November 20, 2018
Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our callers who have dialed in from across the region. Today we are joined by the Secretary’s Special Representative for Syrian Engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey. Ambassador Jeffrey is a senior diplomat with experience in political, security and energy issues in the Middle East, Turkey, Germany and the Balkans. He has held several senior assignments in Washington, D.C., and abroad, including as Deputy National Security Advisor, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and U.S. Ambassador to Albania. I will now open the floor for Ambassador Jeffrey to give brief remarks. Ambassador Jeffrey, please go ahead.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Thank you, Nathan. Thank you for giving me this opportunity today. I realize how important the Syrian conflict is to media representatives that you have assembled here today and to their readers and listeners. It is also very important to President Trump and to the entire U.S. government. We see the Syrian conflict as one of the core disasters of the last decade in the Middle East and an extremely dangerous situation that brings together several very, very problematic elements. These include a terribly dictatorial and vicious regime under President Bashar Al-Assad. These include Iranian expansion into Arab states, notably in Syria, but we see this elsewhere as well. And finally, the rise of new terrorist movements such as Daesh that have taken on some of the aura, some of the mystique of the Al-Qaeda movement. These are all threatening to the entire region.
President Trump’s policy is clear. We want to deescalate the conflict. We thus welcomed the ceasefire in Idlib between Turkish-supported forces in the regime and the Russians back in September. We also want to revitalize the political process under the UN. There is a UN Security Council Resolution 2254 that lays out a political process forward that would allow the half of the Syrian population, 12 million people, to return to their homes because these people have either fled abroad or they fled to other areas of Syria. That is critical to bringing this conflict to an end. It is critical to preserving security in the region. All of the neighbors, Turkey, Syria itself, Jordan and Israel are very much involved in this conflict, and the possibilities of a larger conflict are always there if we do not act together to end the fighting and to find a political solution. I will stop there.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Ambassador Jeffrey. For those asking questions today, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing. We will take questions first from the English line and then from the Arabic line. If you wish to join the question queue, please dial 01. I will now turn the floor to the English line. Operator, please give the floor to the first journalist.
Operator: Thank you. Our first question comes from Mohamed Ataya, masrawy.com. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi, sir. I am Mohamed Ataya from masrawy.com. My first question is does American existence in Syria depends on the ISIS existence or Iran existence? My second question is will the U.S. participate in the rebuilding Syria? Thank you.
Ambassador Jeffrey: First, the specific military combat mission of our forces in Syria today is the enduring defeat of ISIS or Daesh. More broadly, our overall presence in Syria that’s a presence that has economic, diplomatic, military aspects. It involves our partners on the ground. It involves our allies throughout the Middle East. All of that is focused on the enduring defeat of Daesh, the removal of all Iranian forces from Syria and the revitalization of an irreversible political process. So you have to look at what we are doing as a whole, not simply what our military is doing today or what our allies are doing tomorrow. As a whole, those are our three objectives in Syria.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Operator…
Ambassador Jeffrey: In terms of the reconstruction, we, the United States does not believe that the Assad regime should receive reconstruction funds from anyone until it shows its willingness to participate in the UN Security Council mandated political reform process. It has not demonstrated that yet.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Operator, we will take the next question from the English line and callers, I would just remind you to please limit yourself to one question, so that we can get to as many journalists as possible, thank you. Operator, next question please.
Operator: Thank you. Our next question comes from Lamiaa Yousry, El-zman newspaper. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello. Why the U.S. refused to participate in the Astana Conference? Thank you.
Ambassador Jeffrey: At times, the U.S. has had observers at Astana, but basically Astana is a political, military de-confliction mechanism between Turkey, Iran, and Russia, all of whom are supporting forces in the internal conflict. The U.S. was not involved in the creation of that, and we think it has a very limited utility. I’ll notice that the Idlib ceasefire was put together in September not by the Astana group, but by Russia and Turkey independently. That’s an example of why we don’t think Astana is all of that effective. We certainly don’t think that Astana has been so far particularly effective in advancing the political process.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Operator, can we take the next question on the English line?
Operator: Our next question comes from Omar Shariff, Gulf News. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you. My name is Omar Shariff. I am the Deputy Middle East Editor at Gulf News. My question is this Ambassador, the U.S. recently denied involvement in attacks that kill civilians in eastern Syria and at the same time, it said that there were other forces that might have operated in that area. Now my question is this, are Syrian regime groups and the U.S. coordinating actions against ISIS and Daesh in eastern Syria?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We don’t discuss our military operations in public in any detail. We do de-conflict our military operations with Russia. I will leave it at that.
Moderator: Okay, very good. Operator, can we take the next question from the English line?
Operator: Our following question comes from Joselito “Joey” Aguilar, Gulf/Middle East. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello, good afternoon. Sir, I just want to ask what will you say about the efforts of Qatar and its contribution in the fight against terrorism in Syria and in the Middle East?
Ambassador Jeffrey: As with many other states in the Gulf, Qatar has concerns about Iran’s expansion. Qatar has participated in operations in Yemen. It has participated in various ways in the internal conflict in Syria, and we have communication with Qatar involving Syria and other issues quite frequently. There are members of the opposition who reside in Qatar. I have had contact with people in Qatar. It is one of the players that we pay attention to in this conflict. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We will take the next question from the English line.
Operator: Our next question comes from Akram Kharief, Middle East Eye. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello sir. How do you explain that Daesh and ISIS are still within the eastern part of Syria please? Thank you.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, first of all, the United States and the coalition that the U.S. leads have played an extraordinarily central role in the defeat of Daesh’s essentially state and military force in much of Iraq and northeastern Syria. That job is almost finished in terms of defeating the conventional forces of Daesh and we are confident that in the months ahead, we will be successful along the Euphrates. There is a longer-term issue that is important both in Syria and Iraq and we call it the enduring defeat of ISIS, which is to develop the security, economic, and governance structures among our local partners that will ensure that Daesh does not regenerate and does not return as it did in 2013, 2014.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We will take the final question from the English line. Operator, please open the line.
Operator: We have a question from Ariel Kahana, Israel Hayom. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello, Ambassador. My question is regard what you said at the beginning that a conflict might escalate, and it includes Jordan and Israel. You said that both countries are very involved. If you can give some more details about this. Thank you.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, for the moment, Jordan’s major concern, as Jordanian officials talk to us, is both Iran’s movement into regions close to Jordan and of course the remnants of terrorist forces along the Jordanian border. Jordan has suffered terribly from terrorist attacks and we are committed to its security. In terms of Israel, it is even more dramatic because of the deployment of long-range Iranian weapon systems into Syria and they are used over Israeli territory twice in this past year and the Israeli response to that that led to the set of events culminating in the shoot down of a Russian plane by Syrian missiles and this is the kind of perhaps accidental, perhaps deliberate escalation that we are working night and day to prevent by trying to again de-escalate the conflict and revitalize the political process.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We will now switch over to the Arabic line to take questions from journalists listening in Arabic. Operator, can you please take the first question from the Arabic line?
Question: Thank you. Hello. You said, Ambassador, that the U.S. presence in Syria helps to force the Iranian commanded forces to depart from Syria. Can we know how can this be achieved, especially that you repeated over and over that there is no military plan to fight Iran in a military way in Syria?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all military, as our military commanders have also noted, our presence indicates our commitment to security in Syria, be it security against Daesh which is the focus of our military operations or more broadly and diplomatically focus against Iran’s very bad behavior that helped create Daesh in Syria and also in Iraq. We again see a political process leading to a reformed Syrian government and the removal of not just Syrian, but all foreign troops who came since 2011. That does not include the Russians who were there before, but all of the other forces we believe would be ready to leave if the Iranians left and if there was a political solution. So that is what we are working on.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Operator, can we please take the next question on the Arabic line.
Question: A question from Majed Al Khatib. Greetings everyone. I am from Syria 24 website. The majority in the Congress, what is happening, this majority will lead to more, to freezing a lot of the action. So what about the different sanctions, how they will impact Iran, how will they impact in Syria and otherwise?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We will have to wait until the new Congress comes into session in January. I am optimistic that our basic policy in Syria has broad domestic support in the United States.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Operator, can we please take the next question from the Arabic line?
Question: Ahmad Zakariya, Radio Al Kul. Hello, Mr. Jeffrey, Ambassador. Do you want to push to the formation, of the constitutional committee by the end of the year. You said that what was achieved in the summit would not have been achievable without the effects of the U.S.? Thank you.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Yes, the U.S. worked closely with all four basically, with the Turkish, French, German and Russian governments to try to ensure that the Istanbul summit would reinforce our position of revitalizing the political process and deescalating the conflict and that’s exactly what the Istanbul summit did by calling for a lasting ceasefire in Idlib and for the formation of the constitutional committee by the end of the year. So the U.S. was pleased with and welcomed that communique.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Operator, can we please take the next question on the Arabic line?
Question: Ahmed Gomaa, Al Youm 7. Hello, and thank you for taking my question. Ambassador, you said that there is a newer strategy for Syria. Do you have a framework and a timeframe to implement this strategy, and are you working on stopping any activities by the Kurdish forces in eastern Syria?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We are working with all of our partners towards first of all the enduring defeat of Daesh, and that’s what we are doing in the East of the country right now with our military and with the Syrian Democratic Forces. More generally we do not put a timeline on the Syrian conflict. It is going on obviously far too long. We want to see it end as soon as possible, but we don’t set any timeline for our involvement because if we did, then people would just wait until we stopped our involvement. Therefore, we are engaged across the board diplomatically in other ways to achieve our three goals in Syria because we think these three goals are absolutely essential to peace and security and progress in the entire Middle East.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We will take the next caller from the Arabic line.
Question: Next call by Dima Al Sayyed. Hello, John Bolton said that the international community will not discuss the rebuilding of Syria before everything has ended. So what are the, how well do you pressure Moscow in order to push the process forward? Thank you.
Ambassador Jeffrey: We are trying to make clear to Russia two things. First, Russia’s key interests in Syria having a friendly government, an alliance with that state and having military bases is something that we do not challenge. We also stressed to Russia that it is not in its advantage to have as a partner and the Syrian state that has lost half its population, almost half its territory, that cannot receive international support for its reconstruction because of its terrible behavior. Therefore, Russia should do everything in its power to change that behavior. That’s the sum of our conversation with the Russians.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Operator, please take the next question from the Arabic line.
Question: Abde Slam Sekia from Al Shorouq daily. Question from Mohamed Amer, Al Watan Daily. Hello, welcome, everyone. I am from Al Watan, my question is the following: there are some agreements of ceasefire and other things in Syria, but they did not achieve a lot of results. What about the coordination between the U.S. and Egypt concerning Syria?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Egypt is an important member of what we call the small group along with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, United Kingdom and the U.S. We coordinate on almost a daily basis with our Egyptian colleagues. They are important strategic players in the entire Middle East and we are glad that we have their support in our overall goals, all three of our goals in Syria.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Operator, please take the next question from the Arabic line.
Question: Question from Al Ayam newspaper. Tamam Abu Safi from the Bahrain newspaper Al Tama. I have a question concerning what you mentioned Ambassador saying that there is a quasi-coordination with the Russians, for de-confliction but what about the Iranian presence or the Iranian-led militias in Syria. What’s your position when we speak about the thousands of Shia combatants that are led by Iran and are in Syria if Russia once continuous strategic benefits and interests, are they against the departure of such militias from Syria?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, we don’t define them as Shia or any other religion, we define them as Iranian commandants. That’s our concern, not their religion. Secondly, we tried to make clear to Russia that these forces are not just in Syria to support the Assad regime, but to carry out their own long-term regional hegemonial program and to in some respects subvert the authority of the Syrian state just like they have done in Lebanon, just like they have done in Yemen, just like they’ve attempted to do in Iraq.
Moderator: Okay, that concludes today’s call. With that, Ambassador Jeffrey, do you have any final words before we end?
Ambassador Jeffrey: No, thank you. Please follow the developments in Syria very closely because it affects war and peace and progress in the entire Middle East. It is very, very important issue and has been since 2011.
Moderator: Thank you very much. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Ambassador Jeffrey for joining us and to thank all of our callers for participating. If you have questions about today’s call, please contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at [email protected]. Thank you very much. That concludes the call.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Thank you.