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Briefing on Russian Engagement in the Middle East (May 7)
May 7, 2020

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you very much. Appreciate it. Good to be on with everybody this Thursday afternoon. This is going to be another on-the-record briefing here at the State Department, and please, as always, this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call.

Today we want to shed some light on Russians’ – Russian malign engagement in the Middle East with a specific focus on Russian actions in Syria and in Libya. We have all been witnesses to Russia cynically helping the deadly Assad regime stay in power, hanging on by a thread and refusing to budge on meaningful political dialogue with the Syrian opposition. More recently, Russia has exploited instability in Libya to advance its own military, economic, and geopolitical interest in that country and throughout North America.[1]

To help provide additional context, we have an all-star cast of briefers today, real experts in the field whom most of you know on this topic. We have Deputy Assistant Secretary Christopher Robin[2] from our Bureau of European and Eurasian affairs. He’ll speak first. We’ll be followed – he’ll be followed by Deputy Assistant Secretary Henry Wooster from our Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs who covers the Maghreb and Egypt portfolios. Last but not least, we have my favorite ambassador, of course, Jim Jeffrey, who’s our special representative for Syria engagement and the special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

And just a reminder that while this call is on the record, this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call. Chris, go ahead.

MR ROBINSON: All right. So good afternoon. It’s a real pleasure to be here with all of you. Wish we could do this in person, but allow me to frame the conversation from the Russia perspective to start this out. As I recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Russia has ramped up its unconstructive behavior in the Middle East since 2015, when Russia expanded its actions in Syria in support of the Assad regime. More recently, Libya has become the next venue for Russia’s malign efforts to exploit regional conflicts for its own narrow political and economic gain. While Russia often publicly claims support for a political solution, such as in Syria or Libya, it simultaneously engages in activities that undermine a political peace process and widen the conflict.

In Libya, Russia continues its military support for the Libyan National Army of General Haftar. Russia has provided material and logistical support to the Wagner Group, a U.S.-sanctioned entity led by Putin crony Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is also sanctioned by the United States. Russia’s surge in support to the LNA has led to a significant escalation of the conflict and a worsening of the humanitarian situation in Libya. Wagner is often misleadingly referred to as a Russian private military company, but in fact it’s an instrument of the Russian Government which the Kremlin uses as a low-cost and low-risk instrument to advance its goals. More recently, Russia in coordination with the Assad regime has ferried Syrian fighters to Libya to participate in Wagner operations in support of the LNA.

Meanwhile, Russia for years has conducted a disinformation campaign to discredit international organizations working on these conflicts such as the United Nations and the OPCW. Russia has leveled ludicrous claims that the United States is responsible for the creation of ISIS, that the White Helmets in Syria have links to terrorism, and that the UK special forces fabricated the 2018 chemical attack in Douma.

Finally, Russia has engaged in a disinformation campaign to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic. Russian disinformation claims that the United States or Western powers are the origin of the virus while instilling uncertainty about the international response. Through such tactics, Russia clearly signals it’s willing to take advantage of a global crisis in order to pursue its own destabilizing agenda without any regard for the human consequences. This administration is engaged in a range of actions to blunt Moscow’s efforts to exert malign influence in Libya and Syria, and it’s not too late for Moscow to change course and genuinely support a political settlement to both of these conflicts.

I’ll stop there and then we can move on to – and get to questions.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great. Thanks so much. Henry.

MR WOOSTER: Hey, thanks, Morgan, and thanks, Chris. Good afternoon, folks out in the virtual ether. In Libya we’ve got two goals: one, an immediate end to the conflict; and two, a return to political negotiations, or dialogue, if you will. So let me walk you through how we see malign influence out there.

Our starting point is that foreign intervention has exacerbated divisions, widened the conflict, transformed it into a proxy war, threatened regional stability, and as you can imagine, in combination all of these things impinge upon (inaudible) if they don’t harm, in fact, U.S. interests – thus our interests. So as Chris noted, the Kremlin uses this combination of military power, proxies, and disinformation to shape outcomes, and specifically, Moscow is seeking an enhanced presence in Libya to expand its influence across the Med and also onto the African continent.

And more specifically, Wagner support to Haftar’s LNA or, if you will, the Libyan National Army has escalated the conflict. It’s emboldened the LNA to continue its offensive which in turn is destabilizing, pushing the Government of National Accord – the internationally recognized government which the United States recognizes – it’s pushed them to seek increased Turkish support to counter the Wagner-based LNA assault. So you see the escalatory effects here.

No one should think that Russia is going to pack up and leave now that they’ve invested in the Libyan conflict. So the way to end Russian and other foreign interference in Libya is to first end the Tripoli conflict – of course, that’s the pretext – end that and revive political talks between the Libyans, and this done through UN-facilitated negotiations.

Lastly, on my end of it, a coordinated response from the international community pressing all the actors, Libyan and external, to deescalate is imperative. We, the United States, for our part will continue to press Russia, Turkey, the UAE, among others to encourage LNA and the GNA to return to these UN negotiations. We’re looking for a lasting ceasefire that they (inaudible) sides had agreed to in Geneva in February. Thank you much.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks so much, and now Jim. Jim Jeffrey, do we got you?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Hi, Morgan. Thank you very much for those kind words, and hello everybody.

Let me give a little bit of background on Russia in Syria. Most of you follow the day-in day-out stuff quite well. First of all, Russia came in in 2015 to save the Assad regime, which was apparently on its last legs facing an uprising of much of its population. Russia succeeded quite quickly in its initial goal of stabilizing the situation. At the end of 2015, it agreed to a UN resolution, 2254, which is still the relevant resolution for resolving the Syrian conflict that calls for a compromise political solution under the UN, a new constitution, and UN-monitored elections.

Meanwhile, however, in the subsequent two years, Russia, with Iranian engagement as well, saw the Assad regime retake much of Syrian territory from the opposition. So its ambitions seemed to grow. The problem is that two new factors complicated Russia’s life. First of all, Iran not only was willing to use forces to bolster the Syrian regime, it also started introducing long-range weapon systems, precision-guided missiles – some for its own forces in Syria, some pushed onward to Hizballah to seriously threaten Israeli security, and the Israelis have reacted in various ways. Occasionally they talk about their operations over Syria to that end. That complicated Russia’s calculations. We see no indication they thought that the Syrians would allow the Iranians to exploit it that way.

Secondly, the Assad regime has run into considerable trouble retaking the rest of Syria. For various reasons, U.S. and Turkish forces, as well as Israelis, have entered Syria for one or another security reason. This complicates both Russia and Assad’s situation. And Assad has done nothing to help the Russians sell this regime. It is being condemned, as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, by the secretary-general of the UN himself on the refusal to allow cross-border humanitarian deliveries, by the board of inquiry; the secretary-general (inaudible) for the deliberate attack on supposedly off-limits humanitarian sites such as hospitals in Idlib, and thirdly for use of chemical weapons in 2017 that the OPCW has come out with.

There’s obviously growing Russian frustration with Assad because he will not bend. Compare the way the Iranians try to sell themselves with people like Zarif and Rouhani. You find Assad has nothing but thugs around him, and they don’t sell well either in the Arab world or in Europe.

Russia seemed to be willing to look at a compromise about a year ago. Mike Pompeo went along with Morgan and me to Sochi to meet with Lavrov and with Putin, and we laid out a way to resolve this on a step-by-step basis. But then soon after, Russia seemed committed to a military solution. That led to the debacle from the standpoint of the Syrian forces in Idlib who now have a ceasefire that appears to be holding. Russia may be more willing now – we’ve seen some indications in the Russian media and in certain Russian actions to be more flexible on the constitutional committee, but they may once again be willing to talk with us about a way to resolve this short of a military victory, because it’s very clear at this point to Russia that they’re not going to get a military victory certainly no time soon in Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian economy is in freefall and the diplomatic isolation continues.

I’ll stop there.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, Jim. Just a reminder to everybody who’s on the call that you dial 1 and then 0 in order to get into the queue. And first up in the queue is Barbara Usher.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. My one question about Libya. I’ve been reading that there are Syrians, Syrian mercenaries on both sides being brought in by the Russians and also the Turks. And if you could give us some detail about that. And then to Ambassador Jeffrey, the – could you talk – do you have any information about the COVID situation in northwest Syria? Some of the humanitarian agencies are forecasting a possible 240,000 cases if there’s going to be an outbreak in the first six weeks. Do you have any eyes on that? And – I know this is a third question, but the Israelis are also reporting that the Iranians seem to be backing down on their ambition to establish a military foothold in Syria.

MR WOOSTER: So I’m happy to take the question on the mercenaries. Yes, Syrian mercenaries are fighting with both sides in the conflict, so with the GNA and the LNA. And we have been clear with both the Libyans and both sides within the Libyan conflict as well as the foreign backers of both of those sides that we deploy – sorry, that we oppose the deployment of mercenaries.

So long story short, mercenaries of any stripe or type go into the bad column. Over.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Anybody else on that one?

MR ROBINSON: (Inaudible.) Go ahead. Go ahead, ambassador.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We’ve seen no cases of COVID that we can independently verify in the northwest. The overall COVID rate throughout Syria and the three areas that are separate that we look at – the northeast, where we have some forces; the northwest; and in the regime-held area – seems to be remaining very low. We don’t trust the regime’s figures completely, but we have all kinds of other indication that COVID has not spread widely so far. And as I said, we haven’t seen any in the northwest.

In terms of the reports, and we saw them, out of Jerusalem on the Iranians withdrawing, we see some Iranian movement around Syria pulling back from areas where the Israelis have struck them. We’ve also seen a withdrawal of Iranian-backed militias – some Hizballah, some from other countries. But this may be chalked up to a relative lull in the fighting. These are frontline combat forces. What we have not seen – and I want to underline this – is any strategic Iranian commitment not to try to use Syria both as a second launching pad for long-range weapons against Israel and as a conduit – the famous Shia Crescent – on to provide Hizballah more lethal and more modern precision-guided missiles, again, to threaten Israel. That would be the big change. That is central to our goals in Syria. Mike Pompeo talked about that at length, the withdrawal of all Syrian-commanded forces yesterday. That remains at the center of our policy there and we’re pressing all sides to achieve that.

MR ROBINSON: If I could just jump in real quickly on the COVID point, that we have seen the Russians – this is Chris Robinson – we have seen the Russians push this story that we, U.S. forces in Syria, have spread COVID or that we’ve enabled it either in northwest Syria or in the Rukban camp in order to undermine the Assad regime. But again, this is part of the Russian disinformation campaign.


MR WOOSTER: If I might – and if I might just to close out, I neglected to mention on the question of Syrian mercenaries, there is a very troubling other element here, and that is the Libyan National Army’s or Khalifa Haftar’s establishment of so-called diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, which is very much a part of the piece of the question of Syrian mercenaries, at least on his side of the equation. Over.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. I think we have Nick Wadhams in the queue next.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks very much. I just had two quickies. One: Could you just spell out what the policy is toward Haftar right now? We had the statement from the White House a year ago saying that the President recognizes Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism. That seemed to contradict statements that Secretary Pompeo had made before. So does the U.S. support Haftar or believe that he has a significant role to play? What is our stance toward him? And then Chris, could you just elaborate on what you said where you mentioned that Russia is using – is trying to exploit COVID in the region? Do you have any examples for how Russia is trying to take advantage of the global crisis? Thank you.

MR WOOSTER: Henry Wooster, and I’ll go quick on the answer about U.S. support for Haftar. No, the United States does not support LNA military action against Tripoli. So for us, the attack on the capital diverts resources from what is a priority for us, which is the counterterrorism against specifically ISIS and AQIM. It also brings about a humanitarian crisis. Long story short, it’s bad news. We don’t support it, and we don’t support him doing this. Over.

MR ROBINSON: Sure, Nick, on your last question on COVID, so it’s both a broader global problem and then in the region specifically, is that the United States – what we’ve seen Russian peddle. And this is from the government, from their media outlets, from their Twitter and Facebook surreptitious accounts, but directly from the foreign ministry spokesperson, for example, that U.S. troops in Syria have spread the virus, that U.S. defense labs around the region have created the virus and then released it on purpose to target some of these conflict zones. And then we’ve seen them exploit it to say that we should either end sanctions against one party or another in order to advance Russia’s cause. So we see them both propagating a disinformation campaign and then using that disinformation to advance a particular policy goal, whether that’s support for one regime or another, or to compel us to drop sanctions.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Great. Thanks so much. Next up is Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to see if you had an estimate of the strength of the Wagner Group. There was the UN report that came out recently that was saying up to 1,200 fighters perhaps in Libya. Do you have a sense of the size and the significance of that? And related to that, there have been a series of reports or indications that perhaps the Russians have soured on Haftar, that they don’t see him as really the best game in town and somebody who’s going to do the job in terms of their interests. What’s your read on that and what’s the endgame for the Russians in terms of what they’re looking for with supporting Haftar? Thanks.

MR WOOSTER: Henry Wooster —

MR ROBINSON: Yeah. Go ahead, Henry.

MR WOOSTER: Yeah, sure. In terms of the numbers, we had – Assistant Secretary David Schenker did testimony late 2019 on this, and I don’t remember the math so I’m – hesitate to toss out a number saying to you, “I think it was about this.” We used a number – I don’t recollect what that number was off the top of my head. If it’s important to you, we can get that for you. That number will have changed. It will have only gone upwards.

Chris, over to you.

MR ROBINSON: Yeah, I mean, we’ve seen it fluctuate. I would note that they do possess very heavy and advanced weapons, and we’ve seen them in public media accounting, and social media that follow the conflicts have captured photos of really advanced equipment that private companies don’t tend to have that really illustrates that this is the Russian Government operating the – Wagner.

And on the endgame, look, they may have – find working with General Haftar difficult, but when they say they’re not wedded to one particular actor – but we saw that in Syria, and they got themselves pretty wedded to Assad. We see them say that about Haftar, but they seem to double down on him. Or in Venezuela, and they’ve doubled down on Maduro. They do tend to not back down, even when they’ve made a bad bet.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: This is Jim Jeffrey. Of course, the reason they make all these bad bets is self-respecting, decent governments and leaders around the world really don’t want to boogie the way Venezuela, Haftar, and Assad do with Russia. They have to take their allies where they can find them among the rogue states of the world.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Okay. I think we have Matt Lee left in the queue.

QUESTION: Hi there. Happy Thursday. I just want to know have you – I think it was you or Henry who said no one should expect that Russia’s going to pack up and leave, and I think you were talking about Libya specifically, but I assume you may have meant Syria as well. And I’m wondering: In light of that, if that’s what you think, what are you guys actually doing about it? And then if there is, in fact, growing Russian frustration with Assad, Ambassador Jeffrey, and you do see maybe some signs of the Iranians pulling back, what do you expect next? Thank you.

MR WOOSTER: Where do we want to start with that one?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah, I’ll start, Morgan. We, as I said, do see the Russians unhappy with Assad, and this has been something relatively new that they’ve been so vocal about it. But – and we have seen some tactical displacement of Iranian, some of it because they don’t need as many ground forces and they’re expensive at a time when they’re under sanctions pressure from the U.S. and also COVID financial pressure. But these may be tactical actions. Also, it’s typical of the Russians to show more or less tactical flexibility with us on a Syrian solution, while at the end of the day defining what a compromise is in terms that looks like it’s 80 percent our compromising and only 20 percent Russia compromising, which is not acceptable to us or to the many countries that work with us.

In terms of getting Russia out of Syria, that has never been our goal. Russia has been there for 30 years. It has a long-term relationship with Syria. We don’t think it has been healthy for the region. We don’t think it really is even healthy for Russia. But that’s not our policy. Our policy right now is to restore the situation in 2011 before the conflict began, and that would eventually lead to all of the other military forces that have entered leaving. Ones were most interested in, of course, are the Iranians and the Iranian-commanded militias.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks. I think we have Kim Dozier up next.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) doing the call. You touched a little bit on a decrease in Iranian activity. I also wanted to ask what you were seeing vis-a-vis Russia with the Idlib refugee situation. And also, what prompted this on-the-record call? Was there a specific Russian action? And does naming and shaming their actions – have you seen them change their behavior when called out?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Kim, what was the first part? Because I was focused on the naming and shaming. But the first one was related to Syria as well?

MS ORTAGUS: I think she was asking – they might have muted her line. Jim, she was asking about the impetus of this call, like what was the – why did you guys decide to have this on-the-record call? What was the goal?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah. Morgan, I think you can tackle that better. We’re always ready to talk with anybody on anything.

The – again, we’re trying to find out what the Russian motivations are and what they’re trying to signal by criticizing Assad publicly. We’re also, again, watching the Iranian shifts. We see them so far mainly as tactical. But there’s no doubt they are under considerable pressure. There’s no doubt that the naming and shaming, which Kim mentioned, has seen – we’ve seen a very strong Russian reaction to that, possibly because much of it is coming from the UN, from Secretary-General Guterres personally, on humanitarian line-crossing, from the Board of Inquiry he set up, which very, very starkly and strongly essentially accused Russia of passing on the UN coordinates for no-hit targets in Idlib to the Syrian Government, and then someone hit them. They weren’t specific on whether it was the Syrians or the Russians. And also the findings of the IIT group from the OPCW on the use of chemical weapons by very high levels – the decision by high levels of the Syrian Government.

When these things come out, the Russians do two things immediately: They lash out and react against us – and we’ve certainly seen this, including against me, but – and anybody else who calls them out. But at the same time, they are very sensitive to that, because their effort is to try to do this whole conflict – and I suspect Henry would know better, the Libyan conflict as well – on the cheap by eventually getting the rest of the international community to accept Assad to take the lead in rebuilding the country that would require, by Assad and other World Bank estimates, between 300 and 400 billion dollars, and basically to allow the Russians a cheap victory. The more Assad is considered a pariah and outcast by organizations like the OPCW, and indirectly the UN – or at least his actions are – the harder it is for Russia to sell this cheap, easy victory scenario within their own system and to the world more generally. So I think we’re seeing a reaction to that.

MR ROBINSON: Ambassador, if I could just jump in on the shining the light component, we do – and this circles back to Matt Lee’s question, too – we do engage with Russia diplomatically to solve these and other regional conflicts. But while one hand Russia engages in the diplomacy, if on the other hand – with the other hand it engages in these malign campaigns that actually foment and foster the conflict, then we really aren’t going to make progress solving them. So where we can shine a light on malign behavior, on the disinformation campaigns, and show – convince Moscow that these malign actions aren’t ultimately going to be effective to advance their interests, then hopefully that can help get back to our efforts, as Henry laid out on Libya, to de-escalate the tensions, to de-escalate the conflict, and to find a lasting settlement. But when Russia engages in these sort of pseudo covert campaigns, then it undermines that effort. So when we can shine a light on them, that really advances our policy goal.

MS ORTAGUS: And guys, I think that Kim also asked about an update for Idlib refugees.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Oh, yeah. The Idlib refugees, Kim – first of all, they’re – we see no movement across the Turkish border. The ceasefire basically froze everybody in place. In fact, what we’ve seen is several hundred thousand people who were internally displaced from Idlib – that is they’re either permanent residents of Idlib or they’re people who had earlier fled to Idlib from other areas of Syria, and who had then fled to that zone along the Turkish border where we had about a million people two months ago when I was there with Kelly Craft – we’ve seen several hundred thousand of them return, because the ceasefire appears to be holding. And the Turks have significantly reinforced further the quite powerful force they had in there two months ago and which dealt such heavy blows to the Syrian army.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thanks so much. Guys, we’re at the 30 minutes, but we still have a lot of people in the queue. Can you take a few more questions?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: As long as people are on, I’m on, Morgan.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Great.

MR WOOSTER: Same here. I’m good.


MS ORTAGUS: Okay. We’ll try to get through – we’ll try to – for everybody, we’ve got a pretty lengthy queue. We don’t be able to get to you all, but we’ll try to get to as many of you as possible. So keep your questions succinct please, so we can try to get as many people in the bullpen. John Hudson, you’re up next.

QUESTION: Thanks. Just a quick question for Ambassador Jeffrey. How are you interpreting the recent move by Assad’s cousin on Facebook, criticizing the regime? Is this sort of the long-sought sort of fissures within the Assad regime that you’re looking at? Or is it not really any time to get hopes up?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: One, it is important. This guy controls or has controlled a huge part of the Syrian alternative economy and even the actual official economy. Secondly, he’s very close to his cousin, Assad. He is a major figure in the Alawite community, which basically rules the roost in Syria for 50 years. We put a lot of significance into this.

Now, we can interpret it in one of two ways. Way one is this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. I don’t think so; I wish so, but I don’t think so. The second one is this is another indicator, like the fall of the Syrian pound, like the difficulties the Syrian Government has in getting oil shipments in, like the difficulties it has putting bread and other staples in the stores, that the regime is under extraordinary pressure. We think it’s one of the reasons why the Russians may be more interested in talking to us again about a possible compromise.

So we’re not coming to any conclusions. We just find it fascinating, of course, because it’s exposing the dirty laundry in one of the worst regimes in the 21st century. And we’re hoping it indicates that there will be more dislocation and more disintegration of that evil regime.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thank you so much. Okay, let’s see. Jessica Donati.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have a quick question for Secretary Wooster. In terms of the regional fight against extremism, the U.S. has been considering reducing its troop presence in Egypt. And I was wondering if this is a sign of a downgrade in ties between the U.S. and Egypt and how it could further impact the situation there.

MR WOOSTER: I’d refer you on questions about U.S. troop presence and the MFO to the Pentagon. Over.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Abbie Williams.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. You spoke about Russia taking advantage of the pandemic, but I wondered if you have any insight into how you’re seeing ISIS behave during this time. Have you seen any resurgence as was feared, maybe not just in Syria, but in other places? And have you seen any noticeable impact on the ability to maintain the Syrian camps with ISIS families since U.S. efforts to get resources there?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: This is Jim Jeffrey. General White, the CJTF Operation Enduring Response[3] commander in Baghdad, will be giving a press conference and address this tomorrow, so I don’t want to get too ahead of him on the military side of things. Generally speaking, we have not seen a significant overall increase in ISIS activity because of the COVID virus and various military shifts in response to that and other things going on in both Iraq and Syria since last fall.

That said, two exceptions. One is we saw a major and complex attack, as we call it, near – in Salah ad Din province last week that roughly 70 Iraqi Security Forces – now, these were mainly police and these pro-Iranian militias. They weren’t the A team, but still that’s a lot of people to be lost in one battle or set of battles.

Secondly, in the Badiyah desert and elsewhere all the way to the southwest near the Jordanian and the Israeli border, we have seen a certain uptick in ISIS activities, largely because the regime and the Russians have been so focused on Idlib with their best forces. They put the third team in the desert against ISIS, and the third team obviously doesn’t do too well against a force that still is capable. We do not see this as a strategic change, but we are watching it. Again, White will have more comments tomorrow.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. No one else? We’re good on that? Okay. Let me just see. Sorry, let me figure out who’s next in the queue here. We had a little bit of an issue. We have Michel Ghandour who is up next.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you for doing this call. My question is for Ambassador Jeffrey. How do you view the Russian criticism to Assad, first? And is Russia playing any role in the conflict between Assad and Rami Makhlouf? Is it supporting Makhlouf, who is based in an area controlled by the Russians?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Again, we’re not quite sure whether the Russian public criticism by folks close to Putin reflects some sort of signaling to us or to Assad himself that Russian tolerance for Assad’s refusal to make any compromises, refusal to help – if you will, to help the Russians sell Syria as a going proposition for the areas of the world, mainly North America, Europe, and the Middle East, that would give Syria diplomatic recognition and acceptance and shell out hundreds of billions of dollars for reconstruction assistance. We’re still trying to figure out what that means.

Now, the Makhlouf question is particularly interesting because I’ve seen both, that this is an effort by the Syrian Government to respond to Russian pressure, which is to clean up your own house – and believe me, that would start with a guy like him – but secondly, we’ve also seen that – we have seen a number of suggestions and rumors – this isn’t anything solid – that in fact, the Russians are supporting this guy and are very concerned about where Assad is going. That typically is linked with a “the Iranians are against him, the Russians are for him” argument. But there’s all kinds of rumors out there. You cannot imagine how much the whole Syrian community, both pro- and anti-Assad, is exercised by this development. It is a significant development.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, Jim. Said Arikat.

QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan. Ambassador Jeffrey, very quickly to follow up on Michel Ghandour’s issue with Rami Makhlouf – can you hear me?


QUESTION: Yeah, okay. Great. On Rami Makhlouf, do you see him as a serious challenger to Bashar al-Assad? And you also said that Assad maybe – may have alienated the Russians. How is that likely to impact any possible solution, say – let’s say in the next six months or a year? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay. Rami Makhlouf is no challenge to Assad unless both Russia and Iran got behind him. I do not see that as possible. I won’t go into the details, but we have heard repeatedly from Russians we take as credible in terms of determining Russian policy that they understand how bad Assad is. They also don’t see any alternative, and that would include Makhlouf. Again, it’s very hard to assess where this is going. We’re just watching it carefully. I think many of you out there who follow Syria closely probably have your own views.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, Jim. Okay, let’s see. I think it’s Humeyra. You’re up next.

QUESTION: Hello. Thanks for this. I have, very quick, two questions. Haftar has had some – several setbacks on the front line. Do you think there is any chance that his foreign backers would persuade him to end the Tripoli offensive?

And the other thing: You expressed discontent over Haftar establishing ties with Assad. Can you elaborate a little bit more on that? And specifically, have you seen Assad send Syrian fighters to help Haftar in his Tripoli offensive? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Henry, we both —

MR ROBINSON: Go ahead.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: — know the answer to the latter, but why don’t you take the whole thing?

MR WOOSTER: Sure thing. Okay. On the matter of different backers, Haftar’s foreign backers, no, we don’t – look, for as long as there is an objective that they can meet through Haftar as an instrument, we don’t see them backing down. Believe me, we are discussing these things with them all the time. We bring these concerns all the time to the backers on both sides, not just with Haftar, and the fingers keep pointing one side at the other. So I don’t think that in the near-term offing, at least in the foreseeable future, there is any likely prospect whatsoever that that will happen.

Jim, did you want to roll into the other element of that?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: No, except that we know that certainly the Russians are working with Assad to transfer militia fighters, possibly third country, possibly Syrian, to Libya, as well as equipment.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks. I don’t think – I think Robbie dropped off the queue. Ruben, are you showing anyone else in the queue?

MR HARUTUNIAN: No, that’s it.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Okay, great. Well, thanks, everybody. I appreciate it. And thanks to our speakers for staying on the line a little bit longer than normal. We appreciate it and we will speak to all of you tomorrow. I think we have at least two briefings tomorrow, so it’ll be a busy Friday. Thank you.