AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. Thank you. As always, we really appreciate Morgan and her people putting these on. I want to talk about Idlib and the larger significance of it for a second, and then touch on Iraq, and then we’ll open up for questions.
With Idlib, you saw the statement we put out yesterday. We’re very, very worried about this. First of all, the significance of Idlib – that’s where we’ve had chemical weapons attacks in the past. We’ve got 3 million-plus refugees that may be pushed across the border. We have the Russians in the UN being very difficult on the whole humanitarian border assistance thing of late, with their veto of our efforts to try to get a decent UN resolution to keep the border crossings in the northeast open, and we think that the northwest will be next. And we’re seeing not just the Russians but the Iranians and Hizballah actively involved in supporting the Syrian offensive. We don’t know whether the offensive is just to get to the M4/M5 road, or it may continue further.
The main problem we have right now, aside from the fear that we could have a major refugee crisis on our hands with millions of people, we have, of course, many members of al-Nusrah, certainly to the tune of 7- to 10,000, perhaps more there. Some of those are international terrorists. We have also other international terrorist groups there, al-Qaida offshoots and ISIS, as you know from some of our military operations there. So we’re very concerned about the fate of those people, and we’ve got our NATO ally Turkey involved. They took nine people killed and a number wounded over the past few days. There’s been more reports of exchanges of fire between the Syrian and Turkish militaries, so we’re following that closely.
Again, to take a step back, we’re seeing much more aggressive Russian action in Idlib – at the UN, with the attempt to try to get what had been a routine rollover of crossings to do humanitarian aid to non-regime-controlled areas, which is about 30 percent of Syria. We’ve seen them being pretty aggressive, and you’ve seen some photos and other reports of this, to our forces in our zone in northeast Syria, and we have seen them not being particularly helpful in the constitutional committee which has been frozen since its inaugural session in October, and that’s the core or one significant element of UN Resolution 2254, which is the whole basis for the peace process.
So we have made offers to the Russians. You’ll remember the Secretary went to Sochi in May and met with both Lavrov and President Putin. We urged them to accept a step-by-step comprehensive solution to this. We gave them our ideas; they’re the ideas that have been supported and endorsed by our EU partners, our Arab partners in the Small Group and others. We think that this is an extremely dangerous conflict. You’ve seen the dangers that have come from the reaction of the Syrians to Israeli operations with the shootdown of the Russian plane back in September 2018. You see the problems we’ve had in the northeast. You see the problems right now in Idlib. This is a dangerous conflict. It needs to be brought to an end. Russia needs to change its policies.
Okay, on Iraq. Step by step, we are continuing to work with the Iraqis. You know that the NATO mission has indicated – the NATO Mission Iraq has indicated a willingness to take on a somewhat larger role. You saw that the leader of the marja’iyah, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, has urged the Iraqi Government to postpone any consideration of the foreign presence until after there’s a new parliament and a new government. That is a step in the right direction. We are continuing to work with our Iraqi allies and partners. On the 30th they put out a statement that we’re now back doing joint operations. We’re moving towards that. I don’t want to state exactly where the U.S. military is in doing that because force protection is very, very important. CENTCOM Commander General McKenzie was just there. DOD can give you more information on that and on other issues of the very important D-ISIS fight in Iraq. I will say one thing: Despite reports, including one this morning, we have not seen a significant increase in ISIS activities either in northeast Syria or in Iraq. They’ve been at a level that has been of concern. We’ve talked about this before. There may have been a slight increase in the number of attacks, but because the attack levels are fairly low by our historic standards with ISIS and other insurgency and terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, a few incidents here and there can make a difference. At this point, we are not concerned beyond our normal level of concern about the need to defeat ISIS. I’ll stop there.
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Ambassador, what – it seems like your hands, though, despite your – the rhetoric from the statement last night and what you’ve just said now, the Russians have to change their policies, your hands are kind of – a little bit – well, a lot tied, are they not? What exactly can you do to change this? And then I have a second question on the idea of the SDF – this is a little bit unrelated, but SDF trying the foreign fighters. This is being raised again. Do you have any thoughts on that?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We believe that foreign terrorist fighters need to be returned to their home countries. We’ve looked at various plans. There’s been one that’s been proposed not by the Iraqis, but by others that Iraq should set up a tribunal. Then there’s the ideas of international tribunals or the SDF. Again, we believe that the policy should be, as we have done with some eight people brought back, is to put them on trial.
In terms of what we can do about it, I’ll be traveling in the region, and urgently, to take a look at what our overall posture is concerning both of these sets of issues. Certainly, we are moving forward on additional sanctions under our October executive order that we used. You remember we sanctioned certain Turkish officials, including the minister of defense at the time. And then we removed those sanctions when we got the ceasefire, but that executive order remains in place. It gives us broad authority to go after people who are not supporting the political process and particularly not supporting the ceasefire. So we’re looking at what we can do about that.
And then we’re asking the Turks about what help they need. I would point out that the Turks have a very capable, competent military, and the Turks right now – again, you should talk to them about the details, but as you’ve seen in the open press and we can confirm, they’re reinforcing their positions, and we don’t see any indication that the Turks are going to pull back from their various outposts in Idlib.
QUESTION: Right. But the complaint about sanctions is that it takes too long, actually, to effect any change, and the crisis is now.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Again, we’re looking at the various things we can do.
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead, Nick.
QUESTION: Ambassador, what do you think explains the uptick in Russian activity and they’re – in Idlib and also their increased recalcitrance in the Security Council? Do you have a theory on that? I mean, do they see, like, this is the final step toward victory, or what’s going on?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I would say one thing is they see the parlous state of the Syrian economy. It’s far worse now than it as at the high point when the opposition had taken over half of Syria away from the government. You see that the Syrian pound has suffered dramatically. It’s over 1,000 to the U.S. dollar most days, and we see that only continuing. This is exacerbated by the financial and banking crisis next door in Beirut where the Syrian Government has been able to essentially move a lot of money in and out. They’ve taken extraordinary measures. Putin was just in Damascus. I’m sure that his people briefed him on the very serious situation. They may feel that they have to move now. That’s one argument.
Another argument is the international community in 2254 and everything that led up to that wants to see a Syria that is fundamentally different in terms of its treatment of its own people and the security challenges it poses to its neighborhood, beginning with Israel, of course, but also Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iraq, and also wants it to very dramatically change its relationship with Iran and Iranian-led militias, such as Hizballah, who are, again, active in the Idlib campaign. And it may be that the Russians see this as too hard a lift. We’re not asking for regime change per se, we’re not asking for the Russians to leave, we’re asking for what the international community and the UN in its resolution and in many Security Council debates has called for as Syria to behave as a normal, decent country that doesn’t force half its population to flee, doesn’t use chemical weapons dozens of times against its own civilians, doesn’t drop barrel bombs, doesn’t create a refugee crisis that almost toppled governments in Europe, does not allow terrorists such as HTS and particularly Daesh/ISIS emerge and flourish in much of Syria. Those are the things that that regime has done, and the international community cannot accept that. Russia apparently feels that it cannot bring the regime to do the necessary things to bring it in line with the international community’s expectations and needs, so the Russians are going to press forward for a military victory.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is that an intent by Russia, or is it just that, as you just described, they can’t get Assad to behave, in other words? I mean, do you —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Well, first of all – it’s a good question. This is – he asked for my opinion; I gave my opinion, not established U.S. Government policy that we can go to the bank on. Two, to the extent I may be correct in my thesis, I’m actually not sure, Lara. We talk to the Russians all the time about this. We know they have tried hard. I have seen them repeatedly send my counterparts to Damascus before there are slight changes for the better. Geir Pedersen, for example, was in – the UN envoy – was in Damascus last week and met with the foreign minister and emerged slightly more optimistic that eventually we would see a step forward in the Constitutional Committee. My Russian counterparts were there before him. They have – so they do put the regime under pressure. That pressure led to the formation of the Constitutional Committee in October.
But we see them having great difficulties moving them forward. Whether that reflects differences within the Russian Government – because there are clearly elements of the Russian Government such as the military that are very much all-in on this awful offensive that is targeting deliberately civilians – or it could be problems in the triangle between Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus. That’s another factor, is that Assad has two sponsors, not one.
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead, Humeyra.
QUESTION: Two questions, Ambassador. One is: Can you confirm, are you in a position to confirm if the joint patrols with Turks and Russians have stopped? And the other thing is: When you ask Turks what kind of help they need, what is the response you get, and therefore what are the potential things that you can do together?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We’re not going to talk about our internal discussions with the Turks. But on – they certainly appreciate our public statements, and they certainly are interested in the sanctions, even though, as pointed out, sanctions take some time. I had heard that one – I can’t confirm officially, but I had heard that one of the joint patrols in the northeast as part of the 22 October Sochi agreement was canceled. That’s not a surprise.
MS ORTAGUS: Nick.
QUESTION: Ambassador —
QUESTION: Just one flight only, or a whole – just one single flight —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I only can say that my understanding is there was one patrol canceled. Whether that portends more, I don’t know yet.
QUESTION: Yeah, but when you say one patrol, does that mean just, what, one instance? Or —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah, yeah. There was a patrol that was scheduled that was canceled.
QUESTION: To go on a certain day, and it was canceled.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Right. And – that’s my understanding. These are not daily occurrences; they happen periodically. Just like, remember our patrols when we were back patrolling in our August agreement with the Turks.
QUESTION: Thanks, ambassador, for this. Can I go back to Matt’s question about rhetoric versus what you can do? You ended the conversation with Syria saying Russia needs to change its policy. So in a large question, is there willingness to put pressure on Russia? Does there need to be more U.S. pressure on Russia? Could sanctions be one of those? And is there a notion that Russia can change its policies, or has there been a conclusion that Russia will, as you just said, try and get this military victory and there’s not much we can do?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We believe that Russia could adopt different policies that would meet our minimum requirements and those of the international community – that is, the execution of UN Resolution 2254; joint cooperation to get terrorists, beginning with Daesh, enduringly defeated in Syria; and thirdly, Iranian-commanded forces out. I mean, if there’s a resolution to the civil conflict, then there’s no need for an – Iranian-commanded militias and the thousands or tens of thousands who will be floating around Syria. In particular, with long-range missile systems that you don’t use against the opposition, you use against countries like Israel or countries like Saudi Arabia, or Jordan.
So those are our requirements; they’re not unreasonable. They don’t require the overthrow of Assad. They require a change in that government’s behavior. That government would not survive a week without Russian assistance in the field and in various diplomatic and economic efforts. So it’s up to Russia to make that decision.
On the other hand, we do have pressure on them. First of all, the economic situation in Damascus and around the country, while that begins with the mismanagement of the regime and its opting for guns, not butter, our sanctions and the European Union sanctions and our strict position that has been largely adhered to by the international community of no reconstruction assistance has placed the regime under considerable pressure. We’re going to continue that pressure, we’re going to continue our sanctions, and the Russians are aware that we’re going to do that. So we are having an effect on them. And the other point is you have much of Syria still in one or another way under another country’s military control. We’re in the northeast, we’re in Al-Tanf; the Turks are in the northeast now, the Turks are in the northwest – not just in Idlib, but in areas where they do have significant military forces and do hold terrain and hold the line.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, I wasn’t talking about pressure on Damascus, I was talking about pressure on Moscow and willingness to pressure Russians —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah, we tend to focus the pressure primarily in Syria on the Syrian Government, because that’s our major problem. Our difficulty with Russia is that Russia is not being helpful despite many offers that – from Russia from time to time that they did want to be helpful, and from time to time, such as in the Constitutional Committee, we’ve seen glimpses. But we are particularly struck by the way the Russians at the last moment pulled the plug on these humanitarian crossings, because there’s such a need for them. We’re talking about WHO with – trucks full of medicine lined up along the border in Al-Yarubiyah in the northeast, and this is an area that we’re concerned about because we have forces there. We have partner forces in the SDF fighting Daesh, and this is a real blow to them.
QUESTION: So —
MS ORTAGUS: No, let’s let Said go. He’s going to lose his —
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you. Ambassador, sir, you said that there are roughly five, six thousand NUSRA members – in Idlib, I presume, in the city —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah, it’s probably more than that, although the numbers are really high, because elements float in and out of these movements.
QUESTION: Right, I understand. Now, with that in mind, how do you envision a solution for Idlib? I mean, do you see it as a permanent enclave for the rebels or the so called – I mean, do you still recognize Syria sovereignty all – with all of Syria?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We do, but so does the UN, yet that did not stop the UN from calling for a nationwide ceasefire, and by the nature of the ceasefire, that means that you are acknowledging that part of the country will not be under the control of the government in – the regime in Damascus. So we have no problem with the legal and diplomatic justification of our position. In terms of the HTS, the HTS has not – we have not seen them planning or carrying out international terrorism attacks. We’ve seen them focusing on basically maintaining their position in Idlib. The Russians claim that they constantly launch attacks on the Russians. While HTS did not accept or was not part of the Sochi ceasefire agreement from 2018, we have seen only intermittent and not very strong or significant military actions on their part against the Russians. The Russians use this as an excuse. Basically, they’re on the defensive, they’re just sitting there, and the Russians claim that they’re being attacked or the Syrians are being attacked in order to launch these massive attacks against the civilians.
QUESTION: So how does Idlib get resolved at the end?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: It gets resolved, first of all, by a permanent ceasefire where both sides would only respond if there was an attack, and those response would be limited to air strikes and artillery rather than ground maneuver, capturing large quantities of terrain, which looks a lot like a military solution, as opposed to defending yourself against a terrorist strike. That would be the first step, then we could all sit down and figure out problems like HTS, problems about representation of the people who aren’t under government control. Those are all issues that we’re ready to talk about.
MS ORTAGUS: We are running out of time, so Carol, and Jessica will be last.
QUESTION: Is – are there any discussions underway about whether it may be necessary to send U.S. troops back in in greater force?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: First of all, as you know, we have U.S. troops – as the President decided – still in northeast Syria. Their missions are to support the operations against ISIS. That includes protecting the oilfields. The troop levels are adjusted from time to time by commanders based upon the tactical situation and the various missions they have. And particularly important in Iraq right now but also in Syria – and remember, it’s one command, CJTF-OIR under both of them – force protection’s very important, but in terms of specifics, you’d have to ask the Pentagon.
MS ORTAGUS: Jessica.
QUESTION: There’s pictures on social media of Russian contractors and U.S. troops squaring off on the roads. I was wondering if you could confirm that those have been taken.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Sure.
QUESTION: Are you concerned about an escalation?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We’ve seen many of these things. Now, I actually looked at a map of where they’re happening. Most of them are happening right on the edge where there is a road that everybody uses, and then there’s also an airbase of ours. The vast majority of these incidents occur there, and so to some degree, they represent the Russians trying to move into the far northeast where they do have the town – the city of Qamishli, where there are Russian and Syrian forces. They also have an agreement with Turkey to do patrols, the patrol that’s been cancelled, for example, along that border area and such. So the Russians have legitimate needs to move their forces into that area, but we have deconfliction agreements and we find them violating them to one or another degree in there.
Now, more serious is we have seen a number – a limited number of occasions, but we have seen them – were they have tried to come deep into the area where we and the SDF are patrolling, well inside the basic lines that we have sketched, not right along the borders. Those are the ones that worry me. They’re not all that great in number. But again, I will stress the professionalism of the troops on the ground, beginning with our troops, is such that these incidents have not escalated, but of course, any commander would be concerned about this, and we call upon the Russians to adhere fully to the deconfliction agreements we’ve made with them.
QUESTION: How many is not that many?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: In which —
QUESTION: You just said that – you’re saying in small numbers that’s happened. Just wondering if you —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Small numbers, and probably less than 20 percent, perhaps, of all of the incidents I’ve seen have been ones where they have clearly pushed into the area, and these are not daily occurrences but they have been increasing in number, and thus is troubling. But again, for the latest information, you can ask DOD.
MS ORTAGUS: All right, we’ve got to go. Sorry.