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Briefing With Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Ambassador James Jeffrey An Update on Syria

Special Briefing
James F. Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS
Via Teleconference
August 13, 2020

MR BROWN: Thank you, and good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to this on-the-record briefing with Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Secretary's special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

He joins us to discuss the upcoming Constitutional Committee meeting for Syria that will take place in Geneva next week and to provide the latest on the situation in Syria and our efforts in that regard. He'll have opening remarks and then have time for your questions.

As always, the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call, and for efficiency's sake, if you'd like to go ahead and tee up for a question, dial 1 and then 0.

And with that, I'll go ahead and turn it over to Ambassador Jeffrey.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you, Cale. Hi, everybody. Thanks for joining today. As Cale mentioned, the Constitutional Committee under UN Security Council Resolution 2254, what we refer to as the political process to resolve the now almost decade-old Syrian internal conflict, will be meeting its second real meeting on August 24th; that is, it will commence meetings. We're hoping that these meetings continue for some time.

To signal our support for this process, I'll be traveling to Geneva to have side meetings. We're not part of the actual event, but I'll be having side meetings with other Syria representatives from European and Middle Eastern countries as well as meeting with members of the Syrian opposition who are participating in the Constitutional Committee as members of that group. So we're very much looking forward to seeing progress there. This is critical to resolve this conflict. We believe that a safe and neutral environment such as Geneva is very, very important to move forward. The next step, if a – the new constitution or a revised one can be developed by this process – is a free and fair election under UN supervision involving all Syrians, not the phony election we just saw Assad run for his parliament. We are in close contact with UN Envoy Pedersen and our other international partners, again, to advance this.

The bottom line, however – and you've heard this from me before – is that the Assad regime must accept the will of the Syrian people to live in peace and not be threatened by targeted violence, arbitrary detentions, starvation, brutality, chemical weapons attacks, and everything else they're doing.

We're continuing our diplomatic efforts across the board in every realm to find a solution to this conflict. Our goals remain as they have been for years: the enduring defeat of ISIS and al-Qaida, an irreversible political solution to the Syrian conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and the removal of all Iranian-commanded forces. We are maintaining our maximum political and economic pressure for these goals. One of them that we've announced recently and have followed up on is the Caesar Act sanctions that we began implementing in June, and we've had several tranches since then. We see them as targeting the regime, particularly military elements and those who are facilitating oligarchs, and others who are facilitating Assad's evil work.

Now, we have been clear. To suspend the imposition of these sanctions, the Government of Syria must meet similar conditions to our overall goals: Syrian airspace not used by the Assad regime and its enablers to target civilian populations, political prisoners are released, humanitarian assistance reaches those besieged, displaced persons are allowed back voluntarily and with dignity, and there is meaningful accountability for perpetrators of war crimes. We are not targeting the Syrian people with these sanctions. We are the number one global humanitarian assistance donor to the people of Syria with over one point – $11.3 billion in humanitarian assistance. And our Congress, in writing the Caesar Act, gave us very specific guidance on both the prohibition on interfering with humanitarian assistance, targeting the people of Syria themselves, and we have to report back frequently to Congress on that. I'll stop there.

MR BROWN: Okay, we will go to your questions. If you want to ask a question, dial 1 and 0. Let's first go to the line of Said Arikat.

QUESTION: Thank you, Cale. Thank you, Ambassador Jeffrey, for doing this, sir.

Sir, I wonder if you listened to the speech by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday. He called that your commitment – you and Turkey's commitment to a political resolution is – you've turned it into like a jumble bumble hocus pocus. That's what he called in Arabic (inaudible), which means nonsensical kind of a thing. But nonetheless, he stated a commitment to a political end. Is – are you manipulating the political process in order to prolong the lack – in his own words, the lack of a resolution? Thank you, sir.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you very much. Of course, we're not prolonging anything or manipulating anything. Essentially anything that Assad says should be taken with a ton of salt. The – but what's important in that speech is the fact that he even addressed the political process. This is a guy who never supported 2254, the UN resolution, even though his Russian allies signed up for it in December of 2015. This is a guy who has been pursuing, most of the time with help from Russia and Tehran, a military solution to this conflict that flies in the face of everything the international community is trying to do with the political process.

The fact that he talked about the political process in this speech we found of considerable interest. This is a shift at least in tone, and we're trying to figure out what this means. I think it means that perhaps Damascus is accepting the reality that this political process by the international community has absolute support by almost everybody in the world, it's not going away, and that they better start dealing with it. And that's a good sign, if in fact that's what it turns out to be. Thank you.

MR BROWN: Great. Next question, let's go to the line of Lara Jakes.



QUESTION: Hey. So, two questions. Given that this process has been so slow, what initial steps or indicators are you watching for next week that will signal some sort of progress? Again, even if small or incremental, like what will signal progress to you coming out of these meetings next week?

And then if I may, I'd like to ask you about two other countries that are near and dear to your heart and a potential new powder keg between them given the Turkish incursions into northern Iraq in recent days. If you could speak on that and what the discussions are in the U.S. Government about that. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. First of all, what we're hoping for is two things, both – a set of formal things that would indicate that there is progress, that the Assad regime has changed at least tactically its position vis-a-vis this whole process, or that the Russians have succeeded in pressing them to do so. One would be the duration of time that the Constitutional Committee meets. We want to see it meet for more than just a few days. We want it – to see it meet for weeks, and then we would like to see a schedule of new meetings.

Again, the background is after much effort and years of pressure from 2015 on, only in October 2019 did we get the committee to finally convene with a great deal of effort on the part of Pedersen, the UN envoy in Geneva. Then almost immediately it entered its first session, didn't make a lot of progress, and we haven't seen anything since, almost a year.

The second thing we're looking for is discussion about not only first principles, which is what the Damascus regime wants, which is their usual propaganda about their sovereignty and fighting terrorists, but rather real progress on doing what the UN set up this thing to do, which is to talk about constitutional change. That's very important. That's the for-the-record, formal things we'd like to see.

Informally, what we hope to see is a continuation of what was so encouraging on the margins of this meeting back in October, and that is these people are all Syrians – some support Assad, some support the opposition, a third group of 50 – it's 50-50-50 – are neutral. And those people are seeking to try to find some kind of way forward. And we saw informal conversations between the various sides, because many of them know each other, and informal efforts to try to do something other than the continued destruction of their country, which is what we've had since 2011. So we're hoping to see some of that as well.

In terms of the current attacks in northern Iraq, we're still looking into that. Our condolences go out to the Iraqi authorities. Two very senior flag-level leaders we believe were killed in that strike. We are continuing to encourage Turkey to carry out its legitimate operations against the PKK in coordination and cooperation with the Iraqi Government. And we commend the Iraqi Government for its efforts against the PKK, so I'll leave it at that.

MR BROWN: Next question. Let's go to the line of Laurie Mylroie.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Ambassador Jeffrey. The resolution on which your policy is based is five years old, so I wondered what adjustments you're making to take account of development since, specifically the establishment of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. So my question: Do you have a vehicle for including representatives of people from that area in the Constitutional Committee or the discussions about Syria's future?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: At this time, the Autonomous Administration, which is a – not a U.S. creation, but is something that the people of northeast Syria set up, largely to administer territory that had been abandoned by the Assad regime when ISIS, of course, started spouting up in 2013, 2014. We're looking at ways to ensure that the Constitutional Committee and the process reflects the will of all of the Syrian citizenry, including the people in the northeast.

And we don't think that anything has changed. This conflict is still continuing. There is a ceasefire now, but the ceasefire is not because Assad wanted to have a ceasefire – by the way, a ceasefire is one of the provisions of 2254 – but rather because they ran into extraordinarily strong opposition by Syrian opposition forces and the Turkish military in the northwest. They have not made progress to any significant degree penetrating in through the northeast since the Turkish incursion in October. And we're still present, the United States military in al-Tanf in the south so that much of the territory of Syria is still not under Syrian Government control.

Half of the Syrian population – I underline, half the Syrian population – have fled their homes. Roughly 6 million across the border and through Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. And another half to areas not under the control of the Syrian Government. So the basic problems that led to this conflict and the nature of the conflict is still such that we think 2254 not only is still valid – it doesn't need to be modified – but it is the only way forward because Assad has failed in his effort to get a military solution.

MR BROWN: Great. Next question. Let's go to Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) doing this. I was wondering if you could provide us an updated assessment on your take on the stability of the Assad regime and whether you've seen any actual, concrete consequences from the Caesar sanctions directly. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah. The graveyards of American diplomats are paved with assertions that force A or country B is about to collapse, just a bit more effort. I don't think I have ever taken that position publicly with you all. I haven't taken it within the U.S. Government.

I have basically taken the position that the Syrian Government is much weakened, largely because of its own doing, and because – and remember, this is all in the context of Iran and its effort to create a Shia Crescent in the northern Levant, from Tehran through Baghdad, Damascus, the Bekaa Valley, Beirut. And this has impacted Syria badly; this whole war is a function of that. And it has impacted the stability and the overall situation in Lebanon, even before the horrific explosion in Beirut, including the collapse of the Lebanese currency. That has also affected Assad's strength. In fact, he commented on that. If you go back and look at his speech, he was – for Assad – quite frank about the weakness of his economy, the disastrous situation in Syria, the fall of his own Syrian pound, and, as he said, he commented on the situation in neighboring countries; he was referring to Lebanon.

So they are in a weak position economically. They have made no gains diplomatically of any significance. And you know I know that there are various countries, including in the Middle East, that send out feelers. We work hard with our partners in Europe, in the Middle East, with some of the folks in the UN to encourage those countries that are – send out feelers not to get too enthused about the Assad regime until they adhere to 2254. We've been successful; he has not. They have not reentered the Arab League, for example. Our and European sanctions are still very much place. And finally, he has not made military progress. In particular in March of this year, his military forces in the Idlib area were decisively smashed by the Turkish military in a 72-hour blitzkrieg.

So while he is much weaker than he was before, I don't predict regime collapse. And in fact, our policy isn't regime chance; our policy is a change in behavior of whoever is governing in Damascus.

MR BROWN: Great. Next question. Let's go to Humeyra, Reuters.

QUESTION: Hello, Ambassador. About a week or so ago an American oil company signed an agreement with the Kurdish-led rebels who control the northeastern oil fields. And I'm asking you about this to you because Secretary Pompeo mentioned this in a hearing, and he said the deal took a little bit longer than he hoped, but now it's in the implementation phase. Can you talk about the strategy here? What is the U.S. looking to achieve? And will we see more of these deals? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We don't have any more details to add on what the Secretary specifically said on the record. But let me talk about our general policy. First of all, we don't discuss private business contracts or what entities within Syria do with American or, for that matter, other companies as significant, but there is some actions back and forth and has been over time. That's not in our purview as a government.

What we do have is a responsibility to consider whether licenses should be issued to allow countries – or companies, rather, to – American companies to conduct economic activities that otherwise might be sanctioned. And that's been the case here. We can't get into the details of these what are called OFAC licenses, because again, that involves proprietary interests and information of a company. But that is something that we have done, including in this case.

We are not involved in the commercial decisions of our local partners in northeast Syria. We have not done anything other this license related to this firm. Syrian oil is for the Syrian people, and we remain committed to the unity and territorial integrity of Syria. The United States Government doesn't own, control, or manage oil resources in Syria. You have heard the President's position on the guarding of the oil fields. We don't go beyond that.

And once again, I would point out, because there have been accusations from Moscow and in Tehran, that it is true that the oil is for the people of Syria. I can assure you that the people of northeastern Syria are controlling the oil fields in their area, nobody else.

MR BROWN: Next question. Let's go to Joyce Karam, The National.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Ambassador, my question for you is are you getting any signals from the Russians that they are willing to work with the U.S. on the Constitutional Committee or holding the elections that you spoke about? And if this is the case, do you think Russia has enough leverage today to pressure Assad to accept these terms or to get – throw Iran's troops out of Syria?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We believe that Russia has enough leverage. Russia was key to this conflict. You all know the history. Iran was much involved in Syria up to 2015, and even with Iranian help Assad could not stop the opposition gaining ever more territory. It was the entry of Russian forces, specifically air forces, into the conflict in late 2015 that turned the tide. That is still the situation.

Iran doesn't have the resources, the troops on the ground, to carry the battle itself. In particular, it doesn't have any air power that it could deploy. Assad's survival is totally the work of Russia, thus we expect Russia to deliver Assad to the negotiating table. The Russians also in 2015 signed up to 2254. We have frequent communications with the Russians. We believe that to one or another degree the flexibility that the regime – the limited flexibility shown by the regime in even allowing the Constitutional Committee to meet, including with representatives of the regime faction, is a sign that the Russians have been effectively using persuasion, pressure, whatever you would call it. We urge them to use more.

We do not think that Russia has taken yet a strategic decision to shift totally from a military solution option to a political solution. As you know, Mike Pompeo went all the way to Sochi in May of 2019 to present our views on how we could carry out a 2254 solution which would not challenge Russia's longstanding military relations and other political and diplomatic relations with the Syrian state, would not involve regime change but a change in behavior, and would be done through the UN. They're still mulling that over.

MR BROWN: Next question. Let's go to Elie Youssef.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. My question is how true is the talk about your departure from your position after the U.S. envoy to Iran Mr. Brian Hook announced his resignation from his post as well. Is the matter related to what was said resulted from the agreement between the SDF and an American company (inaudible)?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I have no intention – I mean, I saw these reports that I was leaving this summer. That's not my plan. I'm busy scheduling trips and visits, beginning with the one in Geneva, and doing my job. I wouldn't give them any credence. And I can't comment on Brian's departure.

MR BROWN: Okay, next question. Let's go to Jeff Seldin with VOA.

QUESTION: Ambassador, thanks very much for doing this. A couple questions. We've heard in recent days from military officials who have been worried about ISIS. They can't – they say in Syria it can't retake territory, but they are very concerned that it is much stronger in areas of Syria nominally under the control of the regime and of Russia, and that it is poised if conditions continue perhaps to make a comeback there. How much does that hang over entire process of moving ahead in Syria?

And second quick question. The SDF has said that they have evidence and that they've shared evidence of Turkish intelligence sneaking ISIS-affiliated individuals out of the al-Hol camp, and they say they've been trying to reach out to the U.S. Have you seen any of that evidence, and if so, what's the next step given that both the SDF and Turkey are allies and ISIS is an enemy?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay, I was focusing on the second part of the question. What was the first again?

QUESTION: First is just how the future of ISIS in Syria, the fact that it –

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah, yeah. All right, yeah.

QUESTION: – has strongholds in regime areas.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah. Well, first of all, General White and more recently some of the staff in Operation OIR have commented repeatedly on the situation. We concur with them and this is something that I review independently all of the time – the numbers, the locations of attacks, and other things.

We think that the Iraqi Security Forces and, in northeast Syria, the SDF are doing with the help of the coalition an extraordinarily good job sustaining the successes we've had, defeating the caliphate, taking away all of their territory, which was 100,000 square kilometers, keeping the people protected from ISIS attacks. The attacks we've seen indicate a very low level of local terrorism and local attacks and nothing of any significant military capability.

The exception – and we don't have an excellent view of all of this – is the situation in those areas of Syria held by the Assad regime. Assad forces backed by the Russians undertake operations to the south and to the west of the Euphrates. These operations have not been particularly successful. We do see ISIS elements moving around fairly freely, but again, they don't hold territory. We are concerned about this.

We have many times offered to cooperate more with the Russian authorities on bilateral efforts to – not bilateral efforts, but basically to coordinate with them on our own efforts to deal with ISIS in those other areas, and we'll continue to see what we can do. But essentially this is primarily a job for the Russians and the Syrian Government, and they're not doing a good job, and we are concerned, because ISIS sees all of Syria and all of Iraq as one front and people. Funds, weapons, and communications and command structures go back and forth.

MR BROWN: Okay, last question, and it seems that Lara Jakes is back in the queue. Lara, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. Jim, I just wanted to follow up. Do you believe that Turkey is violating Iraq's sovereignty with these strikes in northern Iraq?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I'll stay with what I said about Turkey and those strikes. As I just noted, we urge Turkey to continue to coordinate with Iraq on Turkey's fight against terrorism, which we see as a legitimate struggle against the PKK. But again, we think it should be conducted in coordination with Iraqi authorities.

By the way, I didn't answer the last question about the SDF intelligence involving Turkey. We listen to everything that the SDF raises with us, that the Turkish Government raises with us. We are generally satisfied with the situation in northeast Syria. We have a deal with the Turks for their Operation Peace Spring area negotiated on the 17th of October. All sides are basically adhering to it. We have a close working relationship with the SDF. That is a very successful cooperation and will continue. And we have deconfliction agreements with the Russians. They're not quite as successful, but generally the situation in the northeast is stable and we expect it to continue so.

MR BROWN: Thank you, Ambassador, for your time today, and we wish you well in Geneva next week.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay, thanks, everybody.

MR BROWN: For everyone who joined the call, thanks for being here, for your questions. Since this is the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted. Have a great day.

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