U.S Department of state
Office of the Spokesperson
November 12, 2019
MODERATOR: Hey, good afternoon everybody, and thanks for joining us for the call today. We want to take a few minutes to preview the upcoming D-ISIS ministerial that we’ll host later this week. We’ll also delve into the Syria Small Group meetings the Secretary is hosting here in Washington.
Today’s discussion will be led by [Senior State Department Official]. Before we begin, a brief reminder that today’s call is on background and embargoed until the call ends.
Our senior State Department official will now open with brief remarks, and then we’ll take a few questions. [Senior State Department Official].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hello, everybody. Hello, everybody. Thanks for being on the line; sorry to keep you waiting.
What we’re going to be doing Thursday is essentially recalibrating two important and related initiatives where the United States is in the lead. One is the overall situation in what we call the core, Iraq and Syria, for the campaign for the enduring defeat of ISIS, along with the coalition of 81 members. We’re assembling some 35-plus member-states and organizations, the key ones who are involved in operations in Syria and Iraq or otherwise supporting the effort through funding and civilian operations, to meet with us and to go over developments over the past month, including the Turkish incursion into northeast Syria; Russian and Syrian regime intervention into that area; status of our partner, the SDF, in the fight against ISIS; and next-ups and where we’re going, including the American presence and the kind of asks we have from the coalition.
The Secretary will lead that off. Meanwhile, just before that meeting, we’ll have a brief meeting of what we call the Small Group of Syria; that is, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, Britain – the UK – France, Britain, Germany, and the United States. There we’re going to look at the situation concerning the overall political and military and security situation in Syria, particularly with the launch of the Constitutional Committee at the end of October in Geneva, just a few weeks ago, which is a major step forward; but also the situation in the northeast, how that affects the various related goals for a stable and secure Syria, which involves the defeat of terrorism, beginning with ISIS, Iranian forces out, and a political process that gives us a Syria that isn’t a threat to its own public or to the neighborhood.
In terms of the campaign to defeat ISIS, of course, we are very happy with the decision that the President took to continue our D-ISIS military mission on the ground in northeast Syria, and the members of the coalition are universally supportive of that decision. We’ll hear more about that on Thursday. Secondly, we will talk about D-ISIS operations in some detail on side conversations, including what’s going to happen in the core area after the death of al-Baghdadi and the ISIS spokesperson a few weeks ago.
So all in all, we believe that we have good news to present to the coalition. We believe that the coalition will be supportive and will be ready to go forward on what is a very, very important part of our overall Middle East national security policy.
So I’ll stop there.
MODERATOR: Thanks. Moderator, if you could queue up questions, we have time for quite a few.
OPERATOR: Absolutely. So once again, ladies and gentlemen, it is 1 followed by 0 at this time. If you are using a speakerphone here this afternoon, it may be helpful to lift the handset before pressing those keys. Once again, to queue up immediately, it is a 1 followed by 0. And it may be just a brief moment before our first questioner is in queue.
Our first question comes from the line of Lara Jakes of New York Times. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hey, thank you. Hi, thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask you a little bit about the issue of the ISIS detainees, what kind of deliverables you hope to get out of this meeting and what progress is being made to transfer not just Iraqi detainees but all foreign fighters back to their countries of origin. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, Lara. The Iraqi detainees are important because there are literally thousands of them. There are more Iraqi detainees alone right now probably than there are third-country foreign fighters; the rest are Syrian. And we’ll work closely with the Iraqis. I’ll be out there next week to pitch that.
In terms of foreign fighters returning to other countries, it’s slow progress. We do this country by country; it requires a lot of background on the legal situation in the country, logistics of coordinating to get the people out. We’ve had some success with Middle Eastern countries. We’ve had some success with Central Asian countries. We’ve seen people being taken back in Europe only by, I believe, Bosnia, Kosovo, and one person taken back by Italy. Given that there are hundreds of people being held from Europe, Western Europe and Central Europe, we are very troubled by this and it’s a major issue of diplomatic discussion.
We’ve also been talking with the Russians. There are a large number of detainees and family members from Russia. The Russians have shown some interest in getting these people back, but that’s still in an early stage, Lara.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Humeyra Pamuk of Reuters. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hello, thank you very much for doing this. I wanted to ask you about how you plan to overcome Turkey’s position that U.S. would not work with SDF, and that is even before – that is even after SDF has pulled out from that area. If you’ve seen Erdogan’s spokesman’s comments, they basically want the U.S. to stop partnering with SDF, and I know that obviously he’s visiting the White House tomorrow, but how do you plan to overcome this and continue your operations? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: One, the President has directed us to continue D-ISIS operations on the ground in northeast Syria. That includes specifically continuing our partnership with local forces, including, in particular, the SDF. Now, that’s the first point.
And then secondly, if we do not have a local partner, we cannot operate in northeast Syria against ISIS. We’ve made that very clear to coalition partners and others. The military force – I can’t get into the numbers, although you’ve heard some numbers passed about by Pentagon officials in the last few days. With the numbers that we have, we need a local partner for all kinds of things, including our own security and to actually carry out much of the operations against ISIS. So it’s that simple and we’ve made that very clear. I have made that very clear to Turkey in my meetings last week in Ankara.
OPERATOR: And our next question here in queue comes from the line of Deb Riechmann of Associated Press. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, I would like to ask about the human rights violations that are alleged against the Turkish forces during the incursion. Can you give us an update about that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. We are following this up and we’ve seen over time – particularly in the first few days, we saw a series of actions, particularly by the, what we call Turkish-supported opposition or the Syrian National Army, which are Syrian opposition forces fighting against the Assad regime who are supported and supplied and commanded to some degree by Turkey and who were used in the incursion into northeast Syria.
One involved the shooting up of a vehicle where there was a Kurdish politician, Hevrin Khalaf, on October 12th. There was another incident that involved an individual who was filmed by members of one of these TSOs being executed as the individual was on the ground with his hands tied behind him. We’ve seen several other issues and incidents. There was one report of a chemical weapon, specifically white phosphorous, being used, several examples of people – medical units and such – being hit by shellfire and such.
We’ve looked into these. The number is not large. It has not been growing in terms of what our objective reporting has given us on them, but we are asking the Turks to chase them down. What the Turks told us is that they do take them seriously. They have passed many of them that, if they involve the Syrian National Army, to the Syrian National Army’s deputy defense minister, who is operating, I think, in Ras al-Ayn, and they have set up a commission.
Now, we don’t know these people particularly well. We don’t know how well they’re going to do. As far as we’re concerned, our interlocutor on these things is Turkey because Turkey has been supporting these people and Turkey took the initiative to go across the border.
OPERATOR: And the next question comes from the line of Carol Morello of Washington Post. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I’d like to follow up a little bit on Lara’s question. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the background about this ruling in a Dutch court that it’s up to the Netherlands to fly back the children and I guess wives, family members of ISIS fighters? They’re saying it’s too dangerous and there’s a U.S. offer out there. The court says that the Dutch should take the United States up on its offer, and the ambassador says the offer is still on the table to, I guess, help fly them out of the country so they can be repatriated.
Could you tell us something about this offer and if it’s only for European countries or if you’re also offering to help other countries repatriate their own citizens? And would these be military flights? Just any kind of background you can give us on what kind of offers the U.S. is making.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. We have used military flights. It’s a case-by-case thing depending upon the country, what the country comes to us with. The country has to provide assurances in terms of how people are going to be treated – if it were, for example, detainees, how they would be dealt with in the legal system. It is not a blanket offer, but we have done it with a number of countries. I can’t give you more details on the situation with the Dutch because that’s in diplomatic channels, but again, we have done this in a number of cases.
The U.S. Government position is to be as forward leaning as possible to get these people back to their home countries, either to be taken care of or to be put before justice. It is an – it is not a particularly secure situation, as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, in northeast Syria. And it is a ticking time bomb to simply have the better part of 10,000 detainees, many of them foreign fighters, and tens of thousands of family members in a situation that is not all that secure.
Now having said that, we are very, very confident of the ability of the SDF to secure all of the detention facilities that they’re holding people in, which is all of them essentially, and to manage the whole internally displaced persons camp. But again, we don’t want to put any of this under any risk for all kinds of humanitarian, counterterrorism, and other reasons.
OPERATOR: And next in queue we’ll go to the line of Abigail Williams of NBC News. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. To follow up on my colleague’s earlier question, I just wanted to ask about the upcoming Erdogan visit, which comes as the ministers are meeting this week. What do you say to critics who are arguing that Erdogan should not be rewarded with a White House visit, given that Turkey’s incursion in northeast Syria was detrimental to the fight against ISIS and involved attacks on civilians the U.S. is saying are war crimes?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Our presidential visits are serious matters. The White House should give you more information on that. The basic issues that we have to talk with Turkey about – including the overall situation in Syria, where Turkey is a close partner of ours, the situation in the northeast, where we have our forces in close proximity to Turkish forces, and various other issues in the bilateral relationship – require highest level conversation and consultation. And in this particular case, the two presidents decided it would be best to do this one on one. Don’t look at these things as rewards; they’re the execution of diplomacy.
OPERATOR: And next in queue we have the line of Francesco Fontemaggi of AFP. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Thanks, [Senior State Department Official], for doing this. I know some of European allies – and mainly the French, who have been asking for this meeting – are expecting from the U.S. that it states clearly that its forces in northeast Syria are not there only for oil and that there are enough forces, the right kind of forces, to do counterterrorism and in a significant enough portion of northeast Syria to be able to go on with the fight against ISIS. Are you ready to give them those clear answers?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We will do that tomorrow, but we have already done it. I have done it with my European colleagues, including the French. Let me go on the record on this: U.S. forces in northeast Syria are there under an authorization to fight terrorism, specifically to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. That is our overall mission.
There are certain secondary missions that flow from that, such as working with our local partner, the SDF, securing the oil fields to ensure that ISIS or no other potentially hostile force obtains them, and then there are various other missions from time to time. You’ll remember a few months ago we were doing joint patrols with the Turks. That was an associated mission of our Defeat ISIS, because we were ensuring that we kept the entire situation as calm as we could so that we and our partners in the SDF could focus on the fight against ISIS, mainly along the Euphrates.
But this comes up all the time in military missions. You get these associated and secondary missions. Again, the Pentagon can talk about this in more detail, but we’ve all been out on the record with this with our – through diplomatic as well as military channels.
OPERATOR: And next up we have the line of Jennifer Hansler of CNN. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much for doing the call. I was wondering if you could give us a bit of an update on the status of the U.S. citizen ISIS fighter, who Turkey says they are deporting. Where is this fighter? Are they back in the U.S.? There’s been some reports that they’re kind of in a no-man’s land between Greece and Turkey. Can you confirm or deny those reports?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can’t give you any more information because the necessary prerequisites for us to legally talk about an American citizen are not present at this time.
OPERATOR: And our next question is from the line of Michel Ghandour of Al Hurra TV. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you for doing this. So [Senior State Department Official], in the past you asked countries in the coalition to send troops to northeast Syria. Is this demand still on the table? You will discuss it tomorrow with – or Thursday with the minister? And what outcomes should we expect from this ministerial?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. First of all, it was never a demand. It was a request, and it was part of a larger request. We have about the better part of 30 countries, most of them who will be here this week, supporting us in one or another way – in Iraq, for example – with either troops on the ground or aircraft, as well as civilian support people to do assistance in humanitarian aid. And aside from military commitments, most of these countries make one or another kind of stabilization or humanitarian economic assistance.
We have a number of countries that have been working with us similarly in different ways in northeast Syria. In some cases, we don’t identify who those countries are. We still have a need for these countries and their contributions, military and non-military, financial as well as in terms of hardware operations in the Syria-Iraq theater. And our combined joint task force, OIR, which is responsible for the coalition’s overall operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, is in touch with the rest of the coalition on what the specifics could be.
OPERATOR: And next question in queue is from the line of Glen Carey of Bloomberg. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for holding this. What do you plan to do with the oil from the fields – oil fields around Deir ez-Zor? Is this going to go to the Syrian defense – Democratic Forces, and when do they – when will they start receiving funds?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The oil is – has been, for the last four years, managed by our partner, the civilian side of our partner operation, the SDC. And it has various names that it’s gone through, the autonomous administration, and now it has another one, (inaudible). And those people have been managing the oil flow. They’ve been marketing it in various directions. And we have every expectation they will be continuing to do that without any interference from us.
Our role is one of ensuring that they’re not bothered by anybody in continuing to do what they’ve been doing for the last four years. And our making sure that they’re not bothered by anybody in doing that is simply the continuation of a mission that we’ve been doing for years.
OPERATOR: And our last question in queue will be James Reinl of Al Jazeera. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks so much for the briefing. What can you tell us about Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi and his efforts to keep the Islamic State group relevant following the death of al-Baghdadi?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He has not come up very much on the net since being named the new leader. We’re watching this closely, but obviously he’s trying to maintain as low a profile as possible, understandably. And we’ll see how successful he is at that compared to his predecessor.
MODERATOR: All right. Maybe if we have one more then we’ll do one last question.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay.
OPERATOR: With no further questions here in queue, we can turn it back to our speakers for any closing remarks.
MODERATOR: [Senior State Department Official], anything you want to end with?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. No. That was fine. Thank you very much. There are a lot of things that are a part of the northeast Syria D-ISIS campaign. The group has touched on most of them. These are the things that we’ll be discussing. But the main thing that we’ll be trying to infuse in all members of the coalition is confidence that we and they together are going to continue the extraordinary success that this coalition has had defeating ISIS and preventing terrorism from spreading throughout the Middle East and beyond. So thank you very much, everybody.
MODERATOR: Thanks, everybody, for joining. Again, this was provided on background. Attribution is a senior State Department official. And now that the call has ended, its contents – the embargo on the contents is lifted. Thank you so much.