Summary

  • WHAT: New York Foreign Press Center On-the-Record Briefing
  • WHEN: Friday, September 27, 2019 at 1:00 p.m.
  • WHERE: New York Foreign Press Center 799 UN Plaza, 10th Floor (SW corner of East 45th Street and 1st Avenue)
  • BACKGROUND: Ambassador James Franklin Jeffrey serves as the Secretary’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS. He is a senior American diplomat with experience in political, security, and energy issues in the Middle East, Turkey, Germany, and the Balkans.

NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR 

MODERATOR:  Welcome, everyone, to the New York Foreign Press Center.  We’re happy to have you here.  I’m just going to briefly introduce Ambassador Jeffrey, who will speak about his readout from his engagements here at the UN and the way forward on Syria. 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  Thank you very much.  I thank you for coming today and hello.  We have people from Washington on too?  

MODERATOR:  We do.  Yes, sir. 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  Okay.  All right.  First of all, let me give you a summary of what we were trying to do here this week on my two areas, which are very closely aligned: the Defeat-ISIS with a particular focus on the coalition activities in Syria and Iraq, and our overall policy towards Syria. 

We had several basic themes here this week: the political process for a resolution of the Syrian crisis going on since 2011; accountability by those, including the Syrian Government and ISIS, that have slaughtered inhumanely tens of thousands of people; work with Turkey on a safe zone mechanism that meets Turkish and local security concerns and allows the fight against ISIS to continue on.  And on all of these areas we believe that we had considerable success.  Most importantly, on the political process we saw the secretary-general announce on Monday that the constitutional committee is ready to be formed and we expect it to be formed in the near future.  I believe that there will be a Security Council meeting on this on Monday that Geir Pedersen, the special envoy, will address, and we’ll learn more then about the details of the launch of this.   

This is a huge potential – I underline potential – shift in the outcome of the Syrian conflict.  Our view all along has been that the Syrian Government under Hafez Assad – or Bashar al-Assad, rather, is looking for a military victory while the rest of the world has signed up in Resolution 2254 for a political resolution with this constitutional committee, then free and fair elections run by the UN and various other steps on ceasefire, collective action against the terrorist threat that still exists in Syria, and such.   

Our first point – and we’ve made this clear in all of our conversations – is a military victory for Assad in this – or anybody else in this conflict and a political settlement are mutually exclusive.  You have to decide and the time now is to decide not only for Assad, but for those who support him.  This is a message we’ve been passing on to the Russians with whom we are dealing very closely on all of this.   

So on accountability, I met with Caesar, the famous Syrian – that’s his nom de guerre – official who smuggled out the 55,000 photos and we’re working our way through the U.S. Congress a Caesar bill to impose even tougher sanctions on those who are abusing fellow Syrians.  We had several meetings on the role – the treatment of women in Assad Syria, on ISIS’s activities in Iraq and in Syria, and on the overall human rights condition that we are faced with there, and finally, the Secretary’s press conference yesterday where he made public our finding which we just concluded that the regime had used chlorine gas in an attack in Latakia Province on the 19th of May.   

With Turkey, we are continuing our coordination on the safe zone and next steps.  We’re pleased with the progress.  The Turks would like to see us move quicker, but we are also coordinating with local officials.  It’s a very delicate operation, but we think that the military on both sides are doing well.   

I’ll stop there and take your questions. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  So for Q&A, please state your name and organization before you ask your question.  I will moderate that.  We’ll start up in the front. 

QUESTION:  Hiba Nasr, Sky News Arabia.  Ambassador, you said that there was a use of chlorine and the President drew a red line before if there was a use of chemical attacks.  What are the options now? 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  Well, at the same time as the Secretary announced that, he said several things.  First of all, he announced that we had just imposed new sanctions on a Russian company that was delivering aviation fuel for the use of Russian and, we believe, Syrian aircraft that were carrying out these inhuman barrel bombings and other attacks on the population in Idlib and elsewhere.  So that’s the first thing.  We are also giving additional funding to the OPCW for – on its investigatory arm to look into accountability for these things.   

He also said that the United States is doing everything it can reasonably to ensure that this never happens again.  The decision to take military action in any circumstance has to be measured by things – first of all, is it reasonable under the circumstances, how many casualties, when did it happen, how long did it take us to ascertain it?  These are all questions that come up under the general category of proportionality.   

We believe that – first of all, our position that a military response to use of chemical weapons is on the table remains firm.  It remains firm with the French, who have affirmed it to us; it remains firm with the British, who sent out a statement generally supporting us this morning on the chemical weapons action.  And we think the regime and its supporters understand this. 

MODERATOR:  Over here, sir. 

QUESTION:  Sir, Razi Canikligil, Hurriyet Turkish daily.  Well, yesterday, President Erdogan said – he had given you two weeks come up with the plan for the safe zone.  Now he says he doesn’t trust U.S. anymore.  He doesn’t think that U.S. will cooperate for the safe zone.  He also gave away some booklets yesterday about the safe zone, $26 billion budget, and 1 million people settlement.  What do you think about the settlements and what do you think about Erdogan’s reaction? 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  We – I saw an individual had that book.  We haven’t been provided that yet.  The Turkish Government has talked with us about and, in fact, the safe zone mechanism arrangements include the return of refugees in a safe, voluntary, and dignified fashion if they’ve come from the northeast.  So we’re working with the Turkish Government on that, as we’re working with the Turkish Government and the Turkish military on all aspects of the safe zone.  We think it is going quite well. 

MODERATOR:  Okay, Washington, we’re going to go to you.  Please state your name and organization. 

QUESTION:  Yes, I’m Kawa Khdr from Kurdistan 24.  Thank you for your time, sir, Ambassador.  One of the fears of the Kurds in Syria – it’s very well known – regarding the safe zone is, during the return of the refugees, a kind of demographic change for the Kurdish villages and places.  This is the part one, and the part two of it is still there’s a fear of a military action from the Turkish side.  So technically, what are the guarantees for these two points? 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  The Kurds of Syria – who are you talking about?  Your friend or somebody you meet on the street?  Who are you referring to? 

QUESTION:  Mr. Ambassador, there – you know that there are too many Kurdish political parties.  I mean, it’s just the YPG and the PYD, just – they are still appraising these questions.  And also the public – the public – as media, we know that the public are really talking about this. 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  Of course.  It’s a – obviously it’s a subject, but I would point out that – and I haven’t counted them all, but Masoud Barzani, someone I’ve known for many years and trust who happens to be Kurdish, has told me that there are 300,000 Kurdish Syrian refugees from northeast Syria inside of northern Iraq, and the Turkish authorities believe that there are several hundred thousand Syrian refugees from northeast Syria inside Turkey.  I think those people want to go back, don’t you? 

QUESTION:  Definitely that’s true, Mr. Ambassador. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Back to New York.   

QUESTION:  Ambassador, Arthur MacMillan, The National.  It’s about Syria.  In terms of military action, you used the words it’s time for the Assad regime to decide whether it’s a political solution or a military solution as he sees it.  Have you spoken – while you were here, did you speak to the Russians about those options and whether they should be talking to the Assad regime about it?  Because he doesn’t – I mean, obviously, Secretary Pompeo’s statement yesterday was very significant, but Assad still seems to be quite slow in coming to the table when it comes to politics. 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  Yeah, I try to be careful on specific diplomatic contacts in certain locations and times with individuals in countries, but you can operate on the assumption – certainly in my case, and I would say generally with American and other diplomats – that we wouldn’t be presenting these things to you had we not been sharing them with the relevant parties.  My comments to our colleague from Hurriyet on the safe zone, my comments to you on the issue of Assad and his choice, my comments to our friend on what we have – certain – with various Kurdish groups and such – we try to do that so we don’t make news among our interlocutors through the media, but rather inform you of generally where we are in a way that should not surprise them.  How’s that for a little tradecraft of what we do?  We have tradecraft – it’s not as good as journalist tradecraft, of course.  It’s very amateurish and primitive, but we try. 

QUESTION:  But what would you say to the Russian side in the sense that they’re obviously cooperating with the Assad regime in Idlib?  Russian planes are taking off and bombing parts of Idlib – well proven; data has been presented to the United Nations on that fact.  There’ll be a press conference today from Sergey Lavrov at 3 o’clock where I’m quite sure he will counter some of the things we’ve heard in the last 24 hours.  I just guess I’m wondering what’s your message, what you think Russia should be thinking at this point. 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  If you make it to the press conference and he talks about taking the political path forward, ask him why the Russian – I forget whether it was which Russian news agency announced that the Russians are planning on expanding their – what is it, Hmeimim airbase?  Could you, yeah, just give that out to – we have somebody, you know about that press report.  Yeah.   

So what did I say earlier?  That pursuing a military victory and the political process are mutually incompatible, are mutually exclusive.  I will stand with that and I will stand with the fact that people know about it.  And our willingness to cooperate in a compromise solution – because that takes us, too – 40 percent of Syria is not in the hands of the Assad regime.  Half his population has fled his control to other areas.  The country is a geostrategic disaster.  It threatens its neighbors through the presence of Iranians with long-range systems.  It has no economy to speak of.  Look at its currency; it’s at the worst level ever, pegged against the dollar and the Euro, and there’s no reconstruction money flowing in, and there isn’t going to be any reconstruction money flowing in until that country decides to make a decision for a compromised political settlement.   

We are not going to force it to do that militarily, but I will note that we and others are still pursuing in Syria military actions, not against the Assad regime, but against things that have happened because of the Assad regime’s inability to control its own territory and to deal with the uprisings of his people, the Iranians running around with long-range missile systems, from the Turkish standpoint, various terrorist threats they face, and our coalition going after ISIS.  Those are all outcomes of the Syrian civil war, if you will, or Syrian conflict, and they present a reality on the ground.  None of that reality is particularly positive to Assad.  If he wants to sit on top of a pile of rubble in a graveyard, there’s probably nothing we can do about it.  But if he wants to have anything like a normal country, and if his partners want him to have anything like a normal country, they have to go down the political process path. 

The constitutional committee convening is the first step, and we will – we evaluate that very positively, but we have to see further steps before we know that it is not just a tactical move, but rather a strategic decision.  Tactical move versus strategic decision?  The jury’s all out.  Ask him today at three. 

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  Mm-hmm. 

QUESTION:  Hi.  Alexey Bogdanovskiy with RIA Novosti Russian news agency. 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  Okay. 

QUESTION:  What will be — 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  You can ask him in Russian. 

QUESTION:  Probably, yes. 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  So I’ll give you a list, okay, of things to ask.  (Laughter.) 

QUESTION:  Why not?  My question is:  What role will the U.S. be playing in this constitutional committee?  Will you provide them technical support, maybe any assistance?  Will you vouch for any particular results except for the stated goal that Syria should be unified in its current borders, as you said yesterday? 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  You’ve summed up the American position probably more accurately than I would’ve.  The relevant resolution, 2254, says that this process in the end has to be by and with Syrians.  And we fully believe in that.  We will provide whatever support to the United Nations, which has the mission of facilitating that, specifically by Special Envoy Geir Pedersen, in any way that the UN asks us.  And we assume other Security Council states and the rest of the UN will do so as well. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  We’ll go back to Washington for a question. 

QUESTION:  Hi.  I’m Hikari from NTV, and I have two questions on the chlorine — 

MODERATOR:  Can you speak a little louder? 

QUESTION:  Okay, I’m sorry.  I’ll start over.  My name is Hikari from NTV, and I have two questions regarding the chlorine chemical weapons usage in Syria.  So you were talking about a military response, the possibility of a military response.  I was wondering if you have a timeline to – by when you might decide whether or not to do a military or a non-military response.   

And my second question is the last time the Syrian – the Assad regime used a chemical weapon, the U.S. did a military strike.  I was wondering, because this time there was no casualties, that – if that fact is going to affect your decision (inaudible). 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  Okay.  First of all, we – I didn’t say we’re trying to decide whether we’re going to do a military response.  At the moment, we have taken the actions on this particular use of chemical weapons that we think as – to quote Secretary Pompeo, are “reasonable.”  However, just so there is no confusion, just because this time we didn’t use a military option, that military option remains very much on the table in response to a chemical weapons attack.  Again, the circumstances will determine how we – not whether we will react, but how we will react.   

There were casualties; there were four people injured or suffering from the effects of chlorine in that attack, but there were no fatalities. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Any other questions here in New York?  Thank you, sir, for your time.  We will send the transcript once it becomes available. 

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  Thank you.  Thank you, all. 

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U.S. Department of State

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