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Former envoy: Al-Qaida linked leader an 'asset' to US Syria strategy

Ambassador James Jeffrey is just reminding us how complicated and counterproductive our policy is there — if there is one.

Middle East

The former U.S. special envoy to Syria said in an interview excerpt published Friday that Al Qaida’s Syrian offshoot is an “asset” to U.S. strategy in Syria. 

Ambassador James Jeffrey had told PBS News in March 2021 that the Islamist rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham was “least bad option of the various options on Idlib, and Idlib is one of the most important places in Syria, which is one of the most important places right now in the Middle East.”

Jeffrey oversaw the Trump administration’s Syria policy until November 2020, when he left the State Department in the wake of the election of President Joe Biden.”

The interview excerpt was taken from an upcoming PBS documentary about Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, a former senior official in Al Qaida who now leads HTS.

Jolani, who is designated as a terrorist by the U.S. government, told PBS that his relationship with Al Qaida “has ended” and the terrorism designation against him is “unfair.”

He claimed that his new group “does not represent a threat to the security of Europe and America” and was always “against carrying out operations outside of Syria.”

HTS now controls the breakaway province of Idlib, home to an estimated 3 million people, many of whom are refugees fleeing Syrian government repression. Jolani argued that HTS and the United States have a common interest in protecting them, according to PBS. HTS has also been accused of human rights violations against civilians, including torture and pillage.

The comments by Jeffrey and Jolani came a year after major fighting in the region that left nearly 1 million civilians displaced.

The Syrian government, backed by Russia, had launched an offensive to retake Idlib in late 2019. After pro-government forces surrounded several Turkish peacekeeping outposts in the province, Turkey launched a counter-offensive in February 2020.

Russia and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire on March 5, although sporadic fighting has continued.

Jeffrey, a career diplomat in Turkey, is no stranger to controversial statements.

Soon after leaving government, he admitted to playing “shell games” to keep the number of U.S. troops in Syria hidden from the President.

Furthermore, in a 2013 article, he praised the 1980 military coup d’etat in Turkey, which led to the arrest and torture of thousands of dissidents.

“The Turkish coup stands out as perhaps the most successful of the region's many military interventions over the past two generations,” he wrote. “Despite its long-term [Kurdistan Workers Party] insurgency, current political woes, and other concerns, Turkey has been an overall democratic success since the 1980 coup, as well as a stable, strong, and helpful U.S. ally.”

Islamist rebels from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are seen outside the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, Syria July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
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