Rojava Information Center put questions to the U.S. State Department’s incoming Special Envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn, during a 3 December press conference. Some of Mr. Rayburn’s other answers also addressed the situation in North and East Syria (NES). His comments to RIC and others concerning the situation in NES follow.
Rojava Information Center: The US Coalition presence from Qamishli east to the Iraqi border looks relatively stable. But the regions from Qamishli west through Til Temir, Ain Issa and Kobane to Manbij remain exposed to a further Turkish assault. Such an assault would likely be equally as catastrophic as Turkey’s 2019 ‘Peace Spring’ operation in terms of compromising anti-ISIS operations, granting opportunities to the Assad regime and Russia to advance, and provoking further humanitarian catastrophe. What mechanisms does the US have in place for preventing a further Turkish operation in these regions where the Coalition no longer has a direct presence on the ground?
Joel Rayburn: The October 2019 ceasefire agreement was a very important one in halting the conflict in the north-east Syrian zone, and it’s important for that ceasefire agreement to be maintained. The US’ position is that this is in the best interest of all parties. For the most part, the ceasefire has endured. Like you, like the people of North and East Syria, we see periodic tensions along the lines in northern Syria. But we have not seen, thankfully, major clashes that would indicate some sides abandoning or going into repudiation of the October 2019 ceasefire agreement.
For us, we remain ready to use our leverage, if we have to, things like sanctions, to help to preserve that ceasefire agreement. There are some actors that would like to destabilize the ceasefire arrangement in north-eastern Syria. Clearly, ISIS has an interest in that. There are some other groups, too, that carry out attacks. We think attacks along that line should cease for the good of the Syrian people. If there are local disputes along that line, they need to be solved politically.
RIC: Will we see the political representatives of North and East Syria included in official discussions over Syria’s future, specifically the Syrian Democratic Council, or will the region’s millions of inhabitants remain without any representation in these discussions?
JR: We think it’s important for all communities of Syria to have a voice in the political process. There are Syrians from the regions of the north-east already participating in the formal political process, and I think there can be many opportunities for the voices of the communities of the north-east to be heard. and they should be heard. Communities from across Syria should have a voice in the political process.
Question from attendee: Will Trump or Biden withdraw additional troops from Syria?
JR: I think you can just look and see that the US remains committed to continuing the campaign against ISIS, al-Qaeda and other groups… there is continuing support for that policy in Washington, and you aren’t going to see that change. The US remains committed to seeing terror groups can’t terrorize people in Syria, or attacks other people outside Syria, and you’re not going to see that change.
Q: Is there any effort shown by the USA to completely shut down the notorious Hol Camp and hold the YPG/PYD accountable for the valuations committed against the civilians residing there?
JR: In Hol camp, the danger is that people could be radicalized by extremist elements. The real solution is for people in Hol not from Syria to be repatriated to their home countries, for Syrians to be vetted and for those that don’t pose a threat to the security region to go through a process of returning to their home communities. That’s what US has been encouraging our local partners to make happen. There needs to be more willingness on the part of other countries to have those non-Syrians repatriated back to their home countries.
Q: Why does the US support dialog between different Kurdish parties in Syria?
JR: we support dialog between any of those local communities that can contribute to improve security and stability on the ground. We believe that dialog among different Kurdish parties is important and has potential to improve stability in that region of Syria. We think that dialog among all the communities of NES would be very positive.
Q: How does the United States see the north-east region politically and on the security level?
JR: The security situation is much better than when there were large scale battles against ISIS. ISIS is trying to constitute itself as a clandestine network… This doesn’t happen in the north-east in a vacuum… ISIS is also operating in Iraq, in the Badiya region, trying to create safe havens to regain its strength. Other parties work with ISIS and encourage ISIS to carry out attacks against the north-east: the regime and Iran, we believe, are both separately collaborating with ISIS.
As far as the political situation in the north-east, the political fate of north-eastern Syria needs to be resolved in the broader political process. The people of the north-east should have a voice in that political process, and should be part of the conversation among all Syrians in the Geneva political process. In the US we don’t make a political distinction about a separate political future [for the various regions of Syria]… we have a policy that Syria’s territorial integrity and unity needs to be preserved.