Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-background briefing with a senior State Department official. The senior State Department official on this call will discuss the recent travel by Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood to northeast Syria, Tunisia, and Libya, and take questions from participating journalists on those specific topics.
We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.
I will now turn it over to our senior State Department official for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.
Senior State Department Official: Thank you, [Moderator]. As-salamu alaykum [in Arabic]. It’s a pleasure to speak with all of you today.
A delegation from the U.S. Government recently concluded travel to northeast Syria, Libya, and Tunisia from May 16th to May 21st. It was a terrific trip focused on several important initiatives that underline America’s commitment to the region’s stability and prosperity.
In Syria, we met with senior officials of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Syrian Democratic Council, ranking councilmembers and tribal leaders from Raqqa, coalition military counterparts, and humanitarian actors as well. We underscored our commitment to cooperation in the Coalition to Defeat ISIS, continued stability in northeast Syria, and the delivery of stabilization assistance to liberated areas to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh. We also underlined our support for all efforts toward a political resolution of the Syrian conflict. We reiterated there, and I do so again here today, that the United States will continue to be a leader in the Syrian humanitarian response while working with our partners to ensure the reauthorization of cross-border assistance into Syria.
Today’s so-called presidential elections in Syria have been denounced by the United States for the Assad regime’s decision to hold an election outside the framework described in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The elections are neither free nor fair, and we urge the international community to reject this attempt by the Assad regime to claim legitimacy without protecting the Syrian people, without respecting its obligations under international law, including humanitarian law and human rights law, and without meaningfully participating in the UN-facilitated political process to end the conflict.
In Libya, we traveled along with the Ambassador, who is also the newly appointed Special Envoy, Richard Norland, to meet with Libyan interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush, head of the presidential council Mohamed Menfi, and the president of the high national electoral commission Dr. Emad Sayah. Our trip represented the highest-level U.S. diplomatic visit since 2014 and demonstrated our strong support for the progress the Libyan people have made towards an inclusive, negotiated political solution.
After our conversations in Tripoli, we’re confident that elections will take place in December. The agreement on a constitutional and legislative framework for those elections is vital. It’s important for national reconciliation. The United States supports a sovereign, stable, unified Libya with no foreign interference and a state that is capable of combating terrorism within its borders. We firmly oppose all military escalation and all foreign military intervention. These things only deepen and prolong the conflict. We’ll remain closely engaged with all stakeholders and with the government – the interim Government of National Unity as it prepares for elections and ending the conflict.
In Tunisia, we met with State Secretary Mohamed Ali Nafti and diplomatic advisor to the prime minister Elyes Ghariani. The United States and Tunisia are historic partners. Our cooperation led to the construction of the Carthage airport and has focused on health, education, and infrastructure projects. Since the revolution in 2011, we’ve provided close to $2 billion in democracy, economic, and security-focused assistance to benefit the entire country. That includes over $36 million specifically for the nationwide response to COVID-19. We view Tunisia as a partner of choice, grounded by our shared commitment to democratic values and promoting prosperity. We seek to sustain Tunisia’s democratic successes and support further efforts toward democratic consolidation. The delegation particularly enjoyed their meetings with young Tunisians and members of Tunisia’s vibrant civil society. It was an honor to attend a celebration marking the 75th anniversary of the Fulbright program in Tunisia because it’s those sorts of cultural ties, in addition to economic, security, and political ties, that make our relationship so strong and meaningful.
With that, I will stop and I would be happy to take some questions. Over to you, [Moderator].
Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question is a pre-submitted question from Karim Traboulsi from Al-Araby al-Jadeed, and he had a number of questions so I’ll just start with one and then, if we have time, we’ll come back to his other questions. So his first question, sir, is: “Is the U.S. developing a new policy for Syria to move towards a peace process?” Over to you.
Senior State Department Official: Well, thank you for the question. I wouldn’t say it’s a new policy. We remain fully supportive of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for the convening of free and fair elections pursuant to a new constitution, administered under the supervision of the UN, in which all Syrians – including those who are internally displaced, those who are refugees, and in the diaspora – should be able to participate. We believe that stability in Syria and the wider region is best served through a political process like the one I just described that will produce peaceful outcomes, and we’re committed to working with allies and partners and the United Nations to try to move that process forward.
So not a new policy but recommitment to our support of Security Council Resolution 2254.
Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. Our next question caller – our next question is from the live queue, and it goes to Hiba Nasr from Asharq News. Operator, please open the line.
Operator: Your line is open. Go ahead, please.
Question: Hi, thank you for doing this. Thanks, [Senior State Department Official]. I will ask two questions, if you don’t mind. The first, on Syria. I would follow up on that. You have been supporting 2254 since it was drafted, but is there, for example, a course – how you would follow up? There is no Special Envoy to Syria now.
And my second question – you said about Libya that you are confident that the elections would happen in December, after your visit. What makes you confident that it would happen? We have many obstacles before that date. So can you please elaborate?
Senior State Department Official: Sure. First of all, on Syria, for security – our support for Security Council Resolution 2254 and the political process, it is true that we don’t have a special envoy or a special representative. We do have an acting special representative who is also our deputy assistant secretary. The approach of this administration has been to look carefully at the roles of special envoys and special representatives to appoint them where absolutely necessary to move processes forward, such as what we’ve seen with our diplomacy with Iran and returning to the JCPOA, and with Yemen in ending the conflict there, and in Libya to try to end the conflict there. In each of these places I think we see a new dynamic that we want to try to capitalize on. In Syria, we do not see a partner in Bashar al-Assad and, unfortunately, the sham elections that he is organizing today don’t give us any greater confidence that he is willing to be a partner in peace, but we’re going to continue to try to advance the process that’s set forth in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
With regard to Libya, I said that about the elections because I heard from all political actors that we met with during the visit that they are committed to the elections, and I understand that there are a number of obstacles, but we view those obstacles as surmountable with assistance from the United Nations and from the international community, and we’ve seen what Libyans are capable of when they come together and decide to do something together, which they appear to have done with regard to elections in December. So we will be fully supportive of that and that is the outcome that we expect.
Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. Our next question is a pre-submitted question from Hugo Goodridge from Al-Araby al-Jadeed based in the UK. And Hugo asks, “Does the State Department have a comment regarding recent reports that the sanctions waiver for Delta Crescent Energy operating in northeast Syria has been lifted?” Over to you, sir.
Senior State Department Official: I’m sorry, can you still hear me?
Senior State Department Official: Okay. I had some static there. Well, as a general policy, the U.S. Government does not comment on whether private companies have authorizations or licenses, so we would ask that queries go to them. But in a broader sense, I can assure you, as I did our partners in northeast Syria, that we have a military presence there exclusively focused on fighting Daesh. They are not there for any other reason. They’re not there to protect the oil. They’re not there to exploit the oil resources. Syrian oil is there for the Syrian people, and we do not own, control, or manage any of those resources, nor do we wish to.
Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. Our next question is from the live queue and it goes to Mr. Muath Alamri from Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. Operator, please open the line.
Operator: Your line is open.
Question: Thank you so much. I would like to ask you, [Senior State Department Official], about the Caesar Act, the Caesar resolution. We heard there might be an ease to implement the Caesar Act, so I need your comment on that. And also, there is protesters on the ground in Iraq and they are yelling for change, and that has been for a while, and what’s your comment on that? Thank you.
Senior State Department Official: Did you – with regard to the Caesar sanctions, you were asking whether we were going to lift those sanctions? Is that your question?
Question: Yes, there are some people are asking to ease those sanctions from the Congress. I need to know what’s your position there.
Senior State Department Official: Mm-hmm. Well, first of all, I want to remind you that this is a law. The Caesar Act was passed by an overwhelming majority of the American Congress. So the administration is going to implement the law. That’s clear. The law seeks to limit the ability of Bashar and others in the Syrian Government to profit from the conflict and from any reconstruction that takes place afterwards, after the conflict. So that law is going to remain unless the Congress chooses to repeal it. But as I said, with overwhelming bipartisan support for the law’s original passage, that does not look likely anytime soon.
With regard to the protesters in Iraq, we’re watching this very closely. We deplore the use of violence against peaceful activists and we are calling on everyone, all the armed groups in Iraq, to respect the constitutional right of people to protest peacefully.
Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. So our next question is another pre-submitted question from Karim Traboulsi from Al-Araby al-Jadeed, and he asks, “Sir, how do you see Syria’s allies’ increased rapprochement with Assad?”
Senior State Department Official: Well, we have absolutely no intention to normalize our own relations with the Assad regime, and we would certainly, I think, call on all other governments that are thinking of doing so to think very carefully about how the Syrian president has treated his own people. It’s very difficult to imagine normalizing diplomatic relations with a regime that’s been so brutal to its own people. So that’s our view on that.
Moderator: Okay. Thank you, sir. Our next question is from the live queue and it goes to Ms. Brooke Anderson from The New Arab. Operator, please open the line.
Operator: Your line is open. Ms. Anderson, if you could please check your mute feature. One moment, please. Sorry, we’ve had some technical difficulty. Your line is open now.
Ms. Anderson, we seem to have lost you from the queue. If you would please press 1 then 0 again.
I believe it’s possible she may have disconnected. Did you want to move on to the next line?
Moderator: Sorry, I was speaking and I myself was on mute. This is [Moderator] again at the Dubai Hub. Yeah, let’s please go ahead and go to the next question in the queue, from Mr. Michel Ghandour from Al Hurra TV. Operator, please open the line. Thank you.
Operator: Your line is open.
Question: Yeah, thank you for doing this. I have two questions, one on Syria and one on Libya. [Senior State Department Official], what chance is there you think Assad’s competitors have to win the elections in Syria, and what is the future of the U.S. presence there? And on Libya, the UN Secretary-General has said a couple of days ago or last week that there has been no reduction of foreign fighters or their activities in Libya, and the arms embargo continues to be breached. What can the U.S. do in this regard? Thank you.
Senior State Department Official: Well, thank you, Michel. It’s always good to hear from you. I think that Bashar’s competitors have zero chance of winning the presidential – the sham presidential election there today. As you know, Bashar is a classic Baathist and the only question when there’s a presidential election for a Baathist is will he get 99 percent or 99.9 percent? So I don’t think there’s any real question there.
With regard to the U.S. military and diplomatic presence in northeast Syria, it’s not going to change anytime soon. We are committed to the enduring defeat of Daesh in that area and working with our partners from the international coalition of 83 countries and organizations as well as the Syrian Democratic Forces to ensure that lasting defeat. But we still have a long way to go. Daesh is still very much a threat in northeast Syria, so our military and diplomatic presence is not likely to change.
With regard to Libya, we agree; we have seen no reduction in foreign forces or their mercenaries, and so that’s why we have continued to call for the complete and total removal of all foreign forces from all sides immediately, in accordance with the October 23rd ceasefire agreement among the Libyan parties. We will continue to work for this diplomatically and to support the Libyan people, because theirs are the most powerful voices in calling for this removal of foreign forces.
Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. I don’t see any more questions in our live queue, so why don’t I turn it back over to you, sir, for any closing remarks that you might have.
Oh, wait. Hold on, sir. We just had a question from the queue pop up.
Senior State Department Official: Okay.
Moderator: Operator, please open the line of Mr. Joseph Haboush from Al Arabiya, please. Thank you.
Operator: Your line is open. You may proceed.
Question: [Senior State Department Official], thanks for doing this. I jumped on the call a few minutes late. Apologies if this has been touched on. But I did hear the question earlier on rapprochement from some in the region with the Assad regime, so I wanted to ask if – specifically for – we’ve seen numerous Gulf countries reopen their embassies in Syria and talk of more doing so in the coming weeks, months, who knows. But do you think this will be – this will threaten any potential arms sales to countries in the region? Thanks.
Senior State Department Official: Hi, Joseph. Good to hear from you. I can’t really speculate on what the consequences of dealings with the Assad regime might be, but we do remind our allies and partners to be careful in thinking about their potential exposure to sanctions by dealing with this regime, and also just to think carefully about the atrocities that the Assad regime has visited upon the Syrian people over the last decade. Do they really want to be closely associated with a regime that has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs on its own people and all the other things that this government has done? I think we should be focused on accountability for the regime more than re-establishing diplomatic relations.
Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. And now I will turn it back over to you for any closing remarks.
Senior State Department Official: Well, nothing from me other than to say thank you for everyone’s time and patience with the call-in system, and thank you for your interest in this visit. We hope to do more of these in the future.
Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank our senior State Department official for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. As a reminder, this call is attributable on-background only, meaning that you may attribute the contents of this call to a senior State Department official and not attribute anything in this call to any specific official by name. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you all and have a great day.