Question: We were just in Idlib. We saw the suffering in the hospitals and the refugee camps. What should the United States do?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First, understand the enormity of the situation. It’s not just, as the UN has said, the biggest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, but underneath it is a geostrategic quest for power by the absolutely corrupt, war criminal Assad regime – backed by Russia and Iran – to try to overcome the opposition of the Syrian people, defy UN resolutions, and establish a peace of the dead throughout all of Syria. That is the threat that the international community faces.
Question: How does the United States then confront that threat?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, we’re trying and we have been trying to do this through a compromise political solution. We have met with the Russians many times, including with President Putin in Sochi last May, to try to find a reasonable way out. The Russians have turned down all our offers for compromise and they are pressing for a military victory. That is a problem. So what we’re doing is we’re trying to support Turkey, we’re supporting opposition forces throughout the country – in the northeast where we have a presence, in the south, and Al-Tanf we also have a presence.
Question: HTS is the dominant player in Idlib province. HTS is a designated terrorist organization. They’re al-Qaida in all but name. Can the United States work with them?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We do not work with them. As you said, they are an al-Qaida offshoot. On the other hand, you notice in our various counterterrorism strikes into Idlib, we haven’t targeted them because we do not see them focused on international terror. Rather, they are focused on fighting the Assad regime. Again, they’re not our friends, we don’t deal with them, but they’re certainly not a terrorism priority for us, and frankly, they’re just an excuse for the Russians because the Russians themselves do not use their considerable counterterrorism capabilities against them; they simply unleash barrel bombs on the civilian population.
Question: We’ve seen the Astana agreement where you had the enclaves. Those are gone now. Russia took them with the Syrian regime. We had the Sochi agreement. That seems all but scrapped as well. Will Idlib fall to the Syrian Government?
Ambassador Jeffrey: I do not believe so, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, you’re absolutely right. The Russians deliberately, every time they did a ceasefire in the UN resolution that is relevant here, 2254, from December 2015, calls for ceasefires, but the Russians cleverly said, “But of course, a ceasefire doesn’t limit us in attacking terrorists.” And everywhere there’s been a ceasefire, the Russians have found or claimed to find terrorists, and thus, the Russians and the regime roll in, push everybody back, and then set up another ceasefire and then find new terrorists. What the Turks are saying now is – and we support them 100 percent – is there cannot be such ceasefires anymore. They have to be real, they have to be enduring, they have to be a line on the ground that nobody violates. We support that; that’s what President Erdogan is negotiating with President Putin in Moscow at this point. Again, we support that.
I do not think that the Russians and Assad are going to win in Idlib, and the reason is the Turks cannot back down or they will have 3 million new refugees on top of the almost 4 million that they have now from Syria, and they cannot physically handle it. That’s what we saw at the border, and I do not think that there is any way possible for them to cope with that, so therefore they’re going to have to use their considerable military force to bring this offensive to a halt.
Question: So you’re saying that the Turks, with the backing of the United States, will use military force to stop this offensive from taking place in Idlib?
Ambassador Jeffrey: That’s exactly what they’re doing now.
Question: And they – and to stop the front lines from moving forward, the U.S. will back them? Will the U.S. put skin in the game?
Ambassador Jeffrey: The U.S. is considering how we can help Turkey. First of all, Turkey has a large army. President Trump’s basic philosophy is to help other countries play the lead role in military actions, military confrontations. We have troops all over the world. The American people are somewhat nervous about this, understandably, so therefore our first instinct is to support and help those who are willing to fight themselves. In this case that’s the Turks.
Question: Would that be considered leading from behind?
Ambassador Jeffrey: No, it isn’t considered leading from behind, it’s considered smart.
Question: Do you – then what – the Turks want Patriot missiles. Will the United States give them to them?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We’re looking into all of the ways that we can help Turkey, and so at this point we have not taken any final decisions on what exactly the package will be other than that there is a need to help Turkey that can be met by us, it can be met by other NATO countries – for example, there’s a Spanish Patriot battery right now here in Turkey at Incirlik Air Base. There have been Patriot batteries from a number of other Northern European countries, from Germany here in the past. So we’re looking at various options.
Question: I think the one thing I think is a bit vague is kind of, how will that front line in Idlib be stabilized? Kind of tell me how Turkey, with the backing of the United States, militarily, will stabilize that front line when they are facing the regime backed by Russia.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, that’s a question you should first pose to the Turkish military that have the mission. Generally speaking, the Turkish military has been very effective in holding terrain in Syria during various campaigns since 2016. So if they have the will to hold that terrain, they can hold the terrain. What they cannot easily cope with is bombing by Russian aircraft. I believe the Turks are very reluctant, for good reasons, to engage Russian aircraft just like we try not to engage Russian aircraft. Syrian regime aircraft are another story. The Turks have shot down four aircraft in the last two weeks. But Russian aircraft are a problem, and that, thus, becomes a problem for any ground presence if you’re being bombed from the air. The Turks have talked about air defense, but the complication there is this isn’t air defense of Turkish NATO territory; this would be air defense over Syrian territorial areas, and that would require, depending on which country under which conditions we’re supporting, considerable diplomatic and legal considerations.
Question: But it seems that there would be, if Turkey were to take a hard line, put them in direct confrontation with Russia – a NATO member confronting Russia directly.
Ambassador Jeffrey: We have, essentially, a NATO country confronting at least Russian advisory teams, Russian surrogates, and including the Syrian military, Lebanese Hizballah, certain Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements, on the ground in Idlib today. We have, we believe, quite possibly Turkish elements having been bombed by Russian aircraft. So you already have a certain very dangerous degree of confrontation already, which is why we really press for a ceasefire, an enduring ceasefire that will remove the danger of a real escalation. But absent Putin’s willingness to go down that road, our assessment is that the Turks will likely, at some place in Idlib, hold and not pull back.
Question: Is the will – is the United States willing to escalate this conflict with Russia to ensure the Turks achieve that goal?
Ambassador Jeffrey: The United States supports Turkey’s efforts to achieve a ceasefire in Idlib. How we will go about doing that with our NATO ally Turkey is something that we’re looking at right now.
Question: How is the relationship with Turkey and the United States right now? It has been fraught in the past, especially with the purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missiles. How is that relationship now?
Ambassador Jeffrey: The two presidents, President Erdogan and President Trump, have a very good relationship. President Erdogan believes that President Trump and the U.S. Government are supporting him in various ways. We have one particularly problematic outstanding issue that both the administration and the Congress is very concerned about – that’s the Turkish purchase of the S-400s. While there are issues in purchasing Russian equipment, regardless of what that equipment is around the world, there’s legislation that prohibits it or at least sanctions you if you do it. The main problem with the S-400 is it makes incompatible the use of the U.S. F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighter. Turkey bought a large number of them, over 100. We had to cancel that contract. We have had to adjust that contract. This has been extremely expensive for Turkey, extremely expensive for the United States, and we are trying to work our way through the problems that have emerged from the S-400.
Question: Anything you would like to add about the situation, about anything that you saw personally? I know you were on the border.
Ambassador Jeffrey: No, I don’t want to get into starving babies and such. I think I’ll – I mean, if I can pick the thing that I would like you to run, it’s that first thing I said. This is a humanitarian catastrophe, but it’s far more than that. It is a dangerous geostrategic escalation. It is a dangerous international situation that needs to be brought under control with a ceasefire. That’s it.
Question: Thank you very much, Ambassador.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Okay. All right, thank you.