Moderator: Good afternoon or good morning from the U.S. State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing on supporting the future of Syria and the region. Today we are very pleased to be joined by Richard Albright, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, and Matthew Nims, Deputy Assistant Administrator in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from our two speakers and then we will turn to your questions. We will do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Albright for his opening remarks. Please go ahead.
Mr. Albright: Good day, everyone. Thank you for taking the time to join us to discuss what’s been a very eventful fifth Brussels conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region. And I want to begin really by recognizing the efforts of the European Union and the United Nations as co-hosts of the series of conferences that help sustain much-needed support for the Syrian people both in Syria and in countries hosting Syrian refugees across the region.
As the culmination of our efforts to support this conference, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield representing – represented us and announced more than $596 million in new humanitarian assistance for the Syria crisis response during today’s ministerial session. This announcement continues longstanding U.S. leadership in alleviating the suffering of vulnerable people in line with both our values as a nation and our national interests. And in the case of the Syria crisis response, it brings our total humanitarian assistance since the start of this crisis to nearly $13 billion.
We’re here to support the Syrian people, and they deserve better. We heard from the World Bank last week that life expectancy for Syrians born today is 13 years shorter than it was a decade ago. And as Secretary Blinken stated yesterday at the UN Security Council, unhindered access to Syrians is more important than ever, not only because of the growing humanitarian crisis, but also because of the threat posed by COVID-19.
Our assistance will help many of the 12 million Syrians who’ve been forced out of their homes, fleeing the horrific effects of the Assad regime’s destructive campaign. Beyond Syria, we’ll support Syrians in host communities in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
U.S. humanitarian assistance supports a wide range of humanitarian programs for people affected by the crisis and the communities that host them, such as food, shelter, healthcare, education, and livelihoods. U.S. assistance also provides protection and assistance for refugees to support them to become self-reliant and to provide services like counseling and other protection programs for the most highly at-risk groups, including children, women, persons with disabilities, and the elderly.
The United States will continue to be a leader in the humanitarian response and to advocate for unhindered humanitarian access to Syrians regardless of where they live. Renewing and expanding the UN’s authorization for cross-border access to deliver humanitarian aid is essential.
And I’ll conclude by stating that the United States proudly stands with its allies and partners in the international community in support of UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen’s efforts to achieve a political settlement and permanent resolution to the Syrian conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The United States will not provide any reconstruction assistance absent progress on the political track. There is no military solution that will bring peace, security, and stability to Syria and the region.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Deputy assistant secretary – or Deputy Assistant Administrator Nims, do you have any opening remarks?
Mr. Nims: Yes, I do. Thanks. Thanks, DAS Albright, for those remarks, and Justin, thanks to you and your team in Brussels for this, and hello, everybody.
As you are monitoring the conference, as you’ve been hearing throughout the conference, 10 years into the conflict the humanitarian crisis is the worst it’s ever been. The Syrian people are now simultaneously confronting this relentless, constantly shifting conflict, COVID-19, and an escalating economic crisis, all of which serves to not only worsen humanitarian needs, but make responding to this complex crisis all the more challenging.
We are particularly concerned by rising food insecurity. You have seen reports of the UN World Food Program that more than 60 percent of Syria’s population does not have enough to eat. That’s the highest level of food insecurity ever recorded in Syria. So obviously the situation is getting worse. The growing needs make the United Nations’ cross-border assistance all the more critical to the wellbeing of civilians who rely on aid to survive. That’s why we are working in the UN Security Council to reauthorize existing UN border access and to reinstate other UN border crossings to deliver this lifesaving aid.
Today’s announcement of nearly 310 million from USAID in additional food assistance in – today’s announcement included nearly 310 million from USAID in additional food assistance in Syria and the region. This aid is reaching nearly 5 million Syrians across all 14 governorates inside Syria every month, as well as more than a million refugees in neighboring countries. The funding we announced today will also enable our partners to continue providing urgently needed aid, including emergency food and nutrition assistance, shelter, access to safe water, and opportunities to earn an income, giving displaced families the ability to afford food and other basic necessities.
But we must be able to reach the populations who need this aid most, no matter where in Syria they reside. We will continue to work with our partners and other donors to advocate for unhindered access to all corners of Syria so our partners can deliver principled humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable populations.
But ultimately, as you heard Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield reiterate in her remarks this morning, we need a real political resolution to the conflict. This is the only way to ensure, as the ambassador said, that the 11th anniversary does not look like the 10th.
Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. And I’d like to ask our speakers to identify themselves when they speak up since there’s two of you.
Our first question comes to us from Deger Akal with Deutsche Welle Turkish in Germany. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi. You have elaborated on neighboring countries. Turkey is currently hosting nearly 4 million Syrians, and making it the world’s top refugee-hosting country across the world. It also is providing actually protection and humanitarian assistance to more than 5 million Syrians in northern Syria in the regions where – under control – under Turkish control. Could you elaborate on U.S. support for refugees in Turkey? And the EU has decided, for example, to continue the support to the refugees in Turkey. What is the U.S. stance? How do you – would you ever agree to a cooperation with Turkey?
Mr. Albright: Sure. This is Richard Albright. We have a very close working relationship with Turkey on – with regard to the humanitarian response to Syrian refugees as well as other refugees in Turkey. And a portion of our support, of our financial support, goes to UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations that are providing assistance to Syrian refugees. The Turkish Government has been an extremely strong supporter of refugees, providing them – providing them access to government and local services, giving them the ability to pursue livelihood activities, and they’ve had a very strong, obviously, relationship with the European Union that is supporting the response inside of Turkey.
But I have to say – commend the Turkish Government and the Turkish people for being tremendous hosts of this, the largest refugee population in the world. Over.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. We have a question that was emailed to us in advance from Ben Hubbard of The New York Times. His question is, “Can you speak specifically about the humanitarian situation in Idlib province, the U.S. efforts to help there, and what effect the role of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in the area has on aid efforts by the United States and others?”
Mr. Albright: Let me just say one – I mean, I’ll say a couple of things. I mean, first of all – and I’ll turn it over to Matt for kind of more specifics on the assistance flows into Idlib. But you have 3.4 million people in need in Idlib province. That’s out of 4.2 million in the north of Syria, the northwest of Syria, and you have 2.7 million IDPs. So the needs there are acute, and they have grown substantially over the past year. So the cross-border mechanism is the lifeline for Idlib. It’s the only way that we can support these massive humanitarian needs. And our assistance is – I mean, the UN – the assistance that’s provided by the UN and by the NGOs is completely independent of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. They don’t – we don’t allow them to interfere with our assistance and we’re not seeing that kind of interference. So, thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Did Matt Nims have something to add to that or was that okay?
Staff: He dropped —
Mr. Nims: Yes. Sorry, this – I was kind of temporarily cut off but I’m back in. But I’m going to answer the question. I think that you were still referencing the question from Ben Hubbard from The New York Times. And just to give some of that —
Moderator: That’s correct.
Mr. Nims: Okay. Just to give some information, there are currently an estimated 2.7 million people who are displaced throughout northwest Syria, many of whom require assistance just to survive. Despite significant security challenges, USAID partners continue to provide emergency assistance in Idlib and throughout northwest Syria. Our UN and NGO partners maintain and rehabilitate camps and collective shelters for displaced families and distribute emergency shelter items. Additionally, our partners work to provide safe drinking water and emergency food assistance. Since last year’s ceasefire, ongoing violence in northwest Syria, including sporadic artillery shelling and airstrikes, continue to impact humanitarian operations. We strongly condemn the recent airstrikes in Idlib that struck near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and put access to much-needed assistance at grave risk.
I think that’s probably good for that question. Over.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Muath Alamri with Asharq Alawsat newspaper. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Thank you for allowing me to ask a question. I wanted to ask you about the – how could you maintain to deliver the assistance to the people under Assad control area or Russia area? Are you going to contact them? Are you going to reach the al-Assad or have any kind of cooperation to deliver this assistance? Thank you.
Mr. Albright: Yeah, this is Richard Albright and I’ll – let me just – I mean, obviously the – I mean, the UN agencies and the NGOs that operate in Syria operate according to a humanitarian response plan. They operate independently. None of our assistance that we provide goes to the Syrian Government. It all flows through UN agencies and NGOs and it goes to the people of Syria. And we watch very closely the issues of access inside of Syria, and we do not allow the Syrian regime, the UN doesn’t allow them, to seize assistance or control where it goes. But we do sometimes encourage – encounter difficulty in access, and sometimes the regime does not allow agencies to operate where they feel they need to operate. So that is a challenge that we continue to deal with inside of Syria. Over.
Moderator: Great. To Deputy Assistant Administrator – Deputy Assistant Administrator Matt Nims, do you have anything to add to that?
Mr. Nims: No, I think DAS Albright did a great job at it. I think it’s just very important to understand that it is our partners, whether with the UN or humanitarian NGOs, nongovernment organizations, that are working to do that and we continue to support those efforts.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. We have one question that was submitted to us in advance, but there are currently no other reporters in the queue, so if no one joins during this question we’ll conclude the call. But the call – the next question is from Ines San Martin, with Crux in the United States. She emailed to ask, “In recent months, the Holy See has issued several appeals for lifting the sanctions against Syria, arguing that they hurt the population, not the government. Is the State Department open to such a possibility?”
Mr. Albright: This is Richard Albright. I just want to note that we – our sanctions are – do not target the Syrian people. They target the Assad regime and criminal behavior, behavior that violates human rights, and they are an important tool to press for accountability from the regime on its really just atrocious behavior, some of which amounts to war crimes. We ensure that our sanctions do not unnecessarily impede humanitarian access in Syria and that they remain targeted in a way that contributes to progress toward political objectives. And I would note that we’re seeing huge deterioration in the economic situation in Syria that’s absolutely – absolutely and certainly – a great increase in humanitarian needs. But I think you need to look at the reasons for that. And the reasons for that derive from corruption, bad governance, poor economic policy, exacerbated by the crisis in Lebanon, also exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.
But the Syrian Government is making choices to focus its resources on its military and security services and not focus its resources on the needs of its own people. That’s why the displacement crisis remains so bad and that’s why the situation in Syria is continuing to deteriorate. Thank you.
Moderator: Great, thanks very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Elizabeth Hagedorn with Al-Monitor. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Two question questions. One, is there a contingency plan for aid deliver to the northwest if Russia and China are successful in vetoing the cross-border aid reauthorization in July? And my second question: The previous administration slashed funding for stabilization projects in Syria a couple of years ago. Will any of this new financial support announced today be used for stabilization efforts? Thanks.
Mr. Albright: Let me say that all of this funding is for humanitarian assistance, so it’s not for stabilization. Those are different accounts and those were not included in today’s announcement. We are, if you followed – I’m sure you followed Secretary Blinken’s statement in the Security Council yesterday. We are doing everything possible to build support for renewal of the cross-border resolution and, in fact, expand it to crossings that were closed a year ago, the al-Yaroubia crossing and Bab al-Salaam crossing, because one crossing is simply not sufficient to meet the massive humanitarian needs in the northwest. So that’s really our focus, is renewal of that crossing and convincing everybody that there is no – there is no viable alternative to these crossings. Cross-line assistance is not an alternative to supply from Damascus. It’s not an alternative to meet the needs in the northwest or the northeast, for that matter, and you’ve seen that play out in the northeast where it’s not sufficient to address the needs.
So I don’t – you know everywhere in the world we deal with contingencies and we work to adapt, but our focus today is on renewal of these resolutions. Thank you.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Joseph Haboush with Al Arabiya English. Please go ahead, Joseph. Are you there? Do we have Joseph Haboush with Al Arabiya English?
Operator: Mr. Haboush, your line may be muted.
Question: Can you guys hear me?
Moderator: Yes, yes, go ahead.
Question: Okay, thanks. Thanks, fellas, for doing this. Two questions. Yesterday at the Security Council meeting, we heard Russia and China – kind of following up on the previous question – calling for aid to be distributed from Damascus, and you guys have been pretty clear that that’s not going to work. What are the alternatives if the other three border crossings are not reauthorized? And second, you guys mentioned the crisis in Lebanon and the corruption – the corruption visible to everybody from the government and from the officials. So can you provide a breakdown of, one, how much aid has gone to Lebanon as a host country, and how you – because, like, in previous years aid had gone through the Lebanese Government and distributed to other aid groups, and so I just wanted to ask if you could touch on that? Thank you.
Mr. Albright: Sure. So there – well, there were originally four cross-border – cross-border – border crossings that were authorized by the Security Council way back in I think 2014: one from Jordan, one from Iraq, and then two from the northwest of Syria. Now we’re down to one. There are – those crossings – for instance, there are still crossings. NGOs, nongovernmental organizations, are using the crossing from Iraq into the northeast of Syria, and NGOs and Turkish organizations are using the crossing from Bab al-Salaam into the northwest of Syria even though the Syrian – even though the UN is not. The UN is restricted to the Bab al-Hawa crossing.
So if the UN can no longer use crossings, then NGOs and other organizations will still use those crossings, but the UN wouldn’t be able to supply from those crossings. And that’s – given the magnitude of the needs, we see no real alternative to doing this. And the Russians know very well that there have been minimal cross-line shipments from Damascus into these areas and that that’s not – it’s not a viable alternative for meeting the huge – the huge needs in the northwest.
You asked about Lebanon. I mean, we have provided – first of all, our assistance, our humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, like our humanitarian assistance everywhere, doesn’t go to governments. It goes to – directly to the beneficiaries, to the people who depend on it. In this case we’re talking about Syrian refugees as well as needy Lebanese, who are increasing in number. And the assistance flows through UN agencies and NGOs. We have provided to Lebanon since the start of the crisis, assistance in Lebanon, $2.6 billion of our total of about 13 billion – 2.6 billion of that has gone to support humanitarian assistance inside of Lebanon. And it will continue. I mean, our current funding will support refugees there and vulnerable Lebanese.
I mean, Lebanon is going through a period of crisis and Lebanon – due to corruption and mismanagement, and the leadership of Lebanon needs to put aside that brinkmanship and partisan bickering and come up with a government structure. And that’s a – there was a statement on March 11 from the International Support Group that reiterated that Lebanon’s leaders need to form a fully empowered government capable of meeting the country’s needs. So that’s what they need to do. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. We have time for one final question today, and that will go to Lara Jakes with The New York Times. Please go ahead. Do we have Lara Jakes with The New York Times? You might be on mute.
Question: Yes, I’m here. Hello?
Moderator: Yes, please go ahead.
Question: Oh, great. Hi. Good day to everybody. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the humanitarian situation in northeast Syria, and specifically with al-Hol and Ein Issa, the situations in both of those camps and whether – where we are, what is the status of kind of the repatriation of the people who are in al-Hol. Thanks.
Mr. Albright: Well, I’ll let Matt speak on the broader situation in the northeast of Syria, but you know the situation in al-Hol is a very complex, difficult situation and we have long supported and called for repatriation of the Iraqis who are in al-Hol and other foreigners who are in al-Hol. The Syrian Kurdish authorities have supported a significant repatriation of Syrians to locations where that’s possible, which is largely non-regime areas, and worked to – with local communities on reabsorption and reconciliation of those people into their communities and villages.
We’re working closely with the – we’re talking to the Iraqi authorities about repatriation of the Iraqi population in al-Hol, and there have been – we’ve facilitated the returns of foreigners to third countries and we’ll continue to do that. However, some countries are also in active discussion, are working at the possibilities of repatriating their – repatriating their citizens. Countries with the largest populations, the third countries with the largest populations are Russia, Turkey, China, and we encourage everybody to repatriate their citizens, and these are women and mostly children and they deserve the ability to have – to have a normal, productive life.
Matt, anything you want to say about the broader situation in the northeast?
Mr. Nims: Yeah. So USAID is working with multiple UN and NGO partners in general in the area, but I think it’s really important to understand that there are needs there, and since the loss of the al-Yaroubia crossing in 2020, in January, all UN cross-border shipments from Iraq to Syria have ceased. While cross-line access from Damascus is feasible and used by the UN when they can get in and get across, there are still gaps, including water treatment and medical supplies, including pharmaceuticals that the UN cannot transport cross-line and the NGOs are not able to procure and distribute at that same scale as maybe a larger UN operation.
So these losses are particularly profound given the spread of COVID in the northeast that we see, and so the United States continues to advocate for the reauthorization of the al-Yaroubia crossing and to restore this vital aid to the people of Syria in those areas. And again, I would reference the statements made by Secretary Blinken yesterday at the Security Council. Over.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Unfortunately, that was indeed the last question we have time for today. I’d like to ask our speakers if they have any closing words they’d like to offer, starting with PDAS Albright.
Mr. Albright: Well, thank you very much. I just want to say, reiterate, that we will continue our leadership in working to alleviate the suffering of people, the Syrian people, and we call for unhindered humanitarian access to meet their needs wherever they are, and that includes continuing access cross-line via Turkey and hopefully via Iraq as well. Over.
Moderator: And to Deputy Assistant Administrator Nims?
Staff: Hi. Unfortunately, Matt was just dropped from the call again.
Moderator: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Well, I’d like to thank both our speakers for joining us and thank all the reporters on the line for your participation and for your questions.