MR BROWN: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s already a busy afternoon with now back-to-back briefings, but we could not miss the opportunity to hear from Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, the Secretary’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement. He’s here to brief you on the imposition of additional sanctions against the Assad regime and its supporters using the authorities contained in the Caesar Act and Executive Order 13894. As we have noted, today’s sanctions are just the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime the resources it uses to wage war against the Syrian people and to commit mass atrocities. This act is meant to send a clear signal that no external actors should do business with or otherwise enrich such a regime.
No one understands the significance of today’s actions more fully than Ambassador Jeffrey. After his brief introductory comments, he’ll be available for your questions. This is an on-the-record briefing, but please, remember that the contents of the briefing are embargoed until the end of the call. Ambassador, please, go ahead.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you, and I also have two people who have done more than I have for putting this together, and that is my deputy, Deputy Assistant Secretary Joel Rayburn, and Matt Zweig from our team who has been working this very hard for some time. Just a couple of general comments. You heard the intro. You’ve read the statements by the Department of Treasury, the Department of State, Mike Pompeo, Secretary Mnuchin. You’ve seen the White House statement and Twitter.
Just a few things: First of all, again, as the law states, it is a policy of the United States that coercive diplomatic and economic means should be utilized to compel the government of Assad to halt its murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights, and peaceful coexistence with its neighbors. So this is in line with, it is a reinforcement of our longstanding policy towards the Syrian conflict, and it is a very powerful tool that we, as you just heard, intend to use as part of a longer campaign – this is only the first of what we hope will be and are sure will be many tranches.
Secondly, this act has the highest level of bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. It was passed almost unanimously by both houses and supported fully by the President and by the entire administration. So you have Washington fully united, as it should be, because the Syrian conflict not only has been a terrible tragedy for the Syrian people, as the Secretary spelled out, it has endangered our partners and allies in the region all around Syria. This conflict needs to be brought to an end. We will use the tools provided to us in this sanctions legislation and other sanctions authorities to drive home, to not only the Assad regime but to those who support him, be they governments – and you know the two states we’re talking about – or be they individuals, banks, whatever – that we’re coming after you. I’ll stop there.
MR BROWN: Great, getting right to questions. First let’s go to the line of Michel Ghandour.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for doing this. Two questions. Will the U.S. be able to achieve through this law what it failed to achieve through diplomacy, do you think, which is a political solution? And second, what is the way out of the crisis that Washington has made through a third party to Assad, and they quoted you on this?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: What is the what? I didn’t understand the second half of it.
QUESTION: The way out of the crisis or the exit strategy for Assad that you revealed last week, and they quoted you that you passed or they have passed a proposal to Assad through a third party.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: First of all, I’ll get to the first part, and the two are kind of related. We’re not passing any messages to Assad per se. What we’re doing is we’re working with the Russians in various levels to try to find a way to move forward on the execution of the relevant UN Resolution 2254, which calls for a political process run by the UN, or monitored and led by the UN, that would see a new constitution, free and fair elections monitored by the United Nations throughout Syria, that would see a permanent, country-wide ceasefire, thus ending the conflict on the ground, the return of those detainees of which there are hundreds of thousands, we believe, and finally, joint cooperation against the terrorist threat. That is the program that we are pursuing. That is a program that this legislation supports.
What we have told the Russians is that in consistent – explicitly with this legislation, which spells out in detail what the Syrian state needs to do to escape from – not escape, but come out from under these sanctions, what we’ve told the Russians in line with that is look, if the Syrian state starts doing these things, pursues those people accused of war crimes, allows and encourages the refugees to come back, doesn’t carpet bomb its own people, doesn’t besiege cities and areas such as Idlib, and works to obtain a political solution, then the international community, beginning with the United States, will work to stand down the various diplomatic and coercive economic actions that we are taking against it. It’s a step-by-step thing, but we have to see the other side move. That’s the program. We don’t make a secret out of it. We don’t pass it on to Assad. We presume the Russians do. It’s on the table.
Now, in terms of how this helps, again, this is a long-term campaign. We’re not choosing a military strategy of direct confrontation with the regime to try to get a political solution. We are working diplomatically through the UN with our European Union friends who have put out very strong sanctions themselves – many of the people we’ve sanctioned, they’ve sanctioned previously. We’re working with the Arab League, which has banned Syria and still bans Syria from Arab League membership – participation and membership. We’re working with all of these countries for a long-term approach to say, you will not rejoin the international community, not financially, not economically, not energy policy-wise, not diplomatically, not in any other way, until you resolve these underlying problems.
That’s our position. That’s our policy. We’re pursuing it. We think slowly but surely it will work.
MR BROWN: Great, thanks. I would invite everyone to try to limit to one question. We have a lot of people in the queue and we want to get to as many outlets as possible. Next in line is Courtney McBride.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ambassador Jeffrey, how responsive have other governments been, including those of Lebanon, Canada, and Austria, to diplomatic overtures to shut down the Assad-linked networks? I know you alluded to some of the EU and Arab League cooperation.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We have briefed —
QUESTION: And are there particular areas of concern – sorry – on that?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We have briefed both the European Union and many individual states on this. We have sent out demarches that have explained to all of these countries what we’re doing, and importantly, why we’re doing it. The feedback from the European Union countries has been generally very, very strong. I participated in a virtual conference with many Syrian reps from European countries yesterday. They’re all holding the line very well. I think people understand what is going on.
Now, whether an individual country complies with our requests for assistance, information, and other things, that flows as much from their own laws as it does from their policy positions, and they differ from country to country. What we’ve found in the past is that on our sanctions, if it’s for a cause that other countries are fully committed to – and believe me, there’s few causes that countries are more committed to than finding a solution to the Syrian conflict – we find that they’re as cooperative with us as they possibly can be within the limits of whatever their specific laws are. I’ll leave it at that.
MR BROWN: Great, let’s go to the line of Nadia Bilbassy.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) you have names like Bashar al-Assad and members of the Assad regime. Some of them reside in countries like United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France. Are these countries subjected also to sanctions if they don’t comply with you? And just quickly on the area that’s being – the oil that’s being controlled in northeast Syria by the coalition forces. If middlemen are to pass this oil to Syria or to the Syrian regime, are they under sanctions as well according to this Caesar law?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. The Caesar law doesn’t place any entity under sanctions, and I have to check with Matt Zweig, who’s on the line, on this. The Caesar law doesn’t put individual people or entities under sanctions. It authorizes for the purposes laid out in the law the administration to levy sanctions on certain activities and relationships. That’s what we’re doing. The sanctions we have done so far, you can see they’re not levied on states other than the government authorities, which have already been sanctioned, the Government of Syria in prior sanctions. They are levied on individuals and entities. That is the focus of what we’re doing, and we have ways to make it difficult for those individuals to have access to their money to conduct economic activities through – beginning with a denial of access to the U.S. banking system and a block on any travel to the United States. Those are two of the more powerful tools we have.
Matt, do you want to add to that?
MR ZWEIG: Sir, nothing to add. That’s correct.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. And one reason that we go after family members is that we’ve found that in prior sanctions, when we’ve sanctioned the principal who is committing the evil or awful or unhelpful acts, that they move financial and other resources to family members. So we’re going after family members as well, but I have to say that Asma al-Assad contributes personally in enough ways to the horrors that are today’s Syria to merit being sanctioned in her own right, not just as the wife of President Assad.
MR BROWN: Next let’s go to the line of Katrina Manson.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. I know you’ve talked about there being sanctions further ahead, and your colleagues have spoken about a “summer of Caesar.” As you consider those, the UAE has obviously reopened its embassy in Damascus, trade delegations have visited Syria. Will you sanction Emirati businesspeople, and what’s your message to the UAE specifically? And a second follow-up, if I’m allowed: Obviously, the sanctions will have a chilling effect on outside investment in construction. And so given how much rebuilding needs to take place in Syria, I’m wondering how those facilities will get built given the sanctions framework. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: You’re wondering about what? How what?
QUESTION: How facilities will get built, how the country will get rebuilt: food, hospitals, housing development, those sorts of things. Because they’re not carved out under the humanitarian waiver.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: That is correct. Okay, I’ll start with that. The country was destroyed – or 99 percent of the country was destroyed – by the specific tactics that Assad approved and personally endorsed, which was the carpet bombing of cities and built-up areas. It is important eventually, once the war is ended, once the underlying causes of the conflict are dealt with, for the country to be rebuilt. Nobody wants to see Syria as a devastated country far into the future. That will generate more terrorism, that will generate more poverty, that will generate more pain, and probably more conflict.
However, we are not going to reward Assad for destroying his country by pitching in with everybody else and building it back up for him. Therefore we are targeting those people who are benefitting from the construction, because what we’re seeing – and the Treasury rollout and the statement by the Treasury Department I think goes into this in great detail. The incredible, special – the grand city and other luxury facilities that the Assad regime and his cronies in his corrupt economy are building while taking land from people and without compensation, not providing any place for refugees or IDPs to return to, stripping them of their territory to build these playgrounds for oligarchs – well, these playgrounds for oligarchs are going to be sanctioned. And that’s what we’re doing.
Now, in terms of the UAE, the UAE knows that we are absolutely opposed to countries taking these diplomatic steps. They’re sovereign countries; they can make these decisions. But we have made it clear that we think this is a bad idea. It is not going to be conducive to a carrying out of the UN Security Council resolution and the ending of a conflict that is very troubling for the entire region. In terms of economic activities that either somebody in the UAE or somebody in another country does that meets the criteria of these sanctions or legislation, they are a potential sanctions target. We don’t get into who we will sanction or who we won’t sanction in the future. It’s just that you can read the criteria just like I can, and so can those people, so they’ll have to make their own decisions.
MR BROWN: Next let’s hear from Ben Hubbard, New York Times.
QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. Thanks for doing this.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Hey.
QUESTION: Secretary Pompeo’s statement today called Asma al-Assad, quote, “one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers.” Can you provide more detail on how exactly she has profited during the war?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Certainly by various economic activities that she’s been involved in and various holding companies, various activities that she in particular as, if you will, the business head of the family, has been involved in. She was very much involved in the conflict, for example, with Rami Makhlouf that has become very public. They were two competing, if you will, oligarchs who had their two competing sets of economic interests. And it’s one reason why she and her husband went after him.
MR BROWN: Okay, thanks. Next we’ll hear from Jack Deutsch.
QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing this. I’m just wondering if the pressure that’s now in place on the Assad regime from these sanctions, you assess, makes it any likelier to fall without a political settlement. And if that’s the case, what’s the U.S. plan if that contingency does default?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The way ahead is for the Assad regime to realize that they’re not – it is not going to come out from under this thing – and from the people around Assad to realize that they’re not going to come out from under this – until they embrace and accept the UN path forward, the provisions of 2254, and an entirely new set of behaviors to their own population and to their neighbors, who feel threatened by both what the Assad government does and what is happening more generally inside Syria. That is the only way forward for them.
We don’t speculate on whether a government will fall or whether a state will fall, and that’s not the specific intent of this legislation or of our sanctions today. It is to increase the pressure on them to take a voluntary decision in conjunction with their two allies – Russia and Iran – to pursue a different approach.
MR BROWN: Great.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: If the government falls tomorrow, well, the question is – look, I’ve been around a number of governments and states that have fallen. At the end of the day, you typically get somebody breaking – baking bread for all 10 or 20 or 30 million people, the postal service still delivers mail, and that kind of thing unless you get to a Somali-level situation, which I don’t think under any circumstances would happen in Syria. So we would have to wait and see who takes control, and once they take control, what sort of a position they will take vis-a-vis 2254, and we can’t anticipate that in advance. Nobody has volunteered to run a better and cleaner and more legitimate and less evil state than we’re dealing with right now other than, of course, the opposition, who have laid out in great detail how they see Syria moving forward.
MR BROWN: Okay. For our next question, let’s hear from Humeyra from Reuters.
QUESTION: Hello, Ambassador. Thanks. When you say they’re not going to come out from under this thing, can you unpack that a little bit? What is your assessment on how long Assad and his inner circle can survive given the current economic hardship? How long can they keep going simply by printing money? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: It is unhelpful as a policy matter for people like me working on a project to pitch to our national leadership on something as important as Syria, hey, we think that within three months or six months this is going to happen or that’s going to happen. We don’t have a crystal ball. We can’t see into it. We have seen countries who are resilient internally survive, however badly, for years under considerable outside pressure, be it military, be it sanctions, be it other. And we’ve seen countries fall, states fall almost immediately. I was in Germany in November of 1989, and out of the blue, the state of East Germany collapsed.
I can’t predict these things. Nobody can predict these things. They happen when they happen. We’re not basing the policy on the collapse of the Assad regime. We’re basing the policy on an acknowledgement by people of importance to the state and its decision making and Russia and Iran to realize that their policies collectively is taking them nowhere and it is time to start cooperating with the international community rather than confronting the international community, which is, frankly, what they’re doing now, such as offenses in Idlib, that finally we stopped after four months.
MR BROWN: Great. Next question, let’s go to Nick Schifrin.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Ambassador, sorry. Ambassador, thank you for doing this. Just to expand on the last few questions, if I could just ask a slightly different angle, can you talk about specific weaknesses that you’re seeing in Assad? How serious is the questioning of Assad within his own power base and how serious is the economic collapse that we’re seeing as it will affect the stability of the government in your opinion? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Ah, this sounds like a somewhat different way of asking the last question, but fortunately, it’s a way I think I can answer a bit more. And Joel, if you can add to this, please do so.
First of all, I would say in most respects, divisions in the ruling elite and in the groups that traditionally have supported the Assad regime – I’ll cite a couple in a second – and the economic situation, it is worse than at any time including when the opposition military forces were in the suburbs of Damascus and held Aleppo and much of the rest of the country. We see this in the split with Rami Makhlouf, who has a large following among the Alawites, the group most supportive of Assad, himself from that religious group.
We see it in protests and the astronomical rise in basic foodstuffs in those Alawite areas. They’re suffering as much or more than other areas. We’ve begun to see protests in Druze areas who have – including in the southwest, which is now a firebed or a hotbed of opposition, including armed opposition to the regime after they took it back two years ago. The Druze have been generally supportive of Assad, but they are protesting and they’re making it very clear. So that – things we haven’t seen before.
We certainly haven’t seen the pound collapse the way it has collapsed. Another important consideration, and it impacts directly on the pound, is not our sanctions, per se, but the situation in Lebanon. Lebanon was a way for the – it was basically the, if you will, the monetary and financial lungs of the criminal Assad oligarchy. And right now, it is not able to function that way. The lungs are clogged up. The Assad regime is suffering from it.
Thirdly, we’re seeing some signals, however modest, out of Moscow from non-official but authoritative sources that they’re having some doubts about where they’re going with Assad, as they well should, and we’re seeing at least a somewhat greater willingness of the Russians to at least explore with us and with our friends in the European Union and in individual European countries and with individual Arab countries possible steps to ease the crisis in Syria. So those are all indications that we think are positive. What we’re not going to do is to do a timeline based upon them because we just can’t.
MR BROWN: Okay. I think we might have time for one or two more questions. Next, let’s go to the line of Joseph Haboush.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ambassador. Just following up on your last comment on Lebanon, is there fear – and I know that it’s been stated multiple times that these sanctions aren’t looking to cut any humanitarian assistance or to target Lebanon specifically, but is there any fear that, for example, the country takes and imports I think a lot of fuel from – for their electricity sector from Syria – is there fear that these sanctions could affect or impact what’s left of the – of an already dilapidated economy in Lebanon or create an —
MR RAYBURN: Sorry, Joe, are you —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah, take that.
MR RAYBURN: Yeah. Are you saying – are you saying that Lebanon imports fuel from Syria to run its energy sector?
MR RAYBURN: Because I don’t think – that’s not the case.
MR RAYBURN: I don’t think – you would need to go back and check your facts there, Joe.
MR RAYBURN: The Lebanese Government has let contracts to fuel providers from outside the region, elsewhere in the Mediterranean but not Syria. I mean, let’s be – let’s face it, the Syrian regime is under an – a very severe fuel shortage itself, so there’s no – there’s no deal —
QUESTION: Right, I was talking about the electrical grid (inaudible) —
MR RAYBURN: Yeah – no, that’s not really happening, but I can say – I mean, if the Lebanese Government or Lebanese businesses were to enter into transactions with the Assad regime to purchase Assad regime fuel, then that’s a very risky transaction, and that would expose them to sanctions, yes. But that’s not – in my other hat as the deputy assistant secretary for Lebanon and Jordan, I haven’t seen any signs that that’s happening. If something like that is happening illicitly, then that’s something that we would be looking into.
But the other thing, Joe, on humanitarian aspects of it, I would defy anyone to go down the list of the people and entities that we have designated today and explain how there’s any risk to legitimate humanitarian activities from the designations that we’ve done under the Caesar Act and under State Department authorities today. It’s just – it’s kind of – it’s this conceptual bogeyman argument that just is essentially disinformation from the other side.
MR BROWN: Okay, thanks. Hey, just for everyone’s clarity, that was Joel Rayburn, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs.
Okay. It seems we have one last question, and we’ll go to the line of Jennifer Hansler for that.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Ambassador Jeffrey, you said that the Russians are showing greater willingness to take potential steps to ease the conflict. Is this just related to Resolution 2254, or are there other steps as well that are under discussion? And then are there any safeguards to ensure that Syrian civilians aren’t bearing the brunt of these new actions? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Right. First of all, with the Russians, we are obviously working with them on 2254 on a ways forward. The Russians have been helpful and deserve some credit for standing up the constitutional committee in Geneva in October of last year. They also have been helpful in a breakthrough that the Assad regime reluctantly agreed to on the agenda for the next meeting, and the Russians now have agreed to have a meeting for the constitutional committee in late August, or they’ve persuaded the Assad regime to agree on it. Those are positive steps. We hope to see more positive steps.
In addition, we are also working in the UN for renewal of Resolution 2504. Resolution 2504, which was passed in January, authorizes two humanitarian crossings – this gets to your humanitarian question – into the northwest of Syria. Up until that point, the UN Security Council had been authorizing four crossings, one in the south, one in the east and to the northeast, and the two I just mentioned. The Russians refused to allow those other two crossings and agreed only to a six-month extension for the two in the northwest.
We, the international community, and even Secretary-General Guterres spoke out with great concern about these humanitarian crossings, including in the time of COVID-19. The secretary-general calls for reconsideration of the one in the northeast. We’re working with the Russians now for a new resolution which we hope will renew, and we hope for a longer time, back to the 12-month period, 2504. We’re also hoping that a solution can be found for humanitarian aid to the northeast, as, again, that was blocked by Russian action in the Security Council.
Now, in terms of the Caesar Civilian Protection Act, as its name says, the Syria Civilian Protection Act, the Caesar Act has very strong provisions on continued flow of humanitarian assistance, and the United – and the State Department has been required to brief Congress on how we are going to continue to maintain and to protect this humanitarian assistance. I think as many of you know, we are the biggest single contributor to humanitarian assistance, with $10.6 billion for the Syrian conflict since 2011. We also provide – not only do we not block humanitarian assistance to regime areas, we actually provide some humanitarian assistance to those areas and are continuing to do so.
The legislation, for example in Section 7425, codification of NGO humanitarian assistance authorizations, codifies in law Treasury regulations that allow NGOs to provide humanitarian services. In addition, there is Section 7432, which contains exemptions and conditions for the waivers of Caesar Act sanctions, again, for humanitarian assistance. So that’s for NGOs. So the act has very strong provisions that we adhere to and take very seriously to ensure that this does not impact the delivery of humanitarian supplies or services to the people of Syria, be they in Assad’s areas or be they in the northwest or northeast, or in the south where they’re not under Assad’s control.
MR RAYBURN: Can I add something to this as well?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Sure.
MR RAYBURN: The creator and the overwhelming proximate cause of the suffering of the Syrian people is the policies and behavior of the Assad regime and its allies. From April 2019 until the March 5th ceasefire agreement between the warring parties in Idlib, the Assad regime and its allies carried on a brutal all-out war against the opposition-held territories of the northwest, and it cost the Assad regime tens of millions of dollars in fuel, ammunition, salaries of fighters, equipment, all the logistical support, and so on. And they chose to spend their scarce resources that way and make war on their own people instead of delivering services, subsidized bread and fuel, and so on.
And so while the Assad regime was carrying out this attack against its own people in the northwest, elsewhere people began to run out of fuel, run out of bread. Prices shot through the roof; the overall economy eroded. Bashar al-Assad chose – he made the choices that set all that in motion, so there’s one address for the suffering – to know who is responsible for the suffering of the Syrian people right now.
MR BROWN: All right, thank you. Thank you, Ambassador, for taking the time out to speak (inaudible).
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. Thank you all, folks. Hope to be back in touch with you soon.
MR BROWN: Thank you, everybody, for dialing in. Since this is the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted. Have a great day.