Ambassador James Jeffrey Special Briefing via Telephone

Ambassador James Jeffrey, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS; Richard Albright, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration; and Matthew Nims, Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development, Bureau

for Humanitarian Assistance

June 30, 2020

The Brussels Hub 

Moderator:  Good afternoon from the U.S. State Department Brussels Media Hub.  I’d like to welcome all participants joining this discussion on the international humanitarian response to conflict in Syria.  Today, we are very pleased to welcome three senior officials who have been leading this response:  Ambassador James Jeffrey, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement and also the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS; Richard Albright, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration; and Matthew Nims, Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development in their Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance.

We will begin with opening remarks from Ambassador Jeffrey, 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 Ambassador Jeffrey.  Please, go ahead.

Ambassador Jeffrey:  Thank you very much.  Today, I have been participating in the joint European Union-UN-Brussels IV humanitarian assistance to Syria conference virtually.  This morning at the conference, the United States has pledged more than nine six hundred – excuse me – more than $696 million in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable and conflict-affected Syrians.  This includes over $272 million of humanitarian assistance inside Syria and over $423 million for refugee-hosting countries in the region.

These funds bring the total United States funding for the Syrian response to more than 11.3 billion in humanitarian assistance and over $1.3 billion in non-humanitarian and stabilization assistance across the region since the conflict began.  This U.S. contribution is our largest single contribution to date.  It will provide lifesaving food, safe drinking water, shelter, education, medical care, mental health and psychosocial support, hygiene supplies, and improved sanitation to assist millions of Syrians in need.

During the conference this morning, not only did I as the American representative but many, many other delegates talked about the sobering circumstances in Syria with more than 11 million people in need of continuing humanitarian assistance.  What again and again delegates argued was that it is absolutely important to ensure humanitarian assistance, that UN Security Council Resolution 2504, which was passed in January and covers cross-border humanitarian assistance, must be renewed for 12 months and authorization must be restored for the UN to ship cross-border into northeast Syria at the al-Yarubiyah crossing, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  This is critical because that resolution has to be renewed before the 10th of July or cross-border humanitarian assistance, which would be a dramatic disaster for the people inside Syria, would be ended, at least as authorized by the UN.

In general, what I and many others urged was that the international community support UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen’s call for a nationwide ceasefire in Syria, in particular beginning in Idlib, and support his work to achieve a lasting political solution to the conflict in line with Resolution 2254.

For more than nine years, the Assad regime has waged a bloody war against the Syrian people and committed innumerable atrocities, some of which rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Therefore, as a side event to the Brussels IV humanitarian conference, on Friday, the U.S. co-hosted with Italy and Belgium an event focused on accountability and civilian protection in Syria, who we heard from the UN commission of inquiry and a number of civil society voices who discussed the scale and severity of the abuses being committed against civilians across Syria.  We also heard people discuss the OPCW special inquiry into the complicity of the Syrian Government at the highest levels in chemical weapons attacks in 2017.

One conclusion that we have that I think we share with most people participating in this conference is that we are at a critical juncture.  Together, the international community must stand firm and insist that there will be no diplomatic or economic normalization of the Assad regime until there is a political solution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.  Thus, it is time for Assad’s needless, brutal war to end.  We will continue to work with our partners and allies to support the Syrian people and work towards a political solution to the conflict.

Thank you very much.  We’re ready to answer questions.

Moderator:  [Inaudible] answer portion of today’s call.  Please indicate if you’d like to direct your question to a specific speaker, and I’ll ask our speakers on the line to please identify themselves when they answer.  Our first question is from Danila Galperovich with the Voice of America.  Please, go ahead.

Question:  Good morning.  I hope you hear me well.  Thank you for doing this.  My question is Kremlin just said that they will have on Wednesday a virtual conference with Iran and Turkey about the same subject, rebuilding of Syria.  Will Washington cooperate with these countries on this effort?  And if yes, in what capacity?  And if not, why?

And second question on press reports about plan of Russians to pay money to Taliban for killing American soldiers in Afghanistan, my question is to Ambassador James Jeffrey:  Were you aware about this information?  Thank you very much.

Ambassador Jeffrey:  I can’t answer the second question because we don’t discuss classified information.

On the first question, the United States does not see the Astana Group as a particularly helpful way to resolve the Syrian conflict.  It has worked out a number of ceasefire agreements and all, but Idlib – those ceasefire agreements have been totally trashed and Assad’s forces have gone in, so we don’t see it being a contribution there.  It has, at times, attempted to seize the initiative on finding a peaceful resolution from the UN, from Geir Pedersen, the current UN envoy, and his predecessors.  We’re opposed to that as well.

We, of course, cooperate very closely with Turkey on various aspects of the situation in Syria, and we have frequent discussions with the Russians on a possible way to end the conflict.  But we don’t deal with the Astana group as an entity, and, of course, we have nothing to do with Iran.  Our whole policy in Syria is predicated upon, among other things, all Iranian-commanded forces withdrawing from the country.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for that response.  We’re going to take a question that was submitted to us in advance.  This is from Jakob Nielsen with Altinget in Denmark:  “Is the situation in Syria safe and stable enough for Western countries to begin repatriating refugees?  Also, when it happens without the active participation of the refugees in question?”

Ambassador Jeffrey:  First of all, no repatriation should occur without the active participation of the refugees in question.  Secondly, we rely on the UNHCR to – and the guidelines that the UNHCR has laid out that all repatriations should be voluntary, should be safe, and should be dignified.  The UNHCR is not in the business of certifying areas for refugee return per se, but it watches the situation in Syria very, very closely.  We, the United States, do not think that the situation in most parts of Syria is conducive for people going back right now.  But let me ask Rich Albright from our PRM Bureau to discuss further this question.  Rich.

DAS Albright:  Yeah.  Sure, Jim.  I mean, I think you’ve made the main point.  It’s not – we don’t consider conditions safe, and then we’re not seeing any significant returns of population into Syrian government-controlled areas.  So, it’s really up to the Syrians themselves to make these decisions for themselves free of coercion and to make a decision on where they choose to go.  And so far, we’re not seeing any significant movement into regime-controlled areas.

Ambassador Jeffrey:  There has been some movement back to areas that the Turkish Government or its allies and the Syrian opposition control.  The Turkish foreign minister this morning claimed 400,000 have returned from Turkey of the some 3 million-plus that are in Turkey, refugees.  That may be a little bit high, but I’m just putting it out because that’s what we heard.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for those replies.  Our next question goes to Elie Youssef with Asharq Alawsat in the UK.

Question:  Yeah.  This is a question to Mr. Jeffrey.  [Inaudible] conferences tend to be periodic even [inaudible] and without real reasons.  How can the political process be pushed to end the Syrian crisis, which will not be solved with aid but by returning Syrians to their homeland and starting the reconstruction process?

Ambassador Jeffrey:  The conflict first has to end militarily.  That is an absolute necessity.  That’s why we support Geir Pedersen’s call for a nationwide ceasefire.  That’s why we support the ceasefire in Idlib.  That’s why we worked for essentially a ceasefire with the Turks in the northeast back in October.  That’s why we deconflict movements on the ground and in the air with the Russians, all to try to limit the military dimension of this conflict.

Secondly, there has to be a political process that will allow the people who have fled Assad; that is, 12 million people have left Assad’s controlled areas of Syria either to cross the border into Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon, or to go into areas where Assad’s brutal forces do not hold sway.  Until there is a different relationship between the Assad regime or some successor regime and the Syrian people, you’re not going to get people to return, and you’re not going to get a resolution of this conflict, which is not only between Assad and most of his population, it’s also pulled in various outside countries – Turkey obviously, Iran, Russia, the United States, and the Defeat ISIS Coalition, and although we don’t confirm it officially, Israel at times has indicated that it has conducted operations in there to defend itself as well.

So it’s a very complicated geostrategic problem as well as a humanitarian and an internal conflict problem.  And it all has to be resolved in a comprehensive way for any of the good things that we all want to happen to happen; that is, a restoration of the country to normalcy, the return of the population, peace, and prosperity.

Moderator:  Great.  Thank you very much for that.  Our next question goes to Michel Ghandour with MBN.  Please, go ahead.

Question:  Good morning.  Thank you for doing this, Mr. Ambassador.  My question is for you.  What is your first assessment for the first batch of sanctions on Syria based on the Caesar law?  And when should we expect the second batch?

Ambassador Jeffrey:  We are working very hard to come up with additional packages that we can announce.  I can’t give you a date, but as I said, we are working very hard.  We believe it’s very important to keep the pressure on the regime.  Again, it’s hard to measure the specific impact of these sanctions because what they do is they inhibit the individuals or the entities we sanction from having access to the dollar-denominated international banking system as well as the banking system in the United States, and we block people from traveling to the United States.

But there’s a psychological impact of such sanctions on the individuals that you target.  Thus, we have chosen people in top leadership positions in the Assad family, in the military leadership.  And there’s also a secondary impact on the regime’s ability to fund its war against its own people because there are concerns that the banking system internationally has when you’re dealing with a country whose leaders are themselves personally under sanction.

So those are secondary effects.  But while it’s hard to pin them down in a concrete fashion, we believe that they have a quite substantial, over time, impact on the regime’s calculus.

Moderator:  Great.  Thank you very much for that, Ambassador.  I currently see no questions in the queue.  I’ll give it about 10 more seconds; otherwise, that will be a wrap.  So again, reporters, this is your last chance to ask a question of our panel.  Okay.  I see a question – let’s see here – a question from Thomas Nehls.  Please go ahead, Mr. Nehls.

Question:  Hello from Berlin.  I just have a general question.  United States does take initiatives. Even in Korea, you did it right now, or recently in the Middle East.  You do it elsewhere.  Why the mightiest country does not take the initiative to seek, at least to look for a solution in the Security Council of the UN?  Instead, you are concerned about Iran and others do and Russia and so forth.  Why isn’t it – there is no initiative of the U.S.?

Ambassador Jeffrey:  Well, there is an initiative of the U.S.  The U.S. was one of the sponsors of the relevant Resolution 2254, passed in December of 2015.  The problem since then has been that the Damascus regime under Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, have refused to adhere to the provisions of that resolution that call for a nationwide ceasefire, that call for a constitutional committee to work assiduously to put together a new constitution that would reflect the needs of the people and UN-sponsored nationwide elections.

That was the agenda five years ago in 2015.  That is the agenda of the Security Council.  That is the agenda of the United States.  What we’re seeing is a refusal of one side to adhere to that.  Therefore, we’re using sanctions.  We’re using other measures to try to pressure Assad and his supporters to return to the one political process that is universally recognized internationally.  That’s what we’re doing.

Moderator:  Great.  Thank you very much for that response, Ambassador.  I see no further questions in the queue, so I think that will be a wrap for today.  Before we go, I’d like to see if the speakers have any other – or have any closing remarks they’d like to make. 

Ambassador Jeffrey:  No.  I’m fine. 

DAS Albright:  No, thank you. 

Mr. Nims:  No, thank you.

Moderator:  Okay.  I’d like to thank Ambassador Jeffrey, Deputy Assistant Secretary Albright, and Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator Nims for joining us today and thank all the reporters on the line for participating and for your questions.  The Brussels Hub will circulate a transcript of the call to those who RSVP’d.  A digital recording of today’s call will be available for 24 hours.