U.S Department of State
David Schenker, Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
June 11, 2020
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Welcome back, everybody. It’s our busy day. It’s our third briefing of the day, so thanks to everybody that had the time to dial in. And I’m glad we have the opportunity to gather for this on-the-record briefing with my friend, Assistant Secretary David Schenker, from our Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. You all know him well.
As the Secretary previewed yesterday, the United States and Iraq held a strategic dialogue earlier today. Under Secretary Hale led that discussion with U.S. interagency representatives and their Iraqi counterparts. Assistant Secretary Schenker was by US – Under Secretary Hale’s side during these talks, and will be able to provide a brief readout from a comprehensive conversation that covered all areas of interest between our two countries: politics, economics, security, culture, and energy.
Meanwhile, over the past week or so, we were heartened to hear that the Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army re-entered UN security talks to implement a ceasefire and to relaunch the UN-led intra-Libyan political talks. As Secretary Pompeo noted, putting Libya on the path to economic recovery means protecting critical infrastructure, preserving Libyan oil production, and ensuring National Oil Corporation employees can access all facilities without facing threat. Assistant Secretary Schenker can provide more details on the challenges that remain for ensuring all Libyans are able to live in peace and enjoy the fruits of Libya’s resources.
After Assistant Secretary Schenker’s opening remarks, he’ll be able to answer your questions. Please remember that while the – this call is on the record, the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call. David, go ahead.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Morgan. Good afternoon, everyone. Hope everyone’s staying healthy and enjoying the warm weather here in D.C.
Let me begin with the U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue. In April we invited the Government of Iraq to engage in a strategic dialogue under the Strategic Framework Agreement. Our government commenced the first session of the strategic dialogue today via videoconference. The Iraqi delegation was chaired by Senior Under Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ambassador Dr. Karim Hashim Mustafa, and the U.S. delegation was chaired by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Ambassador David Hale. The session discussed several areas of bilateral cooperation, including security, economy, culture, and energy. On the U.S. side, we also had representatives from the Departments of Defense, Treasury, and Energy, as well as the National Security Council.
What we want is to have a strong, normal bilateral security arrangement with Iraq characterized by training, provision of high-quality weapon systems, joint exercises, and senior officers studying at our respective military academies, learning each other’s languages. Security is a bedrock of stability and provides the conditions necessary for economic growth and prosperity. We want to help Iraq in the ultimate defeat of ISIS and bringing stability to Iraq, but Iran-backed groups are working against us in that mission. They’re increasing sectarianism, which fuels radicalism and terrorism, and we discussed this very important issue today.
The Government of Iraq renewed its commitment to us to protect U.S. and other nations’ forces who are in Iraq at the government’s invitation to combat ISIS. We made clear that we’d continue supporting the Iraqi Government, not only through close bilateral cooperation, security, and – on the security and political level, but also in implementing the government’s program and reforms demanded by the Iraqi people. In the context of those reforms, we’ll support the new government through the international financial institutions to help it meet the challenge of COVID-19 and declining oil revenues. We will continue to help Iraqis rebuild from the ISIS genocide by remaining Iraq’s largest humanitarian donor, and we will support the government’s efforts to organize free, fair, and credible elections.
We also discussed the reforms that would be necessary to attract potential world-class U.S. firms to invest in energy and other sectors. In the cultural aspect, our governments discussed plans to return important political archives to the Iraqi Government. We agreed to discuss how our educational, cultural exchange programs and assistance will support cooperation aimed at Iraq’s developmental objective and increasing the capabilities of Iraqi universities with the possibility of additional U.S. funding. Our governments are looking forward to having in-depth conversations about these topics during the meeting of our higher coordination committee, which we hope to host here in Washington D.C. later this summer.
And this week we have also been focused on Libya. Despite the end of the LNA’s siege on Tripoli and last weekend’s event in Cairo, which brought eastern Libyan leaders together and opened the way for greater political dialogue, fighting has intensified with the involvement of foreign actors. We’re particularly concerned about the continued influx of Russian military equipment, weapons, and Russian Wagner mercenaries, whose presence led to the significant Turkish intervention now underway. We see the continued interference from external actors as a challenge to U.S. interests and regional stability in the Eastern Med, but also as a tragedy for the Libyan people. Libyans want peace and an end to foreign intervention. They are alarmed by this level of foreign involvement in their affairs. We continue to call for de-escalation, a ceasefire, and a return to political negotiations. Now is the time for Libyans on all sides to act so neither Russia nor any other country can interfere in Libya. GNA and LNA agreement to re-enter UN security talks was, as the Secretary noted, a positive first step which requires quick follow-through with good faith negotiations, implement a ceasefire, and the relaunch of UN-led intra-Libyan political talks to achieve a long-term solution.
We’re encouraged that both the GNA and the LNA are now engaged in UNSMIL-hosted 5+5 talks, but showing up is not enough. We want to see all Libyans coming together to take charge of their country. It is vital that all sides exercise restraint and ensure civilians are protected as the Libyan public faces multiple challenges from conflict, COVID, and economic hardship. Those challenges have been intensified by the five-month oil sector shutdown by forces aligned with the GNA – sorry, by forces aligned with the LNA. Putting Libya on the path to economic recovery, as the Secretary said, means preserving Libyan oil facilities and restoring access by the National Oil Corporation. Using critical infrastructure that belongs to the Libyan people as a tool of war, whether for oil that feeds the economy or water upon which Libyans depend on for survival, is reprehensible and it must end.
We are troubled by reports that GNA forces are discovering bodies of civilians, IEDs and land mines in areas retaken from the LNA. We are similarly concerned that a GNA offensive on Sirte would have serious humanitarian consequence. When armed groups and their external backers escalate, the Libyan people suffer. We continue to call on all parties in Libya to protect civilians and prevent further damage to infrastructure, including water and oil facilities, hospitals, airports, and schools. Let me say once again loud and clear, if you can help me get out the message, the U.S. calls on all sides to lay down their arms and resume UN-led negotiations immediately.
So with that, I’ll take your questions. Thank you.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thank you very much, Dave. First up in the queue is Michel.
QUESTION: Morgan, you mean Michel Ghandour?
MS ORTAGUS: Yes. Yes, you’re the – oh, I’m sorry, yes, you. Yes, yes, yes, sorry.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Was that Michel Ghandour?
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. Hello?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Hello?
QUESTION: Yeah. Yeah, hello, Mr. Secretary. My question is: The Republican Study Committee in Congress released a comprehensive policy proposal towards the largest sanction measures to date on Iran and nominated several Iraqi, Lebanese, and other officials. What’s the State Department’s position toward this plan? Was it supported? And are you planning to impose sanctions on these Iraqi and Lebanese and Iranian officials?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thank you, Michel. I knew you were going to ask me about this. Truth is I haven’t read the report yet, but we don’t comment on legislation, and – nor do we comment, as you know, on – or prejudice future sanctions, so that’s about all I can give you on that.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks. Next up, Humeyra, Reuters.
QUESTION: Hi, David. I’m sure you’ve seen reports that Haftar’s plane had flown to Caracas last week, and various officials said this is part of an effort to sell oil. I’m just wondering: What does the U.S. Government know about Haftar’s dealings with Venezuela and Maduro government? And how concerned are you that he might be attempting to do – or like broker an oil deal?
And then again, on Libya, Turkey says that U.S. should do more, and Turkish President Erdogan had a call with President Trump. What, if anything, can and will the U.S. do more on Libya? Thanks for that.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thank you, Humeyra. Listen, I – we’ve been tracking those reports on Haftar’s trip – alleged trip to Venezuela. The allegations are concerning. We continue to engage with all parties in the energy sector on – pardon me – the allegations are concerning. We continue to engage with all the parties in the energy sector on risks they face by conducting business with the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas company due to U.S. sanctions. So that’s on that front.
And the second question was about Erdogan and – President Erdogan and asking the United States to do more on Libya? Was that the question?
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, I don’t know that she can get back on the line with the way it works.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: But, yeah, no – we are absolutely engaged, and I think we are doing more every day. The Secretary spoke recently with Prime Minister Sarraj. We are engaged fully. The President spoke with President Erdogan, and we are engaged with our European allies to see the best way forward. Also have been talking routinely with both the Emirates and the Egyptians, the French, as I mentioned, other parties to the conflict. This is a complicated and entangled crisis, and we’re making efforts every day and are involved and increasingly involved in the diplomacy to try and prevail on all sides and their partners to de-escalate, to engage in the talks, and to work out what is the only possible solution for this conflict. There is no military solution; it’s going to be a political solution.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Thanks, Humeyra. Matt Lee, AP.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you, David. I have a couple quick ones, but they’ll be really quick.
One, given the President’s desire to withdraw U.S. forces from the Middle East and Iraq specifically along with Afghanistan, how is it that you guys, when you go into these talks, are able to say that you’re actually committed to the long-term security support for Iraq?
Secondly, are you aware of anything coming up soon in terms of the Caesar Act? There’s quite a lot of chatter around about what might be coming. I’m not expecting you to get into the details of it, but do you expect anything? Because it’s been very hard to get an answer out of the Executive Branch on this.
And then thirdly – not that I expect an answer to this question at all – but what’s the latest on your position with regard to West Bank annexation plans by Prime Minister Netanyahu? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Let me – I’ll take on the first two here, Matt, for you.
So listen, we, for some time, have been consolidating our force presence in Iraq based on the capabilities and the growing capabilities of Iraqi forces on the ground, and so we are looking at a possible force reduction. But we talk with all of our allies about our force posture, about the demands on U.S. forces throughout the world, and the need for prioritization. As you know, the National Defense Strategy points to China and Russia as some leading challenges that we have to contend with. So – but we have ongoing talks with our allies and partners in the region to explain what we’re doing. And so today, I think it was a very productive discussion about what we’re doing in Iraq, why we are there, and what needs to be done in the future. And I think our Iraqi counterparts were satisfied with that.
As for the Caesar Act, I don’t want to, once again, prejudice sanctions, but I would say to expect them. This is a major part of what the act is, and so that’s going to be rolled out in, what, another week, week and a half. Is that right?
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, that’s right.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah. And that’s all I’ve got for you on your questions, Matt.
MS ORTAGUS: The last one was on – do you have anything on West Bank, Netanyahu West Bank annexation?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No. Well, listen, the Israelis are working through this. They’re in contact with the White House, and they have a lot to put together. There are a lot of considerations, and they’re working through them. So this is a complex decision, and so they’re – that’s all I’ve got.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Next, Shaun Tandon, AFP.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks, David. Could I follow up on Libya? You mentioned the reports of mass graves. Does the U.S. have any information on that and how serious this is, how significant this is?
And could I ask you about the diplomacy? The Secretary as well mentioned a ceasefire in Libya, the call for a ceasefire in Libya. Do you support the Egyptian call, the Egyptian initiative? Do you think that’s serious at this point, or are you looking for something else?
And in terms of a UN special envoy for Libya, as you know, the secretary general named Ms. Tetteh, the former Ghanaian foreign minister, to be the special envoy. And as far as we know, the United States hasn’t agreed to that. Is there any sense that there is more urgency now to naming a special envoy due to the situation in Libya? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks. Listen, the reports that we’ve seen on the mass graves and bodies, et cetera, in Libya are truly disturbing. I will get you more detail on that as it emerges. I don’t have anything in front of me right now, but we’ve seen the reports and are looking into them.
The Egyptian initiative that was rolled out this past weekend, we think that there are parts of the initiative that are helpful. Of course, this is first and foremost trying to patch up a split or a break from about a month and a half ago where Haftar and the LNA split off from Saleh and the parliament, and this sort of patched that back together. I think that’s productive to have more unity in Libya.
That said, we think that the UN process, the UN-led process, and the Berlin process are really the frameworks and most productive frameworks for everybody to engage in negotiations and to make progress on ceasefire and negotiation, consolidation of that. So I think there were some departures from that within the Egyptian initiative, but we still welcome the productive parts of that.
Finally, we don’t at all oppose the Ghanaian envoy. There is special urgency here, and we are in talks with our partners this month and others at the UN and Europe and other parties to this conflict about the best way to approach moving ahead with these negotiations. It is not only is the role of SRSG one that encompasses at this time negotiations and overseeing the staff and the projects for UNSMIL on the ground, it is the lead on negotiations, and we think that that’s quite a big task for one person. So we’re looking at this and talking about it with our counterparts about the best way forward.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Nike Ching. Nike, do we have you?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Hello.
MS ORTAGUS: Hi, Nike. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks, David. I would like to ask a question on BGI. It’s a genome sequencing company that has been building COVID-19 test centers in the Middle East.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you have anything on reports that the U.S. is expressing concerns to allies in the Middle East over BGI? And do you believe the data collected from the tests could be shared with the U.S. adversaries and have security repercussions? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thank you, Nike. Listen, I don’t want to get into individual cases, but I would tell you that we have been talking with our friends and partners in the region about some of the risks of doing business with China. There is – as with companies like Huawei, for example, the data that belongs to Huawei is not the property of Huawei solely but also of the Chinese Communist Party, and there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy there. And so if your data is going across a Huawei network, then it’s property of the Chinese Government.
So this is the case with Chinese companies that operate throughout the region.
And so in a general sense, we are having discussions with our friends about the implications of doing these kind of deals and about the security of your data.
MS ORTAGUS: So we don’t have anybody else in the queue. I’ll just wait another 30 seconds. You dial 1 and 0 to get into the queue. If not, we’ll go ahead and end it. Ruben, let us know if anybody else jumps in. Anybody, Ruben? Okay. I’ll —
MR HARUTUNIAN: Jennifer Hansler.
MS ORTAGUS: Ah, Jennifer. Okay. We’ll go last question with Jennifer and then we’ll end it. Go ahead, Jennifer. CNN, Jennifer Hansler.
QUESTION: Hi, David. Thanks for doing this. I was wondering if you could get into whether there was a discussion on a timeframe for a potential drawdown of troops from Iraq and whether there was consensus around that timeframe and what it looks like. It is prior to the election? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, thanks for the question and letting me clarify this. There was no discussion of a timeline.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Great. Oh, wait a minute. Jessica Donati is texting me that she’s still in the queue, although we thought that she dropped off. So AT&T, can you open up Jessica Donati’s line?
OPERATOR: Jessica, you’re open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. I just wanted to follow up on Humeyra’s question, just for some clarity. She asked what the U.S. Government knows about the arrival of Haftar’s plane in Venezuela. Can you confirm or do you not know whether Haftar himself was in the plane? And how can the U.S. prevent this alliance from taking off? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks. Well, I can’t confirm it. We’ve just seen the allegations and we’re trying to track down some ground truth on that. But it is, as I said, concerning. The U.S. and UN sanctions apply to those exporting Libyan oil outside the legal auspices of Libya’s National Oil Corporation, and we – it just – we want Libya to be a state that is embraced within the community of nations, not operating outside of law, and adhering to appropriate sanctions that are applicable.
So anyway, yeah, I can’t – unfortunately, I can’t give you any more detail on this.
MS ORTAGUS: Schenker, we had a few more people jump on and I think you’ve got a few more minutes to take a question or two, if that’s okay.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yes, sure.
MS ORTAGUS: We have Will Mauldin from Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Yes, thanks so much. I appreciate holding this and I just wanted to ask just kind of a follow-up on a previous question about Israel’s annexation; not about the details, but about whether there’s concern that that process would affect normalization and what that would mean for U.S.-Middle East policy. Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, certainly, thanks for the question. I’ve seen reports or tweets from the Emirates and other states that have – that Israel has in recent years made, I think, some quiet headway in terms of building some type of relationship. And I’ve seen tweets that have been somewhat negative. Israel is – has proven itself, I think, in the past to be savvy at dealing with Arab states and building partnerships and relationships with states – with Arab states that they have not had these type of relationships with. So I’m sure that Israel will look at all the considerations and take steps as it deems appropriate. I know that normalization is something of great value to them.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. And let’s try – there’s a couple people left. We’ll try to finish whatever time we can, if we can get to both questions. But just remember, if we can today, to focus this on Iraq and Libya, because that’s what the briefing’s about today.
Nadia, Al Arabiya.
QUESTION: Hi, David. Actually, my question on Libya was asked, so let me ask you about Iraq. Yesterday, we saw rockets landing in the Green Zone near the embassy while you were just about to start this dialogue with the government. How do you evaluate the influence of the pro-Iran militias, especially after the killing of Soleimani? Do you think they still have a role to play in calling the shot and having influence on the political process?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Nadia. Listen, this rocket being fired at the United States, at the embassy in Baghdad, highlights exactly why we have to have this strategic dialogue. This is not normal for friendly states in foreign capitals to have their embassies routinely shelled. And so we’re – the Iraqis have committed to moving ahead and undertaking their obligations, not only because we are great partners, but because this is international law to protect our diplomatic facilities and of course the military facilities in the country that are there at the invitation of the Government of Iraq.
But there is a problem, and I mentioned it earlier. There remains a significant problem of armed groups, militia, Iranian-backed militia in the country, that operate outside the control of the Government of Iraq. And so these remain a problem. And our understanding, based on our initial engagements with the Kadhimi government, suggests that they are committed to demonstrating – re-establishing sovereignty, exercising control of these – of rogue militias, and having a unified security service in the country. But this remains a danger not only to us but to the Government of Iraq and stability there, stability and investment client – climate, et cetera.
So, yes, pro-Iranian militias, Iranian-backed Shiite militias, remain a significant problem and challenge for the Kadhimi government.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. And we’re going to do last question for Hiba from Sky News.
QUESTION: Yes. Hi, David. Hi, Morgan. I want to ask, Iraq Prime Minister al-Kadhimi just said that he has received security reports of a plan to assassinate him during his visit to Mosul. Do you have any idea about that? Did they share anything with you?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No. I’m sorry. I can’t comment on that. It’s just not something I want to comment on. But I would say just one thing, that because Prime Minister Kadhimi appears to be somebody who is an Iraqi nationalist and supports Iraqi sovereignty, this would – there are many forces in Iraq that are against those principles, and so that wouldn’t surprise me.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Well, thanks, everybody for dialing in. I think we have at least one briefing, if not two tomorrow, but I know we have one. So we’ll be speaking to everyone tomorrow. Thank you so much for letting us take up so much of your time today. Thank you.