Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from around the world and thank all of you for joining this discussion especially with our delayed start. Today we are pleased to be joined from Cairo by Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. We thank you, Ambassador Jeffrey, for taking the time to speak with us today.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Jeffrey and then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many as we can during the time that we have. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.
With that, I will turn it over to Ambassador Jeffrey.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Thank you, Kathy. Good evening everybody, from Cairo.
Today the biggest news as far as the U.S. government is concerned on the Syria issue is the designation by the U.S. Treasury of Syrian Oligarch Samer Foz and his Luxury Reconstruction Business Empire. My colleague, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joel Rayburn, and Syria Envoy, Joel Rayburn, will go into this designation and what it means in a little bit more detail in a second. What I want to do is discuss that today’s actions against Foz are in direct support of the President’s foremost strategic objectives concerning Syria — the achievement of the enduring defeat of ISIS and its allies, the withdrawal from Syria of all Iranian commanded forces including Lebanese Hezbollah, and a peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
To achieve these strategic objectives the Trump administration is exercising a whole of government approach including political, diplomatic, and economic tools such as today’s designations. And if the Damascus regime verifiably uses, once again, chemical weapons against its own people, the United States will, as in the past, use other U.S. tools in response.
Such tools are meant to pressure the Assad regime to constructively participate in a political solution that will end this conflict that has killed over 500,000 Syrians, something that that regime has yet to do.
Joel, over to you.
DAS Rayburn: Thank you.
Today’s new designation by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control or OFAC, are on 16 targets in connection to an international network benefiting the Assad regime, and the State Department is proud to support these efforts for the reasons that Ambassador Jeffrey just gave.
The scheme amounted to the Assad regime taking over property owned by ordinary Syrians and handing it to wealthy regime insiders to develop luxury properties and others while ordinary Syrians lose everything and suffer as a result of the conflict. As the suffering of ordinary Syrians goes on, Bashar al-Assad and his friends continue to accumulate wealth.
Specifically, Samer Foz and 15 other individuals and entities designated today have used their ties with the Assad regime and exploited this horrific conflict for their own financial benefit. Mr. Foz also owns the Four Seasons Damascus and the Orient Club, which are also being designated today.
Today’s actions in addition to being in direct support of the President’s objectives for Syria, as Ambassador Jeffrey mentioned, are also significant in that they hold accountable some of those people who have been providing support to and profiting from the Assad regimes murderous activities. This is something the United States is committed to doing as part of our Syria policy.
I’d like to stress that today’s Treasury actions are aimed at the Assad regime and its elite circle of supporters, not at the Syrian people. In fact today’s action literally targets those who are profiting from the misery and murder of the Syrian people.
I would also like to note that today’s actions against the Samer Foz network will also put pressure on the Assad regime’s key supporters such as the Iranian regime and Lebanese Hezbollah. Some of Samer Foz’s activities involved helping the Iranian regime illicitly ship oil to the Assad regime and it’s worth noting in that vein that today’s Treasury actions target one of the final remaining outlets for the Iranian regime’s oil exports, thereby helping our overall Iran strategy.
We urge all states in the international community to join us in this approach of maintaining pressure on the Assad regime and its enablers so as to compel them to participate in the UN-sponsored political process and to bring about a peaceful end to the conflict, one that reflects the will of the Syrian people.
Any effort at reestablishing or upgrading diplomatic relations or economic cooperation with the Assad regime will only undercut efforts to move toward a permanent peaceful and political solution to the Syrian conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
Now for further details on the exact entities and individuals beyond Samer Foz that are being designated today, I would recommend that you look at the U.S. Department of the Treasury Press Release which is available on the Treasury Department’s web site, along with a very instructive graphic that illustrates how this particular illicit financing ring operated.
With that, we’re happy to take your questions.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question was submitted in advance by a journalist listening in on our Arabic line, Ahmad Gomaa from Al-Youm al-Sabi in Egypt. He asks:
Question: What are the details of your meeting today with Egyptian officials? Is there a new American vision to find a way out of the political impasse of the Syrian crisis?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Thank you very much. Deputy Assistant Secretary Rayburn and I held meetings today with senior Egyptian officials as well as with the Arab League leadership and members of the Syrian opposition to discuss our ongoing efforts to promote stability and security in Syria including the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The Egyptian government has been a particularly close partner of the United States in these issues and we are looking forward to continued close cooperation and coordination with our partners here in Cairo.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will turn to Michael Birnbaum with the Washington Post.
Question: Hi, thanks. It’s Michael Birnbaum, the Brussels Bureau Chief of the Washington Post. I have a European-related question.
I wanted to ask about repatriation of EU citizens back to their home countries. There hasn’t been much movement on that. Why have Europeans been so reluctant to repatriate their citizens? And how much time do you think they have before the camps such as al-Hol and others in Syria are dissolved and their citizens slip away from custody? Thanks.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Thank you. Let me try to take that.
First of all, the United States has taken back their citizens that have been caught up in this conflict and people who we strongly suspect as being involved on the side of Daesh or ISIS. So it’s an issue in the first instance for the Europeans to answer. Our position is that countries should take back both family members caught up in this conflict, and there has been some movement, and also people who are verifiably considered to be members or supporters of Daesh. There there have been many problems. But still, it is not a solution to leave these people in camps in Northeast Syria. This is a burden on the population of Northeast Syria that has to provide assistance with some support from the United States and other countries, but it is also still a war zone. We still have Daesh there. Syria itself is a conflict zone in the larger sense of the word. Therefore, we think it is absolutely imperative that countries take action as necessary to deal with their own citizens.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will turn to Mohamed Ataya who is with Masrawy.com in Egypt.
Question: Hi, sir. Mohamed Ataya from Masrawy from Egypt.
In Idlib, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, with support from al-Qaida, is controlling huge areas in the territory. Does the U.S. see this kind of terrorist group as a danger both in the region and the U.S.?
DAS Rayburn: Thank you, Mohamed. Yes, Hayat Tahiri al-Sham is a danger as well as some other groups in Idlib Province such as Huras al-Din and remnants of Daesh that have managed to gather there.
The most urgent thing that exacerbates the terrorist problem, though, is the Assad regime and the Russian air force’s indiscriminate bombing attacks against civilian areas which are escalating the conflict in Idlib and making all the dire consequences that all of us hoped not to see such as the possibility of a wave of refugees or even, God forbid, the use of chemical weapons has made them much likelier to happen. So we think the first step in handling all the problems that are contained in Idlib which is a thorny problem, is for the Assad regime and its allies, including Russia and Iran, to cease their attacks against civilians, to return to the ceasefire arrangement that was made made in Sochi between Turkey and Russia last September, and deescalate the conflict so that we can have rational approaches to all of these problems.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we’ll take a question submitted in advance by Hadeel Oueis with North Syria Press who asks:
Question: Do you see a long-term reconciliation agreement between SDF and Turkey? What is the shape of the safe zone that you are intending to establish a way that guarantees your objective of preventing Daesh’s return and blocking Iranian expansion from the North?
Ambassador Jeffrey: This is Jim Jeffrey, let me take that.
We’re not working to try to reconcile Turkey and the SDF. Rather, what we’re trying to do is to continue our campaign to defeat ISIS in the Northeast of Syria where the SDF is our partner in this fight and has been a very effective partner.
We understand Turkey’s concerns about the origins of the SDF and its ties with the PKK and we understand the concerns of many people in the Northeast of Turkey coming in militarily. Thus we have been engaged with Turkey on the discussion of what we call a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border to the east of the Euphrates all the way to the Iraqi border that would involve a withdrawal of the YPG which is the core military focus of the SDF some distance back from the border, and then the destruction of military fortifications and such in that zone. A withdrawal of heavy weapons even further back. And monitoring of the situation there by the U.S. and by Turkey.
Everybody that we deal with is agreed on that basic set of principles. The issues that we’re still debating are how deep that zone should be, what the role of Turkey would be in the neighboring state of Syria, and we haven’t reached a final agreement yet. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will turn to Allie Rogan with PBS News Hour.
Question: Thanks, Allie Rogan with the News Hour.
My question is about the children of the wives of ISIS who are growing up in refugee camps for whom there is currently, there are very few rehabilitation options. I’m wondering how Mr. Jeffrey sees those challenges as the situation potentially worsens, and is there anything the United States or any other international partners can be doing to stem this potential radicalization that’s happening with these children of ISIS?
DAS Jeffrey: For the families of ISIS members, there are a large number of them now in the al-Hol camp, over 70,000. And the first priority that we have is to ensure the humanitarian status of the camp, medical, food, drinking water and that kind of thing. And there the international community has been quite helpful. It’s still somewhat of a struggle. We get a lot of help from the local administration in the Northeast, the SDC. But again, that job is not finished.
In terms of the larger issue of deradicalization, this is an extremely complex problem under any and all circumstances. We’ve experienced it ever since 9/11 with people that we have picked up. Family members are a particular problem because they in and of themselves are not guilty of anything, but they have attitudes and a mindset.
What we’re hoping is that these people can largely be returned to their communities. We’ve seen this work in other parts of the Middle East where the family, the clan, the tribe, the community takes responsibility for the people and the people feel responsible for those people who have embraced them and taken them back in.
The vast majority of the families we’re talking about are either Iraqi or Syrian, so therefore it is a relatively simple logistical and to some degree political issue to get them to go back to their families.
The SDC for example recently had almost a thousand people from the camp, removed from the camp and resettled in the areas they came from along the Euphrates, among their families and among the areas that they grew up in.
We’re hoping that if we can accelerate this, first of all, the logistical burden on the camp will be reduced; and secondly, the people will be in an environment where they’re surrounded by folks who do not like Daesh as opposed to now in the camps where they’re surrounded by many people who do.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will turn to Hiba Nasr with Sky News Arabia.
Question: Hi. My question to Ambassador Jeffrey. I want to go back to the objectives that you mentioned at the beginning. I want to ask you about the position on the Syrian President. To what extent are you ready to compromise and accept that he will stay in his position? And if the Russians would help you get the Iranians out from Syria. Thanks.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Two questions, let me take the first one. We’re not committed to any personality one way or the other. We’re committed to the letter of the relevant UN Resolution 2254 passed by the Security Council in December of 2015, and based upon many resolutions and many proclamations on the Syrian conflict going back to 2012. In that, it talks about a new constitution. It talks about free and fair elections monitored by the United Nations including among the diaspora, which is approximately half of the population has fled their homes. And finally, a governance that meets the international standards and avoids the crisis that we have seen in Syria since 2011.
We are willing to work to that end and we are going to work with any Syrian authorities that are willing to cooperate with us on that objective. So far the Assad regime has shown very little interest in doing that, and that’s one reason why we do the sanctions, we do the designations, we do the other actions we have.
In terms of the Iranians leaving, this is a question that ultimately the Syrian government is responsible for. The Syrian government invited the Iranians in as their allies in the civil war, but in addition, the Iranians have introduced, as they have done in other places, Yemen, Lebanon, long-range weapon systems, essentially as part of their hegemonic quest to dominate the Middle East. That is what we and essentially everybody that we work with in the Middle East, which is essentially everybody in the Middle East, are hoping that we will achieve is through pressure on the regime, through talking with the Russians, a decision that Iran will pull these forces back.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question comes to us as a question submitted in advance by Sandeep Singh Grewal with Gulf News in Bahrain who asks:
Question: How do you see the role played by Bahrain and other Gulf countries in cracking down against IS sympathizers? Cutting down their funds and also playing a vital role in Operation inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We’re very happy with the very close relationship we have with the Gulf states in what we call the International Coalition, which is some 80 countries and organizations all committed to defeating Daesh. Not just in Syria and Iraq, but everywhere around the world. The contributions, the efforts, the military advice and commitments that the Gulf states have made are a very important component of that because they come from the region. They signal to the world that the region is standing with the international community against this horrific terrorist force.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will go to Michael Ghandour with Al-Hurra TV.
Question: Thank you for the call.
Mr. Ambassador, after your visit to Russia with Secretary Pompeo, you came back optimistic that Russia would be more helpful, especially regarding the formation of the constitution committee. So far we haven’t seen any progress in this regard other than the escalation in Idlib. What can we expect from Russia, or what do you expect from Russia and what about the political process regarding the Geneva process exactly?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Frankly, we’re disappointed that we have not seen more movement on the Constitutional Committee. We were very close when we went to Sochi but we have not taken that final step. We believe that the problem is first and foremost, as usual, the Assad regime. Secondly, it’s the problem of Russia for not putting that regime under enough pressure.
Let me be clear. That regime has no military capabilities to speak of without Russian military support, particularly air support.
Secondly, we’re extremely upset, as President Trump indicated a week ago Sunday, with this offensive in Idlib and the deliberate targeting from the air of the civilian population that has driven hundreds of thousands of people from what they call home, although many of them have fled from other areas. This is a humanitarian disaster of the first order. It is absolutely essential that this stop before there can be any significant further progress on finding a solution to the underlying conflict in Syria.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will turn to Raja Abdulrahim with the Wall Street Journal.
Question: Hi. I wanted to go back regarding the designation of the Four Seasons Hotel. As you know, this is used pretty much as a UN base for operations in Damascus. Does this complicate things for the UN? And does this also complicate the U.S. humanitarian aid that is funneled through the UN?
DAS Rayburn: The UN has a general license to operate in Syria so this won’t affect UN operations. And the Four Seasons parent company has already severed its ties with Four Seasons Damascus. So this will be squarely on Samer Foz and the ownership of the Four Seasons Damascus.
We also don’t expect that this will inhibit our humanitarian assistance that goes into Syria which will continue apace.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will go to Yossi Melman with Maariv.
Question: Hello, Mr. Ambassador. I wonder if you can elaborate a bit about your expectations of the summit meeting at the end of this month in Israel. It’s unprecedented one between the national security advisors of the U.S., Russia, and Israel. I assume that most of the meeting will be devoted to the situation in Syria and Iran.
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, we’ve taken a public position on this, that the issue will be regional affairs. There is still work to be done on the agenda and the details of what will be discussed, but you’re absolutely right. This is an extraordinary event. This is something very important. It sends a signal, I think, to Russia’s partners in Syria and elsewhere. The Damascus regime in Iran. That Russia has interests that go beyond those of its Syrian partners. But we’ll have to see as we get closer to this what exactly we’ll discuss and what if any outcome, we will see.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Unfortunately, that was the last question we have time for.
Ambassador Jeffrey, do you have any closing words that you would like to offer?
Ambassador Jeffrey: No, only that this designation today, once again, signifies that the United States is not taking its eye off the ball in Syria. Be it the President’s comments about the situation in Idlib, be it our extraordinary diplomatic efforts from Sochi to Jerusalem, be it this designation today, this is one of the most important issues on American foreign policy. Joel?
DAS Rayburn: I also want to add that also today’s actions are not a one-off. This is part of a campaign that we and the like-minded countries have been coordinating together for some months now. And so we’re prepared to continue to do actions like these in order to create the conditions to achieve U.S. and allied strategic objectives in Syria.
Moderator: I want to thank Ambassador Jeffrey and DAS Rayburn for joining us and thank all of you for participating and for your questions.