The U.S. is discussing with its NATO allies what they can offer Turkey in terms of military assistance in Idlib and discussing measures that may be taken if Russia and the Syrian government breaks a ceasefire, officials said on Tuesday.
“We are looking at what NATO can do,” James Jeffrey, the U.S.’ special envoy for Syria, told reporters in a conference call from Brussels where he was holding talks with allies. “Everything is on table.”
Jeffrey, who was speaking alongside the U.S. ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield, ruled out the use of ground troops should the ceasefire be broken and repeated that Ankara needed to clarify its stance on purchase of the Russian S400 Air Defence System.
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Ambassador James Jeffrey, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and Ambassador David Satterfield, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey.
Ambassador Jeffrey: We are here today in Brussels to talk with officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, and the European Union about the continuing crisis in Idlib despite the ceasefire last week. Idlib is the focal point of the entire Syrian conflict since 2011, as the Assad regime, backed by Iran and Russia, seek a military victory in defiance of the international community’s approach, which is a negotiated settlement under UN Resolution 2254 – passed by everyone on the Security Council, including Russia, in December 2015.
Right now we are focused, first of all, on the humanitarian disaster, where some three and a half million refugees, or internally displaced people, jammed together in about half of the province of Idlib, many of them very close to the Turkish border, who risk coming across, destabilizing Turkey, and perhaps moving on to Europe if the ceasefire does not hold. Therefore, we’re doing our utmost to work with the European Union and to work with NATO to see security, humanitarian, economic, and diplomatic steps that can be taken to, first of all, ensure that this ceasefire remains an enduring ceasefire, and secondly, that we can start moving all sides to a negotiated settlement.
Ambassador Satterfield: I just want to underscore the reality and the magnitude of the challenge that the global community, but particularly Europe, the region of the Middle East, and Turkey in specific, face here. A deliberate Russian decision to initiate a campaign in Idlib – the last extant de-escalation zone – has used as its primary lever the presence of 3 million-plus innocent civilians, the majority of whom are women and children. By forcing their movement, their displacement from their home under very difficult conditions, towards the Turkish border, Russia’s calculation is this will compel Turkey to take decisions favourable to Russian ambitions to both retake the Idlib zone for the regime and effect, through the retaking of Idlib, an end to the ability of the international community to see either the full implementation of Resolution 2254 or a situation in which there is any stand made against Russian aggression.
I underscore Russian aggression, because the Syrian regime on its own could not be conducting this campaign. This is enabled by, at all times, Russian air and ground activity, but particularly air. Turkey faces in the immediate case, but Europe as a whole, the challenge posed by up to 3 million displaced moving in an increasingly compressed fashion, as Jim noted, up against the Turkish border. It is imperative that everything possible be done at this moment to stabilize, in an enduring fashion, the ceasefire agreed to in Moscow on March 5th, to put an end to territorial incursions. There will be no safe zone, no secure zone, if there is not an enduring ceasefire.
The sad record of Syria over the course of the past two years has been ceasefires with Russian guarantees have not been ceasefires; they are temporary, transactional halts until Russia is prepared to renew the campaign. That must not be the case in Idlib.
Question: We know that Turkey asked the United States to send Patriot missile defence batteries to improve its air defence capability in the Idlib escalation. Recently there were reports that you were pressing the Pentagon to send Patriot missiles defence batteries to Turkey to help it repel the Syrian Government’s assault in Idlib, but Pentagon was resisting it. And the Turkish foreign minister lately said that Turkey still wants Patriots to be deployed near its Syrian border as part of NATO Operation Active Fence. And today you are in Brussels to increase NATO’s assistance to Turkey’s security concerns from Idlib. So is there any possibility that the United States or any other NATO ally would send more Patriot missiles to Turkey as part of Operation Active Fence? And is there any disagreement on this issue within the U.S. administration?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, that Politico article was quite false in the details and some of the basic points it made, but I’ll set that to one side because, of course, we are looking at ways we can assist Turkey. That’s why we’re here. That’s why Turkey, under Article 4 of the NATO Charter, called on NATO countries to support it, and we’re here working with the other NATO countries to see what options are available.
There are NATO Patriot batteries from Spain, one battery right now in Turkey. There has been various deployments of NATO forces since 2012 into Turkey in response to the Syrian crisis. We’re looking at what NATO can do. Everything is on the table. We’ll see what happens next, what our allies are willing to put on the table, and then we’ll see what the United States can do to support them.
Question: What can you say about the presence and involvement of Iranian forces and proxies in Idlib?
Ambassador Jeffrey: One of the major risks to the region of this terrible crisis is the involvement of Iranian forces – not only to prop up the war criminal Assad regime, but also to deploy long-range missile and other weapon systems to threaten our partners and allies such as Turkey, such as Israel, such as Jordan, and to threaten our own U.S. military positions in the Middle East as we saw recently in Iraq. So we have noticed that these forces have become very directly involved in the fighting in Idlib, in part because the Syrian army forces have half-collapsed under the attack of the Turkish military in the past few weeks. This is another indication that Iran is driving on its own axis in Syria, not only supporting the Assad regime, which is bad enough, but trying to expand its own hegemonic agenda throughout the northern Levant, and this is something the United States is absolutely opposed to.
Question: Turkey expects a response from NATO regarding the request conveyed on the 28th of February. Which are the requests you are willing to support and what are the specific challenges you are facing in meeting Turkey’s request? And you have elaborated on the humanitarian aid topic. EU has announced preconditions for humanitarian aid to Idlib. The Europeans want security guarantees. Erdogan stated that Turkey already started construction work for facilities and defined it as a safe zone. And what is the U.S. administration’s view regarding the conditions for establishing a safe zone and humanitarian aid?
Ambassador Jeffrey: That’s three separate questions: safe zone, military assistance, and humanitarian assistance. Let me start with the humanitarian assistance.
The EU has been very, very generous, as has the United States as the largest single country donor to the Syrian crisis with over $10.6 billion committed since the beginning of the crisis, including 108 million more that our UN Ambassador Kelly Craft, Ambassador Satterfield, and I witnessed being presented last week on the border to Idlib. There are always some technical and administrative issues involving the delivery of humanitarian assistance across borders. These are routine. I don’t think there’s a problem. I am sure the European Union will be delivering the promised humanitarian assistance. They have so in the past. They have provided hundreds – hundreds of millions of euros to people in Idlib; they will continue doing so. I’m not worried about that.
In terms of what the alliance can provide to Turkey to provide, let’s say, a safe zone broadly defined – that is, a permanent ceasefire and a secure area for the people who are now in Idlib to remain there, which is what everybody wants – that will require, first of all, an analysis of the military threats that are presented by the Syrian Government and Russia, and as we just discussed, Iran; secondly, Turkey’s capabilities; thirdly, what NATO states can do individually and perhaps as an alliance, because there are – again, as we just said – some alliance military decisions on deployments to help protect Turkey. We’re going to look into those. There are also things that the United States can do on its own. We have considerable weapons agreements with Turkey and we’re looking into how we can be helpful there.
Question: Why did the U.S. decline to support the latest vote in the Security Council in favour of the recent Turkish-Russian agreement? Second question: How will the U.S. support Turkey in the event of confrontations in Syria between Turkey and the Syrian Government. And third: Why is the United States concerned about Russia providing Turkey with the S-400s?
Ambassador Satterfield: The United States Government has made clear through every channel available to us, including briefing teams in Turkey since the fall of 2017, cautioning that acquisition of the most advanced Russian air defense system, the S-400, is fundamentally incompatible with Turkey’s obligations as a member of the F-35 consortium, it is incompatible with Turkey’s role as a NATO partner, and it would produce serious consequences with respect to the U.S. CAATSA, Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, legislation. There must be a resolution to the S-400 issue in order for all of the questions which that act has now raised to be fully resolved. We hope that that can take place.
Ambassador Jeffrey: On the Security Council deliberations on the ceasefire, first and foremost, let me make clear the United States welcomes this ceasefire as a potentially important step towards an enduring ceasefire and towards a political resolution under 2254, which calls for such ceasefires throughout the country. What happened in the Security Council – and I have to be general because these consultations are not for the public – was that we and other countries were presented by a text given by the Russians that the Security Council was to adopt. We and other countries had questions about that text. We also pointed out that we had not heard from the Turks; the Turks had not cleared that text and we were not comfortable with that particular text going out at that time. That’s all there is to that.
The final question – how will the U.S. support Turkey in the event of confrontations between Turkey and the Syrian Government – again, I just covered that in the last two questions that we answered.
Question: Do you believe, or why would you believe, that Russia and the Assad regime has any interest in a permanent ceasefire in Idlib?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Steve, you’ll get a very clear answer to that. We don’t believe they have any interest in a permanent ceasefire in Idlib. They are out to get a military victory in all of Syria. Our goal is to make it very difficult for them to do that by a variety of diplomatic, military, and other actions. One, for example, is we have basically prohibited the use of chemical weapons, which was a favourite tactic of the Syrian regime in making advances, because they know that we, probably with several of our allies, will respond in a very savage military way to that.
Secondly, we have for other reasons – fighting Daesh – U.S. and coalition forces in parts of Syria. That is a complication for the Syrian Government. They have to take that into consideration.
Finally, there are U.S. sanctions; there are European Union sanctions; there is a ban on any reconstruction assistance to put this country back together again – all of which we are not going to relent on nor will the European Union from all of our conversations here until the Russians and the Syrian Government will actually sit down and talk about a compromise political settlement that will involve a ceasefire, not just in Idlib but throughout the country. So we’re waiting for them to respond to us.
Ambassador Satterfield: Let me go one step beyond what Jim just said. Why should we believe that the regime has any intention of wishing to see its citizens remain in Idlib? The answer here is we don’t. We know the intent of the regime is to force these populations, like other Syrian populations, out of the country and to have them leave permanently. There is no prospect of refugees returning to Syria. The regime has done everything in its power with respect to the limited returns that took place from Rukban, the returns that have taken place in limited fashion from Lebanon and elsewhere, to send the very clear message: “You’re not welcome, don’t come home.”
And so everyone is quite right to be not just skeptical but absolutely disbelieving about regime intent and Russian intent.
Question: I would like to understand how do you evaluate the recent messages coming from Ankara, especially on S-400s? On the one hand, Erdogan underlines that they will not – they will not step back and it will become operational by April. On the other hand, even today, just a few minutes ago before your briefing, Erdogan once more said that it’s a condition for NATO and U.S. not to activate the S-400s. So do you think there is a conflicting issue between these statements on that? And are you much more optimistic about Turkey’s attitudes on S-400s?
Ambassador Satterfield: You would have to refer to the Turkish Government for clarification on its own statements and positions. With respect to the United States, we have been very clear and very consistent. We wish to move ahead in a robust economic-security relationship with Turkey. The President, President Trump, is committed to this. But for the security relationship to move forward as we would wish, as the Government of Turkey would wish, and I believe as NATO wishes, there will need to be a resolution to the S-400 issue.
Question: My question is about the S-400 implications of Turkey’s purchase, which is what Mr. Satterfield talked about. Do you see the CAATSA issue coming up in the Senate or elsewhere in the Congress later this month if Turkey does not back down from this decision? And my second question is about Idlib and the ceasefire that Turkey and Russia agreed on March 5th. Is there a backup plan for the U.S. if that ceasefire collapses and Turkey finds itself again face to face with Russian-backed forces, such as establishing a no-fly zone in the area?
Ambassador Satterfield: I’ll respond to the question about the S-400s and CAATSA. I can only base my comments, which are well-known to the Turkish Government, on what we are told by congressional leaders, both Republican and Democrat. They had indicated to us they’ve communicated directly to the Turkish Government as recently as the conference in Munich that yes, if there is no resolution to the S-400 issue, and even though there is strong support for Turkey’s role in Idlib as well as in Libya in standing up to Russian moves, that without a resolution on the S-400 the likelihood of legislation moving that incorporates a mandatory application of CAATSA will at some point in the not-distant future occur.
Ambassador Jeffrey: Thanks for returning to the ceasefire. As we said in answering Steve Erlanger’s question, we don’t think that the Russians or Syrians are serious about a long-term ceasefire. That doesn’t mean we won’t have a long-term ceasefire. That is still our hope, and that’s what we’re working for. First of all, we note that if it wasn’t for the strong military performance by the Turkish army and the opposition forces, and if it wasn’t for the strong international reaction – diplomatic, media, and other – to the Russian-Syrian offensive, we don’t think we would have gotten this ceasefire in the first place.
So our goal is to inventory here in Brussels with our European and NATO colleagues what are the military, the diplomatic, the economic, the sanctions, and the media and outreach steps we can take to encourage Russia and Syria not to do what we think they want to do, which is to break the ceasefire, push these 3 million refugees across the border, but rather to think twice. If they ignore our warnings, if they ignore our preparations and move forward, we will then react as rapidly as possible in consultation with our European and NATO allies on what the package of sanctions and other reactions will be.
Question: I was wondering if you have seen any evidence to suggest that the coronavirus is present and spreading among the civilian population among Idlib, and even if not, does the pandemic complicate your efforts to get a solution here?
Ambassador Jeffrey: We have not seen any outbreak of that virus among the people in Idlib. Of course, we have only limited eyes on through humanitarian aid delivery NGOs, but so far, we haven’t seen any. We’re going to do our jobs as government officials regardless of the coronavirus situation. That’s our instructions from the top and we’re carrying them out.
Question: The Bosnia war ended with the Dayton Agreements. What are the odds that a similar peace and stabilisation deal could be struck for the north of Syria? Could NATO and/or blue helmets with a UN Security Council mandate play a role to provide a shield for humanitarian buffer and no-fly zones?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, UN Resolution 2254, which I mentioned a bit ago, was drawn up with the experience of, among other things, Bosnia and various other conflicts in mind. It does see ceasefires as we got with Dayton, which I happen to have worked on, and then deployment of peacekeepers, deployment of international civilian organizations to help with reconstruction, and a political process to reconcile the sides. That is basically the thrust of 2254, which we support very strongly.
How you will carry that out – once there is the will for a compromise solution – is a question of diplomatic expertise, technical advice, and the situation on the ground. But certainly, everything that you recommended would be in play.
The key question is not how we would carry out a compromise solution. The key question is how do we get the other side – Assad in Damascus, Putin in Moscow, the ayatollahs in Tehran – to agree to a compromise ceasefire. That’s the task before us.
Question: I want to ask about the reason for using the American veto against the Idlib agreement ? Is Turkey facing a difficult situation and divisions that prevent real aid from being provided to it outside statements and statements ? Do you think that let’s call it the Turkish-Russian honeymoon is over and the U.S.-Turkish relationship will return to how it used to be? If the U.S. agrees to provide aid to Turkey, what kind of support? Are we talking about – is the military one among them?
Ambassador Jeffrey: I’ll take the first and the fourth. As I just explained, there was no American veto. There was no vote. We do welcome the 5 March Moscow ceasefire. The problem in the Security Council was that Russia presented a text that contained language that we couldn’t see verified. We had not heard the Turkish side of what was negotiated there. We couldn’t verify the text with the Turks, so we and other countries had some questions and as a result, the Security Council did not issue a statement. That happens all the time in these confidential discussions of security issues.
In terms of the U.S. aid, we’re looking at the various ways we can help Turkey based upon the situation, but also I want to stress based upon – this is a classic theme of the Trump administration, for good reason – what our other NATO allies can provide. There are 28 of them, or 27 of them not counting us. They have a GDP larger than ours and they’re much closer to the situation here in Europe. So, therefore, it’s not unreasonable for us to also find out what they’re going to provide as we decide how we can be helpful.
Ambassador Satterfield: The term “honeymoon with Russia” is yours. It is not a term that has ever been used by the U.S. Government or by the Turkish Government with us. Turkey is a part of the NATO Alliance; it is a part of Europe; it is a part, in our view, of the West. Russia has interests in Turkey and through Turkey. We all understand that. The Turkish Government understands that. But a honeymoon has never existed, and the cold reality of Russian intentions, of the contrast between Russian promises and Russian delivery, could not have been made clearer to all governments involved, including the Turks.
Since the fall of last year, I would cite northeast Syria, where Russia failed to perform on any of its assurances in Sochi towards Turkey, as well as the ongoing Russian mendacity with respect to ceasefires and arrangements having to do with Idlib.
Question: I was wondering if there’s been any discussion of the deployment of ground troops into Syria if Russia violates the ceasefire again? And then what exactly is being considered to hold them accountable for any ceasefire violations? I mean What’s being considered to hold them accountable for any ceasefire violations ?
Ambassador Jeffrey: First of all, I think you can forget ground troops. Ground troops is only an extremis measure, generally, in these things, and Turkey has demonstrated ably that it and its opposition forces are more than capable of holding ground on their own. The issue is the situation in the air, and that’s what we’re looking at.
In terms of accountability, we, first of all, rely upon the United Nations. And here the secretary-general, Secretary-General Guterres, has been very, very helpful. He’s summoned forth a board of inquiry to look into the situation in Idlib. We’re expecting its results to be made public very, very soon. We have had a number of UN institutions, organizations, and study groups repeatedly point to violations of humanitarian law, violations of the laws of war by the Assad regime and, in some cases, the Russians. We are bringing this up in the Security Council. We’re bringing this up elsewhere in the United Nations. We will continue to do so, and any violations of the ceasefire we will do our very best to include in the now extraordinarily broad and deep documentation of Russian and Syrian actions that, in some cases, reach the level of war crimes.