U.S. Department Of State
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
October 17, 2018
MS NAUERT: As many of you know, Ambassador Jeffrey is our newish Syria envoy and he’s had a lot of travels recently, so I thought with him here it would be a good opportunity for you – for him to update you on how things are going in Syria and some of the conversations that he’s been having. So maybe you could start by just kind of giving us an update and then taking questions.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Sure. And this is on the record, right?
MS NAUERT: Yes.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. Anyway, welcome to Turkey, everybody. One of the issues that was central to the discussions today and also has been at the top of the agenda between the U.S. and Turkey is naturally the situation in Syria ever since 2011, and there’s a long history of us and Turkey cooperating very closely in some areas at certain times, in other areas not so much. But let me describe a bit where we are now.
The Turks agree with our core goals in Syria as laid out most dramatically by the President at the UN General Assembly. That is, getting Iran completely out of Syria because Iran is an accelerant to the whole process. Secondly, de-escalating the military situation in which the situation in Idlib, where the Turks did a deal with the Russians that is – we learned today – still holding. And reinvigorating the political process, which is focused on the UN Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s efforts to stand up a constitutional committee as the first step for new elections in Syria, and we hope a new and very different Syrian Government that doesn’t do the horrible things that this Syrian Government has done to its own population and, frankly, to the entire region. So, as I said, there is general agreement with us and the Turks on this.
To go through the various areas in particular, on Idlib, there the position of the U.S. – you know the position we took on any use of chemical weapons in the proposed offensive that the Syrians, supported by the Russians, were about to undertake in September. We took a very, very strong position on the use of chemical weapons, which was almost a necessity for such an operation if they wanted to succeed, but we made it very clear that there would be very, very strong repercussions.
At the same time, we focused not just on chemical weapons or refugees, but the President tweeted out a summary of what we were telling the Russians and others, and that is that any attack into Idlib would be a reckless escalation of the conflict. And this is very important because what we’re saying is it’s time for the fighting to stop. There were about three million people – and there are still three million people – in Idlib; about half of them are IDPs from other parts of Syria. There are some 50 to 70,000 fighters in there. Most of them are part of the opposition that we used to work with and the Turks still do. Some number between, oh, anywhere between 7 and 8,000 and somewhat over 10,000 are named terrorist organizations, mainly Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is the offshoot of al-Nusrah, which is an offshoot of al-Qaida, some ISIS, and then some other offshoots of the al-Qaida movement.
So you’ve got a very mixed situation there, but it would have been a huge mess if anybody had gone in, and it would have been – meant essentially the end of the armed resistance to the Syrian Government. The Turks pushed back. They were supported by the international community, which took a very strong position before the UN General Assembly that there’d be no offensive. And so the Turks and the Russians, in Sochi, in late September, came up with an agreement that called for withdrawal of heavy weapons from a border zone around the edges of Idlib and control – turning control by the Turks and the Russians of that area, and the pullback of the HTS, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham people from that deconfliction zone.
The withdrawal of heavy weapons is complete by all accounts; both Turkish and, by and large, the Russians are in agreement with that. There is some question as to whether everybody from HTS has left. This is a problem we have everywhere with terrorist organizations who this week are a brigade working for a friendly organization, next week they’ve joined up with one or another terrorist organization. But there has been some withdrawal of the terrorists as well from that zone.
So by and large the Russians seem to be willing to continue this, and this is a major step because what it’s done is it has frozen the conflict not only there, but the conflict is also frozen essentially everywhere else. We have forces in the south and in the northeast continuing operations against Daesh, or ISIS, and the Turks also have positions in – further north of Idlib in Afrin and in the (inaudible) – al Bab area. So essentially 40 percent of the country is not under the regime’s control, and we’re talking with the Turks on how we can now shift to, again, the President’s words, revitalizing the political process now that you have essentially a de facto or at least temporary ceasefire throughout the country, and with some minor fighting, apart from the campaign that we are doing against Daesh along the Euphrates right up to the Iraqi border. That’s the only area of really significant fighting right now.
So the political process is the center of our focus. The Turks, along with the Russians and the Iranians and something called the Astana Group, which was set up to put together deconfliction zones, of which Idlib is the last one that has been adhered to, also collaborated on putting together a list for the UN where the Turks represented the opposition and the Iranians and the Russians represented the Assad regime.
Those lists have been completed and we’re expecting the UN Special Representative Staffan de Mistura to move forward and launch this constitutional committee in the weeks ahead. This was a big issue at the UN General Assembly. We had a meeting at the ministerial level that the French chaired and Mike Pompeo attended to put some emphasis and some pressure behind that campaign. And we’re very much looking forward to success there. The UN Security Council, in fact, today will meet and de Mistura will brief on how he’s coming. This would be an even bigger breakthrough, but I want to underline that, in part, we’re cooperating with the Turks and other members of the regional coalition of forces that are trying to, first of all, defeat Daesh; secondly, Israel and Jordan – find some stability in Syria. We think we’ve made some progress.
Now, we’re also working with the Turks in the Manbij area, which is an Arab area across the Euphrates from where we have been operating with the YPG, which the Turks consider a PKK offshoot and are very concerned about. One way that we’ve dealt with this is a roadmap on Manbij with the Turks that was negotiated by Secretary Pompeo and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu back in June, and it’s being carried out now.
We have troops in Turkey training with Turkish troops to do joint patrols around Manbij, and the idea of it is to basically have a secure zone so that the Turks feel comfortable because it’s very close to Turkish areas, we feel comfortable, the local people are secure, and the YPG is back over on the eastern side of the Euphrates. So that’s an important area and we constantly talk with the Turks about what we’re doing in the northeast because, again, that’s an area of concern to them because of the prominence of the YPG there.
So I’ll stop there and I’d be happy to answer questions.
QUESTION: Is there any way that the situation with the YPG and U.S. support for the group might be affected by both the release of Pastor Brunson and possibly what is going on with the Khashoggi case? Do you see any ability to reach an accommodation with the Turks as part of negotiations surrounding these two events?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The focus, again, with the YPG is as our partner in the fight against Daesh, and that fight isn’t over, particularly given the President’s mandate to do – keep our forces on for the enduring defeat of Daesh.
What the Turks are concerned about – and again, talk to the Turks – but what they’re concerned about is this area becoming an independent of quasi-independent region linked to the PKK, and that’s a threat to Turkey. And we’re committed, first of all, to the territorial integrity of Syria, a unified state, and we’re not involved in nation building in the northeast. We want to see a stable governance and security situation among the communities there, both Arab and Kurdish. But we don’t have a broad, long-term political agenda there. We have a military agenda there.
QUESTION: But is – could there be some deal basically reached with the Turks that in exchange for the release of Pastor Brunson and for their work on the investigation into what happened with Mr. Khashoggi that the United States might consider cutting back in some way in its support for the YPG?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah, I won’t talk about the investigation. On the Turks and the YPG in the northeast, our focus and the Turks’ focus is on the Manbij operation right now, the joint effort based upon the June Pompeo-Cavusoglu agreement. And that’s where we’re putting our effort and the U.S. military is putting its effort right now.
QUESTION: Can I follow up with you on the situation in Idlib? You sounded optimistic on the deal with – by the Russians and the Turks going forward. Can you explain a little bit more about the U.S. role in supporting that, and what do you think would be the impacts if this deal is —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Well, first of all, there are many factors that led to that. There was the Turks didn’t back down after they were publicly insulted by President Putin at an earlier conference where the Iranians attended, in Tehran, where the issue of Idlib came up and the Turks, Erdogan specifically, asked in the press conference for a ceasefire. Putin said there would be no ceasefire. Ten days later, he signed a document with the Turks in Sochi – Idlib road map which does say that there would be a sustained ceasefire. So the Turks basically took various military and diplomatic steps to indicate that they weren’t backing down. That was very important.
Frankly, the Syrian resistance indicated that they would fight, and there’s a lot of them. It’s tough terrain.
Thirdly, the international community didn’t want to see another huge wave of refugees flowing out of Idlib into Turkey and on into Europe. As I said, there are three million civilians there.
And finally, the U.S. not only made clear our position if chemical weapons were used, both – but the President’s tweet, which is the most dramatic, but also with diplomatic contacts particularly with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov – both the Secretary and the President made clear through diplomatic channels that this was very dangerous.
And the danger is, to take a step back – and we still have this danger. I mean, I’m painting a relatively positive picture of the ceasefire and the political process, but one thing that’s driving this is the danger that we also have there. Look what’s happened in the last six weeks. We had Syrian forces that were close to our positions in Al-Tanf in the south, and there was – in fact, you reported on it – in September there was a Marine exercise in al-Tanf that I think reduced the tension. Then there was the risk of a confrontation between Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military forces, and the Turkish army in Idlib. We took care of that. There was a risk of the United States engaging, as we had before but perhaps far more extensively, in military strikes along with our allies against Syria and what that might portend. There was a large Russian naval force in the Mediterranean at that point.
Then you had the Russian plane that was shot down after the Syrian military tried to shoot down an Israeli aircraft that was attacking Iranian military targets. And finally, right after that, we had – you remember that it was reported in the press – the Iranians fired SCUDs out of Kermanshah in Iran in retaliation for a terrorist attack in Iran on the 22nd of September towards an offshoot of Daesh, very close to American and American-allied positions fighting Daesh along the Euphrates.
So those are one, two – by my count, five examples of state-on-state violence. And many of you have covered the Middle East for many years, and you know that you get all of the time sub-state actors and failed states and ungoverned territories and counterterrorism and civil wars and insurgencies and that sort of thing, but you don’t normally see this kind of state-on-state potential for conflict.
And so I think everybody is concerned. For example, after the shootdown of the Russian plane the Israelis were very, very worried about a Russian announcement that they would be shipping S-300s to the Syrians. And these are the people who don’t know how to use their more primitive missiles, as we saw with the shootdown of the Russian plane. Who knows who they’ll shoot at with the Russian S-300, which is a more capable system?
So it’s this problem of state-on-state violence that has us and the Turks and the UN and many of our friends and allies in the region very concerned, and thus we think is giving momentum for a political solution.
MS NAUERT: Pardon me. We just have about three, four minutes left.
QUESTION: Okay. Could I ask you just very quickly – the United States and Staffan de Mistura have been trying for years to get this process going again, and it never seems to go anywhere. What’s different this time?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: One, we have a relative ceasefire throughout the country, and it’s more or less – it’s informal. I’m even reluctant to call it a ceasefire because it’s not the sort of ceasefire called for in 2254, which devotes a good part of the resolution to that. But it’s actually working.
Secondly, you do have the risk of state-on-state violence, which we haven’t seen before to the same degree. That’s a problem. It’s a worry here, it’s a worry in Ankara, it’s a worry presumably in Moscow. We worry about it. We don’t know how responsible the Iranians or the Syrians are, so I’ll leave them out. But that’s – so that’s the second.
Thirdly, the UN process has matured. We have the lists. People have cooperated to one or another degree with de Mistura, and there’s a lot of pressure from essentially what we call the Small Group – the Europeans and folks around the world – to push the UN to finally carry out this agreement that was memorialized in 2254 that was passed at the end of 2015.
So I think that that’s why we’re a little bit more optimistic, but anything could happen in Syria. And you’ve covered it; you know that Syria is a lot of ups and downs. So we’ll see. Okay? Okay.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, sir.
MS NAUERT: Thank you.