Interview: Ex-Special Representative to Syria, James Jeffrey

U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey [Getty Images]
4 min read
10 September, 2021
In an interview with The New Arab's sister publication Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Fmr. US Special Representative to Syria James Jeffrey gives his thoughts on the impact of withdrawing from Afghanistan, the conflict in Syria, and wider regional issues.

The New Arab's sister publication Al-Araby Al-Jadeed  sat down to talk with Fmr. US Special Representative to Syria, James Jeffrey. He answered questions about the hasty withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, who just might benefit from such a geo-political shakeup, and his thoughts on regional Arab concerns. 

How do you evaluate the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its impact on America's strategic position globally?

I am sure this is not the start of a larger retrenchment in the Middle East or elsewhere. Biden believes in American led global collective security including forward military deployments. He thought correctly that Afghanistan was a losing cause with no national importance for the US.  The problem for Washington is that people all over the world fear that this could be but the beginning of a larger withdrawal. Thus Biden by actions as well as words with China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorists must take strong positions. 

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Do you think that the US withdrawal in Afghanistan is an additional indication of the declining role of the United States in the world?  

Not at all. Look at the economy and the military. It is a signal that with important challenges facing us see above we will waste no more time or importance on unimportant things. 

Do you think that China will benefit the most from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

We will have to see

As for the nuclear deal with Iran, do you think the chances of reaching an agreement are far or close?

There is still a chance but the new Iranian government shows little interest. Biden will not accept a deal with the bad conditions Teheran wants.

Do you think that the appointment of the new Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, is a stern Iranian message toward dialogue with Washington, especially since the minister is close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard?

Of course.

There is a rapprochement and meetings between Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and the UAE. How do you explain this rapprochement, and do you think that the countries of the region are afraid of the results of the nuclear agreement?

One it is a fear that Washington might be pivoting to Asia and thus the generally status quo American partners in the region need to work better together. Thus the Abraham Accords and rapprochement between Turkey and Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia UAE Israel and Egypt on the other. This is very good as it will encourage Washington to work now with united rather than spatting partners.

As for Syria, there has been an escalation recently in Daraa. Do you think there is a change in the equation there, in which Russia is ensuring that Iranian militias stay away from the Jordanian and Israeli borders?

It indicates the division of interests between Russia and Iran. Russia would like a deal that ends conflict and isolation / economic collapse of Syria but it knows the price is ceasefires in Idlib and southwest (Dara) and more cooperation with UNSCR 2254.

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Many consider the administration of President Biden to follow in the same footsteps as the Trump administration is ignoring the Syrian file as a US priority. Does not Washington consider handing over an area of such importance to Moscow and Tehran a strategic loss?

The Trump administration did not ignore Syria. Biden administration has generally so far apart from anti-ISIS mission of US troops and humanitarian aid.  I predict this will change as Syria is a strategic issue for entire region.

Do you consider that the US sanctions regime against the Syrian regime is sufficient to force it to make real political concessions?

No, but they are excellent bargaining chips along with troop presence, pressure from Turkey and Israel and Arab League isolation to obtain a compromise solution to the conflict.

Does the current US administration have a direct line of communication with Damascus? Does it have a willingness to normalize with him, starting with security cooperation in the fight against ISIS, to reach normalization later, perhaps to the political level?

No to the first question;  no to second unless a compromise on UNSCR 225, reduction of Iranian presence and change in Assad policies sufficient to encourage refugees to return and opposition in Idlib and SDF in the northeast to reintegrate. 

Regarding Lebanon, some say that the American role is absent from what is happening in Lebanon. In your assessment, where is the situation in Lebanon heading, especially after the economic collapse?

Iran and Hezbollah have produced this chaos and absent a more representative political system neither the US nor other Western states will do anything significant beyond humanitarian support. Lebanon is a lesson to Iraq, Syria Yemen and other states of what happens if Iran is not contained.  

Tareq Al-Naimat is a Jordanian journalist and researcher specializing in Islamist movements. He currently works as a senior editor at al-Araby al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister outlet