Office of the Spokesperson
Press Correspondents Room
November 6, 2019
MODERATOR: Rules, the usual. On background, attribution as a senior State Department official. [Senior State Department Official] will talk for a few minutes and then will take questions in an orderly fashion, please.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I’ll be heading off to – we’re doing two things on the Syria account in particular this week. One is we’re going to be meeting with the Turks in Ankara to talk to them about the implementation of the October 17th joint statement, our overall policies in Syria, and how we can better coordinate them with Turkey, because in many respects, Turkey is a natural ally of ours on the larger Syria issues of the Assad regime, of refugees, of chemical weapons, of the presence of the Iranians and such. The issues that we’ve had, as you all know as well as I, have been in the northeast.
And then also maintaining very close contacts with the Russians, both because from a military standpoint, there’s military de-confliction going on all of the time in the northeast right now, and there’s a political side to that as well. We still think that while most of the action has been the Turkish incursion into northeast Syria and everything we have done in response to that, at the same time, you’ve had the constitutional committee launch in Geneva at the end of last month, which is a victory for, we think, our and the international community’s pressure strategy against the Assad regime, and indirectly against its main sponsor, Russia, and that’s why we did get this launch.
Where the launch will go and how big of a role it will have in the political future of Syria is yet to be determined. Clearly, the Assad regime would like to see it have its minimal effect. We would like to see it have a maximal effect, and that’s where the tension line lies with us and the Russians. The Russians are somewhere in between. Without the Russians, we wouldn’t have gotten this constitutional committee, but to what extent they simply need a Potemkin village to prop up their main ally, Assad, and to what extent they realize that they are inheriting ownership of, to use Colin Powell’s phrase, a pottery barn – that is, basically just rubble in a graveyard – that’s another thing, and we’re trying to make that point clear to them that it’s going to stay part of rubble in a graveyard until the international community sees some kind of movement towards our list of issues and answers and policies, and you all know them.
I’ll stop there.
QUESTION: Can I – just logistically before asking about Russia, you’re going to be meeting the Turks in Ankara. That’s you and who else and when?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’ll be an interagency delegation led by me and the ambassador, Ambassador Satterfield.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: When is that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The end of this week.
QUESTION: Okay. So then —
QUESTION: Are you still expecting President Erdogan to come next week?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not, fortunately, doing the Turkey account, but I know of no reason to think that he won’t.
QUESTION: And then more broadly, just on the whole Geneva thing —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: — I’m old enough to remember the very first —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Wait, is this a broader logistical question —
QUESTION: No, this is – no, no, no.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: — or are you now slipping a real question in?
QUESTION: This is a real question.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: After hers, it’s a real question.
QUESTION: Old enough to remember the first Geneva-Syria conference.
QUESTION: Yes, we were there.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Back in 2011 or ’12 – ’12.
QUESTION: Oh, yes, and then why do you – and then the subsequent ones that were all failures at various five-star hotels throughout Switzerland. They were the real winners, the hotels. Why do you think – why do you —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. I know where you’re heading. Okay, I know where —
QUESTION: Why do you think this one is going to be any different than the previous ones?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. I know you – where you were heading. First of all, the regime indirectly and the Russians more directly, because they were involved in this, saw the regime on the losing end and felt that the minimum they could do to drive wedges among the international community, much of whom was supporting an overthrow Assad strategy back in 2012, ’13, ’14 – to use that, it was an act of desperation, but they really didn’t mean it. The Russians don’t quite think that Assad has won, but they feel comfortable that Assad will survive.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And what they’re trying to do is figure out what happens next. The fact that they have played a fairly large role in ensuring that this constitutional committee would be set up indicates that they know that they cannot simply embrace Assad’s never say yes, never budge, simply they shall not pass policies. It’s not going to get half the population that’s fled their homes back; it’s not going to get the international community to open up its coffers; it’s not going to get the fighting in the end to stop. So therefore – and not going to get all of the armies that are now swirling around inside Syria to go home. So therefore, they’re willing to do this.
The other thing is those things were general international, but they were informal. This is a specific UN Security Council-mandated – not quite mandated, but quasi-mandated initiative that is being overseen by the United Nations, specifically Geir Pedersen. So in that regard, we take it more seriously.
MODERATOR: Who was next? Michael.
QUESTION: Just quickly, two things: Have the Turks been keeping their end of the bargain in the area in which you established your ceasefire, militarily? And —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Vice President established a ceasefire.
QUESTION: That the Vice – well, the administration established, the Vice President established. And if the Turks were to engage in military action east or west of this specific area against the Kurds, would you consider that a violation of your understandings with them such that it would lead to reimposition of sanctions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, about – all right, let me parse it. That’s almost a Lara-level set of six questions masquerading as one, but it’s all on one subject at least, so I think I can parse my way through it.
One, it’s not violations because this isn’t an agreement, let alone a treaty. So we would say a breach of the agreement – not agreement – breach of the understanding, or we would use other language than violation. But that’s just a technical point. Michael.
There is no map of coordinates. The language used in the October 17th is Turkish-controlled area. As you, who have been on many a battlefield, as most of the rest of you know, that’s always a quasi-murky term. The Turks are generally holding to the no movement, which is what they basically agreed to, outside of the perimeters.
Now, in that area, which is roughly from Tal – as you’re looking at the map, Tal Abyad on the border in the west down to the road M4, 32 kilometers roughly, and then somewhat east of Ras al-Ayn to the east down to the road – inside that box we have these areas where the Turks were on the 17th, and then areas that they weren’t then and, frankly, aren’t now. But the YPG knew that they had to pull out of all of that area, and they have pulled out of all of that area. They may have some – there was an IED in Tal Abyad. They maybe have some essentially unconventional forces in there, or it could be Daesh. We don’t know. We’re still looking into that incident that killed about a good number of people.
The main issue of contention right now is an area to the east of Ras al-Ayn. Again, as you’re looking at the map, and I should have brought one – I chewed out my staff for not having a map in my last meeting, and where is my staff?
QUESTION: There’s one here.
STAFF: Here behind you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All right. Okay. (Laughter.) That’s good. Where’s the map?
STAFF: I don’t have one.
QUESTION: Right there.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All right. So here’s the road, by and large. That’s Manbij here. Essentially here in this area, the Turks had presence on the 17th, but whether it’s controlled or not is being disputed, and whether that is an area covered by the Russians or not. Because the Russians also didn’t use a map or coordinates. The Russian agreement in paragraph three says other than in the Peace Spring area – and the Peace Spring area is where – what we negotiated with the Turks – you will have this other regime of the Russians and the Syrian Government and the Turks doing the patrols down for 10 kilometers.
So we’re seeing some shelling and shooting in that area. We’re concerned about it. We’re looking into it. We’ve ascertained that there are both Turkish forces and YPG in there. It’s hard to say, depending upon the specific area, who was there on or about the 17th when the fighting stopped. It’s not a major offensive. It doesn’t involve Turkish army forces themselves. It’s basically these Turkish-supported Syrian Arab militias that are in there. And we were very concerned because they were seemingly heading towards the city of Tell Tamer, which is a relatively large Christian area, which everybody acknowledges is outside of wherever the area is. The Turks weren’t there on the 17th of October. The Turks have assured us repeatedly at high levels, and they have gone public, that they’re not trying to take Tell Tamer. We have raised this with them at very high levels again, and they’ve also given us assurances.
So that was the thing we were most concerned about. We’re still watching this closely. And again, having been through a lot of ceasefires, you get a lot of murkiness on where the edges are. We’re still on a where-the-edges-are question as opposed to any major Turkish offensive that would clearly mark a, quote, “violation” of the understandings.
QUESTION: What was that town? (Inaudible.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: (Inaudible.). It’s on M4. A largely Syrian Christian community.
MODERATOR: Sorry, Humeyra was next.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. So in the northeast pocket, if you’re protecting the oil fields —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What do you mean by pocket? Where did that word come from? We ever use “pocket?” I don’t think so.
QUESTION: Well, okay, northeastern Syria, towards the very furthest northeast, there are some oil fields that are pretty close to Turkish border. So if U.S. is protecting the oil fields, are you not going to run into Russian and Syrian Government or Turkish patrols there? And the second one is: Turkey says that they’ve caught Baghdadi’s wife, sister, members of family. Does the U.S. have any visibility into who these people are? Can you confirm these are genuine family members?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We can’t confirm anything on the latter. On the former, first of all, the mission of “protect” is probably too much of a layman’s term. The U.S. military has – and you should ask DOD what the specific language is, I’ve seen various variants of it – but it is basically to secure an area, and that area is to serve as a base for our continued D-ISIS operations, which is a legal basis for our military to be there in northeast Syria in the first place with our local SDF allies. Our local SDF allies are reliant upon the oil fields. We also have had – ever since we went in there, and in fact even before we were in most of that Syria, we were doing it from the air – the mission of denying the oil revenues to Daesh, because this was a major source of Daesh money.
So that’s always been a mission of ours; it continues to be a mission.
QUESTION: And the regime? Denying the regime also revenues ultimately?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would focus on Daesh.
MODERATOR: All right, Carol.
QUESTION: Do you have any updates on the number of foreign fighters who have been – who escaped and have been recaptured? And do you have any indication that the Turkish Government is moving refugees into Syria? And one other thing, just quickly: The Congress is still upset about CAATSA and the F-400s. Is that something that’s going to be discussed when Erdogan comes to talk to the White House, or what’s going on with that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes to the third. You wanted to know about refugees; we’ve seen no refugees moving in. And I thought I had remembered all three, but I’ve now forgotten the first one, which is —
MODERATOR: Terrorists escaped and —
QUESTION: Yeah, they escaped —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: — terrorist escapes, yeah. Yeah. Look, at one point Secretary Esper – I said dozens, then Secretary Esper said somewhat over a hundred, so I started staying somewhat over a hundred. Then the Turks said that they captured two hundred and something. This is all murky numbers. What we know is that roughly 99 percent of all of the detainees of the 10,000 are still being secured and guarded and haven’t broken out or anything else. And we’re quite confident that that’s going to remain that way. There are no detention centers with detainees in them in the Turkish area, so we don’t have that problem, although we have assurances from the Turks that that there’s just nothing for them to guard. There are some detention areas in the area that the regime and the Russians are supposed to exercise control over, but the SDF is committed to – as long as they’re allowed to – securing those as well.
And how many people actually escaped? How many of those – for example, the famous or rather foreign terrorist fighters who escaped in Ayn Issa turned out to be all internally displaced people, largely family members of fighters, but they weren’t fighters per se. And how many of them have escaped, have wandered away, we just don’t know because we don’t have eyes on it. It’s a very active and very confused battle space.
MODERATOR: Jennifer and then Lara.
QUESTION: Have you seen any additional instances of war crimes or ethnic cleansing at all in the safe zone and surrounding the safe zone?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Nothing as dramatic as those we got the first couple of days with – we were chasing down reports of ambulances being hit and that kind of thing, and trying to figure out is this something that might be deliberate, or there’s also reports that somebody was killed who was clearly a medical, but the person was killed by mortar fire. And of course, mortar fire is famous for you don’t see the target you’re shooting at, you’re just firing at a coordinate.
QUESTION: And then to follow up on that, what specifically do you plan to tell officials in Ankara about accountability for these crimes, even if they are committed by the TSO?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We raised them with them immediately as soon as we saw the first reports. They have come back to us through diplomatic channels to tell us they will look into every one of them. They are at pains to do this. CNN had the national security advisor to Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, on for I think about 20 minutes basically arguing against the things [Senior State Department Official] had said in…testimony.
So they’re very, very sensitive to this. We know from our contacts with the Turkish military that they’re taking this very seriously. The problem is that the people doing the fighting are these ill-disciplined Arab militias, some of whom we’ve worked with in the past when we were arming the opposition, but many of whom are (a) ill-disciplined, and (b) relatively radical, and their ideology is essentially Islamic ideology.
QUESTION: So that’s my follow-up: Who, if anybody, can hold these militias accountable at this point?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: By all of the rules of – as we understand international affairs, if you have a force that you support, supply, provide air support for, and essentially, effectively command and control, and that is the situation of the Government of Turkey over these Turkish-supported organizations, then you bear at least part of the responsibility.
QUESTION: Can I do a quick follow-up? Given that the United States had at one point supplied, supported, and armed some of these militias, could the United States not also be liable to some extent?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I don’t think so because we didn’t greenlight – you all heard me a thousand times now – we didn’t greenlight or in any way welcome our ask for them or want them to come into the northeast. This was a decision taken by the Government of Turkey. So the fact that we had a relationship with them years ago – eh.
QUESTION: I have a couple of questions.
QUESTION: How do you transcribe “eh?”
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Eh. I was very clear with my “eh.” (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Right here, and then Nick. And then you.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], has the U.S. thought to ask oil companies to go to northeast Syria to fix the oil fields there?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The oil is being worked by the local authorities for the benefit of the local communities. We have no guidance here in the Department of State from the administration to do anything with the oil fields.
QUESTION: Two more. One: A news report said just last week that the U.S. patrols were on the border with Turkey. Were they accurate? Are they still – do you still have troops on the border with Turkey?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would ask the Department of Defense. I would just note on background that some of these oil fields are very close to the Turkish border, and that there is a mission to generally secure the area of others coming in and seizing control of those fields. So —
QUESTION: And lastly, the constitution committee, how do you assess it’s worked so far?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So far it’s just stood up. We are concerned about efforts by the regime to minimize the interactions between the pro-regime elements and the other hundred people in this committee. We don’t think the regime has its heart in transforming its government and state. Not surprisingly, we don’t think they have their heart in it, but we have every intention of putting pressure on the international community and on the regime’s friends to see that that happens.
MODERATOR: All right, Nick.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], just a question, a follow-up on strategy. You talked – you said that the mission to protect is a layman’s term. You said it – mostly secure the area so that that’s a base for continued D-ISIS operations.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right.
QUESTION: You’ve talked about that, of course, evicting Iran from Syria, the political solution, the same three —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. And as I said, I’m doing this, Nick, on background because technically DOD should do this, but I think I’m giving you an accurate appraisal for understanding our political actions and such of where the U.S. military is.
QUESTION: Right. So I’m not asking a military question – a strategy question and the goals. Those goals, that strategy sounds exactly like it used to be. So from your perspective has anything changed in U.S. policy in Syria since the President ordered the withdrawal?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No.
QUESTION: Do you care to elaborate?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Boy, now that I said that, I’m now thinking: Was that a smart thing to say? (Laughter.) I think I’m going to stay with no. Okay? Our three goals remain. Our goals in the northeast remain for the military. One of those three broader goals, the enduring defeat of ISIS – the conditions have changed. I will certainly sign up to that. But our goals have not changed and most – and our means are basically the same. So the goals and means are the same. The conditions have changed. How’s that?
QUESTION: And the President is aware of that?
MODERATOR: You can ask the President. Next question.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s – no, I’ll handle – I’ll handle that. I have seldom seen an issue since I’ve taken this job that doesn’t get more airings at every — I underline “every” – level of the U.S. Government than Syria and our troops in D-ISIS. It’s right for our political system, our media, the American public, the Congress to question the results. That’s what democracy is all about. But in terms of, “Gee, why don’t they start paying attention to Syria?” that’s not been a problem for me as the guy who is on the receiving end of the zillion manifestations of this high interest, okay?
MODERATOR: One short question here and then Shaun.
QUESTION: Yeah, very short question. Sorry, we’re a little bit confused on the – your perception of the committee. What is ideally the outcome for you? Because the president of Syria was on a lengthy comprehensive interview last week, and he – clear on who should be accepted, what role they should have. He classified some traitors, some not traitors, and so on. So what is ideally – what would you like? And I know that the UN guys failed to answer this question in the past. We’ll see what happens now.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, that’s fair, but look, what you have is you have essentially three groups in there, each 50 strong: a group selected by the government who are obviously instructed delegates who represent Assad’s and the state’s – current state’s version of what should be the outcome of this whole political process that only begins with reforming or revising or replacing the constitution. It then goes to elections and various other things. Then you have the opposition, who has 50 members, and then you have civil society, essentially neutrals selected by the United Nations ultimately, but with an effort to try to get balance between the two sides. So you have roughly two and a half sides there. And obviously, the opposition, if you listen to them, and you should, give all kinds of statements about what they want, and they’re diametrically opposed because that’s how negotiations work.
Everybody goes in with – that’s why you have negotiations, to have two irreconcilable sides sit down and, under the pressure of the spotlight of international interest and concern, the pressures that this messy situation creates on everybody, to try to see if we can find a solution, which would be specifically a new or revised constitution, but more generally the beginning of a political process that would end the problem that has gotten the international community totally frustrated, terrorized, and worried about Syria since 2011, which is an internal conflict that has spread in so many different ways, from chemical weapons to humanitarian disasters to refugees to birth of major terrorist organizations like Daesh and HTS, to bring in the international community. So we’re trying to fix this thing, and the proximate solution is this constitutional committee.
MODERATOR: Okay, last question – sorry – is Shaun.
QUESTION: Sure. Can I just follow up – you said at the beginning that the – about the YPG withdrawal. President Erdogan, I believe it was yesterday, said that he doesn’t agree with that assessment, that he believes that there’s still YPG fighters within the safe zone. How confident is the U.S that there’s —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, first of all, the safe zone is his term, and so we have to go back and figure out which of the two safe zones. Basically, assuming there’s no no-man’s or no-woman’s land out there – and I don’t think so because the way we drafted it and the Russians drafted it, everything’s covered either by the Sochi agreement or our agreement. The YPG and all armed forces have certainly withdrawn from the vast majority of our area.
As I said, there is an area that is somewhat in dispute as to whether it is in the area covered by our understanding or by the Sochi understanding to the southeast of Ras al-Ayn, hitting towards but not to Tell Tamer on that road. And that’s where there’s been some fighting and such. Now, so he may be talking about that and referring to our agreement that we didn’t get the YPG out of there. Our answer is: The Turks were not controlling that area before, although as I said, they had some kind of spotty presence there. And so it’s kind of a debate but it is not a major battle, it’s not a major movement, so we’re watching it more than blaming either side.
In terms of the areas where the Russians have assumed responsibility under the Sochi agreement for ensuring that the YPG leaves, they have said the YPG has left. Interestingly, that agreement was only for the YPG. Our was only for the YPG, but the SDF leadership, of which the YPG is one element, pulled everybody out who was basically possessing a weapon. They didn’t distinguish between YPG and local security and local police and such.
Our understanding is that the agreement in the Russian areas involves the YPG. Again, Russia has stated a week ago at the end of the 150-day – 150-hour pause period that they had all left. The YPG or the SDF has announced that they’d left. I wouldn’t be surprised if Erdogan has a point that there are still some elements there. There are certainly still some elements up in the oil fields, but I don’t know who is guarding them specifically, whether those are YPG, other SDF, local Asayish, which are Kurdish police. I just know that there are local people there and Erdogan is never all that specific in his broadside attacks on us or anybody else.
QUESTION: Can I just ask one question about ISIS, because they claimed a new leader. Do we know anything about him?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Almost nothing, and that has become a major issue in, if you will, the ISIS social media world. This guy is – appears to be a nobody. Nobody knows his background. We think we know a bit about him, but not enough for me to even tell you on background, but what little we know about him, we’re not impressed. And the other thing is if he’s in Iraq or Syria, we don’t think he’s too long for the world anyway.
QUESTION: Was he ever held in U.S. detention?
MODERATOR: All right, thank you. Sorry, he’s got a hard stop, so we’ve got to get him out of here.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Pardon?
QUESTION: Was he ever held in U.S. detention?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That is a good question, but I can’t answer it.
QUESTION: Do you have anything on the ISIS attack in Tajikstan today?
QUESTION: Because you don’t know or because —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No.
QUESTION: And no – do you have any indication on the new video may be released today by ISIS?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The who?
QUESTION: By – Islamic State may release another video today. Do you have any indication —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Nothing on that.
MODERATOR: We’re not part of their public affairs program.