MODERATOR: Okay. So we’ll do background, senior administration official. And I don’t know if you want to open with anything?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. Yeah. Our focus – or my focus today has been on two related aspects of Syria and Iraq policy. One is shoring up the international community to stand against the latest aggression and efforts to get a military solution to the conflict in Syria, most notably and dramatically in the offensive in Idlib, which, if it is not stopped, will create a true humanitarian catastrophe of 3 million people pouring across the Turkish border. They already have 3.5 million; they can’t absorb anything like that. They’ll be spewed onto Europe. We’ve seen almost a million people – over 800,000 – up and move in the last few days. And this is the largest single mass movement we’ve seen in the entire Syrian war, which is saying a lot considering that you’ve gotten almost 11 million people have at one or another point left their homes.
Now, the other point I want to make, because for some reason we keep on making it, they all go away from the Assad regime. We don’t see anybody fleeing to Assad territory, never, ever. Not even from ISIS. People stick with ISIS back when ISIS was ruling a big part of the country rather than trying to put themselves at the tender mercy of Assad. And that’s part of the problem we have with the entire conflict.
So the other thing we are working on in the fight against ISIS, which is another major concern, is our movement forward with Iraq and NATO. You saw there was a press conference this morning with the German defense minister and Secretary Esper. We had – this was with the – what’s called the coalition Iraq group. Those are the 13 Coalition to Defeat ISIS countries, 11 NATO plus Australia and New Zealand, who have troops on the ground in Iraq as part of the coalition. And the focus there was on seeing if NATO could play a bigger role. That is in response to the President’s call, you’ll remember of a few weeks ago, after the Iraqi parliament asked for us to withdraw. We think that any such withdrawal is absolutely irresponsible until we finish the mission of defeating Daesh, and has to be done primarily by the coalition. But we do recognize, as the President said, that NATO can play a bigger role.
At the NATO defense ministers council meeting yesterday, NATO did formally adopt a set of steps to play a bigger role in certain training and advising – mainly training roles and logistical roles in Iraq. There’s already a NATO mission, NATO mission Iraq there, and expanding that and taking a look at possible new mandates and missions. But again, everybody was clear, all the defense ministers, that we need the coalition, but the coalition’s unique ability to succeed in the field against Daesh to remain present in Iraq, and also in Syria. Because the coalition is present in al-Tanf in the south and in the northeast, working with the Syrian Democratic Forces.
So on both of those issues, this has so far been a good conference. The Secretary shared some of our views on these issues with the Kurdistan Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. I met with the EU deputy foreign affairs coordinator, Helga Schmid, today. And we’ve had a variety of other meetings and other exchanges. We met with the Israelis, who have a big interest in Syria. And as you know, there have been a series of strikes – while not officially, in fact everybody knows there is really strikes on Syrian and Iranian targets all over Syria.
So this is a very active set of combat zones. You saw that the Assad regime forces, their intelligence and militia, challenged one of our patrols in northeast Syria three days ago, and they fired at us, and we returned fire. We are absolutely determined to defend ourselves there and to push back on the regime.
Again, we’re working with the Turks to see how the rest of the international community can support a ceasefire under 2254, the relevant UN resolution, in all of Syria, which is what the resolution calls for, but beginning with Idlib. Idlib is at a critical point right now.
MODERATOR: All right. Questions, anybody?
QUESTION: Were you at Brussels?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
QUESTION: So what’s your understanding, then, of – presuming you’ve been – you’re aware of what NATO has actually agreed to – what does this mean in terms of NATO forces on the ground in Iraq?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What it means is that NATO has a mandate that was agreed some time ago within the North Atlantic Council and in 2016 with the Iraqis to do a set of capacity building and high-level training of staffs, of schools, and that sort of thing, with the Iraqi Armed Forces. And the mandate – it’s been carrying out this mandate, doing a pretty good job, but it has not had – last I checked, it had only 55 percent of its approved staffing. And the idea is that it would seek some new areas, possibly new locations, and new ways to do these current mandate missions of capacity building and high-level training. It also will look at – it is a second thing. That was approved yesterday.
They also approved NATO to look into, including by coordinating with the coalition – CJTF-OIR is the coalition command in Baghdad for Iraq and Syria – if there are ways that they can do certain other functions – training functions, logistics functions, interim administrator functions, force protection and such – so that a coalition force that could be somewhat smaller – that decision hasn’t been taken yet – could focus on more military missions that the coalition does so well – advising, accompanying Iraqi and Syrian forces, doing some high-level counterterrorism, providing air operations and tactical intelligence and such. So that’s where the division of labor, we think, still remains.
But that second phase, the second mandate, has not been approved by anybody. It’s just in the early stages of study at this point. But in any case, it should probably mean a somewhat larger NATO mission, simply to carry out the mandate that they did agree on to fully staff their existing mission.
QUESTION: Has the killing of Soleimani had any impact on our operations on the ground?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There’s two answers to that. First of all, the killing of Soleimani and the various events that led to that, including the Iranian missile strikes on our forces in Ayn al-Asad and Iraqi forces as well and coalition forces and in Erbil, led to a immediate shift to force protection and a reluctance initially for the Iraqis to conduct joint operations. Step by step – and I’m not fully aware, although I was briefed today, whether it’s today or tomorrow – we will probably be moving into the full gamut of joint training, joint operations, and other things. But as I said, it’s step by step. But we’re hitting that, where the Iraqis announced at the end of January that we were doing it. We do do some high-end counterterrorism work with them. And so we’re returning pretty quickly to normal. So that’s – so that is a yes answer that’s about to be a no answer because we’re getting back to normal.
I would say no in that the impact being that – wow, why did you go do that; you screwed up your operation. Frankly, life has never been better in dealing in Syria and Iraq than dealing with the Iranians without Qasem Soleimani. He was responsible for so much evil coordination and a rapid reaction to anything we or the coalition or the group of nations that are trying to support a political settlement to Syria – this guy was a genius at scrambling our operations and finding ways to put pressure on local people to mobilize his militias, mobilize his cronies in this campaign to essentially impose Iranian Suzerainty to that whole area from Tehran via Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut. And he is sorely missed by all of his friends, and he is well wished to be gone by his enemies, of which I count myself proudly as one. So that’s a no there. That’s – yes, they’ve been impacted positively by his going.
MODERATOR: So we’ll do Katie and then Nick.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you, sir, for being here. You said that this is the largest humanitarian exit from Syria since —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s not yet from Syria. It’s the largest internal displacement of people that we’ve seen in such a short period of time in Syria in the whole war.
QUESTION: Okay. So given the context, can you explain why things are different and why the displacement is larger than previously?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, first of all, because what happened was – and it’s a set of salami tactics on the part of the Syrians that – and the Russians. They did under the Astana Process, which is Russia, Iran, and Turkey, force these fights around Damascus, in Aleppo, Idlib, and in another area I think further – it was – I don’t remember whether it was Homs or Hama. I’m not quite sure. And then we did our own – you’ll remember the Danang agreement between Putin and President Trump with the Russians and thus, indirectly, the Syrians too. All of them have been violated. All of them have been collapsed by the regime, supported by the Russians.
And in each case what they did, because they didn’t want to do heavy fighting, because heavy fighting requires decent infantry and nobody wants to be an infantryman in Assad’s army, so they’re not very good – so they negotiate kind of ceasefires and settlements and both fighters and internally displaced people who don’t want to live under Assad, which is a large number of people, hop to the next place. Well, this has been going on now for three years, and there’s only one last place for them all to hop to, which is Idlib. So it is jam-packed with tens of thousands of fighters, many tens of thousands of fighters, and some 3.5 million people.
And now they have no place else in Syria to go, and so they’re fleeing towards the Turkish border, and once they get across the Turkish border, it’s a totally different situation, where Turkey, as I said, has made the compelling point that it’s already taken 3.5 million refugees. They can’t take overnight this many more. We’re working with humanitarian agencies and the UN and all those UN-associated agencies to ensure that there’ll be immediate humanitarian aid, but we can’t handle or absorb a million, let alone 3 million people, without considerable dislocation. The UN agencies I think can handle many hundreds of thousands, but boy, even in the short run this will be really, really tough. We’re really worried. You saw reports of nine children freezing to death in some of these makeshift camps around Idlib. So that’s why they’re fleeing.
But again, I think we have to focus on the political. Who are they fleeing? They’re fleeing their own government, and that’s been what almost 12 million people have done, half the population, since 2011.
QUESTION: [Senior Administration Official], one about the present, if you don’t mind one about the past, present, Idlib – I think I asked a version of this to you the other day. Can you put more pressure on the Russians? Can you put more pressure on Moscow to actually try and save some lives in Idlib? And was there any negative impact – I know you’ve been asked that – been asked this in Turkey, but was there any negative impact from the national security adviser’s comment last week that the U.S. is not the world’s police?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, well, the U.S. isn’t the world’s policeman.
Okay, okay. So first of all, support Turkey as the Secretary did, as I have done, as I hope that we can get out of the White House but don’t report that until it happens. And then pressure – economic pressure. We’ve got the Caesar bill we’re working on feverishly because that gives us so much power. We’re also looking at authorities under the executive order that we did quickly in October to put pressure on Turkey, but it’s so written that we can put pressure on the Assad regime for violating the ceasefire and violating the 2254 process. If you look at this thing, everything but the kitchen sink was thrown into that one. So the Caesar one gives us really tremendous powers, but it takes more time to generate the – essentially the target lists. And then the EU will soon – I cannot say exactly when – be taking further steps against the Assad regime. We think that’s important. We think that everything we’re doing to continue to fight against ISIS, to hold the regime at bay in the northeast, because we can’t do the fight against ISIS if we’re being interfered with by either the Russians – you saw the photograph from a week ago – or Assad’s troops shooting at us. So we basically are holding terrain there.
We’re still in al-Tanf. We, of course, have made it very clear we support fully in every way possible the Israeli actions for their own existential self-defense by striking at Iranian and, if necessary, Syrian targets in Syria. So there’s military, political, and diplomatic efforts that we’re trying to do to, again, not win this war but to get it back to a negotiated settlement where we can sit down with the Russians as Pompeo did in Sochi with Putin back in May and try and get a compromised solution. But right now the Russians seem to be shooting for, literally, a military solution. Not just Idlib; look what they did at the UN renewal of these humanitarian crossings. They scratched two of the four out and basically put us on notice that in six months they’re going to get rid of the last two by using their veto. And we’re seeing that there. As I said, they’re pressuring us in the northeast and we’re pressuring them right back though, and at the constitutional committee that was the one hope we had in Geneva. We’ve seen no action on that since it was first formed. It’s been blocked by Assad and if the Russians wanted to go forward, they haven’t been able to convince Assad, and Assad is – goes nowhere without Russian support.
So that’s what we’re doing.
MODERATOR: Okay. Anyone else? Cindy.
QUESTION: Yes. Have you spoken with Turkish officials about what they would do if they do have that many people coming over?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, of course.
QUESTION: And what are they saying?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Their first effort was to try to find, work with humanitarian agencies to relieve the immediate fear of death, starvation, bad water and that kind of thing, but they have made it clear to us that they cannot keep all of these people in their territory and that Europe is going to have to take on some of them.
QUESTION: Right. Can I follow up? Did you see President Erdogan’s comments about the Middle East peace plan?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Of course.
QUESTION: Any reaction?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, we disagree. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Can I ask you to clarify something?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would say we disagree strongly.
QUESTION: What is a “salami process”?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That is —
QUESTION: Or did I mishear you?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You take slice by slice, and the problem is Idlib is a lot of slices. Think of the salami. You slice it one, one, one, one, and then you get to the last, that little tail thingy, and —
QUESTION: Yeah, it’s not very good, though.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I know, but that’s where Idlib is. So there’s no more slices to slice after Idlib. So therefore, if you’re a salami that doesn’t want to be sliced or doesn’t want to go into the sandwich, you’re going to really hang on for life in that last little slice, okay, and that’s what we got here.
QUESTION: It seems to me that could be, like, any kind of processed meat kind of thing.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Pick your meat, okay? (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Okay. Let’s move to Abbie.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m never going to do another one of these. (Laughter.) Never ever. Okay.
QUESTION: I understand that this might be something that – it’s not your – what you’re focusing on, so you might not necessarily have an answer. But it seems like people are looking at what’s happening in Syria and are worried it’s repeating itself in Libya with third countries being on the ground with all the competing interests and trying to figure out this complicated situation, civilians in the crossfire. Looking at what’s happened so far in Syria, in your experience, do you have any thoughts on a way to avoid that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure, sure. And I have gotten involved in this in bits and pieces, although there are people who can do this better than me. But they’re not here; I am.
One, we are very, very worried about the commitment of Wagner and heavy weapons, which changed the whole conflict and essentially super-charged Haftar in his offensive against Tripoli. We’re glad that that offensive has been stopped and that we have hopes of a ceasefire. We were very supportive of the UN resolution – it’s 25 — I forget the – but it came out two days ago with a 55-point plan. We are very troubled but not surprised by the fact 14 countries voted for it. Who was the 15th? Russia. That’s the problem right now in Libya. It’s a complicated European, inter-Arab, Turkish mishmash of kind of second order, by Middle East standard, issues that suddenly have been spilled over into great power, danger by the Russian intervention. And we just think that this needs to be brought under control quickly, or we will have another Syria.
MODERATOR: So I think we have time for one more after.
QUESTION: Can I ask one other just follow-up?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure.
QUESTION: As you’re talking about this, it doesn’t seem like – I know you’re talking about the last part of the salami, and I hate to continue the metaphor, but does it seem like things are getting more complicated rather than less in this final moment?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it’s not the final moment because – here is my map. You can’t take pictures of it, but here’s my map of Syria. The beige is where the Syrians are, except that ISIS occupies this whole part of it, but we don’t have a color for ISIS anymore. And of course, the Israeli Air Force is operating all over this thing at will.
And then all of these areas are all being held by us, the Turks, or some combination of our local allies – the SDF Kurds or the Turkish local allies or in one case the HTS, who’s nobody’s ally. And Assad doesn’t have an answer to get all of that back, so I don’t see this as the endgame to this conflict. I’m hoping it can be the endgame to the conflict if Assad and the Russians are not allowed to go any further by the combination of military pressure by Turkey and the Syrian opposition, and political and diplomatic pressure and support by us and the rest of the international community. We have a chance of ending this dream of a military victory. We’ll see how that works out. So therefore, I don’t see that – I mean, nothing is more complicated than Syria. So how do you measure how many specks of sand, complicated sand, in the ocean?
MODERATOR: Okay, one more.
QUESTION: Can we do one more?
MODERATOR: Yeah, we were going to go to Katie.
QUESTION: Just as a follow-up, given that we’re in Munich and the issues that Germany had with their massive refugee crisis the first time around, in your conversations with European leaders, are they prepared for this impending crisis? Could he warn them about it? Are they —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have warned them about it. They’ve been warned by the Turks in Erdogan’s own unique way of warning people that unfair observers of Erdogan might call threats. And —
QUESTION: Did they have a reaction? Are they —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, yeah, they’re – yeah, they’re horrified, horrified. It’s like – what was the police commissioner in Casablanca? I’m just – what is it? Horrified, I’m horrified.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Shocked, shocked. No, but they really are, but they keep on being shocked because they do not – to deal with this you have to deal with hard power. The Turks see deploying one kind; we’re deploying another – diplomatic, as O’Brien said, not military but diplomatic and other. The European Union is trying this a little bit with the new sanctions that I think they’ll be deploying – they’ll be approving very soon on Syria. And they already have sanctions on Syria, but it’s very hard for them to cope with this because politically they’re not – this is a huge political issue.
This is – my own assessment is, from nine years in Germany, this is a bigger political existential issue for Europeans than immigration and the wall is for Americans, which is saying a lot. This is really got them frightened. You saw what happened with the AfD party Thuringia in Germany for the first time. They indirectly came to power in one of the provinces of Germany, and this shocked the whole system. And shocks like that, you see Le Pen’s successes in the past in France and so on.
They’re very, very worried about another flood of refugees, so they’re very, very worried about the Idlib situation. But they look to us – now, and that’s another theme. I don’t know what the silly name of this conference is, but I’ve been doing these things since 1990, and I’ve never seen our European and Middle Eastern friends who are here in abundance be more willing to work with us, be more willing to ask us to play a leading roles, and be willing to follow when we do so, which we usually do. This NATO coalition thing is a good example of it. There are many others.