The US Special Representative for Syria hinted at an interesting idea during a press conference Monday afternoon when he answered a question about when American troops might finally leave Syria by reminding the attendees that the US was “present not in northern Iraq but over northern Iraq in Operation Northern Watch for 13 years”, suggesting that American forces might withdraw from the Arab Republic as long as they can still retain control of the skies over the northeast.
Creatively Breaking The Stalemate
The situation in Syria has more or less entered a stalemate for a variety of reasons, and the US is apparently considering creative ways to jumpstart the conflict resolution process. One of them might be withdrawing its forces from the Kurdish-controlled northeast as long as it and its “Coalition of the Willing” allies from the so-called “Small Group on Syria” (Germany, France, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt) are allowed to impose an internationally recognized “no-fly zone” there afterwards. The idea was strongly hinted at during a press conference yesterday with US Special Representative for Syria James F. Jeffrey after his meeting with members of the “Small Group on Syria”, during which time the following exchange occurred between a reporter and the dignitary:
“QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Ambassador. I wanted to ask you – I mean, we’re a bit confused on the position of the United States as far as Syria is concerned. On the one hand they say we will be there forever, on the other hand that your operation is limited and so on. Could you just give us like a vignette of how and when will the United States forces leave Syria?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Well, 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.
When we say we’re going to be present not forever in Syria but present until our conditions – enduring defeat of ISIL, as was said earlier, the withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria, and an irreversible political process. We’re saying the United States as a whole, that the President as the Commander-in-Chief and as the leader of our foreign policy has various options that involve military involving our forces.
Remember we were present not in northern Iraq but over northern Iraq in Operation Northern Watch for 13 years. That can be a UN force. Under 2254 there is language on a UN-managed and operated ceasefire. That can be partner forces. That can be other countries’ forces.”
Jeffrey continued his answer beyond what’s being quoted, but the above-cited text contains the entirety of what he said pertaining to the implied possibility of a US withdrawal from Syria in exchange for imposing an internationally recognized “no-fly zone” in the agricultural and resource-rich northeastern one-third of the country that American troops are presently occupying. Per his words, the US could justify the “legal” basis for this operation on one of the clauses contained within UNSC Res. 2254, particularly the seventh one which stipulates the following:
“7. Emphasizes the need for a ceasefire monitoring, verification and reporting mechanism, requests the Secretary-General to report to the Security Council on options for such a mechanism that it can support, as soon as possible and no later than one month after the adoption of this resolution, and encourages Member States, including members of the Security Council, to provide assistance, including through expertise and in-kind contributions, to support such a mechanism;”
Although it’s a bit of a stretch, the argument can certainly be made that the broad parameters agreed upon in that clause by the UNSC (which importantly includes Russia) provide for the creation of a “Coalition of the Willing” formed from UN “Member States, including members of the Security Council”, to vaguely “provide assistance, including through expertise and in-kind contributions, to support [a ceasefire monitoring, verification an reporting] mechanism”. Accordingly, the “Small Group on Syria” could naturally play this role, even if unilaterally in defiance of other Member States’ objections.
For all intents and purposes, a “no-fly zone” already exists in northeastern Syria because neither Russian nor Syrian planes enter the de-facto American “sphere of influence” east of the Euphrates River “deconfliction line”, so all that Jeffrey’s proposal would actually be doing in practice is potentially withdrawing US troops from this region as part of a superficial “compromise” for jumpstarting the political process. The key word here, however, is “superficial”, because the US wouldn’t really be “compromising” on anything if it ended up doing this.
After all, if it and its “Coalition of the Willing” allies flew regular patrols over northeastern Syria from bases in Iraq and Jordan, for example, they’d still be enforcing the current on-the-ground reality that prevents other air and ground units from “violating” the “deconfliction line” like what reportedly occurred in February during the Disaster in Deir ez-Zor. Simply put, the US doesn’t need ground deployments in the country to enforce the de-facto internal partition of Syria when “sharing the burden” of an Iraqi-style “no-fly zone” with its allies would more than suffice.
A Double Withdrawal?
Nevertheless, withdrawing American troops from northeastern Syria would still be a very symbolic move that could provide the pretext for Damascus to request Iran’s “face-saving” and dignified “phased withdrawal” from the country “in kind” according to the grand deal that Russia is reportedly trying to broker between the Iran, Syria, “Israel”, and the US. The difference, however, is that America’s battlefield supremacy would still remain intact by dint of the proposed “no-fly zone”, whereas Iran’s influence would gradually diminish as every IRGC, Hezbollah, and other militia unit departs from Syria.
There’s a chance, though, that this might be an acceptable outcome for Iran as long as it results in the sanctions relief that Russia is supposedly trying to secure for it in return for its withdrawal, with the only possible precondition being made by Tehran is that its actions aren’t portrayed as “abiding” by the US’ previous demands to unilaterally leave the Arab Republic. If American troops were to do this first or in Russian-facilitated coordination with Iran’s, then the Islamic Republic wouldn’t “lose face” and might theoretically go along with this plan.
It can’t be known for certain just how serious Jeffrey is about the scenario that he hinted at concerning the withdrawal of American forces from northeastern Syria in exchange for the “Small Group on Syria” and its allies imposing an internationally recognized “no-fly zone” over the Kurdish-controlled part of the country, but that possible development might creatively break the stalemate that’s set in over the Arab Republic. Damascus needs the US to stop threatening its partners with “secondary sanctions” if they invest in rebuilding the liberated majority of the country, but that will probably only happen in the event that Iran withdraws first.
Russia is reportedly very busy trying to broker a grand deal between Iran, Syria, “Israel”, and the US whereby Damascus would request Tehran’s dignified and “phased withdrawal” from the country in return for sanctions relief, though the Islamic Republic might not feel comfortable complying with this unless American troops leave too, ergo the “strategic genius” behind Jeffrey’s informal proposal. If implemented, and it’s still far from certain that this is even being seriously considered by the US, then this scenario might be what’s needed to finally jumpstart the peace process and get Syria on the path of formally ending its war.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.