- The Washington Times
Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Trump administration’s point man on Syria told Congress on Wednesday that the U.S. is demanding the withdrawal of all Iranian forces and proxy forces from Syria, as the world closely watches whether the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has once again deployed chemical weapons.

Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department’s special representative for Syria, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Iran continues to pose a threat to U.S. national security “by sowing instability in the region,” and that Tehran and its proxy forces still have an estimated 10,000 fighters still operating inside Syria.

Iranian as well as Russian forces have played a key role in backing Mr. Assad in the country’s brutal eight-year civil war, a war Mr. Assad is very close to winning. Russia has long provided military assistance to Syrian forces, and has housed military bases in the country for years.

The Iranian regime’s malign behavior has left us no choice but to pursue the withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria,” Mr. Jeffrey said Wednesday.

With rebel and jihadi forces largely reduced to an enclave in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, Mr. Jeffrey said that the U.S. and its allies have spoken with Russia about ways to establish a political solution in Syria “many times.” But unless the Assad government significantly changes its actions, Mr. Jeffrey added, such a solution is “highly unlikely.”

“Despite our differences,” however, he said “we believe Russia’s interests are not served by a murderous Syrian regime rejected by its people and the international community, or by Iranian power projected into Syria as a platform.”

In Syria itself, opposition forces Wednesday claimed they had recaptured a village taken two weeks earlier as part of a new offensive in Idlib by Mr. Assad’s Russian-backed forces. The fighting represents a major challenge to the shaky cease-fire over Idlib, which has a population of some 3 million people, The Associated Press reported.

The hearing on the administration’s strategy toward Syria came about five months after President Trump declared that the Islamic State had been entirely defeated and called for the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. The president’s decision was later walked back, and defense officials said that a roughly 400-strong U.S. force — including possibly ground troops — would be staying in Syria for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Jeffrey told the committee that although the Islamic State’s once-extensive “caliphate” been 100% demolished in Syria, the terror group remains a “significant threat” to the U.S. and its allies.

Pressed by committee Chairman Eliot Engel, New York Democrat, on the impact of a U.S. troop drawdown, Mr. Jeffrey said the current number of U.S. troops is sufficient to carry out the administration’s goals and said other countries, including NATO forces, “are stepping up” since Mr. Trump’s announcement.

“We don’t have the final figure yet but I am absolutely confident that it will be considerably more than the numbers and countries we had before,” he said.

On the heels of the State Department’s warning that Damascus may once again be using chemical weapons against the last anti-government rebel positions, Mr. Jeffrey told the committee he could not yet verify that the Assad regime was renewing the practice, but added, “we are watching it.”

“We do not at this point have any confirmation that chlorine, which was the substance that was suggested or alleged, has been used,” Mr. Jeffrey told lawmakers, while noting the U.S. review of the charges is still underway.

President Trump has twice ordered U.S. airstrikes in retaliation for suspected chemical weapons use by the Assad regime on anti-government positions.

A report by the Global Public Policy Institute released earlier this year said that Mr. Assad has used chemical weapons in his country’s civil war more than 300 times over just the past five years, with the vast majority coming since President Obama declared in 2013 that chemical attacks constituted a “red line” that would trigger a U.S. military response.

The State Department on Tuesday charged that Russia and the Syrian regime are continuing a “disinformation campaign … to create the false narrative that others are to blame for chemical weapons attacks that the Assad regime itself is conducting.”

Mr. Jeffrey said that while his team believes “Russia can play an important role in resolving this conflict, they can also play a role in making it worse.”

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