MS ORTAGUS: Okay, good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for joining us for this briefing today at the State Department. We had the D-ISIS Ministerial and the Syria Small Group meetings hosted by Secretary Mike Pompeo. Joining us today to provide a summary of the events, we have our Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the one and only Ambassador James Jeffrey; and Ambassador Nathan Sales, our Coordinator for Counterterrorism.
At this time, I would like to invite Ambassador Jeffrey to provide some opening remarks, followed by Ambassador Sales, and then – your favorite – we will take questions. Thanks.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you very much, Morgan. Hello, everybody. The ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’s Small Group – it isn’t so small, about 35 countries and organization – are convened in Washington today to discuss the continuing fight against ISIS in light of recent developments.
The bottom line, I’ll get to it right now: They reaffirmed their commitment to this coalition. They acknowledged the great success we have had with the destruction of the caliphate back in March; the taking down of al-Baghdadi, Daesh’s leader, just last month, as well as Abu Hassan, his essentially number two; and the other successes we’ve had. But the third major point that they made was that we have a long way to go before we can write off Daesh as a terrorist threat in Iraq and Syria and around the world. Nathan will talk more about around the world in a second.
All of these countries are major contributors – either troops or civilian operations, funding, stabilization, humanitarian assistance. We’ve got a pledge drive this year for stabilization in Iraq and Syria that has a goal of a billion dollars; we’ve reached about 700 million of that internationally so far. And again, we have a very active troop presence in Iraq – we don’t get into the numbers in any detail – as well as continuing in Syria.
This was the first ministerial meeting since the destruction of the caliphate and since the takedown of al-Baghdadi. So it gave us a chance to – and also the Turkish incursion into northeast Syria. So it gave us a chance to recalibrate where we are and where we’re going. The conclusion is we basically have a good product, we have a good plan; we’re going to keep executing the plan. As the Secretary said at the D-ISIS Ministerial inauguration, “The United States will continue to lead the coalition and the world [on] this essential security effort.”
In a meeting, he had a very good discussion with every member of the coalition. They stressed the need to deal with foreign fighters that are detained. There was some difference of opinion on whether they should be repatriated or whether that should be something that countries are still going to look at and think about in more detail. But nonetheless, that is acknowledged as a significant problem, particularly if the situation in the northeast were to become more complex or more insecure.
We also had, hosted by the Secretary, a meeting of what we call the Syria Small Group. This focuses on the larger issues of Syria, including the political process under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. It’s the UK, Germany, France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. And there we talked about the Constitutional Committee being set up and how we can exploit that to pursue a nonmilitary compromise solution to the morass of problems and dangers that Syria is generating for the entire international community.
Okay. What I would like to do now is to turn this over to Ambassador Sales. Again, we’ll be happy to answer your questions in a bit.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks, Ambassador Jeffrey, and thanks to everyone for being here this afternoon.
Today, we held important discussions with our partners in the D-ISIS Coalition about the current state of the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and also around the world. The United States is unwavering in our commitment to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, as well as to our partners who have joined us in this essential fight. As Jim noted, we celebrate our extraordinary success in the complete destruction of the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq and the elimination of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Millions of people have been liberated from ISIS’s brutal rule.
We also recognized the need to maintain pressure on ISIS branches and networks across the globe. The false caliphate is gone, but the global threat from ISIS remains.
One point that the President has consistently made, and that I reiterated with our partners today, is that countries have an obligation to take back their citizens and prosecute them for crimes they’ve committed. We also encourage them to rehabilitate and reintegrate those who haven’t committed crimes, particularly young children. No one should expect the United States or anyone else to solve this problem for them. We all have a shared responsibility to ensure that ISIS fighters are never able to return to the battlefield and to prevent ISIS from radicalizing or inspiring a next generation of terrorists.
Today, the situation with FTFs in Syria may seem relatively stable, but it’s Syria. We all know that things can change in the blink of an eye. We think there should be a sense of urgency to repatriate now while we still can. We encourage countries to work directly on repatriation with the SDF, which has made great sacrifices to keep fighters off the battlefield and to hold them securely and humanely. The United States has helped facilitate repatriations in the past and will give full consideration to any future requests for support on repatriations as well.
A second point we discussed with our coalition partners was the need to maintain an intensified pressure on ISIS branches and networks outside the core. In this phase of our fight, we need to complement our military capabilities with civilian counterterrorism tools, including law enforcement, border security, information sharing, sanctions, and counter-messaging. Toward that end, we are working to organize a coalition meeting in early 2020 that will focus on the ISIS threat in West Africa and the Sahel.
Thank you, and we’d now be happy to answer any of your questions. Thanks.
MS ORTAGUS: So we’ll start with Matt. But if everybody can indicate who the question is for, and then it’ll be a little less awkward to have them both at the podium at the same time.
QUESTION: I’m actually not – thank you, Morgan. I’m not actually sure who. I think both could answer this because it has to do with the foreign fighter question and you both addressed it, so whoever —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We spent 10 minutes with Morgan trying to figure out how we would organize it, one of us, and now you blow the whole thing up. (Laughter.)
AMBASSADOR SALES: I’ll be first, Matt.
QUESTION: The battle plan lasts until first contact with the enemy, right? (Laughter.)
I’m just curious. Did – so, and in the broad sense, did any country absolutely refuse, say we’re not going to do this? Or did any country say okay, we’ll do it? Or is everyone in the coalition still kind of like in a “we’re considering this”?
Do they agree that it’s an idea that you – well, that you said that the U.S. – and they have to solve it, everyone’s got to solve this problem, and you do the – and then more specifically, you’re probably aware of the situation with this American/Jordanian guy who the Turks tried to literally push over the border into Greece and then Greece said no. Well, apparently, yesterday the Turks – or today the Turks are saying that you guys have agreed to take him. It’s not clear to me if this guy is an ISIS fighter, but is this part – is this case part of the broader repatriations?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks for the questions, Matt. Let me take a first stab at those. So the first thing I would say is that across the coalition there is unanimity that the foreign terrorist fighter problem is a serious one, that these fighters remain a significant risk, and if allowed to return to the battlefield there is a significant chance that they would re-engage.
I think there is, candidly, a difference of opinion about the best way to solve this problem. The United States and a number of countries have taken the position that as a matter of coalition burden-sharing each country has a responsibility to handle this situation on their own. Our view is that it is not a feasible option, it is not a viable option, to ask other countries in the region to import another country’s foreign fighters and pursue prosecution and incarceration there. We just don’t think that’s going to be effective. We don’t think that ad hoc international tribunals will be effective. It would cost a fortune to stand them up, and they don’t have the same track record at delivering justice that national-level courts do.
Now, on the question that you asked about an American citizen removed by Turkey, we are aware of this case. We are tracking it very closely. We are limited in what we can say publicly about this because of federal privacy laws, so I can’t go into details, but we’re working closely with the Turks and the Greeks in tracking this case.
MS ORTAGUS: Christina.
QUESTION: Hi. Sorry, same for Matt. Whoever wants to take it, you guys can fight it out.
MS ORTAGUS: Guys, I’m going with Matt.
QUESTION: I know, we’re the worst. I’m sorry. (Laughter.)
General Mazloum told Sky News – I believe it was yesterday – that the danger of resurgence of ISIS is very big and it’s a serious danger and that Turkey’s incursion in northeast Syria had made the situation basically worse. I’m wondering if you agree with that assessment. And in your discussions today, did the ministers come to any kind of conclusion about whether Turkey’s actions have made the fight against ISIS more difficult?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Well, first of all, as you know, we were not happy with Turkey’s incursion into the northeast. We went on the record numerous times saying how much we regretted this coming to pass and the various actions that you all know we took immediately to try to get it under control, to get a ceasefire.
But that’s not the only thing that’s changed in the northeast. We’re very unhappy about the introduction of Syrian forces, Russian troops into the region, and we’re very concerned, as is General Mazloum, about the rise of ISIS.
All of these issues were discussed in great detail among all of the members of the coalition this morning. The coalition decided rather than point fingers, the important thing was to go on record – we’ll be getting a communique out pretty soon – that our success is threatened currently and that what we’re going to do is to close ranks, maintain unity, keep coordinating, and work together to deal with these crises – this particular crisis, but this particular situation, as we’ve done so many more since 2014.
QUESTION: And can I ask a follow-up?
MS ORTAGUS: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Sorry. Is the withdrawal from Kobani complete? Could you clarify?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: That’s a question to pose to the U.S. military.
QUESTION: Just a quick clarification, Ambassador Jeffrey. You said that they’re going to put out a communique saying that our success is threatened. Were you specifically talking about these recent developments, the Russian and Syrian presence in northeastern Syria?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The beauty of diplomatic communiques is that we allow the various countries who participate in them, as well as the various observers and followers of what we do, to put their own ideas into them. I just gave you mine. I gave you a pretty comprehensive list of all of the things that we think threatened our – are threatening our success in northeast Syria. Others will have their own views.
MS ORTAGUS: Humeyra.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ambassador, I’m sure you’ve seen stories about Russia beginning to —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Miss, both of us are ambassadors. You’re going to have to be more specific.
QUESTION: Ambassador Jeffrey.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I’m sure you’ve seen reports that Russia has begun setting up a helicopter base in northern Syria after U.S. pulled out. How does U.S. feel about this? It’s more evidence that Russia is moving into this sphere. I will have a question for you as well.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Our main concern with the Russians in the northeast, as it has been all along in Syria, beyond our differences with the Russians on the overall solution to the Syrian conflict, has been the de-confliction of military operations. Our U.S. military is engaged very, very comprehensively with the Russians both on a day-in, day-out basis and at higher levels to ensure that military operations in close proximity do not lead to problems. As I said, the U.S. military is doing this. You can get more information from DOD, but I’ve been a close observer of this. We have talked at the political level many times with the Russians about these things. We have very good channels at every level. And so far, we’ve managed to keep incidents between the American military and the Russian military to an absolute minimum, basically none.
MS ORTAGUS: Did you have one for —
QUESTION: Yes, very quickly. I’m just wondering, since you’ve changed your Syria policy several times, like pulling out, not pulling out, leaving residual force, how did you – how do you think you will persuade all the coalition to actually step up their efforts while you seem to be stepping down some of the efforts and the visibility you have on the ground and the troops? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, I guess I disagree with a couple premises in your question. Our Syria policy has been consistent over the years. It is to bring about an enduring defeat of ISIS, to reduce and eliminate Iranian malign presence, and to bring about a peaceful political resolution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council resolutions. That has been our policy; that remains our policy.
As far as the future of the U.S. presence in Syria, I’ll defer, as Ambassador Jeffrey did, to our colleagues across the river at the Pentagon. But you will be aware of recent statements from the Secretary of Defense outlining his vision for the future and continued U.S. presence in northeastern Syria that will provide us a basis to continue to bring pressure to bear on ISIS and to advance the D-ISIS mission. Part of that D-ISIS mission is repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters, so we expect to be in a position to continue to push on that. Thanks.
MS ORTAGUS: Said.
QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you. Ambassador Jeffrey, could you explain to us – this may have been explained before – why is – Turkey and Russia are not part of the small Syria group? And second, could you also expand on the role of the 600 American soldiers that will remain in northeastern Syria? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you. First of all, a clarification. The last question was actually to me, but Nathan was up there, and he did a terrific job answering it. (Laughter.) I’m glad he had it rather than me.
AMBASSADOR SALES: I can take the heat, Jim.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The only thing I would do is to add that nobody is questioning the role of the United States. Yeah, write this down. Nobody is questioning the role of the United States in the fight against ISIS after what they saw, how we smeared al-Baghdadi, and then the next day took down his we think designated number two. That’s putting boots on the ground, putting steel in target against Daesh. That’s what we do. Nobody else can do it as well, okay.
So Russia and Turkey are in another group, the Astana Group. That actually has changed its name because Astana changed its name. (Laughter.) We try to avoid comments on the Astana Group. It is another one of the many diplomatic support activities for the UN effort to carry out UN 2254. We wish it well. As far as the 600 American forces and their missions, again, as Nathan said, Secretary Esper today – or at least yesterday, in the news today and I think three days ago – did a really good job laying out what their mission is.
QUESTION: Can I ask Mr. Ambassador Sales a really quick question: Are you worried about coalition fatigue among the 35 members?
AMBASSADOR SALES: No, not at all. ISIS doesn’t have fatigue. They remain committed to their malign and malicious vision, and we maintain the same focus that we have always had on destroying this group and the ideology that inspires it.
MS ORTAGUS: [Inaudible.]
QUESTION: Just a simple question, really, to either one of you: What actionables have come out of the meetings today? You’ve described that there’s some dissension on how to move forward. What do you know will move forward?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: There was general support for our posture in the northeast. Various countries are – most of them are in the process of reverifying that. Some countries are not going public with it, but to provide military, civilian, and financial support in terms of humanitarian and stabilization activities for our activities in the northeast as well as in Iraq. There was a lot of discussion of Iraq and how that is really important. We do not want to see ISIS come back. The Iraqi foreign minister made a impassioned presentation on his country’s commitment to fight Daesh and the need for the coalition to still maintain a significant military presence there. So we went forward on that.
There was also a discussion on repatriation of the foreign terrorist fighters and their families, and various options are still being reviewed, but everybody knows this is a very big issue. It’s of concern to everybody. In various countries there are legal processes underway that could lead to changes in it. We hope so. You know our position. Nathan is our point man on that, and we believe that this was a very, very good session in terms of socializing all of the people present to the various concerns that would emerge if we do not maintain the momentum that we now have against ISIS under these changed circumstances.
QUESTION: Ambassador Jeffrey, yesterday – yesterday President Trump said something to the effect of we only left troops in Syria for the oil. How do you reconcile that with what we’ve been hearing from DOD and State that this is a secondary mission, that the oil belongs to the SDF? And then I have a question for Ambassador Sales —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: It is absolutely legitimate for the President to decide which part of a military mission – and as the commander-in-chief, remember, he sends these young men and women into combat – which part of that mission he wants to highlight. I know what he has signed off on. I’ve done my very best on the record and off the record to indicate what that is. I’m pretty sure that I have been more or less in sync with Secretary Esper, and we are both in sync with the President, obviously. Thank you.
QUESTION: And then, Ambassador Sales, a little bit earlier today a judge ruled that Hoda Muthana is not a U.S. citizen, so aligning with the State Department has said. What does State believe should happen to her and her child now?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, we’re aware of the ruling. We’re looking into it. We’re in consultations with the Justice Department, which obviously has taken the lead on representing the United States in litigation. Give us some time. We just got the opinion. We’ll have a considered reaction to it once we have a chance to digest. Thanks.
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. For Ambassador Jeffrey, your deputy, Ambassador Roebuck, has warned about ethnic cleansing in northeast Syria. And yesterday, President Erdogan talked about moving 1 million Syrian refugees into the safe zone there. Kurds are concerned that Erdogan intends to create an Arab belt that would separate the Kurdish populations of Turkey and Syria. Are you doing anything to make sure that doesn’t happen?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you. First of all, Ambassador Roebuck isn’t the only one who’s warned of ethnic cleansing. I believe I did it many times in my testimony before the Senate and the House now two weeks ago and more behind the scenes. I was just in Ankara. I raised all of these issues, including the idea of moving people back.
Here is what we got from the Turks: One, any movement of people back into northeastern Syria will be a return of people from the area, and it will be done in conjunction with the UNHCR and under the UNHCR rules of safe, dignified, and voluntary. The Turks have been in touch with the UNHCR on this. This was part of our communique that they signed up to a few hours ago. It also is cited indirectly in paragraphs three, four, and seven of our October 17th communique or statement with the Turks about that area where we did the ceasefire, and I raised this repeatedly with the Turkish Government when I was out there last week.
The Turks also point out, correctly, that there is a large number – their estimate is 350,000; I don’t think it’s that far off – of Kurds who fled northeast Syria, some from Daesh, some, to be honest, from the YPG/PYD. And those people want to come back as well, and a Kurd is a Kurd.
MS ORTAGUS: Let’s try some people in the back. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Secretary Pompeo stated Daesh is trying to expand its operation in Africa, particularly West Africa and the Sahel. Do you consider also Libya a target for the expansion of Daesh, and are you planning to do more in Libya to stop it?
AMBASSADOR SALES: I missed the middle part of that question during the cough. Could you —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: My fault. (Laughter.)
AMBASSADOR SALES: Could you rewind, please?
QUESTION: Yes. Secretary Pompeo stated Daesh is trying to expand in Africa, particularly West Africa and Sahel. Do you consider also Libya to be a target for the expansion of Daesh, and are you planning to do more in Libya to stop it?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Yeah, we are, both in West Africa generally and North Africa as well. What is needed is a whole of government approach, military force where appropriate and where needed, but also boosting civilian counterterrorism capability. We’ve been doing a lot bilaterally. I was just in Senegal a week ago, two weeks ago, discussing this very issue with Senegalese counterparts, the threat to the littoral states from – the potential threat from a growing ISIS presence in places like Mali and Niger and Burkina Faso. Of course, ISIS has long had a robust presence in Libya, particularly southern Libya, and I would refer you to public reports about DOD operations there.
We need to integrate and we are integrating these military lines of effort and bilateral engagements along with coalition multilateral engagements to boost the capabilities of these states on the front lines. And the only other point I would add to that is: We’re worried about ISIS threats in West Africa, but we’re also worried about al-Qaida-linked groups. And the tools that we are working to develop in that part of Africa are threat agnostic and will be useful against groups like al-Qaida in greater Sahara as well as JNIM and other AQ affiliates as well. Thanks.
MS ORTAGUS: Didn’t you ask the President a question yesterday?
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah? You did?
QUESTION: Yeah. My question is for Ambassador —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: He did. He did.
MS ORTAGUS: He did.
QUESTION: — James Jeffrey.
MS ORTAGUS: You get lot of attention this week.
QUESTION: Thank you for this —
MS ORTAGUS: You have to speak up. We can’t hear you.
QUESTION: Thank you for this opportunity. The USA will continue to support General Mazloum Kobani? Please.