Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS James Jeffrey
James F. Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS
Press Briefing Room
January 23, 2020
MR BROWN: Good morning, everybody.
QUESTION: Good morning.
MR BROWN: Glad to see all of your faces here. This morning, our Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS joins us to discuss the latest on the situation in Syria. He'll have brief opening remarks and then take some of your questions. And with that, I'll turn it over to Ambassador Jeffrey.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. Thank you very much. Good morning, everybody. Good to see you again. I'll do both Iraq from a standpoint of the Coalition to Defeat Daesh, which is one of my responsibilities, and Syria.
On Syria, the coalition is – in the northeast, is continuing its operations with the SDF against the remnants of Daesh in the northeast. We have seen no particular uptick in Daesh activities in the northeast, nor have we in Iraq, but I'll get to that in a second. And as I said, normal operations are continuing in the northeast.
We continue our deconfliction with the Russians. The northeast has gotten more complicated, so we have considerable ground as well as the air deconfliction. We've had air deconfliction with the Russians and Syria for years now. That's continuing on. There have been a few stories in the media about that, particularly in the Qamishli area up in the north. And of course, we still have our agreement with the Turks – the October 17th ceasefire in their Peace Spring area. That whole region has been very, very quiet of late. We watch it; we coordinate with the Turks on that as well. So that's the situation in Syria.
The main development is a political development and a humanitarian development issue, which is a little over a week ago, we did a new UN resolution on humanitarian access to non-regime areas of Syria – 2504 – where the Russians blocked two crossings: the one that we had been doing in the south through Jordan, although that was inactive, but a very active one, particularly for medical supplies to the northeast, up along the Iraqi-northeast Syria border. And the Russians also insisted that we look at this again in six months concerning the last two humanitarian UN-approved corridors into non-regime areas, which are in the northwestern areas that the Turks have control over.
We're very, very concerned and unhappy about this. We've put out statements. Our permanent rep to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, has issued a statement, an explanation of votes, so it's all on the record.
In terms of Iraq, there was just a briefing in the Pentagon – or this may have been in the field – by the Deputy Commander of CJTF-OIR, General Grynkewich, on the current state of where we are in the field there, but I'll just touch on that from the political standpoint. But again, for more details, you should turn to DOD.
Coalition operations have been primarily on pause in Iraq as we focus on force protection and looking into the way forward with the Iraqi Government after the non-binding vote by the Council of Representatives on the withdrawal of U.S. and thus coalition forces.
We are, as I said, focusing on force protection. We have not seen an uptick in violence in Iraq by Daesh in this period. They haven't taken advantage of it, as far as we can see. The Iraqi Armed Forces are continuing to conduct operations. There were six significant ones in the last 24 hours. They have been using F-16 aircraft and other combined arms operations quite effectively. There is, of course, a dialogue between our people in the coalition and the Iraqi forces, and we exchange information at various levels. But again, as he pointed out, operations are primarily paused for the moment. We are working with Secretary General Stoltenberg of NATO on ways that NATO can respond to the President's call for a bigger role in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East by NATO. There was a NATO team in Iraq. Stoltenberg has had a conversation in Davos with President Barham Salih.
And again, we're at an early stage in looking at what NATO can do to expand the mission it already has in Iraq. It's called NATO Mission Iraq. It does institutional training and advising at the strategic level, and there are opportunities for it to expand its own mandate to some degree. But again, these are all very preliminary.
I'll stop there and open it up for questions.
MR BROWN: Matt.
QUESTION: Thanks. Ambassador, I take it – I want to make sure that I get the – correct – that you have not seen, at least as it relates to your portfolio, any significant – other than the pause that you mentioned – impact of the Soleimani killing in Iraq or for that matter in Syria.
And then secondly, has the Iraqi quote-unquote "demand" for U.S. withdrawal proceeded at all? Has – is there any movement on that, or is – or are you guys just hoping it'll go away?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: That may be a question – at least the first part of the second half of your question is something for the Iraqis. The second part of it is I never assume anything just goes away. We exist to try to shape events as well as react to them.
In terms of attacks, we've seen a few shellings of coalition – or bases where coalition forces are located. Other than several at the American embassy compound a couple of days ago, they have been intermittent, the kind of thing that we have – or all been used to in our years in Iraq. Nothing like the very targeted, precise, 30-plus rocket attacks we were seeing in those 11 incidents that led up to our response last month, so – this month. So – well, last month and this month. But so for the moment, that front is fairly quiet.
In terms of what the Iraqis are doing, they formed the committee to pursue the issue of – from their standpoint – the future of the American and coalition forces in Iraq. And Fuad Hussein, who is the Minister of Finance and someone who we've worked with for years, and the foreign minister and several others, again people we know, are on this commission. There has not been any real engagement.
Our position, as you know – we've said it several times – is that we're prepared to discuss with the Iraqi Government our overall strategic relationship. We have a Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq since 2008. It covers financial; it covers economic, security, and diplomatic engagement across the board. We see this as a package; we see this as a whole. And when we do sit down and talk with them, that's where we'll be aiming to direct the conversation.
QUESTION: Okay. And just to make clear, the shellings that you just mentioned, you directly – or you – those are – people that did it are Iranian-backed militias you believe?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We think so.
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, in the light of the Iranian attack on the military base in Iraq and the demand by the parliament for the U.S. to withdraw, can you just give us an idea about your coordination with other coalition countries? Because I believe they signed different agreements with the Iraqi Government. Are you worried that the coalition might unravel in the light of this attack, that some countries might withdraw?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Not at all. The coalition members – we've been in touch with many of them. They believe in the mission of defeating Daesh. No one thinks – and we've covered this many times here since last March – no one thinks that just with the demise of the physical caliphate that Daesh is finished. They're somewhere between – and you've seen various numbers; I'll throw out one – 14-18,000 Daesh fighters active between Syria and Iraq. They are under control in the northeast. They have shown in the past some reconstitution in Iraq, particularly in the area of Diyala and Kirkuk provinces. And to the south of the Euphrates, in areas where the Syrian regime should be responsible but largely is not, they've been quite active. So we are concerned, as is the coalition.
The coalition, as I said, is absolutely committed. We had a ministerial here, you'll remember, in November to focus on the situation in the northeast, which, thanks in part to the ministerial and to other efforts, has become stabilized and thus there D-ISIS, the fight against Daesh is going on, including with the coalition participation without any real change. So that's a good news story.
In terms of the coalition in Iraq, we'll be meeting at the political directors' level in Copenhagen. This is a pre-planned meeting, but of course, the major subject will be how do we go forward on the fight against Daesh, what are the options in responding to the concerns of the Iraqi Government. But again, the coalition is very, very much committed to this mission. It's a very popular mission not only in the United States but throughout the coalition members who are involved, which is mainly Europe and countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
MR BROWN: Let's go to the back, to Michelle.
QUESTION: Thanks, yeah. You were in Erbil recently, and I wonder if you can talk to us a little about – are you in discussions with local authorities there about maintaining U.S. troop presence regardless of what is decided in Baghdad? And then secondly, since President Trump again raised the issue of oil yesterday in – when he was meeting with the Iraqi Kurdish leader –
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh, I'm so surprised the oil question came up.
QUESTION: Yes. (Laughter.) Is the U.S. controlling the oil in Syria?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay, let's start with Erbil. You saw that our – as part of our longstanding high-level contacts with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, President Trump met with the president of that region in Davos, and I believe there was a statement. But in terms of the U.S. presence in Iraq, that is an issue between the United States and the Government of Iraq, Baghdad. It is based upon a 2014 exchange of notes between us and the foreign ministry that provides the legal presence of the United States as part of the coalition to defeat Daesh inside Iraq. That is where we are on that issue.
In terms of the oil, again, our priority is to keep the oil out of the hands of Daesh. You know that there was a major campaign by the coalition back in 2015, 2016 to deal with Daesh's hundreds of millions of dollars that they were earning from those oil fields in the northeast. We helped the SDF take control of them. We're now helping the SDF continue to secure them and to use the proceeds of them to maintain security in the northeast in support of the fight against Daesh. That's where we've been, and that's where we are, and that's where we're going to be.
MR BROWN: All right. Francesco.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Do you have any idea of how long the D-ISIS operations will stay on pause in Iraq? And do you have any assessment on how long they can stay on pause without harming the D-ISIS fight on the long term?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. One, so far, they've not. Two, obviously, we're not keeping thousands of Americans and thousands of other coalition country troops in Iraq without doing something; that is, we have a mission, it's an important mission. The mission is much wanted by the Iraqi military and by, we believe, most Iraqis. And many of you will hear that when you talk to them. And thus, over time, obviously, there is a possibility of a degradation of the effort against Daesh if we're not able to do the things that we were doing so effectively up until a few weeks ago. That's the second part of your question, but you had something at the beginning.
QUESTION: And do you – when do you think you can resume these operations? Any idea –
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that's the one I wanted to forget, because I always hate to put a date on anything. We'll see. It's dependent upon two things. First of all, the Iraqi Government has a say in how they cooperate with us, obviously. But remember the focus of our forces right now is force protection. They suffered first 11 quite serious attacks from Iranian-supported militias, who are by and large parts of the Iraqi security system, then the assault on the embassy, then the two Iranian long-range intermediate missile strikes on our forces in Erbil and Ayn al-Asad. So in a situation like that, obviously, the commanders are going to focus, as they have so successfully, on force protection. And as the threat diminishes, they'll review that.
MR BROWN: Lara.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ambassador, what is your assessment of the candidates who are the names that are being floated about for the next prime minister of Iraq and how strong each of their ties are to Iran?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: That's, of course, a question for the Iraqi people through their constitutional processes, which we support and, as you know, expended a lot of blood to try to maintain. It's their decision who they will have to lead them. As you know, there is a major popular movement in the streets to put pressure on the Iraqi political system for new governance, governance that is less dependent or subservient to Iran. In general terms, we think that's a good thing. But again, (a) it's not my mandate to deal with Iraq internal affairs; (b) it's not the mandate of the United States to deal with Iraq internal affairs. We just observe it.
QUESTION: Let me ask the question this way, then: What is the State Department's assessment of the strength of the ties between some of these men and Iran?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We take a look, obviously, at anybody in any country who is in the running for a senior position in terms of what we can expect from that person on the U.S.-Country X portfolio and where that person is on a lot of other issues that are of concern to us. We do that. That's classic diplomatic reporting. It's a big mission for our embassy in Baghdad and for any other embassy.
But I want to differentiate between us knowing what's going on to the extent we can and us trying to have a role in anything. There is a huge red line between the two.
MR BROWN: Right here.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. I have actually just a couple of quick questions. Yesterday, President Trump, while sitting with president of Kurdistan Nechirvan Barzani, he said, quote, "I appreciate everything you have done to keep the safe zone as safe as possible." Can you please explain what role Iraqi Kurdistan has done vis-a-vis the safe zone in Syria? And also, just today, Nechirvan Barzani in Davos, he said resurgence of ISIS is a serious problem. Do you share his assessment? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The risk of the resurgence of ISIS is a very big problem, as I said. We have emphasized that ever since the physical caliphate was defeated along the Euphrates in March of last year. We are very concerned about the number of forces there and how they coordinate among each other. The Iraqis are concerned about that. Our SDF partners in northeast Syria are concerned about that. The Turks are concerned about that because they now have forces in the northeast. Everyone is looking into this and watching it closely.
QUESTION: The first one?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah. How's that?
QUESTION: President Trump said, "I appreciate everything" –
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh, in terms of the safe zone, I'm not quite sure what he meant by the safe zone. Certainly, Kurdistan has been a safe zone for us to operate in since 2014 and for that matter through my two tours in Iraq, because there is very little – there was very little Iraqi insurgency in Kurdistan in the period up to our military departure in 2011, and there is not a significant presence of these pro-Iranian Iraqi militias there, who we believe and we know have been responsible for shooting at our coalition forces. So therefore, our forces are, generally speaking, safer in that part of Iraq. Now, you, of course, know that the Iranians did fire several missiles into the Erbil airport area during their retaliation against us, and so our forces are not totally safe there either.
Now, in terms of northeast Syria, the Kurdistan Regional Government has been very supportive in a number of ways – of political outreach there, of our logistical support and such, as has the Government of Iraq. The Government of Iraq is very supportive of what we've been doing in northeast Syria because they know that is keeping the Daesh forces in Syria from their throats, and that, of course, is where they came in 2014 to over-roll Mosul and much of the Euphrates and much of the Tigris Valley.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR BROWN: Nick.
QUESTION: Ambassador Jeffrey, just one quick logistical thing. When will the Copenhagen meeting happen? And then second, can I just pin you down on the issue of U.S. troops? The statement that Morgan issued a couple weeks ago seemed pretty unequivocal about the idea that the U.S. would not consider holding any discussions about the idea of withdrawing troops, yet at the same time the statement also said that the U.S. respects Iraq's sovereignty and its ability to make sovereign decisions. Those two things seem to be contradictory.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah, Copenhagen is going to be next Wednesday. There's several meetings at various levels in Copenhagen for the coalition, but the key meeting of the political directors will be on Wednesday.
In terms of what we've said, we have said that we're not interested in talking about withdrawal because we don't think we should withdraw; however, at the end of the day, this is obviously an Iraqi decision on the future of the American and the coalition presence. We acknowledge that. We're not interested in sitting down and talking only about withdrawal. Any conversations that the Iraqis want to have with us about the United States in Iraq we believe should and must cover the entire gamut of our relationship, which goes way beyond our forces, goes way beyond security, which is far greater than just our forces there and just the fight against Daesh. It's the long-term re-equipping of the Iraqi military forces. It's the regional agenda. It's our diplomatic support of Iraq, our financial, our monetary. It goes on and on both –
QUESTION: So are you suggesting that there's a link? If Iraq demands that U.S. forces leave, the U.S. would then stop with military support, economic support –
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh heavens, I would never say anything like that. I'm just telling you that the position of the U.S. Government – I think Joey Hood is the last person that – our principal deputy assistant secretary for the Near East – to say if we are interested in having discussions with Iraq on the whole gamut of our relationship, and he ticked off the same things I did.
MR BROWN: Okay. FT.
QUESTION: Keeping on the U.S. troops, do you envisage any reduction in numbers of U.S. troops or potentially a re-hatting under the NATO badge? And second question, if I may: Are you getting any traction in eliciting support from the Europeans for Caesar Act measure in Syria?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: On Caesar, we're still in the early stages of implementation. I will be going out next week to Brussels to talk about sanctions and other economic issues related to keeping the pressure on the Assad regime, which, as you've seen with the Idlib offensive, as you've seen with their actions by their Russian allies in blocking humanitarian crossings, we need to put a lot of work into, and we see the Caesar Act as a very important lever to do that. And we'll be talking with the Europeans who are also, of course, implementing sanctions against the Assad regime and are contemplating additional ones. So we'll have an exchange on that. And then your first question was –
QUESTION: Maybe reducing troops in Iraq or re-hatting under NATO.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Ah yeah, that's another one I wanted to duck and thus pushed it from my memory. I would say that at any time, the commander in the field is evaluating what his or her mission is in the force's available troops to task. And that's under review. It's been under review for some time way before all of these things that we are here talking about and have been talking about for the last several months came up, starting, say, with the October 9th Turkish incursion. The CJTF was looking at moving to various phases because in counter-insurgency or similar operations, various phases, they were looking to develop, but by and large, we're planning on continuing, assuming all goes well with the Iraqi Government, a very similar coalition operation into the future.
Now, NATO is looking at – and we are working with them on that, of course, as a NATO member-state and also the country whose commander in chief's last head of state proposed that NATO do this – on how NATO could play a bigger role. NATO, of course, involves not just U.S. troops usually, but it also involves most of the same countries who are now in the coalition. So there may be a shift between – at some point, hypothetically – between the number of forces under the NATO rubric and the number of forces under coalition. But this is all hypothetical now. It's a very early stage in the discussions.
MR BROWN: Laurie.
QUESTION: You mentioned something in passing. I wondered if you could elaborate on it because it was new to me – that the Iraqis had formed a committee, parliament had formed a committee to pursue the question of the presence of U.S. forces, and it was under – Fuad Hussein was the head of this committee.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The – this isn't the parliament, this is the Iraqi Government.
QUESTION: The Iraqi Government?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The parliament – to go back, the parliament passed a non-binding resolution. The agreement we have to be present in Iraq as part of the coalition is not with the Iraqi parliament, unlike the 2008 SOFA Agreement or the security agreement, which was passed by the parliament. We have a government-to-government agreement signed in 2014 that the parliament was not directly or formally involved in, and that's the basis for us being there. Thus, our partner in any discussions about our presence is the Iraqi Government. To carry out those discussions when and if they occur, the Iraqi Government has formed this committee.
QUESTION: And – under Fuad Hussein, it's your –
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Right.
QUESTION: And did the President's discussions with Barham Salih have any impact on these – this issue yesterday?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I haven't seen a detailed readout. The fight against Daesh and the role of Iraq and the United States, including the Kurdistan Regional Government in that fight, is almost always a part of any conversation we have with any Iraqi.
MR BROWN: Okay, time for one more. Michael.
QUESTION: Ambassador, as you noted early on, there have been some deconfliction challenges in northeast Syria with the Russian and American forces on the ground, and there have been reports that Americans and Russians have blocked each other's access and that U.S. forces blocked the Russians from driving into an oilfield. My question is: What actually happened in that episode? Has this been resolved entirely within the military deconfliction channels? Or has it become a bilateral U.S.-Russian issue? And is there any effort to bring in international oil companies or experts to improve the oilfields that the U.S. is now safeguarding?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The Syrian Democratic Forces, specifically the autonomous administration of northeast Syria, manages these oilfields, and they manage any efforts to try to figure out ways to update, modernize, or expand these fields, and it's probably better to talk to them. We're not brokering any effort with anybody, any third country or anything right now. We know that there are third countries who are interested, who have gone in there. There are American firms who have asked for OFAC licenses. This goes back years, Michael. And so some of that stuff is continuing, but there is no major new effort on that. In terms of the deconfliction, we've had, as you know, deconfliction agreements with the Russians for years. They've mainly involved air operations primarily, as they didn't fly over the northeast, are flying over the rest of the country. And there were hiccups from time to time, but by and large, it went smoothly. There were ground deconfliction problems in Manbij beginning about 14 months ago as the Russians moved into the southeastern part of that perimeter. At one point, we intercepted a Russian major general who was driving towards the town of Manbij, but it was all dealt with in these military-to-military channels.
We follow here at the State Department these military-to-military channels. We have very brief discussions at the political or at the foreign ministry level of – when we're talking about everything we're doing with the Russians, or sometimes in conflict with the Russians, such as at the UN Security Council, we just check the box and say okay, our deconfliction efforts are continuing, they are important, both sides acknowledge that they're important.
In terms of the situation involving these ground convoys, once you got Russian forces in much of the northeast as part of the agreement with the SDF after the Turks came in to have Russian and regime forces play a more active role, particularly on the perimeters of the Turkish Peace Spring area, you then had to have much more detailed ground deconfliction rules, lines where people should not cross without permission, lines where people can go, never – roads when they're open, when they're not. And particularly if you look at the map up in Qamishli, that is where all of the roads come together and also pre-existing regime and Russian forces, newly deployed Russian and regime forces, and our forces including one of our major airfields and our headquarters all come together. There's a lot of patrolling there.
And a small number of these mini-patrols and mini-coordinations and mini-encounters, in the most anodyne sense of the word "encounter" have led to minor dustups; nothing serious, nothing particularly threatening, and they all get worked out at military channels, sometimes at the colonel level, sometimes at the one-star level, sometimes at the three-star level, but at the military level.
MR BROWN: All right. Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
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