Previewing Secretary Tillerson's Upcoming Trip To Amman, Jordan; Ankara, Turkey; Beirut, Lebanon; Cairo, Egypt; And Kuwait City, Kuwait
MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. And thank you for joining us today for a background call to preview Secretary Tillerson’s upcoming to travel to Amman, Ankara, Beirut, Cairo, and Kuwait City. We are joined today by [Senior State Department Official One], [Senior State Department Official Two], [Senior State Department Official Three], [Senior State Department Official Four], and [Senior State Department Official Five]. These officials will be known now as Senior Department Officials One, Two, Three, Four, and Five respectively. As a reminder, today’s call is on background and will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call. With that, I’m happy to now turn it over to our first speaker who will begin – who will brief us on the Secretary’s travel to Amman.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hi, folks. Senior Department Official One here with you. So as you know, part of the visit to – on this trip is going to involve a trip to Amman, Jordan. It’s something that Secretary Tillerson had been planning on doing for quite a long time. When he’s there he’ll meet, obviously, with King Abdullah and with Foreign Minister Safadi. He’ll pay a visit to the U.S. embassy, including a new annex that will be reopened there – that will be opened there soon. And he’ll do a visit with the U.S. embassy staff, one of our largest teams in the Middle East.
So the purpose of the visit, and recall that this visit comes on the heels of a very successful visit by Vice President Pence only a few weeks ago, and it’s really a marker of the longstanding and enduring strength of our U.S.-Jordan partnership. At the center of the visit is going to be conclusion – Secretary Tillerson and his counterpart Foreign Minister Safadi – conclusion of a bilateral MOU that enshrines our commitment to cooperate on a whole range of bilateral assistance priorities – economic, defense, security – over the coming years. The details of that MOU we will leave for the actual signing when the team is in Jordan.
So the visit of the Secretary to Jordan will highlight our cooperation with the Jordanians on a whole range of issues – their work with us resolving the conflict in Syria, the defeat of ISIS and other terrorist groups, and our work – continuing work to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East, including Israeli-Palestinian peace. Obviously, the Secretary will convey our assistance and understanding and support for Jordan as they host upwards of 650,000 refugees, and our commitment to supporting Jordan’s efforts to manage the refugee influx while implementing reforms designed to stimulate Jordan’s economy, promote private sector-led growth, and renewable energy in Jordan.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Now we’ll take a preview of the trip to Ankara.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So Secretary Tillerson’s visit to Ankara is the next step in a series of high-level telephone and in-person engagements we’ve had with senior Turkish leadership, the purpose of which is really to reaffirm the value of our alliance with Turkey and the shared interests that we face as we try and work through a range of these challenges together. The Secretary obviously plans to raise some of the more difficult issues in the bilateral relationship as well as some of the things that are going better. And then he’ll also, of course, discuss the full range of regional and security issues, from the defeat ISIS campaign to counter PKK and so forth. We don’t have a full, final schedule yet in terms of who the Secretary will meet exactly when, but he will be meeting with senior level Turkish officials and have some internal meetings at the embassy as well.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you very much. And now we’ll go back to Senior Department Official Number One to preview Beirut.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So again, as part of the visit, the Secretary’s going to visit Beirut. This is the first time a Secretary of State has been to Beirut in four years. And obviously, the center of that visit, he’ll meet with President Aoun, with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and with the speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri. It’s really an opportunity to affirm our support for Lebanon as it confronts a whole range of challenges – defending its borders from terrorists, coping with extraordinary influx of refugees, upwards of a million refugees since the start of the Syrian war. And the visit will also underscore our commitment to Lebanese national institutions, principally the Lebanese Armed Forces and internal security forces in Lebanon, as those forces fight ISIS, al-Qaida, and maintain Lebanon’s stability.
He’ll obviously also raise the question – the issue of Hizballah, the destructive role that Hizballah plays in Lebanon and across the region. It’s obviously unacceptable that a militia like Hizballah continues to operate outside the authority of the Lebanese state, and that will be a major topic of discussion between him and Lebanon’s leaders.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And now we’ll take a preview of Cairo.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: So Egypt’s a key strategic partner for us in the region, and the Secretary’s visit to Cairo is an opportunity for him to further build upon the strengthening of the relationship that has occurred over the past year in the array of senior level engagement that there has been – most recently the Vice President’s visit just a few weeks ago.
The Secretary will meet with Egyptian President al-Sisi, his counterpart, Foreign Minister Shoukry, and he’ll also visit the U.S. embassy and meet with U.S. embassy staff.
Building on the Vice President’s recent, very successful visit to Cairo, the Secretary will discuss a range of issues with the Egyptians, including regional issues of mutual concern such as Libya and Syria, our shared commitment to fighting terrorism, Israeli-Palestinian issues and our efforts to move the prospects for peace forward, and other topics pertaining to the bilateral relationship and how it can be further strengthened.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And now, finally, a look at Kuwait.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL FOUR: The Secretary will visit Kuwait, and his visit there really has four key components. There is a – as you know, global conference on defeating ISIL that will take place. There is an Iraq reconstruction event that he will participate in. He will have bilateral meetings with the Kuwaiti relationship, and he will have a number of separate bilateral meetings with other non-Kuwaiti leaders who are also in the country for those two events that I mentioned at the top.
It’s no coincidence that the Secretary will have these types of engagements in Kuwait. Kuwait’s a very strong and steady regional partner; hosts the fourth-largest number of U.S. troops anywhere in the world; has been a strong partner in the counter-ISIL coalition, and is also a leader on humanitarian issues in the region, as evidenced by its strong support for Syrian refugees and other humanitarian events. Kuwait’s also been the mediator of the Gulf crisis, or the Qatar dispute, as it is sometimes called. And when the Secretary is in Kuwait and in his meetings with the Kuwaitis, he will also want to talk about next steps in terms of resolving the U.S. – sorry, the Qatar dispute, taking advantage of Kuwait’s leadership and mediation. He’ll also talk about recent sale of F/A-18s that the Kuwaitis are purchasing from the United States, which is a $5 billion deal and will bring many jobs to the American defense sector.
MODERATOR: All right. And lastly --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL FIVE: So let me just briefly touch upon the counter-ISIS meeting and then very briefly on some of the Iraq reconstruction meeting. So obviously, the defeat of ISIS is one of the President’s top foreign policy priorities, and about a year ago in March, the Secretary gathered all members of our coalition here at the State Department for a pretty historic meeting, and the point of that was really to look ahead at the next year. The focus on that meeting was very heavily on Mosul, which was an ongoing battle at the time, and also Raqqa, which we knew we’d have to get after over the course of the coming year.
At that meeting, we raised about $2.3 billion of critical funding needs. And what that money did over the last year was help ensure that as we completed the military campaign in Mosul and Raqqa, we were also prepared for the humanitarian outgrowth of displaced persons. So in Mosul, for example, we had 1 million IDPs, and every single IDP – displaced person – from Mosul received humanitarian assistance and aid.
Over the last year – and I think it’s also notable at that meeting in September, we had most members of the National Security Council, the cabinet here – Secretary Mattis, Director Coats and others – to talk about all we had to do to really strangle ISIS. And over the last year, we really accelerated the campaign. About 50 percent of all the gains against ISIS in Iraq and Syria came over the last year – 7.7 million people who used to be living under ISIS and are no longer, about 5 million of them were freed from ISIS over the last year. And the return of displaced to territories that used to be held by ISIS also accelerated this past year, 3.2 million Iraqis now back in their homes in areas that used to be controlled by ISIS. So pretty significant progress over the last year, which we want to kind of do a brief look back as we then look ahead.
We’ve also added a number of members to the coalition since that gathering in March of last year, and that includes Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Niger, Cameroon, and also NATO. That’s significant because this is not just a fight, of course, in Iraq and Syria; it truly is a global campaign. This is now the largest coalition of its kind in history, with about 74 members, and as the Secretary cohosts this meeting in Kuwait, part of the focus will be making sure we really focus on the global nature of the campaign.
So there will be really two main elements of the meeting in Kuwait – the counter-ISIS ministerial. First will be focusing on consolidating the gains in Iraq and Syria, a heavy focus on stabilization and some funding gaps that we hope to close over the course of the next year. The coalition also importantly will endorse a guiding principles document for what we want to do together over the next year, and that will focus much more on law enforcement intelligence sharing, the very difficult work to make sure that we are catching these people as they cross borders, and doing all we can to protect our homeland.
So not only Iraq and Syria, but a real kind of emphasis over the next year on the global nature of the campaign – the foreign fighters, counter-messaging, intelligence and law enforcement cooperation. And our CT bureau and Ambassador Sales will be hosting a very important meeting of law enforcement officials from our coalition here next month. So that will be a key theme.
Very briefly, on the Iraq reconstruction conference, the Government of Iraq is working with the Government of Kuwait and the World Bank for this conference. It’ll be held over the course of three days to bring together the donor community, civil society, and the private sector. The first day of the Kuwait reconstruction conference is focused on NGOs; the second day, private sector; and the third day, a meeting of government leaders. So Secretary Tillerson and other high level government representatives will attend the event, along with a really unprecedented 2,300 private sector representatives, high-ranking officials from regional governments, and representatives from international financial institutions.
There will be about a hundred American companies traveling to Kuwait for this event, and I think what you will see is a really innovative approach in terms of long-term post conflict reconstruction. And if you think of the template of these two meetings, the counter-ISIS meeting is focused on the immediate stabilization needs, and the reconstruction meeting is looking longer term. And this is not a program of direct U.S. Government contribution to projects; this is rather a more innovative approach focused on long-term financing, improving Iraq’s macroeconomic stability, which we’ve been doing through the IMF and the World Bank and others, to make sure that they are able to finance their long-term reconstruction needs. And I think there will be some fairly significant announcements coming out of those meetings, which I – which I won’t get ahead of the Secretary, but that’ll be quite important.
And back to the moderator.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you very much, and we’ll now open this up for questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone, *1. You’ll hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question, please press *1 at this time. One moment, please, for the first question.
Our first question comes from the line of Matthew Lee with AP. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi there, thank you for taking my question. I’ve got three, but they’re very brief. First of all, this trip, the Secretary’s going to three of Israel’s four neighbors. I’m just curious as to why he is not going to Israel, particularly since the Kuwait stop seems to focus on the fourth of Israel’s neighbor.
Secondly, [Senior State Department Official Five], on the announcements in Kuwait, I realize you don’t want to get into specifics, but those would be private sector announcements or IMF/ World Bank types?
And the last one, for SAO One, [Senior State Department Official One], the MOU in Jordan – has there been any thought given to moving some of the UNRWA money that’s on hold now to either Jordan or Lebanon to help them deal with whatever shortfall there might be for the Palestinians in both those countries? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So, Matt, I’ll take my two questions together. On the question of Israel, I wouldn’t read too much into the fact that there’s no Israel stop. These are always very complicated itineraries to pull together. The Secretary meets relatively frequently with Israeli officials when they’re in town and stays abreast of the issues. So I wouldn’t reach any conclusions about the fact that there’s no Israel stop on this particular trip.
On the question of UNRWA, the MOU doesn’t really deal with UNRWA money, although I’m not sure that – I don’t think that was your point. But the whole question of how we handle UNRWA funds in general, and then specifically for a country like Jordan, is something we’re studying right now, at the White House particularly. And we’ll reach some conclusions and formula on that soon I believe.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL FIVE: Yeah, just briefly. So the IMF program, the Iraqis concluded a standby arrangement with the IMF, which we have – we’re of course very much a part of helping facilitate. And that’s delivered already about $2 billion in financing and projected to result in about $5.4 billion in budgetary support. That’s the type of stuff that is far more important than the direct – than the direct contributions. We’ve also provided a sovereign loan guarantee, which helped the Iraqis have a very successful billion-dollar unsupported bond sale back earlier last summer in August.
So those are the types of things that we’re really focused on here. So working with EXIM Bank and OPIC and others and the private sector to have a more kind of really innovated approach working very closely with the Iraqi Government and its reforms and the World Bank, and its kind of vision over the next couple decades for how it intends to reconstruct and finance its reconstruction. So that’s the focus of the meeting, and I think it will be quite interesting for those who follow these types of issues.
Also just finally, we’ve done a lot of work in the region. Obviously, Secretary Tillerson was very focused early on on the opening between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Secretary was in Saudi Arabia about three or four months ago for a pretty historic meeting King Salman and Prime Minister Abadi. And since then, we’ve seen the opening of border crossings between Iraq and Saudi Arabia that have been closed for three decades, direct flights between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. And again, those are the types of things that are critical to Iraq’s long-term reconstruction needs, and we look forward to of course seeing the Saudis at the meeting here in Kuwait over the coming days.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Good morning. Two topics I wanted to raise. One, with regard to Turkey, is the Secretary going to seek a commitment from the Turkish Government not to continue onto Manbij in its activities or its intervention in northern Turkey? And if he is not going to seek such an explicit commitment, is he going to seek at least some kind of commitment to pull back or restrain those activities by the Turks?
And then secondly, for official number two, you made no explicit mention of the human rights situation in Egypt and the deterioration in that during Sisi’s rule. And I wonder if you are going to explicitly raise those issues, and particularly, the issues of trying to achieve a fully free and fair election environment in a country where, as you’re well aware, the – one of the main challengers to President Sisi was effectively prevented from appealing his disqualification because his lawyer got beaten up on the way to launch that appeal.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So on your first question, I think what we’ve said to the Turks in privately – in private has been exactly what we’ve said to them in public, which is: we are urging them to show restraint in their operations in Efrin, and to show restraint further along the line across the border in northern Syria. Obviously, we need to work with the Turks to figure out more about what their long-term intentions are, and we need to work with the Turks more to figure out a way if there’s a way that we can – that we can work with them to address their legitimate security concerns while, at the same time, minimizing civilian casualties and above all else keeping everything focused on the defeat ISIS fight, which is not over.
So that’s going to be a difficult conversation. Turkish rhetoric has obviously been very hot on this topic, and so that’s part of the value of going out, sitting down face to face, and talking through what our potential areas for cooperation are and what hard messages we need to give to them about restraint and focus.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: In terms of Egypt, concerns about human rights and civil society are a topic of continuing conversation with the Egyptians, and I imagine will be a topic that will be discussed on this upcoming visit. On the elections, we support a genuine and a credible electoral process, and we believe should guarantee the right for all citizens to participate freely and fairly. As we do around the world, we urge the Egyptian Government to respect freedom of expression, which is a fundamental pillar for any democratic society. And we have noted our concerns about the reports that Egypt’s prosecutor general has launched an investigation into opposition figures ahead of the March 26th through 28th elections. These types of issues will be discussed on this visit.
MODERATOR: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Carol Morello with Washington Post. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: I was just looking for a little more detail on both countries you’ve already discussed. In Turkey, given that relationships – the relationship seems really near the breaking point, where does the Secretary see room to ease tension and for things to improve, given that the government allied press is calling the United States the enemy. And while he’s there, does – given that Turkey has spoken with Iranian leaders recently, does he have any intention to talk about prisoners or a prisoner swap?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I mean, you’re right to point out that particularly the issue of – particularly the issue of human rights and the arrest of our citizens and our locally engaged staff, that’s first on the agenda on the bilateral package, and there’s no pulling punches on that. We’ve been very public in our call to the Turks to let these folks go, and we’ve been very firm in our private conversations with them as well. That’s an issue that’s going to be a difficult one to work through, but it’s one that we take seriously, because we have no higher priority than the safety of our people overseas.
With regard to the broader bilateral relationship, look, it’s difficult. The rhetoric is hot, the Turks are angry and this is a difficult time to do business, but it’s our belief that there are still some very fundamental underlying shared interests that we have with the Turks, in terms of stability in Syria, defeating ISIS, fighting the PKK and broader questions of regional balance of power, where the Turks play an important role. So, at times like this, engagement is all the more important, but you’re absolutely right. It’s going to be a difficult conversation.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Felicia Schwartz with Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks so much for taking the question. One, I think for [Senior State Department Official Five]. I understand that the U.S. isn’t going to be making a government contribution, but will other governments be making contributions at the reconstruction conference. And then, secondly, what – I guess this would be for [Senior State Department Official One] – in terms of – beyond UNRWA, what’s the status of the deliberations on the broader aid to the Palestinians? I see the 251 million figure on foreign assistance back up, and if Tillerson is meeting with both counterparts in Kuwait, will he be making an ask of those countries to give more to the Palestinians if the U.S. is considering pulling back?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL FIVE: So, in terms of the – again, I just emphasized, I mean, the first day of the reconstruction conference is NGO’s and we are of course the largest contributor to Iraqi humanitarian assistance, and – through various NGO’s and the UN and others. But we’re focusing our efforts here and we’ve worked very closely with the Iraqis on this, on the kind of longer-term financing and what we can do to help them there. So again, that’s going to be or focus. Yes, I do think there is a World Bank kind of project list that I think some governments and participants will be quite interested in, and contributing in, as well this unprecedented number of private sector companies that will be coming.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: On the assistance – so our, certainly our internal deliberations about Palestinian assistance issues are ongoing, both internally and ultimately with the Hill. I think the Secretary – I think it’s safe to say, in the Secretary’s conversations with his counterparts, there will be a focus on this question of burden sharing, both in terms of assistance for UNRWA, for things like humanitarian aid in Gaza, which is urgently needed, and that has been expressed and discussed very clearly at the most senior level, and I’m sure that will come up as well. And then the broader question of various forms of assistance for the Palestinians in the West Bank. Finding ways that other partners can step up and contribute, that’ll be part of that discussion.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Gardiner Harris with New York Times. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Can you guys just talk about the general mood of this visit? Last year, of course, the President had a euphoric trip to the region, to Saudi Arabia (inaudible), but it – you’ve – talking certainly about hard conversations in Turkey, but you’re going to be having hard conversations at every one of these stops. In Jordan, the king, of course, is upset about the Jerusalem decision and is going to be struggling with the UNRWA decision, because many of the people who are educated and get health care through UNRWA live in his country, the same in Lebanon. In Kuwait it sounds like you’re not getting the assistance help for Iraq that you hoped. So isn’t it the case that the Secretary is going at a time of sort of deep difficulty for the United States, or at least a – there’s a much different mood about this meeting than there was at this time or a little bit last year?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, this is [Senior State Department Official One] here. Just – I would only say you’re right. This is – these are really tough issues and these are going to be tough conversations. The Secretary is going to do some very difficult, serious diplomacy. These are some of our closest partners, but they’re also partners with whom we’re facing some of the toughest issues that we have to face in the region, whether it’s terrorism, whether it’s the future of U.S. assistance, whether it’s the final defeat of ISIS, whether it’s maintaining partnership with an important NATO ally. All of these are, I think, emblematic of the need and the necessity for the Secretary to be out there doing face-to-face diplomacy with his counterparts.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL FOUR: Gardiner, I don’t think it’ll be a particularly tough conversation with the Kuwaitis. There aren’t a lot of bilateral irritants in the relationship. I mean, one area that we’re working on with many of our partners globally is reducing DPRK presence in countries. Kuwait is moving out on that front. We’re going to ask them to do – to sort of close that issue out, but they’ve been very, very responsive to that endeavor. And once again, Kuwait is a platform here for some really important events and discussions, so I don’t think – and particularly on the Kuwait stop – that there will be any really difficult conversations.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I would just add to [Senior State Department Official One]’s point that the underlying point here of the visit to Turkey is that this is an important NATO ally, one of our most important allies in the world and certainly in the region; and while we’re having tough times, this is the time to go out and talk with them through the brass tack issues that we have to get through.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL FIVE: Just to echo number three on Kuwait – so on ISIS, compared to where we were a year ago, it’s a much different conversation. A year ago we were facing very serious threats to our homelands, particularly out of Raqqa and the environs of Raqqa. We’ve made a lot of progress over the last year, but one of the key themes, obviously, will be that this is not over. There’s still fighting in eastern Syria, and we’re not going to quit until that is done. But in terms of the coalition, it is about as united as I’ve ever seen it. It continues to grow and has very broad political support across the board globally. So I think that’ll be an important theme.
And on the Iraq conference, this isn’t like a snapshot and this is the one three-day period in which everything that will be done for Iraq reconstruction will happen in this three days. It’s actually quite the opposite. As we move out of the period of very intense counter-ISIS operations and focus on stabilization, we’re now shifting to longer term. The Iraqis with the World Bank will roll out kind of their vision for the future of how to do this, and this will then be a longer-term process, so it’s kind of a – it’s the beginning of a foundation for longer-term reconstruction. And I think given the level of participation, which is really quite extraordinary, I think it’s – I think it’ll be a very good start.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have time for one final question.
OPERATOR: Our last question comes from Francesco Fontemaggi with AFP. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for taking my questions. These meetings are coming amid a deterioration of the situation in Syria – in many parts of Syria. So what the coalition as coalition can try to do? You’ve been issuing several warnings in the last days and weeks, but what can the coalition do? And thirdly, are you just going to ask them for restraint, or do you think that the operation in Afrin, which has now been lasting for a while, has to come to an end? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’ll start on Afrin. Obviously, you start with asking for restraint and look for ways that you can help bring it to an end as quickly as possible. I don’t want to prejudge any of these conversations that the Secretary may have, but obviously, the quicker we come to a resolution on that situation, the better it is for the broader effort.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL FIVE: I would just – you asked about the coalition. So the coalition is focused on fighting ISIS, and our military coalition – to the extent our military is on the ground in Syria – the mission is to fight ISIS, as Secretary Mattis re-emphasized yesterday. Our mission in Syria is to defeat ISIS and ensure it is an enduring defeat of ISIS, which is where stabilization comes in. So that is the focus of the meetings of the counter-ISIS coalition, and obviously, the broader Syria issues will be discussed in bilats and other forums.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much. Thank you for calling in today and thank you to our speakers for sharing their time this morning, and the embargo is now lifted. Have a good day.