Previewing Secretary Tillerson's Travel to Turkey

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
March 27, 2017


MODERATOR: Thank you, and thanks, everyone, for joining us this afternoon for a background conference call with senior State Department officials on Secretary Tillerson’s upcoming travel to Ankara, Turkey. I’ll begin by introducing our speakers, but just for everyone’s awareness, they’ll attributed as senior State Department officials. We’re joined this afternoon by [Senior State Department Official One]. We’re also joined by [Senior State Department Official Two]. And finally, [Senior State Department Official Three]. Again, one last reminder: This will be a background call. These gentlemen can be attributed as senior State Department officials, and this call will be embargoed to the conclusion of the call.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to [Senior State Department Official One].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Thank you, [Moderator]. Great to be with you all today. Thanks for your interest. As you know, Secretary Tillerson will be visiting Ankara this week. It’s the first stop of his second trip to Europe as Secretary of State. He’ll be meeting with President Erdogan and other senior officials. This is a series – this represents the continuation of a series of high-level engagements with Turkey since January 20th. The President talked to President Erdogan on the phone; the Vice President’s had meetings and phone calls; at least six cabinet members have had meetings and phone calls with Turkish counterparts, including Secretary Tillerson, who met with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu in Bonn on the margins of the G20 meeting.

The Secretary will be there first to offer condolences to the Turkish people for their losses to terrorism over the years. Turkey has suffered more losses to terrorism than all the Europeans combined. He’ll also want to recognize Turkey as a key partner in the counter-ISIL – coalition to defeat ISIS, and to appreciate their – to appreciate their contributions in that effort, and finally, to exchange views on a broad range of issues with which we share interests with Turkey – not only Syria and Iraq, but also Cyprus, Iran, and also trade and investment. So there’s a broad agenda as part of our regular high-level engagement with Turkey, which is the basis for the Secretary’s trip next week – or sorry, this week.

[Senior State Department Official Three.]

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: I just had a couple points, and the Secretary’s visit, of course, is building upon the recent global coalition meetings here last week – the global coalition against ISIS – which was attended, of course, by the Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, who made a very important intervention. And among other topics in Ankara, the Secretary will discuss next steps in the campaign to defeat ISIS, particularly in terms of stabilization in areas that have been liberated from ISIS to make sure that those areas remain stable and that people can return to their homes.

And as you know, we’ve been coordinating all of our efforts in Syria with Turkey throughout the campaign. The Secretary will have a chance to express his appreciation to Turkey for their efforts in supporting opposition forces as they cleared ISIS from al-Bab and closing that important strip of border to ISIS terrorists. This was important not only for the security of our NATO ally Turkey, but also the security of United States and our European partners given the flow that we have seen from foreign terrorist fighters through that stretch of territory. So we’re grateful for those efforts. We were proud to support Turkey and the moderate opposition in those operations through airstrikes, equipment, intelligence, and partnered operations on the ground, so we’ll kind of review those efforts and talk about the next steps.

The Secretary will also follow meetings that Chairman Dunford has had with senior Turkish leadership over the past few weeks for next steps in the campaign, particularly, again, on the stabilization side, including the imperative need to remove ISIS from its capital in Raqqa.

So the counter-ISIS campaign, of course, will be a topic of conversation, as well as our many other very critical bilateral issues with this most important NATO ally.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, gentlemen. And with that, we can take your questions.

OPERATOR: And the first question is going to come from the line of David Clark with the AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank – thanks for doing this. Will there be an occasion when meeting with Turkish officials to talk about the issue of press freedom in Turkey? There’s more than a hundred journalists in jail, as you know, and 149 media outlets have been closed, 775 people have lost their press cards, and a number of journalists are on trial accused of terrorist propaganda, including the representative of Reporters Without Borders in the country. He’s coming up on an important anniversary, and his case has just begun. So was this something that Secretary Tillerson will be bringing up with the Turkish authorities?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, first let me say that on the topic of freedom of expression, we firmly believe that freedom of expression, including freedom of speech and the media, even speech which some find controversial or uncomfortable, strengthens democracy and needs to be protected. And we consistently urge Turkey to respect and ensure freedom of expression, fair trial guarantees, judicial independence, and other human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is my expectation that the Secretary will not veer from that line in his conversations.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Next question.

OPERATOR: Next will be the line of Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Can you talk to the importance of this meeting in getting Turkey’s approval or some form of acknowledgment of steps to go ahead on Raqqa? I mean, the U.S. is not able to really move on Raqqa until – in a serious way until you’ve got Turkey’s permission, really, or – agreement, and specifically with regard to the YDP and the SDF. Can you talk to that and why this meeting is so important, and can you be clear that this is also to seek approval from Turkey that – or find some kind of middle space on how you can move forward on that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Thanks. So I’d be happy to address that. So first, I think the importance of the Secretary’s visit is that it follows on the counter-ISIS ministerial here and then leading into the very important NATO foreign ministerial the following day. And this is one of a series of very senior-level engagements, so it’s not – it’s not going for a specific – a specific purpose such as your question sort of suggested. It’s to confer on a whole host of issues that are central to our bilateral relationship with this critical NATO ally.

Of course, the situation in Syria will be discussed. I think we’ll review the success of the Turkey-led operations in al-Bab, which we were very proud to be a part of, and we’ll also discuss the situation in Raqqa. Again, we have to get ISIS out of Raqqa because it remains a hub of their – of external plotting, it remains their administrative headquarters. And things are moving towards Raqqa. I think we are increasingly – I’d defer to DOD. I know CENTCOM spoke to this today, but operations to isolate the city are ongoing and are actually accelerating. So obviously, we’ll review the bidding there and we’ll talk about – we’ll talk about some of the next steps.

Everything we’ve done in Syria to date has been in very close consultation with Turkey, and that will continue.

QUESTION: I’d just – a follow-up. But has Turkey – I mean, Turkey’s view regarding the SDF and that – is that – I mean, they don’t agree with that. So how are you going to address that in these discussions?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: So one of the core, fundamental components of the counter-ISIS campaign is that we require local people to be in the lead in liberating their territories. So the isolation phase of Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces – it’s about 75 percent makeup of Arab forces, and so far every single town, village that they have taken has held. I think Secretary Tillerson spoke to this last week at the counter-ISIS ministerial. About 50,000 square kilometers now have been cleared from ISIS terrorists, and all of that ground has held. And that’s because we do an awful lot of planning before we do anything to launch these operations.

So obviously, there are differences with Turkey on some issues, as there are with any of our coalition partners, and so we’ll work through those. But in terms of the operations ongoing now towards Raqqa, again, I defer to DOD, but the isolation phase is proceeding very well and, in fact, accelerating.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next, we’ll go to the line of Barbara Usher with BBC. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. [Senior State Department Official Three], can you just clarify for us what Secretary Tillerson meant by “interim zone of stability” in his speech on Wednesday, if there was any relation at all to safe zones?

And just to follow up on Lesley’s question with regards to the participation of the YPG in Raqqa, is there any suggestion at all that they will not participate given Turkey’s concerns?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: So the Secretary in his remarks to the counter-ISIS ministerial discussed the importance of having interim kind of de-escalation zones based on ceasefires or other means. What we really want to see happen – and this is one reason why these meetings in Turkey will be very important – is that we want to see the ceasefire arrangements hold. So Turkey has been in very extensive discussions with the Russians and the Iranians through the Astana process to put in place ceasefires, and the deal there is that Turkey has an agreement, a commitment to deliver elements of the opposition, and critically, Russia has a commitment to deliver the regime to make sure that these ceasefires hold.

We want to see, particularly on the borders of our allies, areas in which the civil war is de-escalated, in which humanitarian aid can come in, in which people can live in peace, and which ultimately, our refugees can return to their homes. So that’s something that is an objective of ours and we look forward to discussing with Turkey on how we can reinforce the ceasefire initiatives that they have negotiated with the Russians and others through the Astana process.

So again, the operational plan to seize Raqqa, this will be a very difficult military endeavor. We’re seeing in Mosul these are – when ISIS decides to defend a territory, they fight till the last man. They are a suicidal enemy. They use civilians as human shields. So the force makeup has to be locally rooted so that the gains are sustainable and also has to be militarily viable so that we can actually know that the operation will succeed.

So I would just say those discussions are ongoing. I think if you look at the pace of the campaign in the isolation phase, again, it’s accelerating, it is moving forward, and we’ll be discussing the next steps here with our close ally, Turkey, over the coming days.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up: What do you anticipate the U.S. role to be in those – what did you call them – de-escalation zones?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Well, again, we can – obviously, humanitarian aid is something that we’re very focused on. We had a very good discussion with our counter-ISIS ministerial colleagues this last week in Washington. The EU was hosting a very important meeting on the humanitarian aspects of the Syria crisis. So we can help quite a bit with humanitarian goods to make sure that people are able to go about their lives as the violence calms down, and anything else with that, that’s why we’re having constant discussions with our allies, as we’ll have in 48 hours in Turkey.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to the line of Josh Lederman with AP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, guys. Thanks for doing this. I was curious, this trip is obviously taking place in the context of this Turkish referendum coming in barely two weeks that has really exposed some of the deep differences that Turkey has with some of its other NATO allies at the moment. I was wondering if Secretary Tillerson is sensitive to the fact that his trip is taking place in that context and could be sort of used domestically by the Turks in one way or the other, and sort of what steps if any he’s taking to try to prevent his diplomacy there from getting sort of pulled into that domestic debate.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Of course, thanks, Josh. This is [Senior State Department Official Two]. He’s quite aware of the context into which he is – he’s going to be arriving and his exchanges will be conducted with that respect for that process in mind. I think it’s very hard to predict where Turkey is going to be in terms of how they factor in a visit from a U.S. Secretary of State into their domestic political referendum, but it’s certainly something that we all are acutely aware of and that the Secretary will be mindful of while he’s there.

MODERATOR: Okay, next question.

OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to the line of Kylie Atwood with CBS News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks so much for doing this. Sorry to harp on this, but I just want to go back to the question of the YPG again for a second. When the Turkish foreign minister was in town last week, CBS asked him about the possibility he sees in the U.S. stepping away from backing the YPG. And he said it was absolutely a possibility. So I’m just wondering if you have any guidance as to why he would say that so forcefully, and then one follow-up question.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah, thanks. So again, these have been ongoing discussions. We are working with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is a fairly diverse set of actors under one umbrella. And they’ve been quite effective on the ground, and we’re obviously going to continue to support them. But we are, of course, very mindful of Turkey’s concerns. And this is something, of course, that will continue to be a topic of conversation. And so we look forward – we saw Foreign Minister Cavusoglu here in Washington last week, and we look forward to seeing him again in 48 hours.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. And then the one other question I had was in terms of the Gulen case, do you see that being something that Tillerson will talk about at all while he is there? Apparently, there were some documents that were delivered to DOJ last week. And will that remain just DOJ, or could Tillerson speak about that on this trip?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The action with that, as you know, Kylie, is with the Department of Justice right now. I think it’s possible that the Turks will raise it, and the Secretary will be prepared to respond if they do, but we don’t have anything new for you on that right now.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. I just had a quick question going back to what Secretary Tillerson said, and [Senior State Department Official Three], what you referenced, which is this – the focus of the counter-ISIS campaign moving to stabilization. At the same time in his remarks he said that the United States is not in the – or in – the coalition is not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction. So, I mean, to a lot of people that seems like sort of a contradictory message, and it’s difficult to understand how you do stabilization and look to restore necessary services like water and electricity but don’t get into the business of reconstruction or get pulled into a longer-term nation-building thing. So could you address that contradiction?

And then also, which of you guys are going on this trip? [Senior State Department Official Three], will you be going with the Secretary? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Thanks. So you hit on a really good question. Let me – and let me try to address it, and of course, we’d be happy to give a more fulsome briefing for anyone who might want it on this issue. The concept of stabilization is focused specifically on making sure that areas that have been liberated from ISIS, the conditions are set for people to return to their homes. And so in Iraq, for example, we have two very flexible funding facilities that have been fairly successful. We’ve returned 1.6 million people to their homes. Again, all this – the area has held.

Fundamental essentials such as water, electricity, making sure that there’s basic security in schools – that is just basic stabilization. Nation-building gets into long-term reconstruction, that sorts of things, which actually we haven’t been very successful at. So we as a coalition will focus on stabilization – meaning making sure people can go back to their homes, there’s a security apparatus in place that is locally based, there’s a local governance apparatus in place, and we’ve been fairly successful at that.

So one thing we talked about in the ministerial last week was building on the lessons learned and reinforcing what’s worked, making sure that those efforts are resourced, and that’s why we are very pleased to have the $2 billion pledged to make sure that these efforts can continue as we continue to clear territory from ISIS. But it’s very distinct from long-term reconstruction, long-term nation-building.

MODERATOR: Yeah, Nick, sorry, we’ll have manifest details – we’ll circle back with you on that.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Next we go to Elise Labott with CNN. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call. If you could follow up on that idea of the stabilization. I mean, how does that fit into – while I understand you don’t want to do long-term reconstruction, I think part of the complaints of – and lessons learned is that once you clear the area, whether it in Libya or in the first Iraq War, there wasn’t enough of a political kind of hands-on helping the government develop their political processes, and that was what kind of led to a return of extremism and vacuum.

So I mean, I think we’re still a little bit confused about basic stabilization is really just kind of clearing, but the holding and building is part of what prevents ISIS from not coming back. So what is the kind of long-term strategy?

And what would you say to people that will admit that – and this is something from what Secretary Tillerson told the members of some of the ministers at the meeting last week, that the military campaign is far ahead of the kind of political and reconstruction campaign. Are you worried that you’ll be able to finish up Mosul and possibly clear Raqqa, but there won’t be a kind of plan for the day after?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah, thanks, Elise. So anyone involved in this are very mindful of those lessons learned, and that’s why the campaign design – and particularly, Secretary Mattis has been looking at this – we’re making sure that we are correcting for things that have proven not to work in the past.

But one of the key elements of this campaign, as I think I mentioned in the beginning: Before we launch a military operation as a coalition, we do an extensive amount of behind-the-scenes political work and intelligence work to understand the local environment and to have the political instruments in place so that, after ISIS is gone, the territory can hold. And the key statistic for that again is that the 50,000 square kilometers cleared – everything has held. So the model that we’ve hit on has some basis for success, and we’re going to try to make sure that we continue that.

We’ve also found that it’s more effective to do the things as a coalition, to make sure that people can return to their homes, get back to their lives; but then the major decisions, the major, long-term decisions, have to be made by the people locally. And so that is kind of one of the critical components.

But the concept of basic stabilization – and that’s why we have these two very flexible funding facilities to make sure that, number one, you have to – I’m just – I won’t go through all the details – you have to clear IEDs and landmines. That’s time-consuming. It’s expensive. We have focused on that as a coalition to make sure that landmines are cleared so people can get back to their homes.

Then you have to make sure that there’s basic elements such as water and resources and electricity and things, which have also – which have also – we’ve proven to be fairly successful at with this model. But that’s very different than trying to write the script for long-term reconstruction, exactly what’s going to happen over the next 10 years.

But in terms of stabilization, a sustainable campaign at minimal cost for U.S. taxpayers and at minimal cost, frankly – and this is very important because it’s very different than what we’ve done before – in terms of U.S. lives. And if you look at what we did in 2007 in Iraq, almost 900 Americans were killed in Iraq. That was a very important part of our history and – but it’s a very different model. We’ve lost about five Americans – five American heroes – in this campaign, but it’s very different.

And so stabilization is very different than a nation-building endeavor, and one thing we discussed as a coalition was how we can do this even better and how we can make sure that it is well-resourced so that we can continue to accelerate this campaign and make sure that ISIS cannot retake any of the territory that it’s lost. And Turkey is a critical ally in this, and that’s one reason that this visit is so important.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next we go to the line of Ilhan Tanir with Washington Hatti. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this. My quick question is to follow up the previous – one of the previous questions, that Secretary Tillerson is going to Turkey just before the referendum. Obviously, this is going to take very differently in Turkey. My question is whether the Secretary Tillerson is going to able to meet with opposition leaders, opposition parties, journalists, or other dissidents in Turkey, or dozen of MPs from the pro-Kurdish HDP, for example, currently in jails? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks for the question. Right now, Secretary Tillerson is planning to meet only with government ministers and the staff of the U.S. embassy. His schedule doesn’t allow time to meet with anyone else. And there will be other State Department representatives who, over the weeks between now and the April 16th referendum, will have an opportunity to meet with opposition party members and others.

Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Next, we’ll go to the line of Joel Gehrke with The Washington Examiner. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Just returning to the question of the Secretary traveling to Europe – traveling to Turkey at this moment. Does he expect to do anything in terms of brokering or facilitating an easing of tensions between the Turkish Government and European officials, which – obviously, there’s been a lot of talk about campaigning about the referendum and we’re seeing Greek officials now saying that Greek armed forces are ready to answer any provocation from the Turkish side. Is – what role is he going to play in terms of brokering peace between NATO allies?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Our position has been and remains that our NATO allies need to find ways to work together to deescalate tensions when they surface. The purpose of this trip is not specifically to have the Secretary of State engaging that, but obviously anything that he can do to help move things in that direction would be something that would rise to his agenda. It’s not something he’s going out there with the intent purpose of doing on this trip, though.

MODERATOR: Thanks very much. Next question, and this will be our final question.

OPERATOR: Our final question will come from Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, I have two questions, some of which you’ve partially answered.

On the question of interim stabilization zones, as I heard it, you sort of gave two separate answers to that. The first one, when you were asked about interim zones of stability, you answered it in the context of ceasefires in the civil war. The second time, you answered it in terms of areas liberated from ISIS.

My question is whether the United States has any role in stabilization of zones that come under the ceasefire. Are you planning on contributing to the same kind of restoration of services that you planned for the liberated ISIS zones?

And secondarily, on the Raqqa offensive, what role do you see for Turkey in that at all? Turkey has previously said that they were going to move their own troops toward Raqqa. This week, they said if the United States didn’t acquiesce to their demands regarding the YPG that Turkey would not participate at all. Do you anticipate Turkey participating in the stabilization phase, or do you anticipate them having any role at all?

Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Thanks, Karen. So one reason that it might have sounded like two answers to the one question is that different parts of Syria are different. So if you take the southwest – the part of the country that’s bordering Jordan and the Golan – that is a part of the country in which we do an awful lot in terms of humanitarian support and it’s where we want to see ceasefires there endure. And that’s why the important process in Astana is something, obviously, that we very much want to see succeed. We also provide humanitarian support in the northwest, where the civil war has been going on. So in those areas, if you get the ceasefire in place, there’s obviously a lot that we can do to help, and we’ll be talking to Turkey about that.

And in different parts of the country, the Euphrates Shield area where Turkey has come in with the opposition, that is now a relatively stable area. And certainly, we’ll be talking about more we can do there in terms of humanitarian support and coordinating our efforts with Turkey. And then in other areas, which have been liberated from ISIS, those are also areas we want to see stable.

But in different parts of the country you have a different situation. We want to see, particularly on the borders of our critical allies, stability. So that’s one reason that this will be a key focus of our discussions in Ankara.

What was the second question?

MODERATOR: Raqqa. Turkey’s role, Turkey in Raqqa.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Oh, yeah. So again, I think on the discussion for Raqqa, as I mentioned, the isolation campaign is accelerating, it is ongoing, it’s going fairly well, it’s being led by the Syrian Democratic Forces with our advice and assistance, and we’ll be discussing with Turkey not only that process but also, importantly, what comes afterwards in trying to ensure that Raqqa, after ISIS, is governed by an inclusive body that represents the population. So that is something that’s also very much underway.

And I would just – following up on one of the earlier questions, in terms of the amount of work that goes in before we launch these military campaigns, Mosul was a good example. The amount of work that was done with the Arabs and Kurds to make sure that the Kurdish Peshmerga could work together and work very closely with the Iraqi Security Forces, and that has been a success – that took a lot of political and diplomatic work, and Raqqa is kind of the same thing. We coordinated very closely with Turkey in the run-up to the Mosul campaign, and we’ll do the same here in the run-up to the Raqqa campaign.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. That will conclude today’s background call. Just as a reminder, this was background. These [senior State Department officials] should be attributed as senior State Department officials, and the embargo on this call is now over. Thanks very much.