Moderator: Good afternoon from the U.S. Department of State’s Brussels Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing with Ambassador James Jeffrey, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
We will begin with opening remarks from Ambassador Jeffrey and then we will turn to your questions. We will do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Ambassador Jeffrey. Please go ahead.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Okay, thank you. First of all, everybody, thanks for doing this, coming in and listening to us, or dialing in and listening to us. Sorry for the delay. And I’d like to thank the Brussels Media Hub for putting this together.
We are looking at a number of important developments in Syria in the longstanding conflict, in the international community’s effort to bring a political solution to this terrible and extremely dangerous conflict. Many of you have heard me before talking about the devastating impact on the whole Syrian population, the five outside state military forces that are now in there, and we had another incident this morning involving one of them – actually, three of them: Russians, Americans, and Turks all came under fire today in various parts of the country. That’s a situation that we need to get under control, and we’re working very hard to do this.
We are much encouraged by the fact that under the auspices of the UN and in accordance with Resolution 2504, which is – calls on the Syrian Government to participate with the UN on resolution – on the resolution of the conflict through, among other things, a Constitutional Committee that is – exists to try to find a solution to this conflict by looking at constitutional changes in preparation for a nationwide election that would be monitored by the UN. And that’s what we’re focused on. I will be traveling to Geneva later this week to meet with some of the – my counterparts in the international community and to meet with the UN and to talk to some of the people participating in the discussions that will be carried on between the various groups. There’s 50 members of the opposition, 50 members of the pro-regime element, and 50 people who are considered civil society and basically neutral, who will be trying to work together, again, under the auspices of Geir Pedersen, with whom we have very good and close relations.
So that’s where we are on that. More generally, we are continuing to roll out tranches of our Caesar sanctions with the extraordinarily strong support of the U.S. Congress and the White House to continue the pressure campaign on the Assad regime to make the shift, a strategic shift from its goal of a military solution, in defiance of the international community and endangering the whole region, to a political solution that we can all live with.
So I’ll stop there. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Oh, the resolution is 2254, not 2504.
Moderator: Understood, thank you. Thank you for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Our first question comes to us from Deger Akal with Deutsche Welle Turkish in Germany. Please go ahead.
Question: Ambassador Jeffrey, last week you had said that you are looking at ways to ensure that the Constitutional Committee reflects the will of all the – all of the Syrian citizenry, including the people in the northeast. I would like to know, could you elaborate on how you will concretely ensure that the autonomous administration of northeast Syria will be reflected in this process?
And a short follow-up regarding the deal between Syrian Democratic Forces and Delta Crescent Energy. Turkey made a very harsh statement and also mentioned that the U.S. support to the step could be considered as financing terrorism. Could you elaborate on your talks with Ankara regarding the Syrian Democratic Forces?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Sure. First of all, the Syrian opposition is a group of people who – the group that is negotiating and is represented there is selected from folks all over the country. There is not a specific organizational element in it. The issue of how the people of northeast Syria are represented comes up from time to time. What I can tell you is that, as it should be, not outside entities but Syrian opposition elements of various sorts are discussing that issue right now, including with people representing the political and governmental forces in the northeast.
In terms of the contract or whatever it was between Delta Crescent and the autonomous administration, this is an issue that the United States, other than issuing because we’re asked to issue and we’ve had every reason to not have a problem – the necessary waivers from U.S. sanctions because the activity does not benefit the Assad regime, which is the purpose of waivers. This is a private operation to further the development of the oil fields in the northeast. We don’t see this as a change in ownership of these fields or anything else. The fields have been operated by the autonomous administration for many years now after they took them back from ISIS, and they are using these fields to continue their operations against ISIS – they obviously have to move by road, by vehicle; that requires fuel – and as an important part of their economy. We have been supporting their economy with stabilization funding from us and other coalition members for years, many hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s not a surprise that we want to see them do well economically as long as they’re continuing to maintain stability and continue the fight against ISIS. That’s all I have to say on that.
Moderator: Thank you very much, sir. Our next question comes to us from Monalisa Freiha with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes. I just wanted to ask about the condemnation that Syrian regime as well as Turkey condemned the deal between the U.S. firm and the Kurdish autonomous authority. What do you think? Do you really think it’s a prelude to an autonomy for the Kurdish?
Ambassador Jeffrey: It is nothing more than what I said. It is an additional economic activity among the many economic activities that the people of the northeast, several million of them with – that they’ve been operating these oil fields since 2015. In some cases they’ve been managing the overall economy of the northeast, of which the oil is one minor component. And that’s all I have to say on it.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Mohamed Ataya with Sputnik in Egypt. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi there. It’s Mohammed Ataya, I’m a journalist from Sputnik [inaudible]. Talking about the U.S. sanctions on Assad, do you see that there is – that these sanctions are making it – will affect on the Assad regime? Do you think that Assad is ready to be involved in the political process in Syria or not?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Okay. I cannot give you a definitive answer to both. The whole purpose of the sanctions, as laid out in the legislation passed by Congress, the Caesar bill, makes it clear that they’re to do two things: first of all, to pressure the Syrian Government to stop certain activities against the Syrian people such as besieging them, such as bombing them from the air, such as denying them their ability to return to their homes; and secondly, to advance the political process. That is the only purpose of the Caesar Act, and we think it’s a very effective tool.
Now, has it been effective so far? We will see. These are our primary tools in trying to put pressure on the Syrian Government to make the shift from – the strategic shift from a military option, total victory, to a compromise political settlement under the UN. I would just note that the Syrian Government is, in fact, after much pressure from Russia and other countries and the UN, but particularly Russia in this regard, participating in the conference next week. Secondly, we will – we noticed last week in a speech by the Syrian dictator, Assad, that he did talk at some length about the political process in a way that we haven’t seen often before. So that may be a good sign as well. We’ll just have to wait and see. The proof of the pudding is in what happens in Geneva.
Moderator: Thank you very much, sir. Our next question comes to us from Muath Alamri with Asharq Al-awsat. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes, hello. I would like to ask you about there’s a report in an American newspaper about the more – extending sanctions on Syria and other countries. So, please, if you’d elaborate on that. And the second one: There is some military program training for the Kurds to protect their oil fields, and also, please, if you have more information about those troops and how do they – going to do their protection. Thank you.
Ambassador Jeffrey: I can assure you we have every intention of continuing tranches of waves of sanctions targeting Assad, his military leaders, his facilitators, the oligarchs who steal from the Syrian people and continue those operations. This is an extremely important part of our policy and we have every intention of continuing it.
In terms of – look, the Coalition for the Defeat of ISIS, which is an 82-nation coalition, is operating in Iraq and Syria for the defeat of ISIS, working with local and national partners. In northeast Syria, the partner is the Syrian Defense Forces*. We have been involved, as part of the coalition, with the training and equipping of these forces since 2014. One of the missions that they have, and President Trump cited this at one point, is the defense of the oil fields. So we help them with that and we help them with many other training, equipping, and advising missions.
Moderator: Thanks very much for that, sir. I’m going to take a question that was emailed to us in advance. This is from Tamam Abusafi with Alayam in Bahrain. The question he asks is, “Do you think there is a link between the U.S. pressure on Iran and the Syrian regime, especially the Caesar Act, and the Beirut port bombing in which the Lebanese believe that Hizballah is involved?”
Ambassador Jeffrey: There is no link that I know of. We see the – as the President and as other U.S. officials have said, we see this devastation, this terrible devastation of the Beirut harbor as a tragedy. We are working with our international partners to try to help the Lebanese people. And for further on that, I would refer you to the Lebanese authorities.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Christiane Oelrich with the Deutsche Press Agency. Please, go ahead.
Question: Ambassador, my question is about the meeting here in Geneva next week. What, in the best of circumstances, do you think could be achieved in this round, and what do you have up your sleeve to get some concessions about the more recalcitrant participants? Thank you.
Ambassador Jeffrey: I have nothing up my sleeve. What we’re doing is what you all see. That’s why we have these media interviews, so that everybody knows what’s going on. We – obviously, this is an extremely volatile, extremely dangerous situation. As I’ve said, just today there have been engagements in both the northeast and the northwest of Syria involving U.S., Russian, and Turkish troops. That is not an everyday occurrence, but it is a frequent occurrence of one or another sort. Also, other forces from other countries involved there. We are very, very committed along with our partners in the European Union countries and in the Arab League to find a solution to this. And a major part of that is, as you said, progress with the Constitutional Committee.
Now, what we would like to see in the best-case scenario is for this committee to get into the real substantive work of what it would take to change the constitution to preclude the horror that we’ve seen since 2011 in Syria. That’s the first thing. Secondly, to that end, we would like to see the committee stay active not just for a day or two, as we saw at the end of October, but for a week, preferably for several weeks, to sort out a schedule of meetings so this becomes a semi-permanent thing. And they have a smaller negotiating group of 15 from each of the three sides that of course could remain or come back very quickly to continue these talks and to work out an agenda, to work out exactly the kind of things that any international conference would undertake. We didn’t see this when it first was launched in October, largely because of opposition from the Syrian Government. We are hoping that it is rethought, this foolish and dangerous policy between last October and now. We’ll see.
Moderator: Thank you very much. While we’re waiting, we’ll take a follow-up question from Monalisa Freiha. Please, go ahead.
Question: I – I’m noticing that you are not – the U.S. is not satisfied with the work of the Constitutional Committee. Am I right?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We are not – we are very satisfied with the enduring and tireless efforts of the UN, led by Geir Pedersen, to make twenty – the UN Resolution 2254 and the Constitutional Committee and the other parts of that, including a national ceasefire, actually work. We are very happy with the opposition negotiating group that is participating in the Constitutional Committee. They have been flexible, they have been willing to meet to make compromises, and we’re very happy with them.
We’re very unhappy with the Assad regime’s response to it. We see a glimmer of hope in the fact that they’re moving forward next week to at least meet. We will urge all sides, including the regime, to continue this process. This is the way out of the terrible predicament – economic, military, diplomatic – that they find themselves in.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Steve Erlanger with The New York Times. Please go ahead.
Question: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for doing this and actually for your efforts to solve this mess. I just wanted to ask you whether it’s your sense that Russia, which obviously is thinking at the moment about Minsk, whether Russia seems to be more interested now in getting some kind of resolution given that an entire military victory seems very difficult right now for the Assad regime.
And secondly, whether it’s your sense that the destruction of the port in Beirut will complicate life for the Assad regime also. Thank you.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Steve, thank you. It’s a question we think about a lot. There’s no doubt that without Russian efforts, we wouldn’t have seen the Assad regime agree to the Constitutional Committee meeting next week. And we have seen flexibility of this sort on the part of the Russians before; we’ve seen frustration, including in their media and in private discussions with the Assad regime. But what we don’t know is whether this is a tactical shift to give us not half, but maybe one slice of the loaf to mask a continued priority to a military victory, although, they don’t really have any easy way to deal with the forces that are inside Syria right now – Turkish, coalition, or Israeli. But that may be their hope, or certainly the hope of Assad; or whether this represents a strategic shift.
We thought they were ready a year ago – actually, 15 months ago. Mike Pompeo went to Sochi to meet with Lavrov, and then with Putin. And we talked about the way we could solve this with a lot of emphasis on the Constitutional Committee and on a national ceasefire. And we have seen intermittent Russian efforts towards that end, but we also saw the Idlib offensive. I think that the Idlib offensive was a turning point, because the Russians ran into very, very strong resistance on the part of the opposition forces and the Turkish military. They’ve seen that we are remaining on in northeast Syria; they didn’t expect that after the October decision. And there is a third country that we normally don’t talk about much publicly that is also carrying out very effective military operations against Iranian and Hizballah forces in Syria.
On the explosion, anything that impacts the Lebanese Government impacts Syria’s economic stability. That’s not only our assessment, it was the assessment of Assad in his speech a week ago when he referred to, in dire terms, bad economic news from neighboring countries. He was talking about Lebanon, so yeah. Now, that says nothing about what’s behind the tragedy, why it happened, how to fix the tragedy – which we’re committed to doing – but objectively, just like the collapse of the Lebanese banking system, it has had a big impact, we believe, on Assad.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We have time for one final question and it will go to – it will be a follow-up from Deger Akal with Deutsche Welle Turkish. Please go ahead.
Question: Ambassador, last year in October, President Trump mentioned his expectation of Turkey having dialogue with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Have you been able to talk with the Turkish side on the possibility to find common ground?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We are very satisfied with the ceasefire that we negotiated with the Turks on the 17th of October in northeast Syria. There have been allegations on both sides of violations of it – attacks here, attacks there. But generally speaking, in the context of Syria, we’re happy with that.
Turkey has a whole series of threats to its south. The PKK is one very important one, Daesh is another, Iranian, Syrian, and Russian forces together are a third. And we have very close communications with the Turks at every level on the situation in Syria in general, and we very strongly support, as you know, their position in Idlib and in the situation in the northeast, and we’ll continue these talks.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Unfortunately, that was the last question we have time for today. Ambassador Jeffrey, do you have any closing words you’d like to offer?
Ambassador Jeffrey: No. I would just like to underline the importance of the Syrian conflict in much of what is happening in the Middle East today. We see the Syrian conflict and the failed state that Syria became as a breeding ground for some of the worst terrorist movements that the Middle East has seen going all the way back to the initial al-Qaida foundations in the 1990s. We see it as, again, a showplace that has sucked in state forces from five important countries with very, very serious risk of escalation, of confrontation, and we see it as a threat to the region.
It’s a threat to Israel with all of the long-range systems that the Iranians have moved in, it’s a threat to the stability of the three countries that have taken refugees and have done such a great job – Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan – and it is a threat to the entire collective security system that we have worked so hard. At the core of the problem lies Iran, just as with the some of the problems in Iraq and some of the problems in Lebanon and elsewhere. And until we have a solution that gets Iranian forces out of Syria as part of an overall political solution, we are not going to see real peace there.
So thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Ambassador Jeffrey, for taking the time to join us today, and I’d also like to thank the journalists on the line for joining us with your questions.
*Syrian Democratic Forces