MR BROWN: Good morning. Welcome to this on-the-record briefing with Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat Isis.
As you know, yesterday Secretary Pompeo and his Italian counterpart hosted a virtual meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Small Group. The participants in that meeting reaffirmed their determination to continue to fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria and to ensure the enduring defeat of that terrorist group through a comprehensive, multifaceted approach.
Ambassador Jeffrey was by the Secretary’s side for yesterday’s discussion. We’re grateful to have him with us today to share his impressions. He’ll offer some opening thoughts and then we’ll have time for your questions. As always, the contents of this discussion are embargoed until the end of the call.
Ambassador, please go ahead.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you very much. Hello, everybody. Thanks for coming in today. I hope you’re all staying healthy.
Let me give you a bit of background on the meeting that we had virtually yesterday. First of all, the most important thing was that despite everything going on, the Secretary and some 30 foreign ministers or their top-level representatives and Prime Minister Kadhimi by a recorded message participated because people think that it is absolutely imperative to maintain the pressure on Daesh and not lose the bubble as we’re focused on other things.
You have the Secretary’s opening remarks. One thing I want to emphasize is besides providing a summary of the U.S. commitment to maintain the coalition military pressure on Daesh in Iraq and Syria, he also stressed the importance on the part of both the U.S. but also of other countries of providing stabilization and other financial – mainly humanitarian – support for our efforts in Iraq and Syria and also the other elements of the coalition effort.
The coalition has a broad effort that is not just military. It’s stabilization, it’s going after foreign fighters, working with law enforcement, working with INTERPOL; it’s also stomping on the financial channels that ISIS has set up. Many of them have dried up now and we’re still pursuing them; maintaining a good communication strategy to combat ISIS’s malicious and malevolent messages; and finally, figuring out ways to both stop the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, and for those, many who are now captured, getting them returned.
David Hale followed up with – Under Secretary Hale followed up on the Secretary’s briefing to talk a bit about the strategic dialogue that he’ll be initiating with the Iraqi Government on the 11th of this month. David stressed that what we’re looking for is not simply to talk about coalition troop presence but also the entire U.S. bilateral relationship, and implicitly that’s why he briefed the coalition, the coalition’s presence in Iraq and the case of the bilateral relationship under the terms of the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement, which looks at the overall relationship with the United States explicitly in financial, economic, social, political, diplomatic, energy, as well as security terms, but implicitly the overall international community’s extraordinary efforts to help Iraq get back to its feet. Here I would single out the UNDP for its massive effort for the fund for stabilization which many of our partners in the coalition contribute to.
That was followed by the remarks by Prime Minister Kadhimi of Iraq. He stressed his willingness to work with the coalition, the importance of the fight against Daesh. He underlined that although his country has had considerable success against Daesh, that it continues to need cooperation with the coalition even though as time goes on that may change in its nature. It was a very positive set of remarks from him.
Then when we turned to the participants, I want to highlight in particular NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg’s comments. He said that NATO is working to take up the request by President Trump that NATO play a bigger role in counterterrorism in general in the fight against Daesh including in Iraq in particular, and NATO is well underway to find ways to strengthen the NATO Mission Iraq, NMI’s presence and activities as we go forward.
The general consensus of the group was that the fight against Daesh is going well. I provided a briefing based upon General White’s press conference and other information. General White is the commander of the CJTF-OIR in Baghdad. We have seen an uptick in Daesh attacks in Iraq during Ramadan. That’s typical for Ramadan. What we did see, however, is that these attacks in terms of numbers had dropped significantly, certainly by two digits percentage-wise from the attacks last year. They also were generally speaking less complex, showing less sophistication, showing that the organization remains under a lot of pressure in northeast Syria. There’s been no significant diminution of the operation supported by us by the Syrian Defense Forces, the SDF, against Daesh throughout the northeast, and they’re basically everywhere other than in the Turkish Peace Spring area, still in control and still running the anti-Daesh campaign. We are concerned about Daesh elements south of the Euphrates in those areas that the regime and its Iranian and Russian supporters control. There has been a significant increase in attacks, and we’re watching that closely because Daesh sees the entire Iraq/Syria area as one single front.
So the coalition has concluded that we will meet together in fact not virtually in Italy, probably Naples, as soon as the COVID crisis is over, at least enough reduced that everybody can travel. Again, there was a recommitment on the part of everyone to maintain political, financial, and military efforts against Daesh in the core area. We also in passing noted the threat that is troubling in West Africa. The coalition will be doing a coordination meeting there in conjunction with the Coalition for the Sahel and other activities, particularly those that the French are playing a leading role in.
So I’ll stop there, and I’ll be happy to answer questions as I said about this or about anything related to the fight against Daesh at least in the core area or about our policy towards Syria. Thank you.
MR BROWN: Great. So we’ll take your questions. First in the queue is Lara Jakes.
OPERATOR: Okay, Lara Jakes, one moment. And your line is open. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Great. Hey, Jim. Nice to hear from you. Hope you’re well.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I am, Lara. Thanks.
QUESTION: So you said that Mr. Hale wanted to talk about more with regards to the strategic dialogue than the troop presence and the American troop presence, but I’m wondering what the other allies on the call or on the virtual meeting felt about the American posture on troop presence. And if you can give us kind of not just their feedback but also what the current posture is of the United States and where we are on either maintaining a residual force there or withdrawing.
And regarding Daesh, I was wondering to what extent U.S. forces in Iraq are currently assisting Iraqi Security Forces and fighting Daesh. I presume that it’s ISF that’s going out and doing most of the raids, but can you let me know if they are accompanied by U.S. forces or if it’s mostly eye in the sky and intel, but just what is the level of support there? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Sure. First of all, there’s been no change in the American position that we’re going to continue to maintain forces as long as the Iraqi Government is willing to have U.S. and coalition forces present in the country until the enduring defeat of Daesh is accomplished, and it’s not yet accomplished. That’s our policy.
The coalition – other coalition countries, the very strong sentiment from all of them both in the meeting and generally is they do not believe that the fight against Daesh is over. Many of these countries, particularly in Western Europe but also in the region, are much more under Daesh threat or have been in the past – think of Paris, think of Brussels, think of Cote d’Azur, think of Berlin. They’re very concerned about Daesh making a comeback, so therefore they not only are willing to maintain their presence, but also they’re very, very interested in the United States keeping its presence and maintaining the leadership of CJTF-OIR.
As the Iraqi forces improve, and they have improved a great deal – and the SDF are a first-class counterterrorism force, frankly – there have been some changes in how the U.S. operates in the field. I can’t get into the details because at some levels it’s classified, at others it’s basically the specifics are for the military, but basically we’re moving more towards not unit tactical training but mentoring and coaching, headquarters. There’s obviously a significant intelligence component, and details of – at times you’ll see announcements of coalition aircraft carrying out strikes. They were British and French as well as American I believe in the last week. You’ll continue to see that when necessary. And in terms of the accompanying of forces, that is not a usual activity and I can’t get into it any more.
QUESTION: Is my line still open?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Certainly to me.
QUESTION: Oh, fabulous. Okay. Were you talking about – the coalition airstrikes, is that mostly in Syria or is that in Iraq?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The ones that have made it into the press have been in Iraq.
QUESTION: Got it.
MR BROWN: Thanks. Let’s go to our next question from Shaun Tandon, please.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this, Ambassador Jeffrey. Could I expand a little bit on that? I know this isn’t 100 percent in your lane, but the strategic dialogue that’s coming up with Iraq – could you explain a little bit more what you’re looking for and what’s going to be discussed? Is this more of a getting to know you session with the current Iraqi leadership? Do you expect to go in depth on the troop levels of the United States? And do you sense any shift since the beginning of this year, since the killing of Soleimani, in terms of Iraq’s willingness to allow coalition forces on its soil? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Well, Iraq is allowing coalition forces to continue on its soil, and it’s willing to sit down with us and talk with us about the U.S. presence and more generally the coalition presence, as we have the command of the coalition, CJTF-OIR.
The Iraqis are split on this. The Marja’iya and Najaf under Grand Ayatollah Sistani has taken a position that no decision should be taken on the international military presence until after there’s new elections, so that’s the position of one significant part of the Iraqi political system, and the various parties have different views on this. The Kurdish parties, for example, did not support the call in the parliament for that. So basically we’ll present where we plan on helping Iraq, where we think the coalition can continue to help Iraq in the fight against Daesh, but also to recover from COVID-19, to deal with the very dramatic fall in oil prices on which Iraq is particularly dependent, and to deal with the problems with Iranian encroachment on Iraqi sovereignty. That’s an important issue too. That’s of concern to us because, of course, Iranian-backed forces repeatedly attacked our forces and at one point the Iranian missile forces from Iran attacked our forces. So these are all issues that are likely to come up.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next let’s hear from Nick Schifrin.
QUESTION: Hey, Ambassador. Thank you for doing this. Can I take you to Idlib for one question and then ask a follow-up to (inaudible)?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Sure.
QUESTION: To Idlib, can you tell us the latest on what seemed to be a quiet Eid, but also reports of Russian airstrikes resuming in Idlib? Wondering how serious those are, how extensive those are, and whether that’s a clear violation of the ceasefire. And then to go back to what you’ve been talking about, the overall effort against ISIS, I understand that you’re – you gave that endorsement that the strategy is to remain in Iraq until ISIS is defeated. As you know better than us, there’s a lot of people who are worried about an ISIS resurgence. I know relative to last year you’re saying it’s lower, but still we are seeing increased numbers, and these experts of the region are worried about U.S. presence overall in both Iraq and Syria. And so can you sit here and say that you’re tracking the ISIS increase over the last few months and the U.S. remains committed both to Iraq, on Syria and the fight? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah. Let me take Idlib and ISIS and – though the two Is. First of all, the Idlib ceasefire, having been through about three of them in the last few years, seems to have a different feel to it. Why? First of all, because the UN Syria envoy, Geir Pedersen, on the back of the ceasefire back in March has started calling for a nationwide ceasefire which in fact is called for in the relevant UN resolution from December 2015, 2504. And in addition, what we saw at the end of the fighting was the direct and extraordinarily effective engagement of the Turkish military against Syrian armed forces with devastating losses on the ground, and I think three Syrian fighter planes shot down.
So the Turks are much more involved. The ceasefire is holding. Even the Russians that I’ve talked to basically agree that they’re seeing fewer attacks from the terrorist groups – there are several of them: Hurras al-Din, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham – and the Turks are working pretty aggressively against them. They’re taking losses and they’re inflicting losses to try to keep these people under control, which has been part of this last ceasefire and the early one from September 2018. So that’s a good sign. It deprives the regime of an excuse to launch another offensive. The Turks are also reinforcing even further their positions throughout Idlib. We have seen no significant ground movement. There’s been some minor shelling back and forth. The Russian activity that you mentioned was several days ago. They were Russian overflights. We have no indication that they dropped ordnance. We did see one missile strike at about the time that they were flying, but we can’t put the two together.
In terms of ISIS, I have to be careful here because one of the themes from – there were two themes re. ISIS in the core, which is what we call Syria and Iraq, from the conference yesterday. One is: It remains a resilient and significant threat to those countries, to the region, and to ultimately us in America and certainly to our European partners, but that the overall number of attacks is not increasing. It is dropping. It’s not dropping significantly, and in one area, as I said, we are quite concerned, and that is on the other side of the Euphrates in Syrian Government areas, because these people don’t stay in one place. They move throughout Syria then move throughout Iraq. But again, there have been a number of aggressive – particularly as the two countries came off of Ramadan, there have been a number of aggressive Iraqi operations, the “Heroes of Iraq” program up in the northern part. There have been a number of strikes on terrorist leaders that have been – we’ve been very successful. Our people have been very successful on that in the last month.
So we think the situation is not getting worse, it’s getting better. It’s getting better slowly, but it isn’t going to continue getting better if we don’t keep military, political, financial, stabilization, and diplomatic pressure on these guys, both in Syria and Iraq.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next let’s hear from Nick Wadhams.
QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador, thank you. Just two quick questions. One, do you have a sense for the amount of territory that ISIS fighters now control? Has that expanded or contracted? And then second, when you talk about greater involvement by NATO, what specifically would that entail?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah. ISIS controls no territory. I mean, if – that’s easier for us to say than when I was in Iraq talking about the various insurgent groups we’re dealing with, because they – we never really saw them control territory other than in 2004 Fallujah, whereas ISIS, of course, controlled a huge swath, 100,000 square kilometers of territory at one point, in 2014, early 2015, between Iraq and Syria, and the better part of 8 million people.
So we know what that looks like. We see nothing like that now. They do not control the territory, there are no no-go zones for security forces, and they don’t control populations. There are areas where they operate; we don’t see them expanding. Those are in the fault lines between the Peshmerga lines in the north of Iraq, and basically around Kirkuk to the east and to the west, into the – and it’s not that the Peshmerga aren’t doing their job, it’s just that there’s obviously a – not a vacuum, but there is coordination problems between where they are and where the Iraqi army is, right to the south, the Iraqi army and certain of these militia groups. And then in bits of pieces of Anbar Province up towards Mosul, and in northeast Syria around Hasakah, they operate at times, and down in Deir al-Zor and Raqqa. As I said, they operate probably most openly, or most freedom of movement in the Badia desert to the south of the Euphrates, but that’s not an area that we normally operate in.
QUESTION: And on NATO?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: NATO. NATO was doing – I visited their headquarters last time I was out there and talked with the Canadian commander. They were doing basically very senior-level coordination and capacity building for the long term with Iraqi forces. They’re considering first of all expanding that, getting into areas of long-term training and education that they haven’t done before, and then they’re looking to see if there are some of the things that the coalition has been doing in terms of supporting the Iraqis that NATO might be able to do. But that which is called phase two, there’s not really been a decision by NATO on that, but NATO has taken the decision to expand its current level and current kind of activities which are higher-level headquarters coordination, coaching, training, that sort of thing.
And as that is increasingly what the Iraqis need, when the need for tactical training – they don’t need to be having our trainers out on the rifle ranges, for example, anymore, that kind of thing they can do very well themselves.
MR BROWN: Okay, next let’s go to Jeff Seldin.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much for doing this, Ambassador. Really appreciate it. Just wanted to follow up on a couple things with ISIS. U.S. counterterrorism officials and some of the U.S. partners on the ground seem to have a slightly different view than the coalition and some of what you’ve expressed here. They say that the attacks do appear to be more deadly, more coordinated, and counterterrorism officials have said that ISIS seems to be strengthening itself incrementally, like to the point where they’re able to do a lot more complicated attacks. And even just today the SDF announced a campaign where they say they’re trying to pursue ISIS cells along the desert even, where the coalition doesn’t have much reach. So how much concern is there about these differing views, and can you reconcile that at all?
And then my second question is: What have you been seeing so far in terms of the new leadership from Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi or al-Mullah, whatever name you want to use? What are you seeing from him in terms of what he’s doing for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and then what type of control or coordination is he doing in terms of ISIS affiliates elsewhere, including perhaps Afghanistan and especially in Africa? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Right, yeah. No, those are good points and they do get to how we and counterterrorism experts assess this. The new leadership, of course – and the new leadership is under very, very strong pressure by coalition or local forces, and we see them very, very limited in their ability to coordinate tactically even within Syria and Iraq, and very, very little capability to organize either assaults elsewhere out of Iraq and Syria, which, of course, at one point ISIS was capable of doing, or to coordinate the activities of ISIS elements, say, in the Sinai, say in West Africa, say in the Khorasan area of Afghanistan. That’s one of the reasons why we believe that ISIS is not strengthening. They don’t show those capabilities. Their ability to move money, their recruitment – all of the things that we’ve been watching since 2014 – are way, way, way down.
There was no real disagreement with the assessment made. And I mean, I went through this in considerable detail with our military in the past four weeks in preparation for the conference, and I think some of it was two things. First of all, there’s always for good reason – you all know how ISIS sprung up to the complete surprise of almost everybody everywhere. The first person to actually warn about it in the U.S. Congress was Brett McGurk in 2013. At the end of the year, nobody – neither we nor anybody else – took much action until disaster struck first in Fallujah, then in Mosul, and that got the international community, led by America, more involved. But I mean, given the history of ISIS, also given the history of the organization that spawned ISIS initially, al-Qaida with 9/11, everybody should be careful and cautious and on their guard to simply write off a terrorist movement with the pedigree of ISIS. And so there is that consideration.
There was also one very significant attack, I think in April, in Tikrit, where there were 69 ISIS – or not ISIS, Iraqi – they weren’t Iraqi army troops, who tend to be the good counterterrorism forces, but rather they were police and militia – but still, it was 69 who were killed. And it was this complex series of attacks. That got everybody’s attention. But again, people are, I would say, more in sync with us after both CENTCOM and CJTF-OIR did a set of briefings and they laid out the actual statistics. I’ve seen the statistics. Again, the number of attacks has dropped by certainly over 10 percent and the – that was in that period of time through Ramadan. And the overall assessment is that the complexity of the attacks has gone downhill from the standpoint of ISIS.
So I’ll hold with that, but people – it’s like COVID-19 or anything else. Depending upon – even without bad statistics, you can take good statistics and you can use them in different ways, or you can focus on one single area, or you can focus on one single thing, and the situation can be not as good, it can be worse, it can be better, and you can extrapolate from that. But again, we’ll hold with what we are saying, and I think that everybody was in agreement with us yesterday. There was no one who challenged that assessment, and you see how we have put it in the communique that we released that ISIS remains a threat. We did not say ISIS is an increasing threat. And we debated that.
MR BROWN: Thank you. All right. If anybody still wants to get into the queue, dial 1 then 0. Last person on our list right now is Jennifer Hansler.
QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. Thank you so much for doing this. I was wondering whether you could say if you still have confidence in the SDF’s ability to guard the ISIS prisoners and whether there’s been any evidence of any sort of coronavirus outbreak in al-Hol or any of the refugee camps.
And then separately, I was wondering if you feel that any of the unrest in the U.S. and the crackdown on protesters impacts your messaging at all. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: In terms of the latter, no. I’m not here to comment on the situation in the United States, but the right of assembly is a Bill of Rights right in America. We do it in America. We urge other countries to do it, including places like Hong Kong. But to get back to – what was your first question? Oh —
QUESTION: Whether you still (inaudible) SDF can guard the camps and whether there’s (inaudible).
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh, the camps, yeah. We are confident that they can do this. What we are urging – and this is part of Secretary Pompeo’s message yesterday – is for people to, as part of the 700 million request for support throughout the coalition for our efforts in Iraq and Syria this year – there’s some 44 million for the camps and detention facilities – our SDF partners need financial assistance. We do believe that they can control those camps, that there will not be a major breakout. There have been several attempts and they haven’t gotten very far. Of course, we want the situation in those camps to be as stable as possible, and we’re working hard to get people out, in the case of the foreign terrorist fighters, back to their homelands. That includes – besides Iraq and Syria, that includes – obviously, there’s several thousand that are from Europe, Central Asia, North Africa, and elsewhere.
COVID-19 has not been a significant problem so far in the northeast or in Syria in general. We’re hoping that that situation, of course, remains so because the ability anywhere in Syria of the devastated medical capacity of the country, thanks to eight years, nine years of war on his own people by President Assad, is very, very limited.
MR BROWN: Okay. It looks like we can – got one or two others. We’ll have to keep track of the time, but for now, let’s go to the line of Humeyra Pamuk.
QUESTION: Hello, Ambassador.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Hi.
QUESTION: Thank you. I’d like to ask about Africa. Was there any discussion in the D-ISIS meeting about groups present in West Africa, as certainly it has been an area of concern to many? And Secretary Pompeo had urged the global coalition to perhaps shift some resources to Africa at a time when U.S. is weighing whether or not to reduce troops there. What was the feedback on that from European partners, and if you can talk a little bit about the conversation?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: (Inaudible.) There was – you can see in the communique we make reference to the coalition – well, first of all, the concern about the situation of ISIS globally, particularly in West Africa, and the idea of the coalition doing a coordination meeting in conjunction with the Coalition for the Sahel, which is a French-inspired organization, and with the countries involved. There is a growing attention to the situation there. We’ve discussed it at all levels within the U.S. Government. Nathan Sales has the lead along with the Africa Bureau in the State Department. But if it involves a coalition, we in SECI provide support to that.
In terms of – I see no, in general, philosophical problem with the United States if we do decide to reduce forces, and I haven’t seen an announcement that we will do so. Secretary Esper – I was with him in Munich in February when he talked about that. If we do withdraw forces, that doesn’t mean that we are inconsistent with urging others to do so. The United States – if you just take the West as a whole, the United States has about 40 percent of the GDP and about 33 percent of the population, and probably about, at best, 33 percent of the forces under arms of North America, Western Europe, and our key Asian partners and allies.
So it’s not a problem given the huge role we play – with 28,000 troops in Korea, with reinforcements going to Germany, including to the Baltics over the past two years under the Trump administration, with our other military commitments, with our patrolling in the South China Sea – it’s not a problem, I don’t see, for us to suggest that other people do more in an area. That’s been a banner characteristic of the Trump foreign policy. It’s burden sharing. It’s not a contradiction with what President Obama, for example, did. I was involved in his burden-sharing activities there. This administration, I think, pursues it more aggressively, and that’s a good thing, and I don’t see a contradiction at all.
MR BROWN: All right. Thank you, Ambassador. I understand you have a follow-on meeting, so unfortunately, we’re going to have to cut it off here. Thanks to everyone for dialing in today. Have a great weekend.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. Thank you, everybody.