Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Jim Jeffrey and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Defense Policy, Emerging Threats, and Outreach Thomas DiNanno of the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance On U.S. Policy on Syria and D-ISIS
Office of the Spokesperson
September 26, 2019
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, so we're on the record. Everybody knows Jim. I'm not supposed to have a favorite special representative, but you're my favorite special representative for Syria. (Laughter.) Feeling punchy at the end of the day here. Thomas DiNanno, who has the longest title at the State Department – he is the senior bureau official and deputy assistant secretary for defense, policy, emerging threats, and outreach, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance. That's like –
QUESTION: Can't you make that into an acronym?
MS ORTAGUS: I know, I know.
MR DINANNO: We have one, actually.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, you guys want to come in? You guys, get a seat.
Okay, so Jim's going to make some opening remarks, and are you going to make any opening remarks too?
MR DINANNO: Yeah, I'll say a few things.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. We'll let the two of them and then we can go into Q&A [informal chit-chat].
Okay, go ahead, Jim.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay, thank you, Morgan. Hello, everybody. In my two closely related portfolios of Syria-everything and Daesh in Iraq and Syria, my team brought us up here to do four basic things, and we think that we hit on all cylinders on all four.
First of all, the political process, the only way forward to resolve the Syrian conflict that's been going on since 2011. We pressed hard, as did our partners, particularly NATO countries and Arab League members, for a constitutional committee under UN Resolution 2254. That's been languishing since December 2015. With a lot of pressure from the international community and a great job by the secretary-general, we got the two sides – which means mainly the Damascus regime, because the Syrian opposition basically are willing to move forward. The Damascus regime was holding off for years. They agreed to launch this thing. It will be launched within the coming weeks. You saw the secretary-general's announcement. We stand full-square behind this.
This is not the end of the efforts by Assad to get a military victory, we don't think, or even the efforts of Iran and Russia to support him. But it shows that they were under pressure, and being under pressure, they've at least opened the door to a political solution. This is still symbolic at this point. We need to keep the pressure on and we will, and our friends and allies will as well, but we also need to recognize that there may be a glimmer of hope that this conflict can be ended the right way.
There is – between a political solution under 2254 and a military victory, as Assad wants it, these are mutually exclusive. I want to emphasize that. These are mutually exclusive. You cannot have one, you cannot have the other, and we particularly tell our friends who we negotiate with all the time in Moscow that that's the way it is. That was the first thing.
Secondly, Idlib. That's an example of people pushing forward. The Assad regime, supported by the Russians and the Iranians – it created a huge international outburst of anger and criticism. It led to the secretary-general just two weeks ago opening up a board of inquiry into what's happened there and then a resolution in the Security Council that 12 nations, including the U.S., supported strongly. It was vetoed by Russia and China. It called for a ceasefire, a real ceasefire, but alas, Russia and China could not go on with one that didn't give them what we call a cut-out to kill terrorists, which means to continue a bombing offensive against civilians and a massive military movement on the ground.
Thirdly, defeat ISIS. ISIS is still around, and it contributes to the insecurity and the problems in Syria in many different ways. We've worked very hard to keep the focus on ISIS with an accountability event that was kicked off by Amal Clooney this morning organized by the Dutch and the Iraqis – we support it strongly – on how to ensure that ISIS crimes are pursued by the international community and that those people that we have now captured are brought to justice. This is a huge priority for the President and Secretary, and we thought we made progress there.
The fourth is accountability. We had meeting after meeting, beginning with Caesar, the code name for the brave Syrian who took the 55,000 pictures of the horrors of the Assad prisons and who's now the namesake of a bill working its way through Congress – we hope that passes soon – which will give even stronger tools to sanction the Assad regime to the U.S. administration.
And we expect that our allies, particularly the European Union, will find ways to increase their sanctions. In fact, they're doing that right now. But we also looked at other events with the victims of Assad's crimes, brought Syrians to the attention of the international community, to the UN, to NGOs such as the International Crisis Group which hosted one of these events, to our European partners.
And finally, today the Secretary laid out a particularly important case of accountability for the use of chemical weapons, and I'll turn that over now to Tom to continue on that.
MR DINANNO: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. As Secretary Pompeo announced earlier today, the United States will provide an additional 4.5 million to support the OPCW mandate to investigate chemical weapons use in Syria. It supports two core functions of the OPCW: if chemical weapons were used; and to identify who did it, simply put.
This work is vital. It is important to ensure accountability. I'd also like to point out this is not a unilateral effort. We'd like to thank our partners and allies that have made a commitment and who share the burden so these ongoing attribution efforts can continue.
That's all I have.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Shaun.
QUESTION: Thanks. I was wondering if you could give us any more details regarding the Secretary's announcement today about the chlorine attack. Is there anything more you can say about the incident and in terms of whether civilians were targeted – in particular, about the information that you had, and I mean, what actually transpired in (inaudible).
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We know that – first of all, the date. We know that a number of individuals were injured. We don't quite know their status. No one was killed. And this was in an area that the regime had tried for several weeks to capture through military action. You'll remember a year ago when the threat to Idlib first came out and the President, just before coming up here, stated that any offensive into Idlib would be a reckless escalation. That's how we see it.
One of the many reasons for that is that we fear that the regime, which has very weak infantry forces, will try to use chemical weapons once again to make up for its inability to seize ground by combat power. So these warnings of not going into Idlib, while there's terrorist problems if you go into Idlib, there's refugee problems, there's geostrategic problems, there's also the problem of them using chemical weapons, and we wanted to make clear that we would respond if they do use chemical weapons.
In this case, we actually went public right after the event, saying that we had seen indications of this and were looking into it. It took us quite a while. Can you explain a bit why – how we weigh these things and what factors we use?
MR DINANNO: Yes, sir. I think it's important, as the ambassador points out, that the chemical forensic work to gather the samples, it's very difficult to get inspectors in. The regime denies the – any OPCW access at every chance they get. And it's also critical that those samples are correct and that the forensics and the chemistry is done with great detail and to make sure they're precise. So it took us some time to work through the results, and we're confident today that we can announce with certainty that it was, in fact, chlorine.
QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up? When Shaun today asked about what the response was going to be, the Secretary seemed to make a distinction about these being chlorine attacks. My understanding was that the Douma attacks last year were also chlorine attacks, and they drew a very strong military reaction from the West. Why is that different from what these attacks are if it's the same chemical?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I think they were both chlorine and sarin. I'm not sure on the –
QUESTION: I don't think OPCW concluded that.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We'll check. But the point is chlorine is covered by the CWC. It is a toxic chemical. All toxic chemicals are covered. Do you want to explain the difference with chlorine? Chlorine is a slight difference, as the Secretary indicated, because of another characteristic of it.
MR DINANNO: Yeah, it does have an industrial use, and that's why it is actually not outlawed per se. But the weaponization of chlorine is outlawed. Article 1 of the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits –
MR DINANNO: So chlorine is outlawed, but I also think it's important that we point out that we feel that the action that we're taking today is proportionate and it's appropriate, and there are several levers of power that the Secretary laid out today. We've used them over the course of the Syrian events, and today we're talking about diplomatic and economic levers that we, again, feel are appropriate and proportionate to what happened there.
QUESTION: So to be clear, we're talking about number of fatalities, where the Douma attacks killed over 40 people and they drew a very strong military response from the West versus what happened in May of this year where several people were wounded but not killed, and right now we're looking at diplomatic and economic punishments, correct?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We're not going to tie ourselves down to any military or other political or diplomatic action based upon any specific criteria. We're going to look at everything. To quote the Secretary, you should appreciate – "The world should appreciate the fact that we're going to do everything we can reasonably do to prevent this kind of thing from happening again." I think, to pick up – to carry off on Tom's expression of proportional, the word "reasonable" is in there. Four people were wounded; it was four months ago.
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead, Michael.
QUESTION: Michael Gordon, Wall Street –
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead. Yeah, yeah. Sorry.
QUESTION: I'm Michael Gordon, Wall Street Journal. Just on that – two things just on that question. Can you just state for the record whether the Douma attack was chlorine only? Because my understanding is it was mixture of chlorine and sarin.
MR DINANNO: I think you're right, but we'll take that back.
QUESTION: No, but just let us know.
MR DINANNO: I think you're right. Yeah.
MS ORTAGUS: No, we'll get it. Ruben will do it.
QUESTION: My question is: In this latest episode, how high do you think the responsibility goes in the Syrian regime? Do you have any information to indicate this was an action by a low-level commander or a more senior Syrian authority? And was it one rocket, several rockets? And do you think any – the Russians would have been aware of this since they're heavily invested and have a big presence in Syria?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We can't give you a specific answer, Michael. First of all, it would almost be certainly be classified if we had a specific answer. What I can tell you is that from very extensive experience with an exposure to military decisions taken by the Assad regime, two things are apparent: First of all, every decision – seemingly, every little decision that are taken by sergeants and captains in the U.S. military go all the way to the top in that country. And given the record of what happens if you use chemical weapons during the Trump administration, it's really hard to believe that somebody would have been foolish enough to do that without very high-level clearance.
The second point is that Russia has its advisory teams throughout the entire command and staff of the Syrian army at all levels. These are the best soldiers Russia has. They are extremely experienced, we deal with them every day on deconfliction and other things. They are first-class – we see their first-class work, staff work, their first-class professionalism. It is very hard for me to think that professionals as good as that, the way they are spread out, would not have known something like this, which is a very unique event. It's the first time it's happened in over a year.
MS ORTAGUS: Nadia.
QUESTION: Nadia Bilbassy with Al Arabiya. President Erdogan just said that he's coordinating with the United States about setting up a safe zone in northern Syria. Can you walk us through some of this coordination, and how are you going to protect the interests of the Kurds considering the Turkish position?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Well, we've been working with Turkey on this issue for some time. You all know the background. We went in on the ground as part of the Coalition to Defeat ISIS back in 2014 to support local forces, many of whom were offshoots of, at the time, the YPG of PYD which is essentially a PKK-linked element of the Kurdish movement in Syria that later expanded into the SDF with many additions of Arab fighters to fight Daesh. And it was very effective. This is the force that finished off Daesh in March of 2019, just a few months ago, down on the Euphrates near the Iraqi border.
But beginning in Mambiche across the Euphrates back in the late spring of 2018, we worked agreements with the Turks because the Turks, understandably, having lost many tens of thousands of people to a PKK insurgency that began in 1984, are very worried about a large force of people commanded by folks who have ties to the PKK just to their selves. They have a big problem with the PKK presence in northeastern Iraq, for example, in the Qandil Mountains. And so they told us that they were worried about this. We acknowledged that. We actually talked to the people in northeast Syria – and there are many groups – and they all sort of understand that the Turks do have a reason to be concerned. The Turks have an option, of course, to act militarily. They did that in Afrin, they did that in Jarabulus, and al-Bab, either against PKK elements, or what they thought were PKK elements, or against Daesh – they attacked both.
So in order to preserve the security of the northeast and the stability, allow us to continue our battle against Daesh and meet Turkish and local security concerns, we worked up a safe zone proposal with everybody involved that has the YPG pulling back its forces and its heavy weapons various distances depending upon the location and the kind of activity. It then puts – pulls – it gets rid of all fortifications, again, in certain zones, then various patrols and activities and joint Turkish-American military activities take place. Many of them have already begun, including I think four joint helicopter flights, many Turkish overflights that they coordinated with us, and several joint patrols on the ground of U.S. and Turkish troops. This is going to continue and expand. We think it's a success. The Turks, of course, want us to move faster on this; it's their security interest. But all in all, I think everybody is doing a good job.
QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up on that?
MS ORTAGUS: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: Reuters, Humeyra Pamuk. Erdogan also just said that their military deployment, and like their military preparations on the border are ready. A couple of weeks ago, he said that we're – not in very definitive terms, but said that we will give them two weeks for the safe zone negotiations to be wrapped up, and then we're planning an incursion. And they've done this before. How do you feel about this? What would the U.S. be doing if Turkey went ahead with this?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay, first of all we have an agreement – we actually called it an arrangement with the Turks, a military-to-military agreement that has certain political aspects that we are prepared to talk more about, such as refugee return. But this military-to-military arrangement, we are executing faithfully and as rapidly as we can. We believe the Turks are pretty aware that we are doing a good job. Everybody would like the other side to move faster, to be even better. That's not something unusual in diplomatic affairs, but again, we are generally satisfied. We listen to the Turks' concerns. We try to respond to them when we can. And we have made it clear to Turkey at every level that any unilateral operation is not going to lead to an improvement in anyone's security – not Turkey's, not the people in the northeast, not the people around the world who feel threatened by Daesh, which is the basic purpose for our U.S. military being in the northeast in the first place.
MS ORTAGUS: Conor.
QUESTION: Conor Finnegan from ABC. The stabilization work that the U.S. is doing in Syria is continuing with funding from other countries –
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: In northeast Syria, you mean.
QUESTION: In northeast Syria, correct. I'd heard that that funding is starting to run out. Are there diplomatic efforts to secure more funding from countries?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yes to everything.
QUESTION: Very good. May I ask a second question then? What role would the SDF and their civilian counterparts in the civilian structure in northeast Syria play in a constitutional committee event?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah, this comes up all the time, including with our Turkish NATO partners. We went into northeast Syria, as I said, to pursue Daesh and to help the people of that area defend themselves, because at Kobani they were making a ferocious stand against a equally ferocious Daesh attack. We have made it clear to all of our partners in northeast Syria that we do not have a political agenda other than the minimal amount of stabilization and political back and forth, including with our USAID and State assistance teams, and a few political officers we put out there as well the U.S. military's special forces on the ground, to facilitate a stable platform to continue the defeat-ISIS activities.
Our only political goal for Syria is a unified Syria within its current borders that works its way through the process of 2254, which envisions UN-monitored and managed free and fair elections throughout Syria and among the large diaspora that has fled Assad. That is the political future of the people of the northeast, the people of the northwest, the people everywhere in Syria from our standpoint. We have no other agenda. We've made that clear a thousand times.
QUESTION: So would they participate, though, in the –
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Of course.
QUESTION: And would it do more than to empower the opposition if you could help to unite them and the other rebel groups in – elsewhere in the country?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: It's an interesting question, but I'm looking around to some of my colleagues, including here, who, like me, have spent a decade and a half trying to do that on the backs of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money, and we weren't all that successful. We don't have any kind of T.E. Lawrence political scheme for – or even a Jim Jeffrey 2004 Baghdad scheme to try to weave these things together, okay? So I'm getting too old for this.
MS ORTAGUS: No, never.
QUESTION: Just as you were speaking, there was a statement by the Russian foreign ministry that said the United States announcement about the alleged attack was going to maybe affect the perspectives of – the perspectives of the political process. Could you respond?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: If this political process in the eyes of the Russians is so fragile that telling the truth about war crimes committed by their ally, the Assad regime, leads to some kind of issue, whatever that might be because we don't know what Lavrov is talking about, then the Russians weren't serious about it in the first place.
QUESTION: But you still have discussions with Russia?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Of course.
MS ORTAGUS: And we meet them tomorrow. Jennifer.
QUESTION: Hi. Jennifer Hansler, CNN. Can you talk about any specific conversations that were had this week about combatting radicalization in these refugee camps like al-Hol?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We have had them. It has come up in essentially every – it has come up literally in every meeting that I have been involved in in a multilateral setting. That is, the various ones on accountability that were organized by the Dutch and the Iraqis, various meetings – we had the small group meeting at the ministerial level with Secretary Pompeo hosted by the British this afternoon. The issue of radicalization came up, and it comes up all of the time. This is something that we are very focused on. I can't give you a specific date, time, and who said what because most of these things were behind closed doors and subject to diplomatic limits and restrictions. But I will say that it is on everybody's mind.
QUESTION: Can you say any specific steps that might be taken to try and combat this (inaudible)?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Right, the specific steps that everybody is more or less agreed on – although executing is more difficult – are to, first of all, separate the leaders, the instigators, from the rest of the community, work on small children to give them alternatives to essentially playing the same games that they watched their fathers and mothers play when they – Daesh was ruling a good chunk of Syria. And thirdly and most importantly, get the women and children, because that's the main problem right now, in al-Hol camp, back to their communities. About 60,000 of the 70,000 there are from Iraq and Syria.
There's efforts underway. I have talked this week with Iraqi officials specifically on that issue, and others are talking about that. We're also working with the SDF, the SDC, and local authorities in northeast Syria to move people back to their communities because many of the 30,000 Syrian women and children come from the northeast. So that is the basic thing we're trying to do, trying to deradicalize people in an environment like that. We've spent a lot of time, because it's obviously in the media a lot, talking to people who are on the ground. I've been out there since this issue came up three times talking to the people who are delivering aid right in the camps, and their advice from years of experience, our military's advice from running Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib, is that when they're concentrated like this, forget about trying to deradicalize a big number of them beyond, as I said separating out the instigators, spreading people out by moving them out of the camp, and going after vulnerable groups like children.
MS ORTAGUS: Michael.
QUESTION: Yeah. Michel Ghandour of Al Hurra.
MS ORTAGUS: I mean Michel, sorry. I'm really tired. You know what I meant. I got an M right.
QUESTION: No worries. Did the small group on Syria take any decisions regarding the use of chemical weapons? And what steps then?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The small group will be issuing a statement as I speak on the overall situation. It covers the chemical weapons. I believe the language is: The use of any chemical weapons in Syria is unacceptable. Secretary Pompeo, as he indicated in his press conference, did brief the small group on our findings and on his statement today.
MS ORTAGUS: David.
QUESTION: You said this happened four months ago, that it was four people wounded. Can you tell us why you've chosen to highlight it at this particular time given that there have been quite a number of similar attacks in the past?
MR DINANNO: Yeah, I think I mentioned earlier the attribution process, the technical process, the chemical forensics take some time, and we need to get it right. And there was coordination among friendly nations as well to share information, so –
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: As soon as we got it fully right, believe me, our decision to act, as the Secretary laid it out, including laying him on, choosing the venue, taking the actions that he described, moved at warp speed for the U.S. Government. So this wasnt something we were delaying just for the fun of it. As I said, it took us a while to figure it out.
MS ORTAGUS: Last question. Lara.
QUESTION: Jim, could you bring us up to speed on negotiations with the Turks on the size and depth of the safe zone? As you know, President Erdogan wants it to go to Deir ez-Zor and go down 20 miles. Where are we on the U.S. side?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: They are continuing on specifics, although a good deal of general military-to-military principles have been agreed. We dont discuss the specific depths of the safe zone, because from area to area and weve only done one basically one third of the northeast right now. Were doing this in three segments; weve only done one third. And it varies from area to area for one reason or another, including security for certain third country forces or other forces that are roaming around there. And depending upon the activity, theres one set of variable depths for the withdrawal of the YPG, another for the withdrawal of heavy weapons, another for joint U.S. and Turkish ground patrols, another for the movement of aviation. And so its quite confusing and we know and the YPG knows and the Turks know in a given area where the zone should be, and Ill just leave it at that.
QUESTION: Well he wants, as you know, to make it larger so more refugees can come back from Turkey and resettle in that safe zone.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We are talking to the Turks and we did today, in fact, about refugees returning, as we have agreed in our document, in a safe, voluntary, and dignified way. And the discussions weve been having with the Turks weve also been having them with the European Union focus on the role of the UNHCR and other international humanitarian agencies who would need to be helpful in any significant movement back. But we have signed up for the return of refugees to their homes if they came to that area. Thats part of our overall position on the Syrian conflict in general, and including the northeast, and including in this arrangement.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay.
QUESTION: And just ending at the Euphrates, correct still?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: This arrangement ends at the Euphrates. We have a separate agreement with the Turks on Manbij which also involves a return of refugees. Thats on the other side of the Euphrates. But this is why I get I start getting confused myself when I start talking about specific geographic areas and which specific depths and arrangements, and which agreement covers them. Were executing as best we can all of them and working with the Turks and with our local partners in the northeast for that end.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks.
QUESTION: Thank you.
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