Interview with Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Ambassador James F. Jeffrey with Deniz Kilislioglu of NTV (Turkey)
February 12, 2020
Question: You have done with all your meetings with Turkish officials, and we know that it is a mess, a [loop]. We wonder, did you offer anything to Turkish officials which might change, a game-changer recommendation?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We first of all discussed how the alliance, NATO, there’s a NATO meeting of Defense Ministers right now going on in Brussels that may be of help. NATO has helped Turkish defense in the south, for example, with Patriot batteries in the past and has one now stationed in the south at Incirlik.
But the first thing we did was to compare notes on the legal and diplomatic basis for the situation in Idlib. There the United States totally agrees with Turkey on the legal presence and justification for Turkey defending its existential interests against refugee flow and dealing with terror and finding a solution to the terrible Syrian conflict with the war criminal regime of President Assad. We understand and support these legitimate Turkish interests that have Turkish forces in Syria and specifically in Idlib.
The Turkish forces obviously, just like our forces did today, have the right to defend themselves when attacked. They have been attacked by the Syrian forces in Idlib and they’ve responded to that. We understand that and we are, as a NATO ally, are look into how we can help ensure that Turkey has the information it needs, that our equipment transfers to Turkey which are considerable are working well. And making sure that our diplomatic approaches are coordinated. Because we also have forces in Syria and we’re also leading a large number of countries in trying to find a diplomatic solution to the entire conflict. But today our focus was primarily on Idlib and on the dangers of further assault by Assad and the Russians.
Question: You mentioned about the Patriots. We know that that was in negotiations between Turkey and the U.S. Are you going to give Patriots? I mean there is improvement on that?
Ambassador Jeffrey: No. What I’m saying is that NATO has a Patriot detachment in Incirlik. I forget which country it came from. It’s one of the European NATO countries. So NATO has been helpful to Turkey and it’s still helpful to Turkey. And Defence Minister Akar is in Brussels right now with our Defense Secretary Esper and the other NATO Defense Ministers looking at how NATO can be helpful, and we’ll see what comes out of that.
Question: I would like to ask the support that U.S. could give. You mentioned a little bit, but I would like to ask a little bit much more detail. Even though Robert O’Brien said that there won’t be, I mean the military operation will not be an option, after your meetings, what can U.S. help in this term to Turkey? Military option? A military operation is an option? Or some other elements? What might be?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, as National Security Advisor O’Brien said when he was asked what we’re going to do, he ruled out a military intervention. As you know, we are also tying down Assad forces elsewhere, for example Al-Tanf in the south of Syria. We’re doing this because we have a very important interest in fighting Daesh, but by the same token we’re helping to maintain stability and we pose military problems for the regime.
Another thing that’s important is the regime has repeatedly used chemical weapons in and around Idlib in the last three years. This has resulted I our twice — the second time with French and British assistance — taken military strikes against the regime. We’ve put the Assad regime on notice that if chemical weapons are used again in Idlib or elsewhere we will take very seriously the possibility of military action.
Question: How the world can trust United States? Because we saw in the past that the U.S. regime, I mean the Syrian regime used the chemical weapons, and that was a further step of the red line of United States policy and we saw that nothing happened. What —
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, things started happening. In 2017 and then again in 2018, months after the fact, we determined that the regime used a limited amount of chemical weapons without serious casualties just south of Idlib in I believe Latakia Province, and we put the regime on notice about that. We’re watching the regime very closely. We’re very concerned about the regime’s chemical weapons programs, and we’re going to keep them under pressure on that as well.
Question: Okay. You’re saying that Turkey’s your NATO ally and you would like to cooperate with Turkey for the west of Euphrates. But we know that the same United States, despite its NATO ally, support the YPG in the east part of the Euphrates. I’m asking this question, that’s why your visit get a kind of huge reaction from the Turkish community. Don’t you think that U.S. policy in this sense is a contradiction?
Ambassador Jeffrey: No. We are in Syria, both in Al-Tanf in the south where there is no SDF or YPG and in the north where they’re a major part of our partner force to fight Daesh. Daesh is still a serious threat. There is no country other than Iraq and Syria where Daesh had its rebirth in 2013 to ’14 that has suffered more from Daesh attacks than Turkey. Istanbul Airport, Ankara, several cities along the border, you have had terrible attacks from Daesh. You have also conducted military operations successfully against Daesh in particular in [al-Bab], and we’re there to fight with the local people of the northeast — they come in many varieties from many groups — against Daesh and we’re going to continue that fight until we’re sure that Daesh is finished.
Now meanwhile we have an agreement with Turkey on the Operation Peace Spring, an operation that occurred in October. We worked with Turkey for a ceasefire in that portion. We lived up to our side of it. Turkey has lived up to its side of it. And we’re coordinating closely on the northeast with the Turkish side.
Question: But as far as we know in that agreement the YPG would be pulling out from that zone, but YPG is still in there. I mean what is the latest in that term?
Ambassador Jeffrey: The YPG did pull out of the zone. That is their troops pulled out by the 5th day, the 22nd of October. Where the Turkish side has raised problems is with the agreement that you did in Sochi with Putin on the rest of the northeast which also called for a withdrawal of YPG forces 30 kilometers south, and we don’t follow that closely because we’re not part of that agreement, but we understand from the Turkish side that it has not been carried out.
Question: So you’re saying that the agreement between Turkey and the United States, that zone is out of YPG terrorists. Is that so?
Ambassador Jeffrey: I would say that we carried out our commitments under it. I’m always careful in a large area to make any claim of any group of people in or not in, but basically the YPG withdrew from that area. Yes.
Question: Because Turkish officials said that they are still in there.
Ambassador Jeffrey: There have been some attacks in there and we have seen those attacks, but there is no group or unit or organized force of the YPG in that zone.
Question: Okay. Let’s talk about the Idlib. How were your meetings today? How would you define your meetings? What is the headline for you? I mean do you think that Turkey and U.S. will go together, will work together?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We have very close geostrategic objectives with Turkey in the two areas where you have forces committed right now. In Libya and in Syria. Again, I don’t want to get into the details of some of these conversations because we are still at a point before further decisions might be taken, but we have, first of all, a very close analysis of the situation between the Turkish side and the American side of what the problems are.
Secondly, we’re committed to continuing close coordination and information exchange to be helpful.
Thirdly, we are both very concerned about the role of Russia in Libya and in Syria in general and in the Idlib offensive. We have made it clear to our Russian counterparts that this activity is unacceptable. It violates the key UN Resolution 2254 which calls for nationwide ceasefires. The Sochi ceasefire that Turkey negotiated with Russia in September 2018 is in the context of that UN resolution and thus from our standpoint a legal and correct diplomatic instrument. It is being violated by the Assad regime supported by the Russians and the Iranians.
Question: Okay, I would like to talk a little bit about the Russians’ position on that. We know that U.S. and Russia have been talking about Idlib issue. In one of your speeches you said that we made an offer to Russians. We urged them to accept a step by step comprehensive solution to Idlib.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Not to Idlib. To all of Syria.
Question: All of Syria. Okay. What is that step by step solution in your mind in United States?
Ambassador Jeffrey: It’s very simple. It’s right there in UN Resolution 2254. It is constitutional process where we’ve taken a very small step after much resistance by Assad. It is free and fair, UN controlled elections throughout all of Syria to include all of the refugees including the people here, to encourage them to go back under a new government with a new approach to its own people. It is nationwide ceasefires. And it is close coordination of all of us in the fight against terrorism. Combine that with a final solution to the conflict. Then all of the military forces that have entered, including the U.S., after 2011 when the conflict broke out can go home. That’s important to us, particularly because we’re concerned about the Iranian forces who are in Syria and who are threatening the entire neighborhood with their long range missiles.
Question: Okay, I’d like to talk a little bit about Ankara’s main concern about the refugee flow towards Turkey. It’s an important issue. But, and Turkey insisting a safe zone near the border. For example, I mean you’re talking with Russia. Can you convince Russia at least to be able to like a safe zone or either have you talked during the meetings today about that zone?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Of course. You heard the remarks of President Erdogan to the Parliament today after he spoke with President Putin. That is exactly what all of the Turkish officials told us. They laid out exactly what President Erdogan has told the Turkish people and the Turkish Parliament. And to us, that is consistent with the spirit and the letter of the Sochi Agreement of September 2018 and we understand why Turkey is so concerned about restoring that balance, because right now people, these three million people are now forced into, compressed into a very small area around the city of Idlib and onto the Turkish border, and a humanitarian catastrophe could occur at any time. Turkey has done more than any other country to deal with the refugees from Syria. To deal with the humanitarian fallout of this terrible conflict. But Turkey alone cannot deal with suddenly three million refugees coming across its borders. It has every right to ensure that that does not happen and we’re here to see how we can help the Turks carry out that right.
Question: The money’s an important issue. Of course the military issue is an issue, but also money is another issue. I saw during some of the briefs after your meetings with [Brian Cullen], they said that the international community should do something more.
Will there be any conference in the near future that maybe you discussed with Turkish officials?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We have had three conferences with the EU and the UN on the humanitarian situation in Syria. The last one was in Brussels I believe in March of last year. I attended as did Deputy Minister Onal from the Turkish side.
We are urging the European Union and the UN to have such a conference again this year. We’re urging the international community to continue its contributions. These contributions have been over 30, not counting Turkey’s, Jordan’s or Lebanon’s as front line countries with refugees, but from the rest of the world there have been over $30 billion of which the United States has given over $10 billion to deal with this refugee crisis.
So think of this. Think of what Turkey has had to do. Think about what the international community has had to do with $30 billion. All because of Syria, of Assad and Russia have not accepted a compromise solution to this conflict that has been going on since 2011. They have created this mess. Now we all are having to deal with the humanitarian fallout of it. It is high time that they stopped this. We have made this point repeatedly to the Russians. All I can say is they are not listening to us and they don’t seem to be listening to Turkey. They don’t seem to be listening to anybody else.
Question: I want to ask about Russia’s position. Not only Russia, but also Iranian position. Because some people argue how come the forces hit Turkish soldiers despite Russia. Why I’m asking this question, because there is a conflict between, there are some arguments that there is a conflict between Russia and Iran on the Syrian field, and I was in Tehran yesterday and I talked with the Iranian officials and opposed to many, Iranian officials says that their forces have not been [broke] after Qasem Soleimani’s death.
So what would you like to say about that conflict? Do you see that kind of signals? Do you think that Russia cannot put much pressure on Assad anymore? And if he is going to, Assad is going to, you know, deal with Iran, how United States and Turkey will get over that?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, Turkey has its own ways to communicate with Iran better than we do. We do see a difference of goals and a difference of means between Iran and Russia in Syria. But the most important thing is that Iran and Russia have joined with the Assad regime to pursue a military victory, disregarding UN Resolution 2254, disregarding the interests and views and existential questions involving the three, the four or five neighboring countries. You have Lebanon, you have Turkey, you have Israel, you have Jordan, you have Iraq. And despite this, they are pressing forward for a military solution. They seem to be all united in that.
What comes afterwards between those three countries, we don’t know. But for the moment our job is to convince them that they are not going to have a military victory and that all of this killing and bombing civilians is in vain because they are not going to clear everybody else out of Syria until there is a political solution to this conflict.
Question: Do you think — we know that military, I mean on the field there is a really big clash. And how come that, the shifting to the political solution? I mean it seems like so hard from now on.
Ambassador Jeffrey: My assumption is that none of the major powers that have engaged militarily in Syria, that is, I don’t count Iran as a major power. It’s a criminal terrorist state, rather like Assad. But that is Russia, the United States and the other members of the Defeat Daesh Coalition, Israel and Turkey have, you notice, been very careful to avoid directly confronting each other militarily. I think that will continue. And I think when Russia along with Iran and Assad see that they’re not going to make any more progress without coming into conflict with us in Al-Tanf in the south, for example, or the Israeli Air Force or Turkey, that they’ll realize that it is time to go back to the tables in Geneva and resolve this conflict the way it is supposed to be resolved through diplomatic action, and through the will of the Syrian people.
Question: What happens if that doesn’t happen? I mean if Assad doesn’t behave and go further. Do you think you see like war in the region?
Ambassador Jeffrey: I don’t think there will be war in the region because I think as I said, the four major players, serious countries that are involved in Syria, that is Russia, the United States, Turkey and Israel, are being very careful militarily, and that includes Russia in this regard.
So we’ll have to see. But at the end of the day, this is not a stable situation for Assad. Look where he is. Thirty percent of his country is not under his control. He has the Iranians running around carrying out their own operations against neighboring countries. Half the population has fled either to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon or onto Europe, some six million people. Another six million have fled into area like Idlib or the northeast or the northwest to avoid his barrel bombs and his terrible police. And his economy is in ruins.
The Syrian pound has tumbled to over a thousand pounds to the dollar. They have never seen this in Syria before. His economy is in shambles. Nobody is going to put that economy back together again. Russia and Iran do not have the money. And the West and the Arab world is not going to help until we get a political solution. So we’ll just let this political and economic pressure grow on the regime.
You notice they have not been invited back to the Arab League. They’re not welcome in capitols around the world. We’re going to do all we can to ensure that that continues. That nobody forgets what is happening to the people of Aleppo, to the people of Idlib.
Question: Let me ask you, my last question will be that. So what is your position about the [inaudible]. You mentioned a lot of times that you’re okay if he is going to stay in power. What is the position of U.S. from now on, that after you count down the whole things of what he has done?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We look at the UN Resolution 2254 and what we call the legislative history, the agreements that we, the Russians, Turkey and other countries have made in a variety of meetings internationally on Syria since 2012. They make clear that everybody, the entire international community expects in the framework of 2254 a Syrian government that does not wage war on its own people and is held accountable for the war crimes against its people. That creates a welcoming environment for refugees to come back, rather than the terrible experience that refugees have had, the few who have come back. A country that does not use chemical weapons against itself or other weapons of mass destruction or its neighbors. A country that does not support or allow terrorism of various kinds to grow up on its territory. That does not support Iran’s terrorist and other agenda throughout the region. And does not threaten in any way the existential interests of its neighbors. That begins with Turkey. That’s what we need from the Syrian government.
If Assad can deliver that, we’ll put him to the test. I don’t think he can, but our official position is not regime change but change in behavior.
Question: Okay. Thank you very much Ambassador James Jeffrey for joining us and for your time and also for your comments.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Thank you very much.