Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State
The Palace Hotel
New York, New York
September 26, 2019
SECRETARY POMPEO: Good afternoon, everyone. I want, as we begin today, to make some announcements about Syria and then discuss two issues that we made good progress on here at the United Nations General Assembly.
For more than eight years, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has waged a war against the Syrian people, resulting in the deaths of more than a half a million people and displacement of 11 million more. The number displaced equals fully one-half of Syria’s pre-war population. The Assad regime is responsible for innumerable atrocities, some of which rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity. These atrocities include the use of chemical weapons, killings, torture, enforced disappearance, and other inhumane acts.
Today, I’m announcing that the United States has concluded that the Assad regime used chlorine as a chemical weapon on May 19th in an attack at Latakia province, Syria. This attack was part of the Assad regime’s ongoing violent campaign in Idlib, which has killed more than 1,000 innocent Syrians and displaced hundreds of thousands more. It is also the latest instance in a long pattern of Assad’s chemical weapons attacks that have killed or wounded thousands of Syrians. Assad has used chemical weapons every year since Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013.
The United States will not allow these attacks to go unchallenged, nor will we tolerate those who choose to conceal these atrocities. The United States will continue to pressure the insidious Assad regime to end the violence directed at Syrian civilians and to participate in the UN-led political process to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
As part of our maximum pressure campaign, today the United States Department of Treasury designated Russian entities for supporting Assad’s brutal war machine and facilitating the shipments of jet fuel to Russian military forces in Syria. I’m also announcing today that the State Department will provide an additional 4 and a half million to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to help its investigations of continued chemical weapons use in Syria.
And we’re keeping other nations informed about our findings. In today’s Syria Small Group meeting, I will brief my counterparts on the regime’s chemical weapons use. The United States and other Small Group nations will discuss our shared concerns about the danger the Assad regime poses to the Middle East. We agree on the importance of justice for the victims of Assad’s atrocities and accountability for those who are responsible. We agree on the need for a political solution to end the conflict that is in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
Finally, the Trump administration never forgets about Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad. Among the more than 100,000 people who have been detained or disappeared in Assad’s prisons is American journalist Austin Tice. He has now spent seven years in captivity. He is just one of a number of American citizens held in Syria, and we call upon the Syrian regime to release them all. We also urge the regime to free all wrongfully detained Syrians, the vast majority of whom are civilians, including many women and children.
This is a truly barbaric regime, and today the United States is taking new steps to hold it accountable. We truly do hope for a brighter future for the Syrian people.
I want to spend just a minute recapping two highlights of American diplomacy from this week. First, as I suggested at the press conference with President Trump, we made good progress on Iran. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany released a statement this week concluding that Iran bears responsibility for the recent attack on Saudi Arabia and called for the mullahs to return to the negotiating table. These nations, like others in the Middle East – indeed, all around the world – are facing facts and recognizing that Iran is the aggressor in the Middle East, not the aggrieved. The more Iran lashes out, the greater Americans — the greater our pressure will be. All we’re looking for, simply, is the Iranian people to have the peace and brighter future that we’ve been working on since this administration took office.
Yesterday I announced, as part of our maximum pressure campaign, a series of sanctions on some Chinese companies that were violating the Iranian sanctions. President Trump yesterday signed a presidential proclamation banning Iranian elites and their family members from traveling to the United States. For years, Iranian regime elites have shouted “death to America.” Meanwhile, their relatives have come here to live and to work. No more. I’ve heard directly from many Iranians enraged at this gross hypocrisy, and yesterday President Trump took action to end it.
This week, too, we continued to execute our mission of standing up for the unalienable rights of every person in the world and fundamental freedoms all around the world. President Trump hosted an international religious freedom event at the United Nations, the first American president to do so. We heard heartrending accounts of persecution of survivors. The State Department also led an event – cohosted by the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada – that was focused on China’s detention of more than a million Uighur Muslims in internment camps in Xinjiang. We were pleased that more than 30 countries attended the meeting. We need many more nations, especially Muslim-majority nations, to speak out publicly against one of the worst human rights violations of the 21st century.
Thank you, and I’m happy to take a couple of questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Matt Lee, AP. But there’s a mike.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Hey, Matt.
QUESTION: Hey. I wanted to ask about UNGA and the events around here, but everything has been catapulted into another topic down in Washington, so —
SECRETARY POMPEO: Only because you’ve chosen to catapult it there.
QUESTION: Well, the President’s lawyer, Mr. Giuliani, has said that the State Department instructed him to get involved with Ukraine, to reach out to President Zelensky and his aides. Is that correct? And if so, what exactly was he told to do by the State Department, by whom? And just more broadly, the whistleblower complaint does not appear to suggest any allegation of impropriety from people in the State Department. Is that correct? Are you confident that none of your staff – that you or none or your staff did anything improper in this whole situation? Thank you.
SECRETARY POMPEO: So Matt, I haven’t had a chance to actually read the whistleblower complaint yet. I read the first couple of paragraphs and then got busy today. But I’ll ultimately get a chance to see it. If I understand it right, it’s from someone who had secondhand knowledge.
But here’s what I’ll say this morning about the engagement of the State Department. To the best of my knowledge, so from what I’ve seen so far, each of the actions that were undertaken by State Department officials was entirely appropriate and consistent with the objective that we’ve had certainly since this new government has come into office. We have tried to use this opportunity to create a better relationship between the United States and Ukraine, to build on the opportunities, to tighten our relationship, to help end corruption in Ukraine. This was what President Zelensky ran on. We’re hopeful that we can help him execute and achieve that. It’d be a good thing for the Ukraine; it’d be a good thing for Europe. It would push back against Russia in important ways as well if we could achieve that objective. And the State Department has been working tirelessly to try and achieve that objective. And a long way to go, a lot of work yet to do, but everything I’ve seen that our team has tried to do has been aimed squarely at that foreign policy goal.
MS ORTAGUS: Shaun Tandon, AFP.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit more on the announcement you just made on Syria. You mentioned the chemical weapons use. How does the U.S. know about this? In the past, of course, the President has retaliated over the use of chemical weapons. What actions do you intend to do in regard to this?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So I don’t want to get out in front of the responses that we will take. The work that’s been done has taken us a little bit of time to collect the data sufficient that we had the confidence to make the statement that we just made. We are – we’re always careful to make sure we get the data right before we announce conclusions about that. We’re now very confident that the intelligence community and all the data that we’ve seen support the conclusion that we just reached there.
As for our policy responses, you’ve begun to see them take shape. I talked about them a little bit here. This is different in some sense, in that it was chlorine, so it’s a bit of a different situation. But know that President Trump has been pretty vigorous in protecting the world from the use of chemical weapons. Previous administrations haven’t been prepared to do that, and the Syrian regime should know and the world should appreciate the fact that we’re going to do everything we can reasonably do to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, which starts with identifying both what took place and who should properly be held accountable for that.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Ben Marks.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, sir. Hi.
QUESTION: Good morning, Mr. Secretary. Ben Marks with NHK. On North Korea, the North Koreans said that they had intentions to meet with the U.S. some time this month, yet the foreign minister did not come to UNGA this year. I’d just like to get your reaction on that. And are there any concrete planned meetings in the near future between the U.S. and North Korea?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So we’ve seen these public statements that indicated that we were hopeful there’d be meetings – working-level meetings – by the end of this month, by the end of September. We have not been able to make those happen, and we don’t have a date yet when we’ll be able to get together.
I – the North Koreans know, and I’m happy to affirm here again this afternoon, we’re ready. Our team’s prepared to meet with them. We think it’s important that we do so. We believe there are opportunities to engage in conversations that are important and can advance the objectives that were set out in Singapore now a year and a half ago. And I – we hope the phone rings and that we get that call and we get that chance to find a place and a time that work for the North Koreans and that we can deliver on the commitments that Chairman Kim and President Trump made. But I don’t have that in hand yet. I hope that before too long I can announce that we do and the team, Special Representative Biegun and the team, can get after it. I think it would be good for North Korea, for the United States, for South Korea, Japan, for China, all the neighboring nations, as well as the entire world.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thank you, sir.
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’m happy to take one more. Yeah, one more.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, ma’am.
QUESTION: Humeyra from Reuters. Hello, sir.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, ma’am.
QUESTION: U.S. has just deported an Iranian woman from Australia. Has there been – and this was a lady who was mentioned by Javad Zarif in a potential prisoner swap with some of the Western hostages. Has there been any progress made on this issue during this week, and do you – would you expect the Princeton students to be released by Iran in the coming days after this? Thank you very much.
SECRETARY POMPEO: So I never talk about sensitive issues as you described there. We – the progress I was referring to this week is the reality of what has taken place, an act of war, a state-on-state aggression, that the Iranians engaged in by taking down some 5 percent-plus of the world’s energy supply in a single, sophisticated attack against Aramco. I think that – I think for a lot of nations around the world – not just nations in the Middle East, but European countries, African countries, countries throughout Asia – I think being here this week and what we’re able to share with them from the information that America possesses we were able to share with them, I think now it has struck them how clear it is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is not prepared – is not prepared to do the right thing and behave like a normal nation.
They took an act clearly, highly attributable. They had to know that the world would determine that it was them that conducted this strike. They didn’t use their usual method of trying to obscure this through use of a proxy force. They had to know it was the case that the world would rally against them, and yet they still chose to do it. We spent time – here this week, we spent time nearly every day working to release the Americans and others who were detained wrongfully inside of Iran. We will continue to do that, and I hope and pray that we make progress on that as we continue to move forward.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you all very much. Have a great trip back to Washington.