Briefing on Syria Meeting and U.S. Strategy

Special Briefing
James F. Jeffrey
Special Representative for Syria Engagement 
Lotte New York Palace Hotel
New York, NY
September 27, 2018


MR PALLADINO: All right, thank you all for coming. We are honored to have with us today Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, our special representative for Syria. Ambassador Jeffrey will speak a little bit about the Syria small group meeting that took place today, as well as the United States strategy towards Syria. This briefing is on-the-record, off-camera, and embargoed until this briefing’s completion.

Ambassador Jeffrey, welcome and take it away.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Before I get into the statement and the background too, a little bit on our policy. The policy that we’ve been working on for the last few months, certainly well before I came, is focused on three elements. First of all, the U.S. will remain in Syria until the enduring defeat of ISIS. Now, that’s the military mission. It’s not broader than that, but for the moment, that has, by their mere presence and denial, certain implications for the rest of the situation.

We are pushing towards freezing the conflict in every way possible and then seizing a diplomatic opportunity to push for the implementation of the UN Security Council resolution that covers ending conflict in Syria, 2254. One reason why this is so urgent is the situation as it has evolved over the last few months. On top of a raging internal conflict that you’ve all been covering since 2011, you now have five states’ military forces – U.S., Russian, Turkish, Iranian, and Israeli, at least in the air – over and around Syria, bumping into each other. Most of you have covered some of the bumps against our forces over the past year and a half, but you just saw a dramatic example of what we’re trying to avoid on a larger scale 10 days ago when Israeli forces allegedly engaged Iranian military targets, resulting in Syrian military forces attempting to engage the Israeli alleged forces and, in the end, hitting Russian military forces. This is the kind of escalation scenario we urgently need to stop. So thus, there has to be an outcome.

Our goals were laid out in dramatic form by President Trump himself, who has been very, very active on that, and those of us working on this agenda feel that he has our back. On the Idlib conflict a few weeks ago, he came out with a very strong statement that reverberated all around the international community on Idlib, which is that any movement in would be reckless escalation – not simply if they use chemical weapons, not simply the problem of refugee flows, perhaps a million or more, although those are really, really serious worrisome things, but that kind of offensive in and of itself was wrong.

So, as he said yesterday, the situation in Syria is heartbreaking. We want to see a de-escalation of the military conflict, a political solution that honors the Syrian people, and thus want to see the UN peace process be reinvigorated. I always have a problem with that word. So – and as part of that policy, the defeat of ISIS, which – a enduring defeat of ISIS; the reinvigoration of the political process; and thirdly, the removal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria. As he spelled out, the Iranian forces are accelerants to everything that is going wrong in Syria.

To the end of reinvigorating the political process, after extensive consultations throughout the international community, a group of us met at the ministerial level today chaired by France, including Mike Pompeo, and issued the statement you have before you. The idea is and the key to it is to call on Staffan de Mistura, who has been charged by the UN to put together a constitutional committee as the first of a series of steps to transform the internal political situation in Syria, to call it forth. The lists have been prepared, one approved by the regime, or so we understand, for the regime side; another approved by the opposition of 50 each; and then the third, somewhat more controversial, where there is some debate that Staffan himself was charged to put together essentially neutral or civil society.

The regime through its Russian and Iranian front men have been delaying this thing for many months. It’s time now to move forward, thus the key language in this statement is “To move forward with the political solution consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, the special envoy for Syria is called upon to convene as quickly as possible a credible, inclusive constitutional committee that will begin the work of drafting a new Syrian constitution and to report back to the Security Council on his progress no later than October 31st.”

Now, some – mainly some living east of Poland and the Baltics – have said that this is an artificial ultimatum or deadline. It’s not. The only deadline is to report back to the UN. Staffan can decide, as is specific in his mandate, when this list is ready to be called forth. And we trust him on this. He’s put a lot of work into it. He’s consulted endlessly with the Turks, the Iranians, and the Russians, and most importantly with many Syrians. All, again, we are asking for is for him to report back by the 31st of October.

So our hope is with the situation in Idlib at least for the moment frozen by the Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia, a near miracle itself if you remember a few – 10 days before in Astana, the Turks, the Russians, and the Iranians had a huge falling out about the future in Idlib, where President Putin publicly humiliated President Erdogan by refusing to accept a ceasefire. And Article 9 of the Idlib – or Sochi agreement on Idlib the words “sustaining ceasefire” is in there.

So what changed? First of all, the Turks did not back down. The international community did not back down. It was horrified by the idea of three million people being subjected to another barrel bombing, possibly chemical weapons attack. The U.S. position, be it the President’s statement on reckless escalation or our very, very clear statements that this time when we reacted to chemical weapons it would be quite a bit stronger than the last two times, and the situation throughout the country, where wherever the Russians and the Syrians turned they were running into, let’s just say, opposition.

So we now have the opportunity here in the UN. We are building up a tremendous amount of momentum for this statement. Almost no country is siding with the Russians and the Iranians and the Syrian regime on trying to delay the movement towards a political settlement. And if we can move to a political settlement, that will reinforce the tendency of this conflict to shift to the political rather than to – rather than where it is now in the military arena.

I’ll stop here.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go to Washington Post, John, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. Ambassador, has the decision formally been taken and approved by the President, the condition for U.S. withdrawal from Syria will be the removal of Iranian forces and their proxies from the nation, and has that been communicated to the military?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: You ask two separate questions. The U.S. is going to remain – how did you put it? Phrase your question specifically.

QUESTION: Has the decision formally been taken and approved by the President that a condition for U.S. withdrawal from Syria will be the removal of Iranian forces and their proxies?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The President wants us in Syria until that and the other conditions are met. But I want to be clear here: Us. Us is not necessarily American boots on the ground. Boots on the ground have the current mission of the enduring defeat of ISIS. There are many ways that we can be on the ground. We’re certainly on the ground diplomatically. We in the State Department have teams operating in various parts of Syria or across the border. We have local forces that we have trained in various parts of Syria. Our allies have local forces.

There are various scenarios. You know some of them because you’ve covered them, from how we reacted to the Russians in Georgia in 2008 to how the international community has reacted to the Russians in east Ukraine that do not involve American boots on the ground. For many years, as you know, we had local allies on the ground in northern Iraq and we provided air support. I’m not suggesting any of these scenarios are what we will apply in the future in Syria. I’m just saying there are many ways that we will be active. The military remains with its mission of enduring defeat of ISIS, as I believe Secretary Mattis made very clear yesterday.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go Reuters. Lesley.

QUESTION: Ambassador, how do you bring the Syrians to the table? I mean, if Russia’s not going to comply with this, how do you compel them to come, and especially if they think that they’ve won the war?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I can’t look into the minds of the Syrian leadership. All I can do is look at the map and talk to the people who know the situation. Bashar al-Assad can think he’s won the war, but right now he holds on to approximately half the territory of Syria. Half the population is not under his control. It’s either in areas controlled by our allies and the partners in the northeast or by Turkish allies or Turks themselves in the northwest, a few even in our area around al-Tanf in the south, or across the border in Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey, or in Europe. That’s over 10 million people. And he’s sitting on a cadaver state with almost no economy, no access to his fuel and gas resources, such as they are, and no promise or hope of reconstruction because the United States as part of its policies, supported by a very strong majority in the European Union, is blocking that. So I don’t think he’s won anything.

MR PALLADINO: Associated Press. Matt.

QUESTION: Can I – I just feel like I’ve seen this movie before when Assad was in a much worse position (inaudible) militarily, and held even less than what he holds now. And the meetings certainly that I went to in Switzerland achieved absolutely nothing. I mean, they couldn’t even get them to sit down at the table. Why do you think that you seven, the seven countries in the small group, urging Staffan de Mistura to convene this constitutional council as soon as possible and then report back by Halloween is – I mean, what is it that makes you think that you have any kind of momentum that you didn’t have in the past?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Well, we have a negative momentum because of the, as I said, the incident involving the Russian aircraft where you have all of these militaries. Now, leaving aside our own, who I covered, we spend considerable time talking to certainly three of the others. We don’t talk with the Iranians, but we follow what they do pretty well. None of them are happy with the security situation now in Syria. None of them have plans of pulling out anytime soon. So you have a real risk, if you do not get some kind of a political settlement, of a much larger conflict, a red-on-blue conflict as opposed to a conflict of military forces with local jihadis or local rebels. And that’s the difference from when we did this --

QUESTION: I – that was the same situation five years ago.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh no, it wasn’t.

QUESTION: Yeah, well, what was happening --

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: No, hold on. No, hold on. Let’s just --

QUESTION: Before the Russians went in, okay, you essentially had the same situation, but Assad was losing.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: No, you had no Russian troops, you had no U.S. troops, you had no Israeli troops, and you had no Turkish troops. So there’s four – you had Iranians, some, but nothing like what we have now. And you had no Iranian power projection. So four and a half of the five outside military forces that I’ve talked about today – and I’m putting a fair amount of emphasis on – were not there when you were in Geneva – I’m sorry – period.

Next question.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go in the front right here, please.

QUESTION: Two parts. First of all, it’s the other half of Matt’s question. How, when the Russians, the Turks, and the Iranians have much more momentum on the Astana peace process, and your statement noticeably does not include any of those players, how do you try to bridge the gap, get them engaged? And the second question: I happened to see President Rouhani on Monday night, and I asked him directly, “Under what conditions will you withdraw your forces from Syria?” And he said, “We intend to stay as long as there is a – as we are there at the request of the government and there is a need for us to be there militarily.”

So how do you also, when you want the Iranians to – how do you create an incentive or a situation where they don’t want to be there anymore?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: What was the first part of the question? Because I go so wrapped up in how I would answer the second one.

QUESTION: The first one was about Astana and the fact it has credibility and --

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh yeah, okay. Look, look, at one point the international community turned to the three members of the Astana group to be helpful in putting together the list, because Turkey has very good contacts with the resistance forces, and obviously the Russians and the Iranians talk with the regime. And they did so. They put together two lists that my understanding is have been totally approved. There have been some relatively minor dickering over the third list, the civil society, but what we keep on hearing from our Russian friends is that the regime won’t move.

The list exists and Staffan de Mistura has the authority of the UN to go forward. He was tasked – and this was agreed by the Russians and the Iranians and the Turks – he was tasked to come up with the third list. He has done so. He has spent nine months coordinating name by name with everybody in the Astana group, so they are very much a part of this. They have been there at the creation of this list. It’s just that the first tactic, which was to try to get the regime to approve this in one or another way, or at least be happy with it, has not occurred.

In terms of the Iranians, the Iranians are not only there to help the Assad regime defend itself against its own citizenry armed with rifles. It has long-range missiles, it has radar systems, it has anti-aircraft systems and other military capabilities that we would associate with power projection over the region. Very similar to what we’ve seen in southern Lebanon, very similar to what we have seen in northern Yemen. That is what I believe, though you would have to ask the Israelis, triggered the Israeli intervention. As I said back in 2015, I don’t think the Israelis, other than one incident in the Golan Heights, were involved militarily in Syria. They are obviously very, very active now. What’s the difference? It all – it goes to Iran and what Iran is trying to do there. I respectfully would argue it has little to do with saving the Damascus regime from its own citizens.

QUESTION: Yes, but that doesn’t answer my question, which was how do you create incentives or conditions that Iran would be willing to withdraw, whether it’s because it’s under pressure or because it thinks it’s a smart political move?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Under pressure, because our assessment, at least of the Russians, there is – we – the Russians and the Iranians want to save, if not the Assad regime, they want to have a friendly regime in Damascus. The political process gives them a way to try to get that, just like the military campaign has allowed them to defend it. But if you will, a military presence long term, including power projection – which the Iranians seem to be aiming for – is a little bit more than their minimum goals and seems to be frosting on the cake. What we’re trying to suggest is let’s put pressure on them to leave.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go right here.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

MR PALLADINO: Sure.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. My name is (inaudible) from (inaudible) Media Network. It’s good to see you again. Ambassador, I want – I have two questions. The first one is related to getting the Iranians out of Syria. Is there any – are you going to try with the Russians to force the Iranians out of Syria? Is this part of your calculus? And my second questions is about the Kurds. Are they – where are they in your strategy in Syria? They are not part of the Staffan de Mistura political process, they are not – there’s no clear vision for their – there’s a lot of uncertainty about their future. Is there any U.S. plan for them?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay, first, we’re not going to force the Iranians out of Syria. We don’t even think the Russians can force the Iranians out of Syria, because force implies force, military action, to get – like we used – we forced the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait in 1991. This is all about political pressure. Now, every time I say this, people roll their eyes. I was part of a departure of American – all American forces – same language that has applied to Iran – from Vietnam in 1973. The Israelis left Lebanon in 2006. I was involved in that, in (inaudible). I can cite a half dozen, just in the Middle East, examples of military forces leaving territories once there is a political process, once there is an understanding in the international community that you go back to status quo ante, or some other political result.

That’s what we’re looking for. This is not forcing anybody out. Technically, it’s the Syrian Government that has invited the Iranians in. It is our expectation that the Syrian Government, whatever government is there at the end of this political process, or at some point in the political process, would no longer feel the need to have Iranian forces there, particularly Iranian forces who seem to be there for purposes other than helping the Syrian regime.

QUESTION: And the second one about the Kurds?

MR PALLADINO: This is the last – wait, time for one more there.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh, the Kurds – he asked a second one.

MR PALLADINO: All right.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The Kurds – the SDF, which involves both Kurdish and Arab forces, are our allies in the fight against ISIS. There is a position that we take, and that everybody else takes, that all of the people in Syria, including the people in the northeast, should participate in the political process. Staffan de Mistura is working out and we’ll see how that develops under Staffan’s guidance in the months ahead.

MR PALLADINO: Last one, let’s go Bloomberg, Nick.

QUESTION: Ambassador Jeffrey, just two quickies, I’m – you say that the Russians and the Iranians want to have a friendly regime. Why then would they participate in the political process that would jeopardize that? I mean, Assad has shown he’s perfectly willing to preside over, as you put it, a cadaver state. And then secondly, on the Iranian presence, do you believe that their presence sort of creates fertile ground for the reemergence of ISIS? Is that another concern that you have about the process?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The second one, yes. There’s one who, when I look at people around here, remember what happened in both Iraq and Syria in 2012 and 2013. Yes, if you are ruled by despots who in particular target Sunni Arab populations, and if the international community feels in its duty to respond to that, as we certainly did in 2012, 2013, you get al-Qaida 2.0, which is called as ISIS, or you’ll get al-Qaida 3.0, which will be called son of ISIS.

Now in terms of the Russians and Iranians, a friendly government does not necessarily mean a cadaver government sitting on the rubble of half its country, still, to this day, if you look at your own reporting, finding new devilish ways to oppress its own population, including some of the people who they’ve invited to come back, either drafted into the military or thrown back in jail or denied their property and such.

I don’t see that the Russians necessarily need that particular friendly government, particularly a government like that that is going to be very expensive to prop up – and I use that verb specifically, prop up – and raise – opens a door to serious military confrontations like we just saw a week ago Monday because the international community, or much of it and the neighbors are not happy with that particular friend of Russia and Iran. That’s the only answer I can give you. If they want that guy, then it’s going to be hard for us to convince them not to have him, but boy does he come with a lot of cost.

QUESTION: I mean, they seem willing to tolerate him so far.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: They haven’t been facing some of the costs they are now facing. They have thought all along they would win the war – okay I’ll spend a little bit of time. This is my interpretation of how the Russians and Iranians saw the middle third of 2018. They would build up a military offensive, the United States they thought was pulling its troops out, they would pretend to be participating in the political process so that the international community would get reports by Mr. de Mistura in the – here in New York from time to time or in Geneva or in – there would be some press conferences but nothing would happen.

And meanwhile, they would take territory after territory after territory, and then they would turn around and say, okay, new situation. The regime clearly has been reestablished. The regime is a reality. Live with it, let the reconstruction money flow. There’s plenty of good deals for you. Let the refugees – or rather, better, force the refugees, at least the ones Assad wants, because believe me, the regime rules out – in one case I’ve heard recently from one country about half the people who actually want to come back – let the refugees that your regime wants come back, forget about the UN process, 2254 is in the ashcan of history, and let’s rock and roll with the Assad regime. That I think was what they were thinking that they were going to see by – what was the term? Oh, Halloween. That’s not what they’re going to see by Halloween.

I think on that note, I’ll end it.

MR PALLADINO: Perfect, thank you. Very good. Thank you, Ambassador Jeffrey. All right, thank you all. Embargo’s lifted.