US volte-face on Syria pull-out, with new focus on Iran withdrawal

US volte-face on Syria pull-out, with new focus on Iran withdrawal
The US will reverse its planned withdrawal from Syria, and instead aim at defeating the Islamic State group and forcing Iran to withdraw from the country.
3 min read
07 September, 2018
Jeffrey [left] is working on a new US policy towards Syria [AFP]

A planned US withdrawal from Syria will be slowed down or reversed, according to a leading American daily, as Washington reassesses its policy toward the war-torn country.

The announcement of a Syria U-turn comes as James Jeffrey was made Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's "representative for Syria engagement".

In an article published by the Washington Post, Jeffrey hinted at a radical new direction from the White House on the Syria issue.

Rather than pulling US troops out of northern and eastern Syria this year, they will instead concentrate on defeating the Islamic State group, and putting pressure on Iran to withdraw from the country.

"The new policy is we're no longer pulling out by the end of the year," he told the daily. "That means we are not in a hurry."

He said that despite Trump's public commitment to a US pull-out of Syria earlier in his term, the president is now behind a more muscular policy towards Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"I am confident the president is on board with this," he added.

First, the 2,200 Syrian troops based in northern and eastern Syria would "finish the job" of defeating IS. 

The US force is eclipsed by the much greater number of Iranian troops and Tehran-linked militia fighter active in Syria, backing Assad's depleted forces.

But Washington appears determined to move away from what appears to be the current US policy of urging Russia to pressure Tehran to withdraw its forces from the country, and instead do the job itself.

"In some respects, we are potentially entering a new phase, where you have forces from the different countries facing each other," Jeffrey said.

He told the Post that the US troops would remain in Syria to ensure Iran withdrew from the country, where tens of thousands of Tehran-linked militia fighters are thought to be operating.

The presence of the Iranian fighters and Hizballah has alarmed Israel, with dozens of air strikes launches on the militias' positions inside Syria.

With regime fighters building-up ready for an expected assault on the opposition province of Idlib, Jeffrey hinted at a more forceful approach from Washington in the conflict.

"We've started using new language," he said, hinting at Trump's warnings that chemical weapons will not be tolerated and warned of "consequences" of a brutal attack on Idlib, as seen during other regime offensives on rebel areas.

"We have asked repeatedly for permission to operate... that would be one way" to act, when questioned whether the US might retaliate if an offensive on Idlib in launched.

He added that US policy is not that "Assad must go" but "Assad has no future, but it's not our job to get rid of him", adding that he does not think the Syrian president - who has brought Iran and Russia into the conflict, and mercilessly bombed civilian areas - meets the criteria to rule the country.

The US have twice intervened against Assad's forces during the war, both times under Trump's command.

Air strikes were launched on regime targets following the 2017 Khan Sheikhoun chemical massacre, and a similar attack on the opposition enclave Eastern Ghouta this year.

Assad's forces are thought by most to be behind both attacks.