Briefing With Senior State Department Officials On the Release of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Report on Syria (April 8)
MODERATOR ONE: Hi, good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining. Our apologies for the delay in beginning.
Up front, I just want to establish the ground rules. This briefing is provided on background. Attribution is to senior State Department officials. The contents of the call are embargoed until its completion.
On April 8, 2020, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons released a report attributing three instances of chemical weapons used to the Assad regime. To help provide the United States reaction to the OPCW’s report, we have joining us for this call [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two].
[Senior State Department Official One] will begin with some opening remarks and then be followed by [Senior State Department Official Two], and then we’ll have time for a few questions. [Senior State Department Official One], please, go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you, [Moderator One]. Hello, everybody. Thank you for dialing in today. I’m going to be very short, because you have before you two extremely clear, extremely damning documents: Secretary Pompeo’s statement, and the underlying OPCW first report, summary, and remarks.
My first point is the director-general of the OPCW today in introducing the report stressed that those who hold chemical weapons must be held accountable. That’s what we are doing as a government. That’s what we’re doing as an international community. Frankly, we do it in various ways, one of which is to appeal to and reach out to you in the national and international media, because you’re a part of the accountability process.
You’ll notice – my second point – that the outfit in the OPCW that did this is the IIT, the Investigation and Identification Team. This is the third such special entity set up since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011 to look into chemical weapons attacks. Before that, there was the FFM, the Fact-Finding Mission; before that, there was the Joint Investigative Mechanism between the OPCW and the UN. These other organizations have been successfully blocked in various ways by Russia that has been doing its best – despite having engaged with the U.S. in 2013 in the initial effort to stop use of chemical weapons and to get rid of them in Syria – to protect its client as its client continue to do what is being reported today. And that is part of the accountability as well.
Thirdly, there’s a larger picture here. The Secretary touched on this in covering the overall conflict and the terrible particularly human cost of it, but also the geostrategic risk with all of these armies now sucked in – Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Iraq to some degree, and Jordan are all impacted by this very, very dangerous conflict. But it’s very interesting that we are now seeing not just the United States – and unfairly, people are sometimes skeptical of what we say – but respected international organizations like the OPCW are naming names and being specific that it is the regime. And if you look at this report, not just somebody in the regime, although it names units, but the highest levels of the regime in this report had to have been aware to have authorized attacks of such enormous gravity.
This is balanced by what the secretary-general released in the Board of Inquiry report on the deliberate bombing of humanitarian sites – hospitals, refugee centers and such – whose coordinates were given by the United Nations to Russia, and then apparently the Russians passed them on to the regime, and either the regime or allied forces – which means the Russians – deliberately struck those sites. We have the secretary-general’s response in February to the closing of two of the humanitarian crossings to help the people of Syria in January with the new UN Resolution 2504. The secretary-general made clear that this is a humanitarian disaster, and that the regime, by not allowing cross-border transfer of humanitarian goods, is guilty of that as well.
This is an extraordinary package of identification of the Assad regime and the Russians as responsible. First and foremost, that’s what we’re here today doing. Use of chemical weapons and the use of chemical weapons against civilians I’d underline, but also the other crimes that we see them committing and that now we’re getting international organizations to document. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR ONE: [Senior State Department Official Two].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you, [Moderator One]. Just to build on a little bit what [Senior State Department Official One] had mentioned, I want to start by thanking the OPCW Director-General Arias and Ambassador Onate, who led the IIT team, for their professionalism, independence, and impartiality. And when you read the report, you’ll see that that was one of their clear objectives. So I want to start by thanking the OPCW.
As [Senior State Department Official One] pointed out, one of the key underlying themes of this report is to identify the perpetrators, and that’s exactly what they did. They did so in excruciating and painful detail. I think when you read through the details of the report, again, as [Senior State Department Official One] points out, the bombing of what was already an underground hospital already driven underground so that they could perform critical healthcare without the attacks of the Syrian regime, that a chlorine weapon was dropped on that hospital, this is – this was a facility that was the only facility that could actually perform surgeries in that region.
So the level of horror and the atrocity is spelled out in excruciating detail in the report, and with that, I’ll conclude my remarks and turn it back to [Moderator One] to open up the call.
MODERATOR ONE: Okay. We’ll take questions. If you haven’t already done so, you can queue up by pressing 1 and then 0. For the first question, can we open the line of Jessica Donati?
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I was wondering if you could say whether there are any consequences to this report besides some, obviously, international condemnation. Is there any sort of real-life tangible impact here? Because it’s obviously not the first time an international body has blamed Assad for these attacks. Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: [Senior State Department Official One], I’ll take that. Normally when a report like this surfaces in the international community, you would turn to the Security Council to take action. That actually worked to some degree with the IAEW  and – the board of governors reporting to the Security Council on Iran’s nuclear program a decade ago. That mechanism, alas, is not available to us because Russia, usually supported by China, has blocked every attempt to hold the regime – the Assad regime – and its allies, which have – as I said, includes Russia as well as Iran, accountable.
Therefore, what we have to do is to take other actions. Those actions – and I’ve described them to many of you – are of a political, diplomatic, economic nature. They involve supporting a process, 2254 – UN Resolution 2254 that calls for reconciliation, national ceasefire, and the Syrian Government dealing fairly under UN oversight with the opposition. It also involves the sanctions program, including the Caesar sanctions that our Congress overwhelmingly just passed to punish the regime and to punish, frankly, their supporters in economic terms for what they have done. It involves diplomatic isolation of the regime. It involves blocking all stabilization assistance to rebuild that country until that country adheres to its UN commitments. Those commitments include not only our 2254, but the commitments that the regime undertook with us and with the OPCW in 2013 on chemical weapons.
I’ll stop there.
MODERATOR ONE: Thank you. For the next question, can we open the line of Kim Dozier?
QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call. Following on Jessica’s question, at what point does this become a 2018-type situation, when the Trump administration decides a redline has been crossed and it actually needs to take unilateral action to stop these weapons from being used?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Kim, [Senior State Department Official One] again. [Senior State Department Official Two] and I answered that up in New York when we were with the Secretary, and he laid out the evidence we had for one use of chlorine in Idlib in the fall of last year – in the spring, rather, of last year. Obviously, the administration’s position is clear that it will respond if chemical weapons are used. It doesn’t go into detail on what that response will be, but it has given two good examples of what that response in the past has been. I’ll just leave it at that.
MODERATOR ONE: Thanks. For the next question, can we go to the line of Christina Ruffini?
QUESTION: Afternoon, guys. I’m just wondering what your response is going to be to the inevitable accusation that this report is made up and lacks factual basis. I know a lot of us have been targeted by the Russian embassy and others to come listen to basically the same volume of report where they’re claiming the white hats are terrorist organizations, and I just feel like they’re going to – they’re going to make the same claims about this report. So how do you counter any assertion that it’s false, that it’s made up and it’s not true?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: This is [Senior State Department Official Two]. I’ll just try to address that. I think the report itself goes into painstaking detail on what steps the OPCW took to maintain impartiality. And again, if you – when you actually go through all the – go through the report and you’ll see that they took very seriously these allegations of White Helmets, of other possible, plausible scenarios and gained them out against some very logical criteria. So the report itself deals with that, further undermining the credibility of Russia that, in any way, this report was made up. The OPCW did an incredible job. Again, when you read the report, the level of detail and that they took seriously these alternate scenarios that were presented. And I thought that, in and of itself, shows the level of independence and impartiality. So —
MODERATOR ONE: Okay, thanks. For the next question, can we go to the line of Nike Ching?
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Good afternoon. The U.S. has sent some medical assistance to northeast Syria and to the SDF to help fighting against the coronavirus, but Syrian Kurdish officials say that it is not enough, especially given the risk for an outbreak in the prisons and the IDP camps. My questions are: Will the United States send more assistance? If so, when? If not the U.S., how about other coalition members?
Separately, do you see – do you think is Damascus preventing WHO supplies or testing kits from reaching northeast Syria, as some have claimed? If so, what can be done? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: [Senior State Department Official One]. I’ll take that. First of all, the U.S. military has provided over $1 million of emergency assistance both for COVID-19 and for securing the major prison near al-Hasakah where Daesh terrorists staged an uprising last week. We are looking at ways we can further support our partners, the SDF. I was in contact directly with its commander, Mazloum, earlier this week and that was a major issue.
The UN has tried to be helpful, but again, there was a WHO convoy going into the northeast in January that was blocked by Russia, closing down the two – no, the one crossing from Iraq into northeast Syria where the WHO actually had a convoy ready to go across – by denying that crossing a renewal in Resolution 2504. We’re working on all of this.
The secretary-general in his report – again, it is one of the things I cited a few minutes ago on implementation of 2504 – raised grave doubts about the regime’s willingness to allow the UN or other humanitarian actors to deliver across-line to the northeast, to Idlib or elsewhere, and that is in line with our experience as well. We are working desperately and urgently to find ways to get assistance to the northeast, but it is unlikely we’ll get much help from Assad and his cronies.
MODERATOR ONE: All right, thanks. I think we only have one more person in queue, so if you want to ask a question, please press 1 and 0 to queue up.
For the next question, can we go to the line of Said Arikat.
OPERATOR: Yeah, that line is open. Please, go ahead. Hey, Said, please, go ahead. He may have dropped out of queue.
MODERATOR ONE: Got it. [Moderator Two], do we have anyone else in the queue?
MODERATOR TWO: Kim Dozier has signed on for another question.
MODERATOR ONE: Okay. Go ahead, Kim.
OPERATOR: Thank you. I’ll open the line.
QUESTION: Thank you. So can you talk a little bit more about your fears of COVID-19 and what it’s going to do to refugee areas and also to the regime itself, and neighboring Iraq as well, if you’re game?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Right. Thank you, Kim. [Senior State Department Official One] here. We are – we have relied in the northwest on reporting through our embassy in Ankara from the Turks, who have eyes on the ground there. We don’t, but of course, given the huge refugee buildup – and as you know, Ambassador Kelly Craft and [SSDO] visited there a month ago – we’re very, very concerned about that.
In the northeast, we have been, again, in very, very close, hourly contact with my people on the ground and the military’s people on the ground with the SDF and the local autonomous administration. There has been no significant outbreak so far in the northeast, but, of course, you’re following this around the world, Kim, and you know that sooner or later, it shows up everywhere. The hope is that if it can be slowed down, that we and they can take measures, but they don’t have a lot of preparation. They are carrying out pretty good social distancing. They’re a disciplined, well-organized group, as we’ve seen in the fight against Daesh, and we’re helping them as best we can. We’re just gearing up now.
In the regime areas, again, it’s like North Korea. We know it’s there. We know they know it’s there. They’re not saying it to anybody other than use it to propaganda, to beat us up on our sanctions. So we don’t have an idea. And of course, if it’s in the rest of Syria it will cross the – it’s one thing that does cross the lines of conflict: disease in individual people. So it will get into the northeast and will get into the northwest. Yeah, we are concerned.
MODERATOR ONE: All right. It looks like we have Said back, so let’s open his line for what looks to be our last question.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. Thank you very much, [Moderator One]. Sorry, I dropped off. It’s for [Senior State Department Official One]. Just two things. We’re talking about the attack that was on the 24 and 25th of March, 2017, which was different than the one a few days later on, on April 4, correct?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’re talking about three attacks in March of 2017, as laid out in the report, two with chlorine and one with sarin.
QUESTION: Yeah, okay. So, and a few days later that there was another attack, allegedly, right?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There were many attacks. We —
QUESTION: Which —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We have documented to one or another degree a very large number of attacks against civilians using chemical weapons by the regime.
MODERATOR ONE: Okay. Is that your question, Said?
MODERATOR ONE: All right.
OPERATOR: I believe his line is muted, unless you want me to open the line again.
MODERATOR ONE: Yeah, let’s get to what his actual question was.
OPERATOR: One moment. Said, if we can have you press 1-0 again, we can open the line. Said, the line is open.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. Sorry. Sorry about the confusion.
MODERATOR ONE: Yeah, just —
QUESTION: I wanted to ask – yeah, [Senior State Department Official One], are you requesting from the Russians to sort of provide whatever chemical weapons or materials that remain in Syrian hands? Do you have any ways of accounting for whatever chemical weapons that remain? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’ll pass that on to [Senior State Department Official Two].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yes, sir. So as part of an earlier UN Security Council resolution, as well as ongoing requirements of being a CWC member, Syria is required to declare and destroy their stockpiles. We – there is an ongoing effort by the OPCW called the Declaration Assessment Team, or the DAT, which is trying to facilitate exactly what you’re suggesting. So the short answer is yes, as a party to the convention they are required to do so, as well as that’s been upheld in both the Security Council as well as the OPCW, and that’s precisely the type of work that will be done in the Hague as well as unilaterally to continue to press Syria to do that.
MODERATOR ONE: Okay, for the last question we’ll return to the line of Nike Ching.
OPERATOR: Thank you, one moment. The line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you. Good afternoon. If I may ask a question about what the COVID-19 is doing to ISIS. How many fighters does ISIS still have in Syria? How organized are they still? And how have their activities been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’ll take that. The number of ISIS fighters is variously estimated – and this is between Iraq and Syria, because they go back and forth and consider it one front – between about 14- to 18,000 active fighters. They don’t hold any terrain. We have not seen any significant expansion of their activities – that is, their attacks, their intimidation of local officials and populations – since COVID-19. There was a low level of that going on ever since Raqqa fell and the final battles along the Euphrates in March of 2019. Ever since then we’ve seen a certain level of activity. They’re reconstituting. They’re waiting out us and the rest of the coalition to the extent they can. They’re under pressure. The SDF is continuing operations against them. The Iraqi Government is a little bit more in a hunker-down mode, but they do do operations and there are certain kinds of support that we’re continuing to provide to them. We’re in full support of the SDF in northeast Syria. We believe we have the situation under control there.
MODERATOR ONE: Okay. Thank you to our briefers for joining us today and for taking time out of their busy schedules. Thanks for all who could join the call. As a reminder, this briefing was provided on background, attribution to senior State Department officials, and now that the call is completed, its contents or the embargo on its contents is lifted. Thank you all.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you very much for being here.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you.