Briefing with Special Representative Jeffrey
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Briefing with Special Representative Jeffrey

MR BROWN: Good morning, everybody. QUESTION: Good morning. MR BROWN: Glad to see all of your faces here. This morning, our Special Representative for
Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS joins
us to discuss the latest on the situation in Syria. He’ll have brief opening remarks and then
take some of your questions. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Ambassador
Jeffrey. AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. Thank you very much. Good morning, everybody. Good to see you again. I’ll do both Iraq from a standpoint of the
Coalition to Defeat Daesh, which is one of my responsibilities, and Syria. On Syria, the coalition is – in the northeast,
is continuing its operations with the SDF against the remnants of Daesh in the northeast. We have seen no particular uptick in Daesh
activities in the northeast, nor have we in Iraq, but I’ll get to that in a second. And as I said, normal operations are continuing
in the northeast. We continue our deconfliction with the Russians. The northeast has gotten more complicated,
so we have considerable ground as well as the air deconfliction. We’ve had air deconfliction with the Russians
and Syria for years now. That’s continuing on. There have been a few stories in the media
about that, particularly in the Qamishli area up in the north. And of course, we still have our agreement
with the Turks – the October 17th ceasefire in their Peace Spring area. That whole region has been very, very quiet
of late. We watch it; we coordinate with the Turks
on that as well. So that’s the situation in Syria. The main development is a political development
and a humanitarian development issue, which is a little over a week ago, we did a new
UN resolution on humanitarian access to non-regime areas of Syria – 2504 – where the Russians
blocked two crossings: the one that we had been doing in the south through Jordan, although
that was inactive, but a very active one, particularly for medical supplies to the northeast,
up along the Iraqi-northeast Syria border. And the Russians also insisted that we look
at this again in six months concerning the last two humanitarian UN-approved corridors
into non-regime areas, which are in the northwestern areas that the Turks have control over. We’re very, very concerned and unhappy about
this. We’ve put out statements. Our permanent rep to the United Nations, Kelly
Craft, has issued a statement, an explanation of votes, so it’s all on the record. In terms of Iraq, there was just a briefing
in the Pentagon – or this may have been in the field – by the Deputy Commander of
CJTF-OIR, General Grynkewich, on the current state of where we are in the field there,
but I’ll just touch on that from the political standpoint. But again, for more details, you should turn
to DOD. Coalition operations have been primarily on
pause in Iraq as we focus on force protection and looking into the way forward with the
Iraqi Government after the non-binding vote by the Council of Representatives on the withdrawal
of U.S. and thus coalition forces. We are, as I said, focusing on force protection. We have not seen an uptick in violence in
Iraq by Daesh in this period. They haven’t taken advantage of it, as far
as we can see. The Iraqi Armed Forces are continuing to conduct
operations. There were six significant ones in the last
24 hours. They have been using F-16 aircraft and other
combined arms operations quite effectively. There is, of course, a dialogue between our
people in the coalition and the Iraqi forces, and we exchange information at various levels. But again, as he pointed out, operations are
primarily paused for the moment. We are working with Secretary General Stoltenberg
of NATO on ways that NATO can respond to the President’s call for a bigger role in Iraq
and elsewhere in the Middle East by NATO. There was a NATO team in Iraq. Stoltenberg has had a conversation in Davos
with President Barham Salih. And again, we’re at an early stage in looking
at what NATO can do to expand the mission it already has in Iraq. It’s called NATO Mission Iraq. It does institutional training and advising
at the strategic level, and there are opportunities for it to expand its own mandate to some degree. But again, these are all very preliminary. I’ll stop there and open it up for questions. MR BROWN: Matt. QUESTION: Thanks. Ambassador, I take it – I want to make sure
that I get the – correct – that you have not seen, at least as it relates to your portfolio,
any significant – other than the pause that you mentioned – impact of the Soleimani
killing in Iraq or for that matter in Syria. And then secondly, has the Iraqi quote-unquote
“demand” for U.S. withdrawal proceeded at all? Has – is there any movement on that, or
is – or are you guys just hoping it’ll go away? AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: That may be a question
– at least the first part of the second half of your question is something for the
Iraqis. The second part of it is I never assume anything
just goes away. We exist to try to shape events as well as
react to them. In terms of attacks, we’ve seen a few shellings
of coalition – or bases where coalition forces are located. Other than several at the American embassy
compound a couple of days ago, they have been intermittent, the kind of thing that we have
– or all been used to in our years in Iraq. Nothing like the very targeted, precise, 30-plus
rocket attacks we were seeing in those 11 incidents that led up to our response last
month, so – this month. So – well, last month and this month. But so for the moment, that front is fairly
quiet. In terms of what the Iraqis are doing, they
formed the committee to pursue the issue of – from their standpoint – the future of
the American and coalition forces in Iraq. And Fuad Hussein, who is the Minister of Finance
and someone who we’ve worked with for years, and the foreign minister and several others,
again people we know, are on this commission. There has not been any real engagement. Our position, as you know – we’ve said
it several times – is that we’re prepared to discuss with the Iraqi Government our overall
strategic relationship. We have a Strategic Framework Agreement with
Iraq since 2008. It covers financial; it covers economic, security,
and diplomatic engagement across the board. We see this as a package; we see this as a
whole. And when we do sit down and talk with them,
that’s where we’ll be aiming to direct the conversation. QUESTION: Okay. And just to make clear, the shellings that
you just mentioned, you directly – or you – those are – people that did it are Iranian-backed
militias you believe? AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We think so. QUESTION: Okay. QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, in the light of
the Iranian attack on the military base in Iraq and the demand by the parliament for
the U.S. to withdraw, can you just give us an idea about your coordination with other
coalition countries? Because I believe they signed different agreements
with the Iraqi Government. Are you worried that the coalition might unravel
in the light of this attack, that some countries might withdraw? AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Not at all. The coalition members – we’ve been in
touch with many of them. They believe in the mission of defeating Daesh. No one thinks – and we’ve covered this
many times here since last March – no one thinks that just with the demise of the physical
caliphate that Daesh is finished. They’re somewhere between – and you’ve
seen various numbers; I’ll throw out one – 14-18,000 Daesh fighters active between
Syria and Iraq. They are under control in the northeast. They have shown in the past some reconstitution
in Iraq, particularly in the area of Diyala and Kirkuk provinces. And to the south of the Euphrates, in areas
where the Syrian regime should be responsible but largely is not, they’ve been quite active. So we are concerned, as is the coalition. The coalition, as I said, is absolutely committed. We had a ministerial here, you’ll remember,
in November to focus on the situation in the northeast, which, thanks in part to the ministerial
and to other efforts, has become stabilized and thus there D-ISIS, the fight against Daesh
is going on, including with the coalition participation without any real change. So that’s a good news story. In terms of the coalition in Iraq, we’ll
be meeting at the political directors’ level in Copenhagen. This is a pre-planned meeting, but of course,
the major subject will be how do we go forward on the fight against Daesh, what are the options
in responding to the concerns of the Iraqi Government. But again, the coalition is very, very much
committed to this mission. It’s a very popular mission not only in
the United States but throughout the coalition members who are involved, which is mainly
Europe and countries such as Australia and New Zealand. MR BROWN: Let’s go to the back, to Michelle. QUESTION: Thanks, yeah. You were in Erbil recently, and I wonder if
you can talk to us a little about – are you in discussions with local authorities
there about maintaining U.S. troop presence regardless of what is decided in Baghdad? And then secondly, since President Trump again
raised the issue of oil yesterday in – when he was meeting with the Iraqi Kurdish leader
– AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh, I’m so surprised
the oil question came up. QUESTION: Yes. (Laughter.) Is the U.S. controlling the oil in Syria? AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay, let’s start with
Erbil. You saw that our – as part of our longstanding
high-level contacts with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, President Trump met with the president
of that region in Davos, and I believe there was a statement. But in terms of the U.S. presence in Iraq,
that is an issue between the United States and the Government of Iraq, Baghdad. It is based upon a 2014 exchange of notes
between us and the foreign ministry that provides the legal presence of the United States as
part of the coalition to defeat Daesh inside Iraq. That is where we are on that issue. In terms of the oil, again, our priority is
to keep the oil out of the hands of Daesh. You know that there was a major campaign by
the coalition back in 2015, 2016 to deal with Daesh’s hundreds of millions of dollars
that they were earning from those oil fields in the northeast. We helped the SDF take control of them. We’re now helping the SDF continue to secure
them and to use the proceeds of them to maintain security in the northeast in support of the
fight against Daesh. That’s where we’ve been, and that’s
where we are, and that’s where we’re going to be. MR BROWN: All right. Francesco. QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Do you have any idea of how long the D-ISIS
operations will stay on pause in Iraq? And do you have any assessment on how long
they can stay on pause without harming the D-ISIS fight on the long term? AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. One, so far, they’ve not. Two, obviously, we’re not keeping thousands
of Americans and thousands of other coalition country troops in Iraq without doing something;
that is, we have a mission, it’s an important mission. The mission is much wanted by the Iraqi military
and by, we believe, most Iraqis. And many of you will hear that when you talk
to them. And thus, over time, obviously, there is a
possibility of a degradation of the effort against Daesh if we’re not able to do the
things that we were doing so effectively up until a few weeks ago. That’s the second part of your question,
but you had something at the beginning. QUESTION: And do you – when do you think
you can resume these operations? Any idea — AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that’s the one I wanted to forget,
because I always hate to put a date on anything. We’ll see. It’s dependent upon two things. First of all, the Iraqi Government has a say
in how they cooperate with us, obviously. But remember the focus of our forces right
now is force protection. They suffered first 11 quite serious attacks
from Iranian-supported militias, who are by and large parts of the Iraqi security system,
then the assault on the embassy, then the two Iranian long-range intermediate missile
strikes on our forces in Erbil and Ayn al-Asad. So in a situation like that, obviously, the
commanders are going to focus, as they have so successfully, on force protection. And as the threat diminishes, they’ll review
that. MR BROWN: Lara. QUESTION: Thank you. Ambassador, what is your assessment of the
candidates who are the names that are being floated about for the next prime minister
of Iraq and how strong each of their ties are to Iran? AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: That’s, of course, a
question for the Iraqi people through their constitutional processes, which we support
and, as you know, expended a lot of blood to try to maintain. It’s their decision who they will have to
lead them. As you know, there is a major popular movement
in the streets to put pressure on the Iraqi political system for new governance, governance
that is less dependent or subservient to Iran. In general terms, we think that’s a good
thing. But again, (a) it’s not my mandate to deal
with Iraq internal affairs; (b) it’s not the mandate of the United States to deal with
Iraq internal affairs. We just observe it. QUESTION: Let me ask the question this way,
then: What is the State Department’s assessment of the strength of the ties between some of
these men and Iran? AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We take a look, obviously,
at anybody in any country who is in the running for a senior position in terms of what we
can expect from that person on the U.S.-Country X portfolio and where that person is on a
lot of other issues that are of concern to us. We do that. That’s classic diplomatic reporting. It’s a big mission for our embassy in Baghdad
and for any other embassy. But I want to differentiate between us knowing
what’s going on to the extent we can and us trying to have a role in anything. There is a huge red line between the two. MR BROWN: Right here. QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. I have actually just a couple of quick questions. Yesterday, President Trump, while sitting
with president of Kurdistan Nechirvan Barzani, he said, quote, “I appreciate everything
you have done to keep the safe zone as safe as possible.” Can you please explain what role Iraqi Kurdistan
has done vis-a-vis the safe zone in Syria? And also, just today, Nechirvan Barzani in
Davos, he said resurgence of ISIS is a serious problem. Do you share his assessment? Thanks. AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The risk of the resurgence
of ISIS is a very big problem, as I said. We have emphasized that ever since the physical
caliphate was defeated along the Euphrates in March of last year. We are very concerned about the number of
forces there and how they coordinate among each other. The Iraqis are concerned about that. Our SDF partners in northeast Syria are concerned
about that. The Turks are concerned about that because
they now have forces in the northeast. Everyone is looking into this and watching
it closely. QUESTION: The first one? AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah. How’s that? QUESTION: President Trump said, “I appreciate
everything” — AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh, in terms of the safe
zone, I’m not quite sure what he meant by the safe zone. Certainly, Kurdistan has been a safe zone
for us to operate in since 2014 and for that matter through my two tours in Iraq, because
there is very little – there was very little Iraqi insurgency in Kurdistan in the period
up to our military departure in 2011, and there is not a significant presence of these
pro-Iranian Iraqi militias there, who we believe and we know have been responsible for shooting
at our coalition forces. So therefore, our forces are, generally speaking,
safer in that part of Iraq. Now, you, of course, know that the Iranians
did fire several missiles into the Erbil airport area during their retaliation against us,
and so our forces are not totally safe there either. Now, in terms of northeast Syria, the Kurdistan
Regional Government has been very supportive in a number of ways – of political outreach
there, of our logistical support and such, as has the Government of Iraq. The Government of Iraq is very supportive
of what we’ve been doing in northeast Syria because they know that is keeping the Daesh
forces in Syria from their throats, and that, of course, is where they came in 2014 to over-roll
Mosul and much of the Euphrates and much of the Tigris Valley. QUESTION: Thank you. MR BROWN: Nick. QUESTION: Ambassador Jeffrey, just one quick
logistical thing. When will the Copenhagen meeting happen? And then second, can I just pin you down on
the issue of U.S. troops? The statement that Morgan issued a couple
weeks ago seemed pretty unequivocal about the idea that the U.S. would not consider
holding any discussions about the idea of withdrawing troops, yet at the same time the
statement also said that the U.S. respects Iraq’s sovereignty and its ability to make
sovereign decisions. Those two things seem to be contradictory. AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah, Copenhagen is going
to be next Wednesday. There’s several meetings at various levels
in Copenhagen for the coalition, but the key meeting of the political directors will be
on Wednesday. In terms of what we’ve said, we have said
that we’re not interested in talking about withdrawal because we don’t think we should
withdraw; however, at the end of the day, this is obviously an Iraqi decision on the
future of the American and the coalition presence. We acknowledge that. We’re not interested in sitting down and
talking only about withdrawal. Any conversations that the Iraqis want to
have with us about the United States in Iraq we believe should and must cover the entire
gamut of our relationship, which goes way beyond our forces, goes way beyond security,
which is far greater than just our forces there and just the fight against Daesh. It’s the long-term re-equipping of the Iraqi
military forces. It’s the regional agenda. It’s our diplomatic support of Iraq, our
financial, our monetary. It goes on and on both — QUESTION: So are you suggesting that there’s
a link? If Iraq demands that U.S. forces leave, the
U.S. would then stop with military support, economic support — AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh heavens, I would never
say anything like that. I’m just telling you that the position of
the U.S. Government – I think Joey Hood is the last
person that – our principal deputy assistant secretary for the Near East – to say if
we are interested in having discussions with Iraq on the whole gamut of our relationship,
and he ticked off the same things I did. MR BROWN: Okay. FT. QUESTION: Keeping on the U.S. troops, do you
envisage any reduction in numbers of U.S. troops or potentially a re-hatting under the
NATO badge? And second question, if I may: Are you getting
any traction in eliciting support from the Europeans for Caesar Act measure in Syria? AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: On Caesar, we’re still
in the early stages of implementation. I will be going out next week to Brussels
to talk about sanctions and other economic issues related to keeping the pressure on
the Assad regime, which, as you’ve seen with the Idlib offensive, as you’ve seen
with their actions by their Russian allies in blocking humanitarian crossings, we need
to put a lot of work into, and we see the Caesar Act as a very important lever to do
that. And we’ll be talking with the Europeans
who are also, of course, implementing sanctions against the Assad regime and are contemplating
additional ones. So we’ll have an exchange on that. And then your first question was — QUESTION: Maybe reducing troops in Iraq or
re-hatting under NATO. AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Ah yeah, that’s another
one I wanted to duck and thus pushed it from my memory. I would say that at any time, the commander
in the field is evaluating what his or her mission is in the force’s available troops
to task. And that’s under review. It’s been under review for some time way
before all of these things that we are here talking about and have been talking about
for the last several months came up, starting, say, with the October 9th Turkish incursion. The CJTF was looking at moving to various
phases because in counter-insurgency or similar operations, various phases, they were looking
to develop, but by and large, we’re planning on continuing, assuming all goes well with
the Iraqi Government, a very similar coalition operation into the future. Now, NATO is looking at – and we are working
with them on that, of course, as a NATO member-state and also the country whose commander in chief’s
last head of state proposed that NATO do this – on how NATO could play a bigger role. NATO, of course, involves not just U.S. troops
usually, but it also involves most of the same countries who are now in the coalition. So there may be a shift between – at some
point, hypothetically – between the number of forces under the NATO rubric and the number
of forces under coalition. But this is all hypothetical now. It’s a very early stage in the discussions. MR BROWN: Laurie. QUESTION: You mentioned something in passing. I wondered if you could elaborate on it because
it was new to me – that the Iraqis had formed a committee, parliament had formed a committee
to pursue the question of the presence of U.S. forces, and it was under – Fuad Hussein
was the head of this committee. AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The – this isn’t the
parliament, this is the Iraqi Government. QUESTION: The Iraqi Government? AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The parliament – to
go back, the parliament passed a non-binding resolution. The agreement we have to be present in Iraq
as part of the coalition is not with the Iraqi parliament, unlike the 2008 SOFA Agreement
or the security agreement, which was passed by the parliament. We have a government-to-government agreement
signed in 2014 that the parliament was not directly or formally involved in, and that’s
the basis for us being there. Thus, our partner in any discussions about
our presence is the Iraqi Government. To carry out those discussions when and if
they occur, the Iraqi Government has formed this committee. QUESTION: And – under Fuad Hussein, it’s
your — AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Right. QUESTION: And did the President’s discussions
with Barham Salih have any impact on these – this issue yesterday? AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I haven’t seen a detailed
readout. The fight against Daesh and the role of Iraq
and the United States, including the Kurdistan Regional Government in that fight, is almost
always a part of any conversation we have with any Iraqi. MR BROWN: Okay, time for one more. Michael. QUESTION: Ambassador, as you noted early on,
there have been some deconfliction challenges in northeast Syria with the Russian and American
forces on the ground, and there have been reports that Americans and Russians have blocked
each other’s access and that U.S. forces blocked the Russians from driving into an
oilfield. My question is: What actually happened in
that episode? Has this been resolved entirely within the
military deconfliction channels? Or has it become a bilateral U.S.-Russian
issue? And is there any effort to bring in international
oil companies or experts to improve the oilfields that the U.S. is now safeguarding? AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The Syrian Democratic
Forces, specifically the autonomous administration of northeast Syria, manages these oilfields,
and they manage any efforts to try to figure out ways to update, modernize, or expand these
fields, and it’s probably better to talk to them. We’re not brokering any effort with anybody,
any third country or anything right now. We know that there are third countries who
are interested, who have gone in there. There are American firms who have asked for
OFAC licenses. This goes back years, Michael. And so some of that stuff is continuing, but
there is no major new effort on that. In terms of the deconfliction, we’ve had,
as you know, deconfliction agreements with the Russians for years. They’ve mainly involved air operations primarily,
as they didn’t fly over the northeast, are flying over the rest of the country. And there were hiccups from time to time,
but by and large, it went smoothly. There were ground deconfliction problems in
Manbij beginning about 14 months ago as the Russians moved into the southeastern part
of that perimeter. At one point, we intercepted a Russian major
general who was driving towards the town of Manbij, but it was all dealt with in these
military-to-military channels. We follow here at the State Department these
military-to-military channels. We have very brief discussions at the political
or at the foreign ministry level of – when we’re talking about everything we’re doing
with the Russians, or sometimes in conflict with the Russians, such as at the UN Security
Council, we just check the box and say okay, our deconfliction efforts are continuing,
they are important, both sides acknowledge that they’re important. In terms of the situation involving these
ground convoys, once you got Russian forces in much of the northeast as part of the agreement
with the SDF after the Turks came in to have Russian and regime forces play a more active
role, particularly on the perimeters of the Turkish Peace Spring area, you then had to
have much more detailed ground deconfliction rules, lines where people should not cross
without permission, lines where people can go, never – roads when they’re open, when
they’re not. And particularly if you look at the map up
in Qamishli, that is where all of the roads come together and also pre-existing regime
and Russian forces, newly deployed Russian and regime forces, and our forces including
one of our major airfields and our headquarters all come together. There’s a lot of patrolling there. And a small number of these mini-patrols and
mini-coordinations and mini-encounters, in the most anodyne sense of the word “encounter”
have led to minor dustups; nothing serious, nothing particularly threatening, and they
all get worked out at military channels, sometimes at the colonel level, sometimes at the one-star
level, sometimes at the three-star level, but at the military level. MR BROWN: All right. Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it. AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you. QUESTION: Thank you.

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