January 30, 2020
James F. Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS
Moderator: Hello, I’m Vanessa Acker, Deputy Director of the Brussels Media Hub, and I would like to welcome participants to today’s interactive online press briefing, LiveAtState.
Today we will be speaking with Ambassador James Jeffrey, U.S. Special Representative for Syria – for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Before I turn it over to Ambassador Jeffrey for opening remarks, I’d like to make a few comments about our procedure for asking your questions. You may submit your questions at any time by clicking on the Questions tab and typing in the box that says, “Type your question.” If you see a colleague ask a question that you’d like us to answer, you can up-vote it in the queue by clicking the Like button to the right of that question. And we will try to get to as many questions as possible in the limited time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes. So please show your support for the questions that you’d most like us to cover.
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With that, let’s get started. Ambassador Jeffrey, thank you so much for joining us and I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Thank-you very much for having me on, Vanessa. I’m here in Brussels at the end of a week-long trip to Europe on both the defeat-ISIS account and, in particular, the U.S.-Syria policy file.
On Syria, we met with the Small Group – that is a set of leading European Union and Arab League countries – in London on Tuesday to talk about next steps. And then yesterday, we met with the coalition political directors, sub-cabinet-level officials, in Copenhagen to talk about how we will further carry out our operations to defeat ISIS, and in particular, how we will react to the call by the Iraqi parliament for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
Let me start with Syria. We are all appalled and horrified, as Secretary Pompeo and others in Washington have indicated, by the unrelenting Assad regime assault on Idlib supported by Russia and Iran. This is a violation of the 2254 ceasefire accords and that resolution from 2015 as well as several more recent ceasefires that Russia has agreed to but is now ignoring. It indicates that the regime does not want a compromise solution, but rather a military victory.
Meanwhile, the fight against ISIS, of course, had a signal success back in March with the defeat of the caliphate along the Euphrates in Syria, but we are seeing ISIS come back as an insurgency, as a terrorist operation, with some 14- to 18,000 terrorists between Syria and Iraq and ISIS considers both countries as – as they have always done, as a single front. We are working with both our – the Iraqi Government and the local authorities in Syria to combat this scourge. We had a setback temporarily in Syria back in October with the Turkish incursion, but we’re back doing full operations with our local partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces.
In Iraq, the situation is a little bit different with the turmoil, beginning with the assault on coalition installations by elements supported by Iran, the United States reaction to that, and then finally the decision by the Iraqi parliament calling for a withdrawal of U.S. forces. And we’re working through this with Iraq and with our coalition partners now. There is still a need for a coalition including its lead country, the U.S. There is still a threat from ISIS. Iraqis recognize that, and we’re looking forward to working for ways such as a possible troop reduction – President Trump indicated that may be a way to go just today – as well as a bigger role for NATO, which already has a NATO mission in Iraq and has been looking very assiduously at ways to expand its responsibilities there.
So I’ll stop and we can take questions now.
Moderator: Okay. Thank-you for that, and now we’ll turn to your questions. The first question was actually submitted – a question that was submitted in advance by Wael al-Ali with Radio al-Kul, a Syrian news outlet based in Turkey. They ask, “According to what was reported last week, you were going to discuss with the EU sanctions and other economic procedures to continue the pressure on the Assad regime. What is the outcome of those discussions?” And they also ask, “What are the outcomes of the meetings with the Syria Small Group especially regarding the stalled political solution?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, we haven’t finished our discussions with our EU colleagues, but we are very happy with the EU’s long record of tough sanctions against the Assad regime. We’re happy that the EU has held the line against reconstruction assistance to that regime by either EU states or other countries who otherwise, if they do, would risk EU sanctions. We’re also very, very pleased with the EU’s record of supporting humanitarian assistance. That’s a big difference that we make. Humanitarian assistance, even to regime areas, is important and necessary, but reconstruction assistance to basically rebuild the Syria that Assad has destroyed, that’s a redline for us and it remains a redline for the European Union. So, we’re talking to them about ways to improve the flow of humanitarian assistance. We’re being blocked by Russia in the UN from using certain crossings, but we’re going to find ways around that. We’re also talking with the EU about potential stabilization assistance in the northeast where the region is basically at peace and where our allies are helping us, as I mentioned, fight against Daesh.
In terms of – in the Small Group, in the political process, Geir Pedersen was in the region – Beirut, Damascus – to talk. He is the UN Special Negotiator for 2254, the relevant UN resolution, and he’s particularly focused on the constitutional committee that was inaugurated in Geneva at the end of October but has since been blocked by the Assad regime. Pedersen is working round the clock to try to find a solution to that. We’ll be working with him tomorrow to see where he is and what the next steps are. We support him 100 percent.
Moderator: Thank-you. Our next question comes to us from Ragip Soylu with The Middle East Eye in the UK. They ask, “What are you going to do specifically to stop Russia and the Assad regime attacks in Idlib against civilians? Half a million people have already camped out near the Turkish border. Will you take concrete steps to alleviate this humanitarian crisis?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: We are taking steps and we’ll take further steps. First of all, we ourselves do not contemplate military action unless the Assad regime once again there uses chemical weapons, then all options are on the table and, as everybody knows, we have taken military action twice in response to chemical weapons use by that regime. So that’s one thing.
We’re also very supportive of Turkey’s efforts to shore up its line of outposts. The Turks have a considerable number of troops in Idlib. These are our NATO allies. We want to be sure that nothing happens to them. We’re watching that very closely.
Meanwhile, we are stepping up our sanctions efforts and our international diplomatic coordination to ensure that Russia and Iran, as well as the Assad regime, know that this is absolutely unacceptable. It’s a humanitarian crisis. It’s a devastating attack on civilians so massive that the secretary general has – of the UN has already called for a board of inquiry to look into the deliberate attack on civilians, particularly the deliberate attack on UN-protected areas that were identified to the Russians and the regime but have been hit, we think deliberately, in any case.
So, this is a very terrible situation we’re facing. We’ll do everything we can short of major military operations to try to bring some sense to Moscow, to Tehran, and to Damascus.
Moderator: Thank-you. As a reminder to our listeners, to our viewers, please up-vote those questions that you would like us to answer.
Our next question comes to us from Deger Akal with Deutsche Welle Turkish service. She asks, “President Erdogan reacted to the Syrian Government’s Idlib offensive, accusing Russia of not honoring Syria deals. There are reports that the Turkish military is sending new military reinforcement. Could this tension lead to a military confrontation?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: There is already a military confrontation in Idlib. The Turks, as I said, have a set of outposts. Several have been cut off by regime forces. There’s a risk of further surrounding of Turkish installations. Obviously, President Erdogan is a leader who has been through several conflicts. He’s an experienced leader in terms of dealing with the situation in Syria, but he is our partner and our NATO ally and we stand with him. We have made it clear to him, however, that his efforts to try to work deals with the Russians in the northeast, in the northwest, all the way to President Erdogan – we, including I, have told him you cannot trust Putin, and he’s seeing the results of that right now.
Moderator: Thank-you. We have a few questions from Claire Sadler with Forces News. She asks, “Focus has shifted from military activities to protecting Iraqi bases that host coalition personnel. How prevalent are the attacks on those bases?” And she asks, “Do the foreign troops – do you think the foreign troops will ultimately be forced to leave Iraq? What would be the impact? And then, in relation to Iraq, what impact has the pausing of military activities had on Daesh?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, the good news in Iraq is that the Iraqi military is continuing its counter-Daesh operations and they had a very successful one recently with what we call combined arms, using F-16s, using different kind of forces effectively to take down a set of Daesh units. So, we’re seeing some of that, and that’s encouraging. But nonetheless, there’s a reason that in numbers in excess of 5,000 U.S. troops and thousands more coalition forces are in Iraq – it is to make the Iraqi military more effective in the fight against Daesh. Right now, we’re limited in doing that because our focus is on force protection and we’re very – we’re quite optimistic that the Iraqi Government and we will be able to end this period of force protection and a halt on joint or partnered operations, we call it, and that we’ll be able to get back into the field at 100 percent efficiency.
Meanwhile, attacks on U.S. bases – they’re not U.S. bases, they’re Iraqi bases and we need to remind ourselves of that because Iraqis have been – several of them have been killed, more than coalition soldiers who have been wounded. And we haven’t seen too many attacks on them in the last week, and these have been relatively desultory attacks. Unfortunately, we saw two attacks, one of them injuring an individual, on the American embassy. That has us very concerned in a bilateral context with the Iraqi Government. We are demanding that the Iraqi Government take more action, and we’ll see what happens.
Moderator: Okay, great. Our next question comes to us from Wael with Ittihad Newspaper. They ask, “President Trump declared ISIS 100 percent defeated in Syria. Does this mean the terrorist organization is no longer a threat in this country? And the Pentagon said that the reason U.S. soldiers are staying in Syria is to protect the oil fields from ISIS. So when do you expect the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: We’re not planning any withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria in the near future. Their mission is ultimately the enduring defeat of ISIS, and that, as I’ll get to in a second, in response to the first part of the question, will still take some time. A major part of our efforts to defeat ISIS in Syria is to first of all keep ISIS away from the oil fields that funded their terror for years, and ensure that the local communities who are working with us against ISIS have the wherewithal to continue the fight and to sustain themselves, because they’re not only under pressure from ISIS, they’re under pressure, of course, from the Assad regime.
Now, President Trump was absolutely on target when he said last year that ISIS had been 100 percent defeated as a territorial entity, as a caliphate. That was its claim, that was its mark. It was a caliphate. Unlike al-Qaida, it held territory and had an army of 35,000 troops. It held sway over 7 million people. We have taken that down. However, ISIS as a insurgent or terrorist group is still very, very threatening. In Iraq and Syria, between 14- and 18,000 people. President Trump, when he spoke to the coalition ministers in February of last year, made very clear that he recognizes that particular threat emanating from ISIS is very much present, and he’s on the record saying so.
Moderator: Thank-you. Our next question comes to us from Hungary, klubRadio in Hungary, with Judit Csernayanszky. They ask, “How is your latest strategy going to change the migration crisis in Europe in the near future and in the long run?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: A good question but, frankly, dealing with migration is a extremely important, some would say existential, question here in Europe, but also in the United States. It was a major reason or a major issue in the 2016 elections, of course. So, it’s not my job or America’s job to fix Europe’s immigration crisis. That has many causes, it comes from many sources, and Europe is seized with the necessity of doing something about it.
Now, in terms of Syria, what we’re doing first of all is a massive humanitarian effort for those refugees who have left the country. We have provided $10.5 billion since 2011 for Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons, or IDPs. That’s the largest of any nation in the world. But I have to say the European Union as an institution and all of its nation-states have actually provided more money. So, there’s a massive international effort to support the refugees basically where they are. I think many of your viewers know about the negotiations between the EU and Turkey. Turkey has done more than any other country to house refugees – over 3 million. It’s a huge burden. They’ve spent tens of billions of dollars and they’re getting some support from the EU. That’s good.
But at the end of the day, to solve the problem of refugees coming from Syria, we need a solution to the Syrian conflict. The Assad regime, backed by Russia and Tehran, have been weaponizing refugees, massive flows of them, to put Europe, to put Turkey, to put us under pressure. That’s unacceptable. We need a solution now to that conflict.
Moderator: Thank you. As a reminder to our viewers, if you’d like to ask a question, please type it in at any time into our online platform and up-vote those questions that you would like us to ask.
Our next question comes from Carl Fridh Kleberg with Swedish national TV. He asks, “It’s been reported that you are pushing for increased sanctions from European partners on the Syrian Government. Do you believe that this can be achieved in terms of affecting the Syrian Government’s behavior, and are you encountering any reluctance from European partners?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: Our European partners have been very, very good on overall policy towards Syria. That is, both individually – countries such as Britain, France, and Germany, who are with us in the so-called Small Group – and the EU as an institution, and the EU member-states in general. So, we’re very happy all across the board with the EU.
Of course, we always want more sanctions. We’ve just gotten in the United States two new pieces of sanctions powers: one, an executive order that we used during the Turkish incursion, but is far broader on people who are blocking the negotiation process in Syria, and what is called the Caesar Act, named for the code name of that heroic individual who took pictures of tens of thousands of people being tortured in Assad’s prisons. That is a very, very hard set of sanctions. We are briefing the European Union on it. We hope to work with them to see even more European sanctions decisions being taken by the institution.
Do sanctions work? First of all, they make it harder for Assad and his friends to pursue their military victory strategy. In and of itself, that’s enough justification for them. But as we see with the total freefall of the Syrian pound right now and other indicators – shortages of gas and other fuels – the Assad regime is under tremendous economic pressure because it and its allies are putting all of their money into this awful campaign in Idlib and other efforts to essentially wage war on their own population. So, we believe that the sanctions are eventually going to take money away from the war machine.
Moderator: Okay. All right. Thank-you very much. Our next question comes to us from Borzou Daragahi with The Independent. They ask, “Have you detected any change in the activities of Iranian-backed Syrian, Iraqi, or Lebanese militias in Syria? Are they becoming more or less aggressive or provocative? What role are they playing in the regime’s Idlib offensive, and are there any empirical indications that U.S. sanctions have hurt them?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: U.S. sanctions have hurt them. Again, as in my answer to the last question, every dollar that – or every Syrian pound or Russian ruble that they do not have at their disposal is a limitation to the mayhem that they can create, mainly among the Syrian people.
In terms of these Iranian-backed militias and Iranian Quds Force people themselves, they remain long-term very, very dangerous in both Iraq and Syria, in both countries, as well as next door in Lebanon. As we have seen, they burrow into the fabric of society and of politics. They create their own alternative institutions that are answerable to Tehran, not to Damascus, Baghdad, or Beirut. They infiltrate organizations, they blow up the monopoly of force held by governments, they try to become a state within a state that takes orders from Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Are they still dangerous? Yes. But for the moment, because we took out their leader, Qasem Soleimani – and I cannot stress too much how vital he was for their evil campaign to expand Iranian influence throughout the region – they have been not quite headless, but they have been directionless to a degree that we have not seen for a long time. That will, sooner or later I’m sure, change somewhat because they do have a new leader of the Quds Force and eventually they will reestablish their communications with their groups. But for the moment, they have been knocked back on their heels and we are watching them closely, and we are ready to act again if they threaten us.
Moderator: Thank-you. Our next question comes to us from Ece Goksedef with BBC’s Turkish service. They ask, “Moscow says that they were fighting against terrorists in Idlib – in Idlib, but as per Ankara, the fighters in Idlib are not terrorists; they are fighting for their freedom. What is the U.S. stance on that?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: Our stance is there are groups that are – been designated by us and by the United Nations as terrorist organizations in Idlib. We have taken military operations against several of them, several al-Qaida elements, and, as everybody knows, ISIS’s leader, al-Baghdadi, several months ago. So, we recognize that there are terrorists in Idlib.
There’s also a very large group, the al-Nusra or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, HTS, that is an al-Qaida offshoot. It is considered a terrorist organization, but it is primarily focused on fighting the Assad regime. It itself claims – we haven’t accepted that claim yet, but they do claim to be patriotic opposition fighters, not terrorists. We have not seen them generate, for example, international threats for some time.
Nonetheless, none of them have been threatening the Russians or the Syrian military in any way out of Idlib. We watch very closely the claims that the Russians say that these people are launching attacks and the Russians are only retaliating, or the Syrian regime is only retaliating. That’s not true. There are a few inconsequential attacks from time to time – drones and the like – coming out of Idlib, but extremely minor, rare, and doing little damage, creating little, few, or no casualties. These are just used as an excuse for this massive thing.
We saw 200 Russian and Syrian regime airstrikes in the last three days, mainly against civilians – as I said, the Secretary General is so alarmed that he’s created a board of inquiry into the attacks on civilians – and massive movements of troops pushing back hundreds of square kilometers and setting I think now 700,000 people who are already internally displaced on the move, once again, towards the Turkish border, which would then create an international crisis.
Moderator: Thank-you. Our next question comes to us from Sanjar Hamidef with Voice of America. He asks, “Can you please explain in detail the role of the U.S. forces in Syria and discuss the last interactions with Russian forces near the Syrian city of Qamishli?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: U.S. forces are in Syria on orders of the President of the United States, carrying out the military mission as part of the International Coalition to Defeat ISIS, or doing exactly that: ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS in Syria, just as we’re trying to do the same thing in Iraq. That’s their basic mission. Now, the mission has certain elements. We talked a little bit earlier about securing the oil fields. We do think that they’re effective in this mission. We cannot give a date for when they would be withdrawn. Right now, they’re there; they’re carrying out their missions.
Moderator: Okay, thank-you. The next question comes from Nick Turse with The Intercept in the United States. He actually has a few questions. He asks, “What is the U.S. Government’s current total count of Islamic State affiliates worldwide? Can you provide a breakdown by geographic region?” And then he asks more specifically about Africa, whether you could provide an assessment of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, especially in regard to Burkina Faso, and U.S. efforts to counter this group, and then also to discuss the gaining strength of ISIS on the African continent despite President Trump’s statement that ISIS has been 100 percent defeated.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Okay. We’ve already handled the President Trump statement. They have been 100 percent defeated as a caliphate, but they still exist as a terrorist insurgency. No more – nowhere are we more concerned than in Western Africa and the area around Burkina Faso. That was a major issue that we discussed at the coalition political directors meeting yesterday. We issued a declaration at the end of it where we called attention specifically to that area of West Africa.
What we’re doing is the U.S. is organizing a coalition meeting later on this year to look at how the coalition can help our French allies who are in the lead in the fight against Daesh, as well as al-Qaida, in that part of Africa. The UN is also present there as are, of course, many other nations. And we’re very, very committed to ensuring that we have our own troops there as well supporting the French and carrying out our own operations. This is a big threat and we believe that it requires an international effort, and that that effort needs to be enhanced.
Moderator: Thank-you. Our next question comes to us from Interfax News Agency. Valentina asks, “Could you please comment on the coordination with Russia on deconfliction in Syria?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that actually was asked a second ago with our U.S. troops. We deconflict every day with the Russians in Syria and have been doing so for a number of years since both U.S. and Russian aircraft began operating in Syria in closed areas.
The deconfliction channels are very effective. They work at each level. People with language skills are in constant coordination. We have had incidents where U.S. forces and Russian forces on the ground have come close. The Qamishli incident was mentioned – that’s an area where we, Russians, regime troops, our partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces and, unfortunately, a few Daesh elements are all in close proximity. It’s an active combat zone, so obviously there’s a need for deconfliction from time to time. There are minor misunderstandings. We are very pleased with the deconfliction mechanisms so far.
Moderator: Thank-you. We have time for one more question, and it will go to Nicholas Fiorenza with Jane’s Defence Weekly. He asks, “What would NATO’s expanded role be in the Middle East, and to take – would it be to take over command of the training missions of individual NATO member-states?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: That’s a good question. NATO is looking at the entire gamut of possibilities following President Trump’s suggestion that NATO play a bigger role not just in Iraq, but overall in the Middle East. There are opportunities with several training or peacekeeping missions, monitoring missions, including in the Gulf, NATO and also, of course as we just discussed, West Africa – could NATO play a bigger role there?
NATO is looking into all of this right now. Right down the road from here we have Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is our ambassador to NATO. She is seized with this issue, as is Secretary General Stoltenberg. We’re working closely with them. I have been in constant touch with the NATO authorities.
In Iraq, they already have a military training mission that focuses on high-level capacity building and training of staffs in the ministry of defense. NATO is trying to expand its capabilities and the forces present to do its current mandate. It’s also looking at taking over perhaps some of the mandates that the coalition is now doing, again, in response to the Iraqi call for American troops to withdraw. But essentially, a more international face to the effort to defeat Daesh alongside our Iraqi partners.
Moderator: Thank-you. Thank-you. Unfortunately, that is all the questions that we have time for today. Thank-you so much for your questions and thank you, Ambassador Jeffrey, for joining us today.
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