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Is the Trump administration changing U.S. policy on Syria?

After warning for months that he could pull U.S. troops from Syria, President Trump is making a renewed push to find a political solution to the country’s ongoing civil war. Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin sits down with Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Special Representative for Syrian Engagement, to discuss administration policy, the Idlib agreement and prospects for peace.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The Trump administration is making a renewed push to find a solution to the war in Syria.

    The man at the center of that effort is the newly appointed special representative for Syria engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey.

    He sat down with foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin, who sets the scene at a possible turning point for U.S. policy.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    For months, President Trump has warned he would leave Syria.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    But now he's authorized an open-ended deployment and a more assertive strategy. U.S. troops and allied Syrian forces are fighting the final battle in Syria against ISIS.

    Following a Russian-Turkish agreement to pause the battle for Idlib, the rebels' final stronghold located in Northwest Syria, the U.S. is pushing a political solution. And it's adding a difficult new goal, evict tens of thousands of Iranian-backed troops inside Syria, as Ambassador James Jeffrey reluctantly acknowledged in New York.

    Will the U.S. stay in Syria until Iranian troops leave Syria? And is that an expansion of the mission of defeating ISIS?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    The mission to defeat ISIS by the U.S. military remains the enduring defeat of ISIS, why our U.S. military forces are in Syria.

    But we, the United States, are in Syria, with our allies, with our local forces, to try to do three things that the president laid out here.

    First of all, we want to de-escalate this conflict. And we were really encouraged by the Turkish-Russian agreement that stopped the match on Idlib by the Syrian forces backed by the Russians. You will remember, two weeks ago, the president declared publicly that this would be a reckless escalation of the conflict.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    If it's a slaughter, the world is going to get very, very angry, and the United States is going to get very angry too.

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    Everybody took that seriously.

    Based upon that, the president is calling for a de-escalation of the military situation. So, de-escalate the military conflict, while reinvigorate the political process that will bring this war to a close and allow the half the population driven from their homes to come back and to have some kind of regional peace order again.

    So that's what we're working on now.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    But, if I could ask you, the national security adviser came out this week and said U.S. troops won't leave until Iranians or their proxies leave Syria.

    Is that an expansion of the mission for U.S. troops in Syria?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    I'm not going to contradict the national security adviser.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    So does that mean that U.S. troops will remain in Syria?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    U.S. troops right now have the mission of defeating and ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS.

    The U.S. as a whole will be staying on in one or another way. There are many examples of how you can be present, including present with somebody's military forces, without having American boots on the ground. And, in some cases, you have American boots on the ground.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    And regardless of whether it's boots, one of their missions, whether it's diplomats or whether it's proxies that the U.S. uses or allies, will be to evict Iran from Syria. Is that right?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    The goal of the United States in Syria, as the president laid out, is, first, the enduring defeat of ISIL, what our troops are doing there; second, the removal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria; third, a irreversible political process, which is what we have really, we think, been advancing here with the entire international community, with this U.N. process, under Staffan de Mistura, The U.N. envoy.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Can there be an irreversible political process with Bashar al-Assad staying in power?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    We're not in the business of regime change. We're in the business of setting conditions.

    First of all, it has to be a Syrian process. The enduring political solution under the U.N. process and the U.N. resolution calls for the Syrian people to make that decision, including by a free election that the U.N. would supervise and ensure is fair and free, including the diaspora, a good third of the population that's been driven out of Syria.

    And what they conclude, we don't know. But it's hard for us to imagine that it would be a regime like that Bashar al-Assad currently is in charge of.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    And one of the conditions, of course, that you want is for refugees to feel free to go home.

    Can they really feel free to go home if Assad is still the president?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    Well, most of them have already voted with their feet or voted with their posteriors by sitting exactly where they are, because nobody — or not…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    You mean — meaning outside of Syria?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    Right, outside of Syria, because no one wants to return to be subject to the extraordinary torture chambers, poison gas and absolute disgraceful barrel bombing oppression of that regime.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    And there have been peace talks, of course, as you know, in Geneva for many years.

    How do you get Syria and Russia to take serious these peace talks and the momentum toward a political solution that you're talking about, when, frankly, they haven't taken it seriously in the past?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    You're right.

    First of all, we now have, at least for the moment, with the Idlib agreement between Turkey and Russia, you now have what amounts to a military stalemate, thanks to the Idlib situation. That's something new.

    Secondly, we have said no reconstruction assistance, no assistance to encourage or force refugees back and help rebuild the regime for Assad until we see a political process in place. And, thirdly, you have got these five outside military forces rubbing against each other, with risk of escalation, as we saw with the shootdown of the Russian aircraft by Syrian enforces trying to go after the Israelis who had just bombed an Iranian target.

    That's a nightmare scenario that I think encourages everybody to turn to the political process that we are reinvigorating here this week in New York.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Ambassador James Jeffrey, thank you very much.

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    Thank you.

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