Ambassador James Jeffrey
June 27, 2019
Ambassador Jeffrey: I’m here today to talk about Syria. I’m not going to talk about the various things that the Acting Secretary of Defense is doing. First of all, he’s doing a press conference at 2:45, and I don’t want to take any of his thunder away, plus I haven’t been with him, haven’t been in any of his meetings. Again, so my focus will be on Syria.
A few initial remarks. You’ve seen the terrible attack we believe potentially by the Russians or else the Syrian military forces against the White Helmets in the Idlib area just yesterday. Another example of why this conflict needs to be resolved and the killing needs to be stopped.
What we’re doing as a government is trying to, and this is a quote from President Trump back in September in New York, to deescalate the conflict, and Idlib is the most important area for that. The rest of the country is relatively frozen in terms of battle lines, our areas of influence, and to reinvigorate the political process. That’s where we have had the greatest difficulty moving the Russians, who we spent a great deal of time with. I was with Secretary Pompeo when we went to Sochi back in May to see Foreign Minister Lavrov and President Putin to try to move forward on the political process. The Russians are now saying that they’ve achieved a breakthrough. I do know that the UN Special Envoy, Geir Pedersen, who we support a hundred percent, is planning to travel imminently to Damascus to try to seal a deal on a Constitutional Committee. That’s the first step under UN Resolution 2254 on the political side to work with the people of Syria for a new Syrian government that will be less threatening to its own people. Half the Syrian population of almost 24 million have fled President Assad’s area, either to those areas of Syria that are not under his control, typically under U.S. or Turkish control of one or another sort, or have fled the country. Some six million refugees. That and the terrible civilian casualties and the deliberate targeting of civilians, the use of chemical weapons, are just some of the reasons, the creation of Daesh at least is an inadvertent result of Assad’s campaign, are among the many reasons why we’re trying to, as I said, deescalate this conflict and institute a political process that will have a Syria that behaves differently.
Key to this is the Russians. It is quite possible that this subject will come up in the discussions between President Putin and President Trump in Osaka in the next 48 hours.
The other thing is, but again this gets a little bit into the area that we jointly share with the Department of Defense, within Syria the battle, and in Iraq, the battle against Daesh is core, which is part of this whole complex involving Syria, Iraq and the region, has gone very well. As you know, the Caliphate as a physical military and political force was defeated in March along the Euphrates in Syria. We still have a considerable terrorist presence in Iraq, in Northeastern Syria, and in other areas of Syria. We are pursuing those folks both militarily and through stability operations in both countries. To that end, we remain very strongly supported by a global coalition of 80 countries and organizations. We had a political directors meeting, level meeting on the political side for that in Paris two days ago. The Acting Secretary of Defense will be meeting today along with my delegation with the key NATO Defense Ministers who are participating in the coalition to coordinate military policy including in the northeast.
I’ll stop there.
Question: [Inaudible] from Reuters
Could you, one of the things that we watch closely as defense reporters is the situation in northeast Syria, [inaudible] border with Turkey. Can you bring us up to date about where your discussions are with Turkey on resolving what SDF fears will be a Turkish incursion?
Ambassador Jeffrey: I just had a meeting with the Turkish Minister of Defense on that subject. We are in very, very high-level and almost continuous contact with the Turks on that issue. We’ve come to an agreement that there should be what we call a safe zone with the withdrawal of the YPG which is the core element of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the element that is most linked to the PKK and thus of greatest concern for the Turks, to withdraw from the border, to withdraw their heavy weapons even further from the border.
The details of this have not yet been agreed between us and the Turks. That’s a subject that could well come up also in the meeting between President Erdogan and President Trump in Osaka.
Question: Is it your understanding right now that there are YPG elements along the border area that’s in discussion?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Sure. The YPG, again, the SDF is the military force which officially we deal with. But that SDF grew out of the YPG which is the military army of the PYD which is essentially the Syrian branch of the PKK. And it has various civilian operations. The SDC and the autonomous administration, and they’ve got new names. There’s a whole group of names but it basically refers to the military and political local forces who are not predominantly but largely Kurdish.
Question: [Inaudible] How far from the border [do the heavy weapons] need to withdraw? [Inaudible] on that?
Ambassador Jeffrey: The U.S. view is that this withdrawal should be, depending upon what we’re talking about, between five and fourteen and twenty kilometers. The Turks have stated they would like to see a thirty kilometer withdrawal.
Question: [Inaudible] with AP.
Is the size of the safe zone, what is the biggest hang-up, do you think, at this point in reaching an agreement?
Ambassador Jeffrey: The size is important because it involves a much larger population. And as we have made clear to the Turks, we don’t control the northeast. We are working to defeat Daesh with a U.S. military presence, which is being reduced per President Trump’s guidance, and will be reduced further; I’m sure, over time. There will be a residual presence for some time, but we haven’t been specific on that. But under no circumstances do we decide how far things withdraw or what percent of the population would be in the safe zone. That’s something that we have to discuss with the local people. In discussions with them, we’ve come up with our distance, and the Turks have their own. That’s one of the issues that we debate.
Question: You’ve heard recently, talking about the effort to create, ask allies to support the safe zone as being kind of [inaudible] dead.
Ambassador Jeffrey: It isn’t dead. It was never alive. That is we never went to anybody. This is one of the kind of confusing things back in December. We never went to anybody and asked them to provide any military presence to patrol or enforce or work with the Turks on the safe zone. What we were looking for was people, military forces, and that’s one of the things that will be discussed here today and has been discussed repeatedly in Tampa with CENTCOM, is people to come in and do the elements of the anti-Daesh mission that our troops are actually in Northeast Syria to conduct.
Question: They were saying no without actually being asked.
Ambassador Jeffrey: That’s a good way of putting it, yeah.
Question: But now they are going to be asked today.
Ambassador Jeffrey: No, they’re being asked, and they’ve been asked repeatedly to provide forces to conduct anti-Daesh operations, or to support logistically those anti-Daesh operations. Most of the people here are doing this now in Iraq. So that’s what we’re trying to do, is to get them to do that. We never asked them to try to help us, as I said, enforce the safe zone or to work, because that’s a bilateral thing we’re doing with the Turks and the local people.
Question: [Inaudible], but there is a request that’s being discussed here today with a bunch of the allies to do anti-Daesh work in Syria —
Ambassador Jeffrey: Right.
Question: — near the zone. I mean, or near what would be a zone.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, northeast Syria is almost a third of the country and the zone, even if you took the Turkish zone, would only be a tiny part of it. And it’s an area that does not have much of a Daesh presence. I couldn’t say no, there wouldn’t be, if we set up a zone these people would not be allowed into the zone or anything else. It’s just, it’s not what they’re going to be doing.
Question: Okay. What’s the best way to describe how the zone would be administered or retained —
Ambassador Jeffrey: We’re still working with everybody involved in that. Local forces and local civilian governments would have the primary role in the zone, as they do now. There are YPG forces in the zone, but because there isn’t much of a Daesh presence there, we’re not too concerned about the security in the zone, and there are local essentially police forces or internal security forces and there’s local governance in the zone.
Question: [Inaudible] Could you explain what you would expect allies to do? I mean what [Inaudible]
Ambassador Jeffrey: I don’t want to get into that in a lot of detail because that would steal the thunder of the Secretary of Defense. He’s here to make that pitch today. We’ve made that pitch politically as the State Department, but it gets into military questions. It’s the policy of the U.S. to press for a much larger coalition, that is the anti-Daesh coalition, the 80 nations, presence in the northeast militarily as well as in providing stability funds. That’s something I was also here doing is talking with the European Union about how they could support in more detail what we’re all doing in the northeast. Humanitarian assistance. We’ve got a huge displaced persons problem in the Al-Hol camp. We’ve got 10,000 detainees who are basically Daesh people and their issues that we need the European Union to help us on on those, including taking people back. So it’s a very complicated set of issues related to the northeast.
But on the pure military side, that’s something that the Acting Secretary of Defense should discuss.
Question: Are there also discussions with the Russians? I know you said that President Putin and Trump may discuss this but at a lower level, at a working level
Ambassador Jeffrey: There is constant discussions at every level with the Russians including, as I said, the Sochi meetings in May with Secretary Pompeo, Foreign Minister Lavrov and President Putin on Syria.
Question: And is that just the usual, please stop supporting the Syrian government? Please stop your air strikes? I mean how would you characterize [Inaudible]
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, what we’re trying to do is, here is the problem in a nutshell. We believe that the Syrian government still believes that there can be a military solution, even though 40 percent of the country is not in the hands of Assad. Even though most of the country’s agricultural and energy wealth is not in Assad’s hands. Even though half the population has fled. Even though there is essentially an informal but very effective ban on international or even bilateral reconstruction assistance to that country. Even though the Assad regime is under heavy sanctions, both from the United States and the European Union. And they are being politically ostracized including the Arab League did not invite them back into the Arab League in its Summit in March in Tunisia.
We look at that, and we do everything we can to ensure that the situation I just described continues as I described it. And we make the point to the Russians and indirectly I would assume the Russians to Assad, that look, there is no military solution. They’ve been trying to gain ground for two months with a great deal of Russian air support in Idlib and they’ve made very little progress. That’s a sign that even in that one area where they don’t come up against, and they do come up against some Turkish forces, they’re just not going to make any progress.
So what we’re trying to say is let’s go to the UN process 2254 with the UN envoy Geir Pedersen, and find a solution to this conflict. Because it’s very dangerous. You saw the shoot-down of the Russian IL-20 aircraft by the Syrian Air Defenses back in September as the Syrian Air Defenses were trying to shoot down what was apparently Israeli aircraft who were bombing Iranian targets. So that’s four of the six armies, counting the Syrian military that were involved in that one incident. And you’ve got us having tensions at times, military exchanges of fire, engagements between us and other forces there. You have the Turks. As I said, we’re involved in artillery exchanges with the Syrian government last week in Idlib. This is a very dangerous situation and we’re trying to say to the Russians, look, we all need to work together to get us out of it. If chemical weapons are used in Idlib, which is always a possibility, we have made it clear that we will take very, very firm action. We’ve already acted twice. That’s another potentially, by introducing, as any time we do introduce American military action, that is another factor that needs to be considered and it would be best to find solutions that don’t require us to engage militarily.
Question: How is that message delivered?
Ambassador Jeffrey: It’s delivered publicly all the time. I’ve done it, the President’s done it, everybody’s done it, and it’s done privately as well.
Question: When was it most recently done privately?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Oh, I would have to check, but we talk to the Russians all the time on that, and on Syria, and every time we talk to them about that we raise chemical weapons use.
Question: Which they deny.
Question: Could you, I know you aren’t going to talk about troop numbers, but can you give a general idea of the American contribution or the American [inaudible] in Syria and kind of what you [inaudible]?
Ambassador Jeffrey: No. You need to ask the Acting Secretary there.
Question: On the Al-Hol camp, are you satisfied now that it is secure enough? Because a week or so ago some Belgian women wanted to come back and the Belgian government had not allowed them to. Apparently disappeared, and nobody knows where they are. And this is one of the concerns, that if European governments didn’t take their citizens back, they would disappear.
Ambassador Jeffrey: The situation — it was a humanitarian crisis three months ago. We didn’t have medical and other basic life-sustaining elements in the camp to the degree we needed it. Slowly but surely, with a great deal of help from the international community, from NGOs, and from our coalition partners as well as us and the SDF and the local government on the ground, we’ve managed to curb the more egregious humanitarian threats emanating from the camp. But we still have an overall administrative problem there because there’s so many people, over 70,000. There’s security problems related to it. And we’re working with first the SDF, the SDC, the civilian side of the local administration in the northeast, to have the Iraqi women and children, of whom there are probably 30,000, be moved to Iraq and I’ll be going to Baghdad next week to talk to them among other things about that. Have the Syrians, who make up another large percent of the population, to be settled back in their areas, which are typically along the Euphrates. And that would reduce dramatically the number of people in the camp and thus would make administering the camp, including security, better.
Question: Are you satisfied that Europeans have taken back handfuls of orphans?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We’re never satisfied with anything related to the situation post the defeat of ISIS in the northeast, because we have a huge humanitarian issue between the detainees and the displaced persons. We think that the European countries, not just the European countries. Everybody who has citizens in northeast Syria that were associated, picked up by or found themselves in the sphere of Daesh, should be allowed to return back to their countries of origin.
Question: How much progress would you say you’re making in convincing other countries to take back the detainees that are considered some of the more dangerous?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We’ve made bits and pieces of progress around the world. Kazakhstan recently took back three tranches of people. We still have to do more with some of the key Arab states who have large numbers. And the Western Europeans have been reluctant for many reasons to take back people. But Italy has agreed to take one of their people back. We hope that that’s the beginning of a trend.
Question: Michael Birnbaum from the Washington Post.
The Europeans have basically said they’re making a security calculation that their security is better if they leave their dangerous citizens in these camps for the time being. How stable do you think the overall situation is in the camps? How long can the camps stay as they are? How much time do the Europeans have to figure out what to do with their citizens?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Nobody can make that assessment. It’s just that we’re talking about countries with per capita incomes about the same as the United States and all in all with levels of crime and violence way below that of the United States. Putting the burden on informal local authorities who are detached from a state structure. They’re not sovereign. In the middle of a war zone to take care of these countries’ own citizens. That’s a bad decision. Period.
If those people break out, many of them are dangerous, in that we agree with the Europeans. They will kill people. It shouldn’t be relevant whether they kill people of one national background or another, one race or another race, one gender or another gender. They should be prevented from killing people and the best way to do that is to bring them back to Europe and to deal with them in the justice systems of the respective countries. That’s what we’re doing in the relatively limited number of cases we have. But we are doing it. Why can’t they?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Can you speak a little louder?
Question: Ana Pisonero from the Spanish news agency Europa Press.
We always hear about the U.S. asking the big countries — France, Germany, Britain — to take back their foreign [inaudible], but I understand that Spain also has [inaudible]. I’d like to know if the U.S government is actually having that conversation with the Spanish government to take back some of theirs.
And from your words, can we deduce that it’s a lack of, well I don’t know, a lack of trust in the Iraqi judicial system [Inaudible] already several trials [inaudible]. And still, the [inaudible] from the U.S. side that from each Western countries to take back their own nationals.
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, this is our policy. We’ve communicated it more than adequately publicly, all the time, and privately. We normally, and we usually adhere to this rule, don’t say publicly things involving other countries or what we expect of them before we’ve also talked to those countries. I would say almost endless on these issues it comes up all of the time with our counterterrorism people, in our embassies, and in Washington when we reach out. And once again, I don’t have the specifics on it, but we do expect everybody to take back their people.
In terms of — that’s a little bit of a non sequitur question although it’s on the same general subject on the Iraqi justice system. The Iraqis have put people on trial because those people have been involved in terrorist acts against the state of Iraq. That is not only their right but the duty of the country of Iraq and we support them. We can’t vouch for how can I put it, the total purity of anybody’s legal system. All legal systems, including our own, need to be constantly monitored by the media. Can always be subject to improvement. So be it with the Iraqi system of which I have had significant experience since 2004.
But I think that the issue with the French was not the nature of the process so much as the fact that they were sentenced to death. And as you know, that’s a big issue in Europe. You can understand that’s not a big issue in the United States. So therefore, it’s not something that we would be particularly overly concerned about. Per se. As a general thing.
Now in terms of the specifics, we look at all of these cases because that’s what we do as a government when other countries do anything, including with their own citizens. We look at them and we make commentaries. We do an annual human rights report. We do annual terrorism reports and we comment on how effective the judicial systems are. But this isn’t a big thing for us. But I think it is a big thing for the French. But again, the French will speak to that.
Question: [Inaudible], Bloomberg.
Last month you were, end of May, you appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and you had a pretty strong message on what you’d like to see happen in Idlib, with the ceasefire. Have the dynamics on the ground changed? Has there been a reduction in violence and fighting? Is it still ongoing? Are you still raising concerns?
Ambassador Jeffrey: It goes up and down. The thing we were most worried about were two things. One is, a major offensive that would do three things simultaneously. Two things for sure, and a third thing likely. The first thing would be the use of chemical weapons, and thus we had to be very clear once again that we would respond forcefully. Secondly, that a major campaign would generate huge international refugee flows out of the Idlib area, because there are about 3.5 million people there, most of whom are already IDPs from other areas, so they are living under very fragile conditions and they we think would leave very quickly. We’ve already seen about 400,000 of them displaced by just the bombing campaign. So that was the second thing we’re worried about. The third thing was the geostrategic impact of Assad getting another victory on the ground. We think that would simply encourage him to further reject the political process and further strive to achieve a military victory. WE think that a military victory for this awful criminal regime is a bad thing in and of itself. And as most of the other areas, you have either Turkish or American force and any effort on his part to achieve a military victory in those areas would be even more dangerous.
So for all those reasons, we’re very worried about a major escalation. We didn’t see that major escalation. What we’d like to see, and this is opposition, is a ceasefire and a return to the start lines. Those are the start lines that were agreed in the Sochi ceasefire between Russia and Turkey in September. That is what we want to see happen. So we will not be satisfied until that does occur, but we certainly are, we certainly are, I won’t even say encouraged because there’s nothing encouraging about Idlib or this country, but we certainly are — it was important and it will be important that this conflict in Idlib not escalate further. And as long as it does not escalate further, we think there is at least some possibility that it will then go back to the ceasefire. Because the regime has put a great deal of effort and lost a lot of people and spent two months trying to seize a lot of terrain and it hasn’t seized very much terrain.
Question: Just on the 400,000 since the end of April, [inaudible]?
Ambassador Jeffrey: And these are UN, the problem is we get bombarded with statistics from the UN, from the various elements of the UN, from our partners, from NGOs and other things. But I think that the 400,000 figure is the one that we’re using right now.
Question: Ambassador, [inaudible] beginning [inaudible] discussions with the Turks. And I heard a lot of the same things that we’ve been hearing for a long time. I’m wondering, has there been any progress with them whatsoever on definitions? They don’t see a difference between SDF and YPG. Are you still in the same place you were last year?
Ambassador Jeffrey: What we’re doing is trying to set up a safe zone, and a safe zone has certain conditions. Basically the YPG would withdraw from the safe zone, and we and the Turks would have —
Question: They think they’re all YPGs. That’s what I’m trying to understand.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Pardon?
Question: Has there been a breakthrough with the Turks where they think the SDF, all SDF are not YPG, or has there been some sort of —
Ambassador Jeffrey: Both we and the Turks have a pretty good understanding of who’s YPG. Not all SDF are YPG. The Turks understand that, we understand that. And the things that we’re focused on is the YPG.
Question: Both sides.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Yeah.
Question: And you agree on definitions and —
Ambassador Jeffrey: We think we know who the YPG is. We think the Turks know who the YPG is. And we know the YPG knows who the YPG is.
Question: So what are the big obstacles? I’m trying to understand —
Ambassador Jeffrey: First and foremost, it’s the distance. It’s how deep the safe zone would go. Secondly, we would have to work out what our role would be in there. Again, we’re not controlling this. We’re not the occupying power. How the Turks would be able to verify what’s going on, how they would be able to secure their national interests. And we recognize them from President Trump who said it publicly on down. We know the terrible problem the Turks have had when they allowed a PKK presence that has now established relatively significant routes in northeastern Iraq and what an impact that has had on Turkish security over the last 30 years. The Turks are very, very concerned that the same thing would happen in northeast Syria.
It’s not much of a threat right now, but it’s not illogical for the Turks to think well that’s because the Americans are there and if the Americans leave, what will happen. They don’t want the YPG on its own to be along the border. They don’t want the Assad forces along the border either. One of the problems with Turkey is that it has a whole series of threats to its country from its southern, from the southern border in Syria. They have Daesh, they have the Iranians, they have the Syrian regime, they have the Russians to some degree, and they have these elements that are associated with the PKK. So the Turks have to sort out all of these things.
Question: Has there been any spillover from the S400 dispute?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Pardon?
Question: Has there been any spillover of tension from the S400 dispute in your discussions?
Ambassador Jeffrey: My guiding rule in everything I do with the Turks on Syria is never to talk about the S400 issue. That’s something definitely for the Acting Secretary of Defense.
Question: But even if you don’t bring it up, have they been more reluctant? Have they been —
Ambassador Jeffrey: No. I would say that Syria is a very, very important issue for Turkey. It’s on its border, just like our borders are very sensitive for us. And we deal with this as a separate issue. And I go back almost 40 years in working with the Turks, and there are many times when you have major disputes in one area and you’re able to make progress in others, and that’s the assumption that we’re operating on with the northeast, and with Syria generally. Because there are three major areas that we work with the Turks on. The situation in the northeast/Manbij; the Idlib situation where we’re very, very supportive of the Turks; and the political process where we and the Turks are usually aligned. Not always, but usually.
Question: Thank you.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Sure.