Briefing on Syria

Special Briefing

James F. Jeffrey
Special Representative for Syria Engagement 
Washington, DC
November 14, 2018

MR PALLADINO: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for coming today. We have the Secretary of State’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement Ambassador James Jeffrey. Ambassador Jeffrey will have a few opening comments, and then we will open it up to questions. I’ll call on questions. Thank you.

Ambassador Jeffrey.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you very much. Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for coming. Let me start with our goals in Syria. The President laid them out very forcefully during his remarks in the UN General Assembly now almost two months ago. What we’re looking for is the enduring defeat of ISIS, a reinvigorated and irreversible political process in Syria led by the Syrian people and facilitated by the UN, and de-escalation of the conflict that will include all Iranian-commanded forces departing from the entirety of Syria.

Before I get into how we’re going to carry out what is obviously an ambitious program but we think a very necessary one, let me describe the situation today. Other than fighting that we are leading with our SDF allies along the Euphrates River against ISIS, there’s a relative ceasefire in Syria today, but the conflict is, alas, not over and there are still dangers. There are five outside forces – U.S., Iranian, Turkish, Russian, and at times Israeli Air Force units – involved in Syria for important, or in several cases of the neighbors, existential interests. And as we saw with the recent shoot-down of a Russian IL-20 military aircraft, the danger of escalation is ever present, including between various national actors, not just with subnational actors of which there are many there, including very dangerous groups such as Hizballah, ISIS, and al-Qaida, al-Nusrah offshoots.

The Syrian Government claims in its diplomatic contacts that it is winning, but it controls only about half-plus of the country’s territory, half of the population has fled its horrific rule, either as internally displaced persons or refugees across the border, and the international community treats – most of it treats Syria as a pariah, and reconstruction funds are not going to flow either from us or from most of the rest of the international community that provides typically reconstruction funds until we see a great deal more progress on the agenda I’ll lay out.

So how do we move forward on this program? Taking the first goal, the enduring defeat of ISIS, we have a coalition of some 79 countries involved in the conflict, primarily with its focus on Iraq and Syria. The last conventional fighting, as I said, is now along the Euphrates. In Syria it’s being led by America’s partners in this conflict, the Syrian Democratic Forces, as well as American military personnel. The fight is continuing, and we hope that it will be over in a few months and that will be the last of ISIS’s terrain that it holds in a quasi-conventional way.

At the same time, military presence, while it is – has one mission, which is the defeat of ISIS, indirectly supports, through secondary effects, other goals. It, in its work with our partners, indirectly helps affect Iran’s malign activities, and by our presence and by our commitment to security in Syria and in the region, we demonstrate an interest in achieving a political solution by the various ways that we have, not just diplomatic but security and military, through economic tools and other assets that we have and that we’re deploying in this conflict.

We also think that you cannot have an enduring defeat of ISIS until you have fundamental change in the Syrian regime and fundamental change in Iran’s role in Syria, which contributed greatly to the rise of ISIS in the first place in 2013, 2014.

Our second goal is the de-escalation of the conflict, building on the ceasefires right now. Particularly important is the agreement that the Turks worked out with the Russians in – over Idlib back at the end of September in which the Russians – again in a summit meeting with the leaders of France, Turkey, and Germany on the 27th of October – agreed would be a lasting ceasefire.

We’ll try to hold the Russians to their words. This is very important because from that flows the ability to build on these ceasefires that are somewhat ad hoc right now throughout the country into the sort of ceasefires called for in the relevant UN Resolution 2254 of December 2015 which calls for eventually a nationwide ceasefire and the UN special envoy for Syria to move forward on a whole procedure to ensure the maintenance of these ceasefires as an important step towards peace.

So that is the de-escalation component. Eventually that can lead to the withdrawal of all military forces that have entered since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. That would importantly include, as I mentioned earlier, a goal of all Iranian-commanded forces.

The third element in this is the political process. This, again, is under the UN Resolution 2254. And the first step right now is the convening under UN auspices a committee to begin work on the Syrian constitution. This is a critical step towards reinvigorating the political process. Our goal – which, again, was supported by Russia, France, Germany, and Turkey, and agreed in the October 27th Istanbul communique – is to establish this constitutional committee by the end of the year. We will hold Russia to account for its commitment to convene the constitutional committee by then, and we expect it to use its influence to bring the Damascus regime to the table.

Based upon these three elements, we hope to see a process, again, as outlined – as laid out in that UN Security Council resolution, moving forward to encourage all of the actors in Syria to achieve a basic security system that will end the fighting permanently, produce a Syrian regime that is not as toxic as the current one is to its own people and to the neighborhood, and secure satisfactory guarantees for all of the players in and around Syria.

This conflict – as you all know, because you’ve been following it since 2011 – has had horrific consequences – first, for the Syrian people. The UN special envoy estimates over 400,000 killed, almost 200,000 incarcerated, almost 100,000 disappeared in one or another form, and tens of thousands tortured. The conflict has given rise to ISIS and its huge wave of violence over Iraq, Syria, and on into Turkey and into Europe. It has also led to the huge outflow of refugees which has impacted three neighboring countries dramatically – Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan – and had important negative political effects on Europe.

This is a conflict that for many reasons we all have to put every effort possible into resolving. That’s what this administration is committed to.

I’ll stop right there. Thank you very much.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s start with BBC.

QUESTION: Hello. Barbara Plett Usher from the BBC. Two questions. This goal of yours to get Iran out of Syria – do you see that as the outcome of the political process, or more like a condition for going into it? And if it’s the former, how would that work? And then secondly, when it comes to the constitutional committee, are you optimistic, or what makes you think it’s actually going to be productive given that the Syrian Government is still not accepting the third list?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Good point. On getting Iran out, that is basically part of a process. It’s not a military goal of the United States, it’s not a mission of U.S. military forces; rather, we see this as the outcome of process that would end the internal conflict and provide guarantees to the Syrian people and the neighbors towards their security. And under those circumstances, we see an Iran with its power projection capabilities as a threat to three of our partners and allies around Syria: Israel, first of all, and then Turkey and Jordan. So we think that it is an important criteria for any lasting peace. You will not have a lasting peace in Syria if Iran is doing the kind of power projection policies out of Syria that it has done through Hizballah in southern Lebanon and done through the Houthis in northern Yemen.

QUESTION: But how do you get there, though?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We think that a process that will encourage all sides to restore the refugees, begin reconstruction assistance, and lead to the withdrawal of all other forces would be an offer that the Syrian Government would be encouraged to take. Right now, as I said, the Syrian Government is not in a particularly enviable position – in terms of its economy, which is in ruins; in terms of its control over the population, which is limited; and in terms of its control over territory, which again is a little bit over half. And it is in a very dangerous situation because you have all of these outside forces and the risk of an escalation at any time.

QUESTION: So you’re depending on the Syrian Government to ask the Iranians to leave? Is that the plan?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Eventually, technically, the Syrian Government invited them in; we expect the Syrian Government to ask them to leave. In terms of getting the Syrian Government to commit to the process, first of all, it is important that the Syrian Government do this, but it is not absolutely necessary. The UN special envoy, under 2254, has the authority to convoke the constitutional committee. He has indicated that he is ready to do so. He is encouraged by us and other nations to do so as soon as possible. And even the Russians, as I said, have agreed by the end of this year. We will see whether Damascus goes along or whether Damascus is willing to bear the burden of responsibility for blocking a process that the entire Security Council has been pressing for now three years.

MR PALLADINO: Conor, please.

QUESTION: Ambassador Jeffrey, thank you for doing this. To that point, though, do you think that the Assad regime and Russia both understand the current state of play in the same way that you do in terms of the restrictions on international funds for reconstruction, the poor position that the regime is currently in as you laid out? And if not, then why is now the right moment for a constitutional committee? Why not wait and allow more pressure to build on Russia and the Assad regime?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We believe that certainly the Russians are very well aware of this. They have been told at the highest level what our policy is, specifically by President Trump at the Helsinki summit now four months ago. We have communications constantly with the Russians at every level. John Bolton, the National Security Advisor, was just in Moscow. Much of the conversation was on Syria. They know the situation.
The fact that Russia keeps several envoys almost constantly on the road urging various countries to basically encourage/compel refugees to return to recognize the Syrian regime, to return it to the Arab League, and most importantly, to begin the flow of reconstruction aid indicates Russia knows full well that the Syrian regime needs a whole lot of help.

What we have to still see is whether Russia’s willing to compel the regime or to persuade the regime, I should say, to play the game on the political process.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go to The New York Times, Gardiner Harris.

QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, one of the things that just sort of consistently comes out with confusion, at least on our part, when you talk is what you – how the U.S. will dispose of its forces vis-a-vis Iran. I think you’ve said several times that the United States wants to keep a presence in Syria until Iran leaves, and that is sometimes interpreted as a military presence. You just once again confirmed that the only military goal for the United States is the defeat – the enduring defeat of ISIS.

If in a few months you succeed in defeating ISIS, will American troops then leave even if Iran stays in Syria? Help us unpack where our forces are vis-a-vis where Iran is and how those two impact each other.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Sure. Again, our forces are there under a set of legal and diplomatic documents, beginning with the Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001 on the fight against international terror. And that is their military mission where they can engage an enemy force. But their mission right now from the President is the enduring defeat, and the enduring defeat means not simply smashing the last of ISIS’s conventional military units holding terrain, but ensuring that ISIS doesn’t immediately come back and sleeper cells come back as an insurgent movement.

We’ve seen this several times, of course, across the border in Iraq, including ISIS itself. ISIS’s predecessor under the same leader, al-Baghdadi, al-Qaida in Iraq, was almost totally defeated when I was in Iraq. I wasn’t the person defeating it, but I was there to see it happen in 2010 to 2012. But it was able to re-generate itself because there was no long-term strategy in either Syria or Iraq, but particularly in Iraq at the time because that’s where we were focused on, to ensure the enduring defeat of these elements.

So there’s a – what the military calls a stabilization or stage-four aspect to the military, political, diplomatic, economic effort to try to ensure that something like ISIS doesn’t return. Again, that’s more than the military. We have civilians working on assistance, political officers in northeastern Syria trying to help on that longer-term process.

Again, indirectly, our military presence, as I said, has indirect impact on the Iranian presence there. It has an indirect impact on our political activities in support of the UN resolution. But the decision on when the enduring defeat of ISIS has been achieved is one that the President takes as Commander-in-Chief. In terms of us staying on until we have achieved our goals, our staying on is something that the President and his advisors and our allies and partners will work on based upon the various tools we have: the diplomatic tools, the military tools, the military tools using partner forces, the military tools using assistance and training. There are, again, tools such as sanctions, tools such as either granting or withholding reconstruction assistance. There’s a whole palate of tools.

For example, in Georgia in 2008, without using American military forces on the ground, we used a whole set of – a whole smorgasbord of tools, international tools with Sarkozy, the president of France at the time, leading the international diplomatic effort, sanctions and other actions that eventually saw the Russians withdrawing to their start positions at the beginning of that conflict in Georgia. So that’s an example of how you can do it.

QUESTION: So given that you – you foresee the defeat on the battlefield of ISIS in the next few months, when do you foresee – and again, even though it’s a presidential decision – but when do you foresee U.S. forces actually leaving Syria? Can you give us a guesstimate?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Again, when the President decides.

QUESTION: A year – okay.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: But the mission they have is the enduring defeat. The enduring defeat is more than simply crushing the last ISIS elements that are holed up in platoon and company-sized units in towns along the Euphrates. It’s also ensuring that, as I said, the stay-behind units that we have seen active in parts of the northeast of Syria are dealt with. It’s building up local security forces – that’s an important part of it. It’s participating in a political process that gives the people of the northeast a future so that they aren’t going to be subject to temptations to go with ISIS as they did back in 2013-2014.

MR PALLADINO: Dan De Luce, NBC.

QUESTION: Is there any evidence that the Iranians are withdrawing or scaling back their military presence there, or in fact are they expanding their presence or their supplying of weapons to the regime for their own purposes in Syria?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: They’re not expanding. Again, the military situation right now is frozen on the ground; there’s very little Iranian combat involvement other than some movements in the vicinity of some ISIS elements. I can’t get into questions of whether they’re pulling back or slowing down at this point.

MR PALLADINO: Any further questions?

QUESTION: And just to follow up, do you – is it your belief that sanctions, U.S. sanctions, will help force or persuade Iran to scale back their presence in Syria?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I do.

MR PALLADINO: Sir, which outlet do you represent?

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Lebanon.

MR PALLADINO: Okay.

QUESTION: So the Russians are blaming the U.S. that they are slowing the process of the return for Syrian refugees. Thousands of thousands are in Lebanon. And you know the Lebanese economy is draining and they cannot stand this humanitarian situation. The Lebanese Government was trying to help the Syrian refugees for many years now. The international community is supporting the Syrian refugees. They’re giving them all aids they need but not giving any attention for the community itself. So why do you ask – it’s not allowing big numbers to return to safe places in Syria?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. Here’s our policy on refugees. First of all, refugees decide themselves. The U.S. Government has not urged refugees not to return nor have we urged governments to try to block or stop or discourage refugees from returning. Our position is that refugees make this decision itself. It must be voluntary. Their return should be safe. It should be under dignified conditions. It should not be a group of people who are being starved by somebody who have no choice but to return to regime control. And it should be in light of all relevant information about whether it is safe to return to the areas refugees and internally displaced people – it’s the same policy for internally displaced people – want to go back to, their homes.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees provides a lot of information that is available to refugees and refugee organizations. We urge people to review that. Our own view is that there’s very little of Syria that is safe to return to.

In terms of the Russian claims, again, they’re baseless. We’re not trying to stop anybody from going back. Who is stopping these close to six million refugees from going back? I think we’ve only seen 55,000 return this year. I’ll tell you: it’s the regime itself. It’s the horrific behavior of this regime on its own population. Millions of them were driven out by the regime’s policies. The regime has not yet shown, including to refugees who have recently returned, it has changed its attitudes and its behavior towards its own citizens. Until that changes, all the huffing and puffing of anybody around the world to get refugees back is not going to get them back unless countries actually force them back, and we would be very, very strongly opposed to that.

MR PALLADINO: Wall Street Journal, Michael Gordon. Do you have a question, sir? All right, and ma’am from – you had a question, yes?

QUESTION: Yes.

MR PALLADINO: Please identify your outlet.

QUESTION: Yes, Hiba Nasr, Sky News Arabia. You said an enduring defeat of ISIS requires fundamental change in the Syrian regime. Can you explain more, please?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yes. The Syrian regime produced ISIS. The elements of ISIS in the hundreds, probably, saw an opportunity in the total breakdown of civil society and of the upsurge of violence as the population rose up against the Assad regime, and the Assad regime, rather than try to negotiate or try to find any kind of solution, unleashed massive violence against its own population. That created a space for ISIS to recruit people; to protect people to some degree, ironic as it sounds, from the depredations of the Assad regime; and very soon, ISIS had an army of 35,000 troops and had seized big chunks of both Iraq and Syria.

So as long as we have a government like that – and to some degree that government was listening to advice from the Iranians, who were very present and approved much of what the Assad regime did to its own population – we don’t see how we can keep ISIS or the international community – we’re all in this together – can keep ISIS from re-emerging from the mess that is Syria, if it stays a mess.

QUESTION: So do you trust Assad in – staying in power?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We’re not about regime change. We’re about a change in the behavior of a government and of a state, and that’s not just our view. That’s the view in a whole series of international agreements related to Syria since 2012, culminating in the resolution of 2254.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go to Fox News. Rich.

QUESTION: Ambassador, thank you. You spoke about the high-level engagement between the U.S. and Russian governments. Do you get a sense that there has been a change in the relationship between the two countries as it pertains to Syria, and is there a potential for more cooperation or is there still a great level of frustration there?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: There is frustration, I think, on both sides. We’ve been able to see some progress. I’ll cite a few with the Russians: a humanitarian convoy to Rukban, which is in the south of the country. It’s a internally displaced persons camp that is inside an area called al-Tanf, where U.S. troops and our Syrian partners control. We and the Russians, the UN, the Syrian Red Cross, and other actors – ultimately even the regime in Damascus – agreed on a major humanitarian convoy that moved down. Relatively serious security concerns, but we were able to overcome them through close cooperation with the Russians and the Americans at the political level.

At the military level, it’s limited to deconfliction of military operations, but that deconfliction has been going on. It’s working quite well. And, of course, the Russian decision at the Istanbul summit with Merkel, Macron, and Erdogan – Putin agreed to, again, a lasting ceasefire in Idlib, which is very important to the U.S., beginning with the President, who’s spoken about Idlib. He called any invasion of Idlib a reckless escalation back in September and that’s been our policy since then. And also the Russians agreed to the convening of a constitutional committee by the end of December.

Now, will the Russians live up to this? I don’t know, but the fact that they’re even going on record with these things is an indication that they are seeking at least some level of cooperation with the rest of the international community.

MR PALLADINO: National Public Radio, Michele.

QUESTION: Thank you. I haven’t heard in any of these goals any words like justice, accountability for war crimes. I’m wondering if the State Department continues to gather evidence for future war crimes trials or if that’s just gone – just pushed to the side.
And also, just wondering what the departure of de Mistura or Jan Egeland will mean to any of this.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: On the first, first of all, this is something that we care about not just in Syria but around the world, and there’s a great deal of effort being spent, including support for some of the Syrian – financial and other political support by us of certain Syrian NGOs that do document the horrific crimes of the regime. We do that; various international agencies do that. In the various agreements that have produced – in the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, there is talk about accountability. We take that very, very seriously, both as an individual nation and in our relations with the current regime in Damascus and any future Syrian government, and as a partner with many other countries in the overall international position toward Syria, so yeah.

In terms of de Mistura, he’s said that he would leave by the end of the year. He’s done an extraordinary job. He’s brought this first step, the constitutional committee, as far as any person could. We’re very pleased with what the UN has accomplished up to this point. The problem is, in the end, the UN has to take the final step and convene this constitutional committee of 150 people. He’s in final discussions with the various players on this and we’re confident that we’ll either see the convening of this by the end of the year, which is what we hope for, or if the regime blocks it, we’ll know who we can pin responsibility on.

MR PALLADINO: This is our last question, Voice of America.

QUESTION: Thank you. Ambassador Jeffrey, going back to the Iranian presence in Syria, are the Russians on board with the U.S.? And how much talk have you had with the Russians regarding Iranian forces leaving Syria once the clashes have subsided?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We’re not going to go into the details of discussions we’ve had. We’ve made clear to everyone our three strategic goals in Syria. We don’t see why it is in the interest of anyone to have Iranian forces, particularly power projection forces – long-range missiles and other systems that can threaten other countries – present in Syria if we have resolved the underlying conflict. And it’s our job to convince everybody, including the Russians, that that’s the best way to secure a peaceful result and stability and security, not just in Syria but in the region, and we’ll keep on working until we achieve that.

MR PALLADINO: Thank you.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Do they work with you on this?

QUESTION: Quick question, just to circle?

MR PALLADINO: Last one. AFP. This is it.

QUESTION: I just wanted to ask you about one other issue, the journalist Austin Tice. He of course is still missing. What information does the U.S. have? What is the U.S. doing at this point?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I think Robert O’Brien, our special envoy for this, just made an announcement that we believe that he is alive. We believe that he is being held captive inside Syria. I don’t want to say anything more on that subject.

MR PALLADINO: All right, thank you very much, Ambassador. We’re good.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you. Okay.