President Donald Trump meets with King Abdullah II of Jordan in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, June 25, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US seen backing away from Syria de-escalation enforcement

June 25, 2018 - 7:11 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration appears to be walking away from a pledge to enforce an arrangement to stabilize southwestern Syria as the Syrian military presses ahead with an offensive in the rebel-held area despite repeated U.S. warnings.

The offensive violates an agreement between the U.S., Russia and neighboring Jordan, whose monarch met with President Donald Trump on Monday. The nearly year-old agreement is intended to preserve the status quo in Syria's southwest, but recent public and private statements suggest the U.S. commitment is slipping.

Although the administration has been consistent in criticizing Russia for backing Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces' advance into the "de-escalation zone" in the province of Daraa, over the past two weeks U.S. officials in Washington and in the Middle East have steadily walked back on warnings of American retaliation for violations.

And as the situation became more critical Monday, threatening an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting into Jordan, Amman announced it would not take in the newly displaced.

Trump has made no secret of his desire to extricate the United States from Syria. The White House said Syria would be on the agenda of Trump's talks with Jordanian King Abdullah II but neither leader mentioned that country in their brief comments to reporters. Trump said only that a "lot of progress" had been made in the Middle East. He did not identify specific areas of improvement.

Earlier Monday, however, the State Department said the situation in southwest Syria remained a matter of serious concern, although it pointedly did not repeat earlier threats of a U.S. response that had been standard in such comments since May.

The quiet backtrack has occurred over the course of the last month, as what started as allusions to a potential U.S. military response evolved into mere expressions of concern.

In late May, the State Department first sounded the alarm in public about an "impending" operation by Assad's forces in the area covered by the ceasefire. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert warned both Syria and Russia on May 25 that "the United States will take firm and appropriate measures in response to Assad regime violations."

Nauert repeated the threat verbatim two weeks later on June 14 as indications grew that a Syrian operation could be imminent. Upping the rhetoric against Russia, she insisted the ceasefire "must continue to be enforced and respected." ''We affirm again that the United States will take firm and appropriate measures in response to Syrian government violations in this area," she said

But by June 21, amid reports that Syrian forces were actually operating in the ceasefire area, the U.S. had backed away from that tough line, warning only of "the serious repercussions of these violations." Nauert, in a statement urging all sides not to let the conflict broaden, did not elaborate on what those repercussions might be.

In a meeting two days later between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and King Abdullah, Syria did not even come up, at least according to the official U.S. description of the meeting. Instead, the two discussed economics, defeating the Islamic State group and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the State Department said in a statement.

Over the weekend, reports emerged that the U.S. liaison team to rebels in Daraa had told rebel commanders that they were essentially on their own.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Daraa-based opposition activist Osama Hourani said the U.S. had informed rebel groups in southern Syria that Washington would not intervene to defend them.

A U.S. official familiar with the matter confirmed on Monday that officials at the U.S. Embassy in Amman had sent text messages to the commanders advising them that they should make decisions about continuing to fight based on the interests of their factions and families and not "on the assumption or expectation of military intervention by us." The official was not authorized to discuss the message publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Monday's State Department statement, meanwhile, made no mention of any repercussions from the U.S. or anyone else. Instead, the U.S. said it was "closely following the situation and emphasizing to Russia the "critical nature of the mutual adherence to the ceasefire arrangement."

"We will not comment further on ongoing diplomatic conversations," it said.

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Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.

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