria and an irreversible political process -- we're saying the United States as a whole," he added. "The president, as the commander-in-chief and the leader of our foreign policy has various options that involve the military, that involve our forces, remember we were present not in northern Iraq, but over northern Iraq in Operation Northern Watch for 13 years."
Though Operation Northern Watch officially began in 1997, US and allied forces had been actively enforcing no-fly zones over Iraq since the Gulf War of 1991, when the US repelled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and began to enforce strict economic and military measures against his government.
Low-level skirmishes between US and Iraqi air defenses persisted until days before the US invaded in March 2003, holding Hussein responsible for weapons of mass destructions allegations that later proved to be false.
President Donald Trump has provided conflicting opinions on the decision to invade Iraq, but he has often characterized himself as an opponent. During the height of the 2016 presidential election, the Republican candidate railed in an October rally against "the people who have given us decades of endless wars producing only death and bloodshed, but no victory." Days before his own election, he again complained to supporters about "these endless foreign wars that have made us much less safe."
A year later, he tweeted ahead of a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last November about "the mess that [he] inherited in the Middle East," dreading "what a mistake, in lives and dollars (6 trillion), to be there in the first place!"
A study published last month by Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs backs up that number, and details at least 500,000 lives lost in its most conservative estimate of US conflicts waged as part of the so-called "War on Terror" after 9/11.
After becoming the main target of this 17-year campaign, ISIS has been heavily beaten since growing out of the Al-Qaeda-led Sunni Muslim insurgency in destabilized post-invasion Iraq, prompting Trump to be eager to pull out of Syria early this year.
Nevertheless, his administration has since taken steps in the exact opposite direction, and the president himself has set his sights on enforcing regime change in Syria and pushing back Iran, which -- along with Russia -- has helped Assad remain in power.
Moscow launched its intervention on Assad's behalf in 2015, introducing its armed forces to the conflict. Tehran, on the other hand, had been sending military advisers to Syria for years and mostly contributed via the mobilization of regional Shiite Muslim militias.
These forces found common ground in Iraq with the US intervention they once battled as they shared an ally in the Iraqi government against a mutual foe, ISIS. In Syria, however, the US has openly warned that Assad and forces purported to be under Iranian command would have to leave, despite neither showing any sign of doing just that.
Trump, who criticized and largely ended his predecessor's backing for the 2011 rebel and jihadi uprising against Assad, has twice ordered missile strikes against the Syrian government, both times in response to specific alleged chemical weapons attacks. The US-led coalition has also engaged pro-Syrian government fighters -- potentially Iran-backed militias -- on several occasions that were described as self-defense measures.
Despite the limited nature of these encounters, State Department special representative on Iran Brian Hook said Thursday during a showcase of alleged Iranian weapons recovered from non-state actors across the region that the US has "been very clear with the Iranian regime that we will not hesitate to use military force when our interests are threatened."
As was the case in Iraq, the US has also been accused by Russia of playing a "dangerous game" in Syria by allegedly attempting to divide the country through its backing of Kurdish groups, some of which hold separatist aspirations and have struggled to negotiate with Damascus.
During Monday's briefing, Jeffrey denied this and stated that the US was committed to "the territorial integrity of Syria under its present borders." He also outlined other non-military options for advancing Washington's interests there, including diplomatic initiatives with partner states and enforcing further economic sanctions, both of which were strategies implemented against Iraq as well.
He maintained, however, that "we will stay in Syria until we get these goals."
Ambitious Goals Have US Set
For Another Long War, This Time in Syria As with Iraq, the US stares down
an open-ended presence in Syria Jason Ditz / Anti-War.com
(December 3, 2018) – President Trump came into office harshly critical of endless wars in the Middle East, but seems to be staring down the barrel of another such conflict in Syria. This reflects the Pentagon's determination to stay in the country, and the administration's ambitious goals not being really attainable.
The US wants an "enduring defeat of ISIS," as ever, but has also tacked onto that a full withdrawal of all Iran-backed forces from the "entirety of Syria," along with an irreversible political process that officials have maintained can't involve Assad or other top Syrian officials.
So in addition to wanting ISIS defeated, the US wants to ensure they never come back. Meanwhile, they want not only Iran ousted, but all Shi'ite militias in Syria. On top of that, they also want regime change, even though the rebels are all but wiped out.
US officials are comfortably comparing this to decades of war in northern Iraq, which saw the US propping up an autonomous Kurdish region only to watch it get hammered in the past year by the Iraqi military.
This may end up being a model for Syria as well, where the US is supporting the Kurdish YPG in expanding its control over much of eastern Syria, while insisting that the US opposes the idea of a heavily autonomous Kurdish region in favor of a strong centralized government. US Envoy:
Russia-Led Syria Peace Talks Must End
Says US opposes 'strange initiative' Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(December 3, 2018) -- With the US seemingly gearing up for an open-ended military involvement in Syria, US envoy James Jeffrey looks to be trying to undercut any peace efforts, demanding that the world "pull the plug" on the Russia-led Astana talks.
The Astana talks involve Russia, Turkey, and Iran, and Jeffrey says the US opposes the "rather strange initiative" and wants it scrapped in favor of a new UN effort, presumably one which the US would be given a priority position in.
The US never supported the Astana process in the first place, and has demanded that the end of the Syrian War involve unconditional regime change. Russia has said they want the end state to be settled with a free election, which would include the possibility of existing officials running for office. The US says that can never be allowed.
There is no sign a new UN effort is happening anyhow to replace Astana, but that may also be part of the idea. With the rebellion all but defeated, the US seems determined to keep the war going, and scrap anything that might result in negotiations. US Syria Envoy:
Let's Pull the Plug on Russia-led Talks Laura Rozen / Al-Monitor.com
(December 3, 2018) -- Saying efforts to advance a Syria political process are at a stalemate, US Syria envoy James Jeffrey today proposed that the international community "pull the plug" on the Russia-led Astana process on Syria. But it is not clear that Washington has much support for the proposal even from the European and Arab allies that make up the Syria "small group" that US diplomats met with in Washington today.
Citing the failure of the Astana parties -- Russia, Turkey, and Iran -- to advance efforts for a Syria constitutional committee at a meeting last week, Jeffrey said the United States would propose getting rid of the competitor to the UN-led Geneva process when UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura departs at the end of the year.
De Mistura is due to give perhaps his final report to the UN Security Council on Dec. 14. Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen has been named to succeed him.
If de Mistura is unable to report that he can convene a constitutional committee in Geneva by the end of the year, Jeffrey said it would be the US view that Pedersen take a different approach.
"Our suggestion would . . . [be] . . . we do not continue with the rather strange Sochi/Astana initiative," Jeffrey told journalists at a State Department press briefing today. "The US view . . . is let's pull the plug on Astana."
The United States sees the convening of the constitutional committee as key to talks about a final document that would be the backbone of a post-conflict settlement.
"Is it a stalemate? Yes," Jeffrey said.
But Jeffrey said he is "somewhat more optimistic" than six months ago.
"It is very clear that the Damascus regime, the Russians and Iranians want to see . . . the 'three Rs,'" Jeffrey said. "Refugees pushed back to Syria, reconstruction aid . . . and the [Bashar al-Assad] regime to be recognized as legitimate. None of those things are happening, and they are not going to happen unless the political process makes progress."
Jeffrey credited the parties to the Oct. 27 Istanbul summit -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- with having negotiated and sustained a de-escalation agreement for Idlib.
Laura Rozen is Al-Monitor's diplomatic correspondent based in Washington, DC. On Twitter: @LRozen
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