tv Atlantic Council Discussion on U.S. Policy Toward Syria - James Jeffrey... CSPAN December 18, 2018 3:26am-4:19am EST
thank you all for joining me. please join me in thanking them. [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2018] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] [indistinct conversation] >> hello, everyone, and welcome again to the atlantic council.
my name is william wechsler. i lead the atlantic council's programs in the middle east. you are here today for a program of our continuing syria initiative. the firstch enjoyed part of this program today, talking about stability and stabilization programs in eastern syria, talking about some important work of the atlantic council on documenting the atrocities that were done. now we are here to hear from ambassador james jeffrey. he currently serves as secretary, special representative for syrian engagement. ambassador jeffrey is the senior american diplomat with experience in energy and security issues in the middle east, turkey, germany and the balkans. he has held senior assignments in washington and abroad, including as deputy national security adviser, united states ambassador to iraq, united
states ambassador to turkey, united states ambassador to albania. in 2010 he was appointed to the highest rank in the u.s. foreign service, career ambassador. most importantly, he was also a u.s. army infantry officer serving in germany and vietnam. thank you to everyone for being here, and thank you, ambassador jeffrey, for being with us here today. thank you,jeffrey: and thank you to the atlantic council for inviting me here. i am going to take a step back before i talk about syria. know, for six years up until august i was in the think tank world, too, right down the road at the washington institute. and one of the benefits of being in a think tank, you get to
think about the larger issues of broadn policy and a sectorial analysis. having been bitten by that bug, which you are not very exposed to in the foreign service, i still try to follow up on my interests, even in my current job, which is pretty all-consuming. so i saw an article the other day, i don't know if it was in the "new york times," "washington post," about how america once again, not that we ever weren't, is divided on schools of thought of foreign policy, whether it should be isolationist, neo-isolationist, to use kissinger's definitions in diplomacy, realist or ide alist. internationalist, kind of blame america, there are various flavors you can use. but based on what i'm doing with syria, i realized there was
something missing. in all these analyses, at least described in this article of people weighing the pluses and minuses of these things, they ignored, which is a bit unusual for an article on foreign affairs, the rest of the world. the rest of the world and how it acts gets to have a say in how we respond, assuming we want to respond, as the most powerful nation in the world, to events around us. we can respond to those events, and respond effectively, you all have seen it. but we cannot really, i'm sorry, shape or determine things. we have to take the world pretty much as it is. we can tinker at the edges, but our very best tinkering period in the 1990's, how many of you want to stand up and say, we fundamentally changed the world for the better in that time? you see the problem we have now,
because now the world is different. -- trump administration has in both policies and doctrine. the national security policy in its introduction says "authoritarian states are eager to replace the united states when we withdraw our diplomats or close outposts." it goes on to say that strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in u.s. policy. it is going on --china and russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model. again and again, at least in the introductory parts of these documents, and you are all experts, that is the party look at because the rest of it is just a laundry list of every signal program we do everywhere else in the world, regardless of which administration is writing it. the upfront elements really signal where the administration is coming from, and this
administration has come to the conclusion inter-state rivalry with near-peer competitors is really important, and we have to deal with it. that gets to syria. in terms of an internal conflict of the sort we have known and basically been focused on for the last almost 30 years since the fall of the wall and the end of the gulf war, syria is almost in a class by itself. yuan of the figures. you talked about -- you know all the figures. you talk about them today. the000 people killed, largest humanitarian crisis i believe since world war ii. over 11 million people, more than the total of all the inhabitantss of new york city and chicago, driven from their homes. half of syria's prewar population. the rise of isis as a manifestation of this malignancy. the waves of refugees that i
would say have destabilized the entire political system in europe, to a degree we have yet to see an end of. the aspects of this conflict, but this has also now become a great power conflict. there are currently five outside armed forces inside syria, along with the syrian military, to the extent we can still call it a military. that is the american, russian, turkish, iranian, and in the air the israeli. and they are each pursuing important national security objectives, which in a couple of cases, certainly in the case of the turks and israelis, as neighboring states they would see as existential. so any policy that focuses on the situation in syria cannot simply focus on the internal conflicts. it also can't ignore it, because it is crucial. but the two feed on each other.
as we go forward, we have to focus not just on getting this group to take that action vis-a-vis the government, to lay down or take up arms, which we have been doing off and on for the last 11 years. we have to focus on international diplomacy, because that is crucial for any outcome. the u.s. has three goals in syria. first is the enduring defeat of isis, and we are well on our way to seeing that happen.the problem is , isis will come back his underlying conditions are receptive to that kind of ideological movement, and that requires us to deal with the other two. not only to keep isis from coming back, but because again in the world of great power and regional competition, they are very important. u.n. process,4 which i will get to in more detail, on a change regime in
damascus that doesn't drive half its population away after killing roughly 3% of the population, killing or maiming over 3% of the population. and has not opened the door to all these other horrors. plus, a major escalation of russian military involvement in the middle east, which does not portend for more stability in that region. so we want to see a regime that is fundamentally different. it is not regime change, we are not trying to get rid of assad, but we want to see a regime that does not produce the kind of horrors we have seen. finally, we think iran has to get out of there, and when we say that we talk about ground troops. iran has had diplomatic influence in syria, and will have more now because of the relative change of power in the assad regime.
but iranian troops, in particularly long-range power protection facilities, missiles, rockets, air defense systems, they are a threat right now to israel, which is why they conduct threats against them -- strikes against them.but they are potentially a threat to us and allies and partners like jordan and turkey. so that is the policy. in doing this, once again, a lot of the focus in the last week with the issue with the turks over the northeast, we have .ooked at individual areas back and forth with the regime, refugee relief convoys for the u.n. out of damascus. pressures along the borders by the regime. we have seen a variety of military engagements, including one in the last few days in the northeast. theations with the pyd in
fight against isis vis-a-vis the and their concerns about the pyd's ties to the pkk, threatening to come in militarily, like they did before d and later athiel the beginning of this year. and then of course there is the idlib cease-fire agreement, which is holding more or less, with the turks and russians, the iranians having come in later, but with conditions that are hard for the turks to meet, like clearing the main road and getting all the hard-core terrorists back from the deconfliction zone, and eventually according to the understandings related to the idlib agreement, basically getting rid of that organization physically in one way or another.but more generally , what we have for the first time is other than along where
the final fight against isis is being carried out, relative peace and calm throughout all of syria. idlib, some shillings in shooting back-and-forth between the turks and the kurds along the border. and there was an incident. but compared to what is normally fare this conflict has dished up since 2011, it is relatively peaceful. we believe this allows a brief opportunity for diplomacy to work. looking to that diplomacy, we see you and resolution 2254 as the road forward. that resolution, "endorsing a roadmap for the peace process in syria," was unanimously adopted almost three years ago to the day on december 18, 2015. it presents pragmatic steps for
a path to peace in syria for all syrians. de-escalation and violence, unhindered humanitarian access, and a convening for a new constitution and fair and free elections. the reason it is unanimous is that its principle is there is no military solution. now, we think the regime believes in a military solution. but the regime doesn't have the military power to effect that, and has to rely on essentially infantry provided by iranians, airpower provided by the russians. interests, and thus we believe there's an opportunity to move forward on the political track. right now most of the attention this week will be in the denouement with the astana process and the agreement of the year ago, where the astana 3, turkey, iran, and russia,
brought together initially to negotiate deconfliction zones, agreed with some support from the u.s. and u.n. to take on the job of calling forth a constitutional committee to execute the first of four major tracks in the political process, to draft either a revised or new constitution. in fits andn starts moving forward for the last year. we are very close to a potential breakthrough, or a breakdown, this week. we will find out thursday at the un security council meeting on envoy, here the u.n. was there before 2254, but it reinforced his role, will pronounce the verdict. the foreign ministers of the three countries will meet tomorrow in geneva. they are already talking at the
sub-minister level, to figure out if the list they put together meets the standards of the u.n. for a credible list of people that represent truly the opposition, the government, and civil society, basically neutral people. the turks and the russians have told us that they do meet that criteria. the opposition, headed by the syrian negotiating committee, has declared that right now they do not accept the list. that is a huge problem. he has to decide and report back to the secretary-general. all this is happening as we are talking right now. we believe that there is a chance that we can see a breakthrough with the constitutional committee called forth in early january, because the list will be accepted by the u.n., and frankly by all of us.
,ut right now we are not there and the question which has been the question throughout this entire negotiation on the constitutional committee and all the other efforts dating back to 2012 to try to resolve this conflict is, is the regime ofling to give an iota compromise to any effort by the international community to try to resolve this on terms other than the regime's? the international community will not resolve this on issues favorable to the regime unless it has to, and it does not have to. the regime has not won this conflict. pyd,100,000, counting the armed opposition forces in the country still active. assad regimere the rules have only 50% of the population. rubble, because of
the way the iranians and particularly russians carried out actions in the cities against opposition, and it will require depending on the estimate $300 billion to $400 billion to rebuild. who is going to pay that bill? after lebanon was torn apart by ah's attacking across the border into israel in 2006, i will tell you who paid the bill, because i was involved in it. north america, western europe, and international financial institutions. we pay the bill for something an iranian surrogate launched. that is not going to happen again. there is a strong readiness on the part of western nations not to ante up money for that disaster unless we have some idea the government's ready to compromise, and let's not create another horror in the years ahead. so those are the pressure points we have to try to push if not
the assad regim e at least the russians and dominions forward. -- iranians forward. what we are asking for is a compromised settlement. we will see if we get it. in terms of the constitutional committee, the question is, how will this committee work? who will be in charge of it? a u.n. official has come up with reasonable ways to ensure this is a syrian-led process. once again, he has to fend off efforts by the regime to for example have the constitutional committee meet in damascus, to have it under the shadow of the interestsup, whose are not the same as those of the international community. those of the things we are going back and forth on as we are speaking here jack. -- speaking here today.
the commitment to move forward on this was strongly reinforced in istanbul at the end of october, in a meeting of the presidents of russia, turkey and france, and the chancellor of areasy, to press on two of concern to everybody in syria. , in part because the 3.5 million people there and the fear they would have no place to go in a major offensive . the us, to quote the document out of istanbul, "a lasting cease-fire in idlib." the second thing, to convene the constitutional committee by the end of december. we are almost at the end of december, so we will see what happens in the days ahead. two scenarios. scenario a, we get this constitutional committee. this will have a strong effect on if you will politicizing and from the ties and -- dim
plomatizing the conflict. we already have a de facto set of cease-fires around the area, but in every area they are different. we have a agreement with the turks, the turks and russians have an agreement on idlib, and on and on. we are trying to move that in pathirection of the forward laid out in 2254. 2254 talks a lot about the political process, but it also talks about de-escalation, and this was something president trump emphasized in his various comments on syria in new york, because he believes very much in this. de-escalation is absolutely necessary to support the political process. the political process, in turn, if you get process on it like convening the constitutional committee, will support de-escalation. because the more you have a viable political process, the harder it is for
any actor to violate it by launching another offensive. both in a political and logical sense, moving forward on the constitutional committee is important for the maintenance of the cease-fires and for relative peace in syria, but it also opens up the doors to paragraphs 2254, which talks in detail about a set of cease-fires managed or monitored by the u.n., ultimately for a nationwide cease-fire. we think that's a good idea. we want to move forward on that. we are working with various friends. we have talked with russians about this. we don't have a lot agreement so far, but we think it is a logical next step. using 3354 as the overall -- 2254 as the overall roadmap to resolution of the conflict. when i talk to people about this, sometimes their eyes glaze over, because we have seen so many initiatives, so many efforts to try to end the
conflict and it just rolls on a nd on. first of all, we are at a point now where it's no longer a conflict between part of the population and the government. it has to a significant degree now pulled in outside powers, different kind of conflict. it is also no longer involving active fighting. that could change tomorrow, but for the moment we have an opportunity. finally, there is the question, if the volcker the arab world, europe -- bulk of the arab world, europe, the united states, and international organizations hold the line and say without following 2254 we will not provide support for the assad regime, what will the assad regime do? how will they win back the other half of the population? certainly assad is no advertisement for coming home. how will they regain territory,
and most importantly how will they rebuild devastated infrastructure and cities? that is a question we don't pose to the assad regime, because we don't talk to them, but we posted the russians all the time. we are still waiting for an answer. i will stop there, and will be happy to take questions. [applause] i will call on four or five or so questions and then the ambassador will unfortunately have to leave. let me start in the back first. back corner. with "the wall street journal." i came in a little late, i don't know if you touched on this, but there's tensions at this point with turkey. president trump and president erdogan spoke on friday. that has a potential to blow up in our faces. can you give us an update on where things stand on the
efforts to prevent turkey from launching a new offensive? ambassador jeffrey: sure. there has been a considerable buildup of tension between turkey, the u.s. and our partner in northeast syria in the fight against isis, the sdf, largely in the hands are can -- hands or controlled by the pyd, which has links to the pkk, which is a concern for turkey. we understand these concerns. we have been talking extensively to the turks. i spent three days there the week before last. given the threats of marching in to deal with this problem themselves, the u.s. at every level has reached out to the turks, including on friday a call from president donald trump to president erdogan. we have to wait and see. i believe that the situation has calmed somewhat. i believe we are willing to work
with the turks and the people on the ground to find a way forward. we share mainly the same objectives in most areas, and we are very focused on turkish security. we also are very focused on finishing the fight against isis. we are going to be, again, managing and monitoring this very closely. >> in the beginning, you are -- >> please introduce yourself? >> mary carrick. in the beginning, you were talking about wanting to fight against isis, and this is the first time i have heard that our goal is not regime change. i am wondering how it will not be regime change if the international community is setting up a constitution, elections. and if there is regime change, which we have done in several other countries and it actually isis, i don't
see how this can be -- ambassador jeffrey: regime change is a term of art applied american direct efforts, often military or covert in iranianagainst the regime in 1953, against saddam in 2003, against gadhafi in 2011, where we are trying to get rid of a leader and change to some degree the nature of a state, the government of a state, on our own. that is not what we are about. this is a u.n. process that the international community has agreed to. if you go back over the last 30, 40 years, looking at conflicts, there has been a commitment either by the nation involved or the international community that
there has to be changes in governments in that country to avoid keeping peacekeepers there forever, or having half a million people killed, or just having a conflict spilling over into the neighborhood. so that is what we are looking for, a different kind of regime. it doesn't have to be a regime we would embrace, that we americans would embrace. qualifying to join the european union, if the european union took middle eastern countries. but it does have to not sponsor terrorism, or allow terrorism to arise in its territory. it cannot use chemical weapons against its own people or anybody else. it cannot be a launching pad for another country's hegemonic intentions in the region, specifically in the case of syria, iran. it cannot torture and treat its own population terribly without being held to account. it has to provide an environment where refugees will voluntarily and safely return, which of course this regime doesn't.
if the regime can reach these basic requirements with this political process, then although we might not like it, the bulk of the world will be willing to live with it and help it come back to its feet, but right now it is far from that. >> sir, in the back? >> thank you very much. josh rogan "washington post." thank you for your service. [laughter] you mentioned a couple times the attack a few days ago on u.s. partner forces in the non-conf zone for what happened there? ambassador jeffrey: we are still looking at details. >> secondary, you mentioned the refugee cap inside that zone. 50,000 people starving to death.of course , the u.n. envoys are held up by the regime and the russians, but all the information from the russians claims the u.s. --
blames the u.s. for this. is there a way for the u.s. government to provide them the food and water and medicine they need? >> our concern is not that they are starving, but that they will be starving before we don't find a way to regulate relief to them. with the cooperation of the regime and the russians, at the end of october we got a convoy through, an important development. we are running into trouble, primarily with the russians at the moment. the u.n. is in the middle. they are preparing a new plan to that will bes in shared with the russians and the regime. but basically, this is a lack of russian cooperation. the united states military, technically the coalition against isis, has provided all kinds of assurances. the first in terms of security. the first delivery went flawlessly. there was no security threat to it. we just don't see where the beef consider this a totally political move to try to
squeeze us in another area, where the russians claim we're illegitimately, illegally present. >> in the back as well, and then we will come to the front. >> what is our policy with respect to sdf? do we have one? in the past we have provided them with arms, we have provided them with training, we have provided them air support. are we going to withdraw our support? ambassador jeffrey: first fall, -- of all, we are supporting them for a specific goal, which is the defeat of isis, because they are a force fighting isis , they have done this very effectively. it is in their interest to fight isis. they are not doing this for us. when we first partnered with them it was in 2014, when they were being pushed up against the turkish border by an isis offensive. in terms of what the future is
like, the analogy i would give you, and many of you were involved in this because you have been doing middle east foreign policy for years, we supported groups like the kdp, thesupreme council for islamic revolution in iraq, between 1991 and 2003, in our diplomatic effort to get a change of regime in iraq. those were our partners in a transactional relationship, for a specific goal. what did we do? we tried to put together an societyate, government, and constitution that would allow those political parties and all other political parties to compete in a normal, natural, peaceful way without the kind of horror we had under saddam. so the eventual goal with the
sdf is for the sdf, like the other political parties we supported in the past, to become part of the fabric of a changed syrian society. that is, we don't have permanent relationships with sub-state entities. that's not the policy of this administration, and basically hasn't been the policy of other administrations, if you talk about long-term support any political, military sense, a partner in long-term governance. it is simply not what we do. so in the long run, the solution for all of the groups in syria is a reformed syrian government, and internationally supported cease-fire, and an international process that gives everyone the chance to live in peace. thank you.
kurdistan.m iraqi yesterday 100 peshmerga crossed the border into syria with support from americans. can you tell us the role that america sees for this group? and on friday the phone call between president erdogan and president trump, president erdogan said he had an understanding of the planned offensive into northeastern syria. my question to you, is there a lack of consensus in washington on the response to the turkish planned offensive into syria? ambassador jeffrey: once again, we think that any offensive into northeastern syria by anyone is a bad idea, and that was the position i conveyed when i was in ankara, that everyone from the president down as conveyed. we also understand the turks are concerned about the security situation in northeast syria and
see the py at a minimumd as s rather like the saudis see the houthis as a threat to them. we are working with the turks, is asieve the situation it was before. the peshmerga deployment was done with our understanding. that is one of the various steps that is being taken. >> can you please assess the success you anticipate to sushing out a wrong -- iran' military establishment in syria talk about many goals
without a strategy? could you speak to that as well? amb. jeffrey: well the presence is a bign forces concern for the united states. we see no reason to tolerate this. we see this as sparking a conflict. you saw the incident or the israelis allegedly struck at an iranian target. the syrian air defenses attempted to engage the alleged israelis and who did they engage but a russian aircraft? this is the kind of escalation that the iranian presence brings.
it is not that we don't like iranians far from their shores, we don't like the extremely dangerous situation they introduced to an already of danger and horror that is the internal syrian conflict. our position is that they need to go. we have asked why it is in russia's interest for them to be there doing these kind of things. we understand why it is in their toerest to provide infantry help the assad regime, but why did they need long-range missiles? the russians have not given us a good answer. we think is part of the conflict where foreign armies would leave and they usually do at the end of conflicts, the iranians would be one of those foreign armies that leaves. that would be a condition of moving forward on the normalization of the assad regime.
that is the strategy. the fact that half the population will not return to a regime like this. the fact that the rebuilding of the country, which will have to which will not be funded by assad and friends. until we see a political process that delivers on the things that we need, we don't think that is going to happen, that is the strategy. i think we have time for just two more questions. i'm going to ask for both of those questions to, and then answer both at the same time. sir in the blue jacket, you have been patient. and then you on this side. both of you two.
>> thank you, very informative. my question is about the enduring defeat of isis. i think one of the most important factors that isis used is the grievances. while wee guarantee are not doing unintended consequences? i just heard from the council pushing back on certain of the programs that the government is trying to put together, essential services and others, they have their own agenda and stuff like that. how can we really make sure that we are not getting into the same trap that could be probably to start with have brought isis into the area? and then let's just get the last question as well.
we have that one and then the other. , matthew kennedy. recently finished a masters degree in chinese politics and this is kind of an odd question. ambassador, what are the chinese interests in the current process and what role have they been playing in the situation? amb. jeffrey: let me start with stabilization. nobody knows how to do this. [laughter] amb. jeffrey: many times, we are successful enough to keep the state or the area from falling back or somebody else's successful enough to keep it from falling back into the same old violence, the same old dysfunctionality, the same old us going inroduced
in the first place. it is a question of money, but , wead a great deal of money were successful in the constitution. in assistingssful the iraqis in accepting and embracing a democratic system of governance, of voting. we were successful on the oil fields, but on areas otherwise, we were less successful. you have limited funding. thepresident decided it is , it is other countries other funds and other accounts. it, is thatto do enough?
we are using it for various projects. we can always use more money. the question of whether people will use -- return to isis or another regime or another political posture is one that goes far beyond whether you are effective in stabilization. makes a difference, but it is not the only factor. we will see. in terms of the chinese, a i was inmpression china to talk to them about this. china's challenge to the american-led collective security regional and global system israel and worrisome.
they have a relatively high degree of military capability in the south china sea and also very strong trade links with the states in the region. in the middle east, while they are a major importer of hydrocarbons out of the region, they are not a major economic player. if you look at the votes in the , the chinesecil often diverge from the russians. the chinese often simply abstain where the russians veto. that indicates some degree of concern about i think russia's very aggressive role in the region.
middle east provides hydrocarbons and china does not necessarily trust russia, it's other major source of hydrocarbons. a high price for every cubic meter of gas or barrel of oil not us is there really being the biggest fan of a very stable, quiet middle east that can compete very effectively against russia for hydrocarbon sales. i think they understand that there is a certain divergence of interests based upon the fact that russia wants to play a geostrategic role in the region, china does not right now, tended difference on the views of hydrocarbons generally. that is the interesting thing. it is basically the dog that didn't bark. i can take another question. >> one more question. thank you.
assumptioning an that assad wants to rebuild his country, wants to conquer back the territories. he may be very happy with what he has. he may fit -- sit and wait it out for everybody else to given to him and it can go on for a very long time. given the example you gave with rg inig, would you see an s the future? amb. jeffrey: i would not predict anything in terms of the future. and this comes up all of the time. again, there was a reason i quoted from the national security strategy, the national defense strategy. in the 1990's when that thinking had been banned to the dustbin of history, we would care deeply
countrye basics of a not being a pariah politically and not being destitute and dysfunctional economically. i country is going to array itself on the other side on our side-this side type of , then what we have right now is an assad that is very weak in terms of his ability to project power and threaten anybody. his ability to do damage to other people because most of the people he would want to do damage to have fled, his ability to seize more territory in his own country is zero right now. he has to rely totally on the russians and the iranians and we
will have to see how willing they are to indulge him any than this is not a victory. better than a healthy with three quarters of a million armed forces that is in cahoots with the russians and the iranians and trying to change the security situation in the entire region. we want to see through 2050 for a change in the situation that will allow refugees to go back, that will allow the 20 million people minus the 500,000 who have been killed, to return to a normal life. , if we cannoting get that on our terms, than we are going to have to get it on assad's terms. if that is his strategy, he's going to have to wait an awful long time.
the resources we will devote to are very limited and mainly in the area of taking care of refugees. this is something that is certainly sustainable for us beyond that. >> ok, thank you very much. really appreciate your time. [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2018] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org]
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international organizations like nato and their impact on global affairs. on c-span2, the senate is back to continue debate on a criminal justice reform bill. there was a washington post event on economic trends and the next generation of jobs with speakers including senators mark warner and todd young. several government agencies are running on temporary funding that expires friday at midnight. house, now and then, the senate, and white house must come to an agreement on seven in complete spending bills. what is -- one issue that remains unsolved is funding for president trump's border wall, which democrats have opposed. you can watch it live on c-span and the senate live on c-span2.
>> "washington journal" live every day. theng up this morning, latest on the government funding negotiations ahead of friday's government shutdown deadline. then the growth of the power of the presidency and how that led to donald trump. then a piece looking at what will have ontants society. then live segments each morning with authors, including crystal fleming, juan williams, allison dershowitz. -- allender schuett. after surviving a no-confidence votebr