Senior State Department Officials On the Situation in Syria (October 10)
MODERATOR: Thanks, everybody, for joining us this afternoon. Sorry to be a few minutes late here at the end of the day, but this is a follow-up from the backgrounder that we had with our State Department bullpen on Monday. We’re going to attempt to do these background briefings for you regularly as we go through the process.
Today with me I have [Senior State Department Official One] and I also have [Senior State Department Official Two]. As a reminder, today’s call is on background and embargoed until its end. We will definitely take Q&A. We want to engage with everybody that has questions. And again, we hope that this is a pattern of more regular briefings that we can do for you as the situation develops.
So I’m going to turn it over to Senior State Department Official Number One, [Senior State Department Official One], to give some highlights.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hey, thank you very much, [Moderator], and hello, everybody. Let me start with a tweet that just came out from the President this afternoon: “We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win militarily, hit Turkey very hard financially and with sanctions; or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds.” That is a concise summary of where are with this very, very dramatic, very, very dangerous situation today.
What I would like to do is talk back to Sunday, when the very immediate phase of this whole problem began with the call between President Trump and President Erdogan, because this has been basically President Trump’s position ever since then. Essentially, in that call and in all of our actions since then, everything has revolved that we have been doing around four decisions the President took. He took these decisions after President Erdogan told him that the compromise solution we had worked out with Turkey for the situation in northeast Syria was not sufficient for Turkey’s security interests.
As I think most of you know, we have been negotiating with Turkey well on and off for several years about the situation in northeast Turkey . We have had and still have a significant military mission there to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS, also to maintain the stability of northeast Syria and the region given our other critical missions in the Near East.
And to do that we need a partner on the ground. That partner has been the SDF, a major component of which has been the YPG, which is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK. That, of course, is the problem for Turkey, which has been suffering horrific terrorist attacks from the PKK for now 35 years, since 1984. So Turkey has legitimate security concerns, which the President has repeatedly indicated, but the people of northeast Syria, including the Kurdish population, have their own concerns, and we have a very important set of security interests in northeast Syria.
So that led to the negotiation of the Joint Security Mechanism and the joint patrols that you saw in the newspapers, the Turkish air operations in accordance with our coalition air tasking order, and various other combined activities that we were doing to ensure that in a zone roughly out to 30 kilometers, depending upon the kind of activity you were talking about, Turkey could have greater assurance that the United States: (a) was not partnering in some plot against it with the YPG; and (b) that there was no buildup of forces that would threaten Turkey.
So we thought that this was a good compromise outcome. As I said on Sunday, President Erdogan told President Trump that he was not satisfied with it, and he said that he would go off on his own and do what the Turks had always said was their maximalist position and one that we thought we had negotiated them down from; that is, to push out 30 kilometers to the M4 highway running east-west – he didn’t go into it in this much detail, but this is what he means – the M4 highway running east-west from Iraq to the Euphrates, and that within that zone Turkey alone would be responsible for security and various other things, and he has added both to the President and in his public statements in the past three or four weeks a new rationale besides the security of Turkey, and that is moving some 3 to 4 million Syrian refugees who are being housed – and to be fair, being housed very decently – in Turkey back to Syria into the northeast, although most of them wouldn’t be from that area, based upon very, very significant European Union financial support, financial support that the European Union has not yet committed to.
So that was the situation the President was presented with in that conversation. The President was also, as you know, talking about other facilitations of our relationships, such as a visit by President Erdogan in the near future, and moving forward on military and financial and trade issues. It was all in all, in that regard, a very good conversation because it’s a very good set of steps we want to move forward on with Turkey.
But faced with the decision by Erdogan to go for broke, if you will, in northeast Syria, the President took four decisions. These four decisions have shaped everything we have done since then, and they’re reflected, again, today in the President’s tweet.
First of all, the United States will not endorse this invasion; it will not give it any kind of political cover or in any way think that it is a good idea. It endangers our allies in the fight against terror, the SDF, most of whom are from the region. They’re not PKK members per se, but they’ll fight for their homelands. Secondly, it undercuts our efforts to defeat ISIS by drawing these SDF forces away from the battle in the south and, frankly, forcing our troops to focus on the military aspects of the invasion. And then thirdly, it creates tremendous insecurity for the entire region.
Secondly, the United States will not give any military support. That was asked by the Turks at various levels at various times, including in the call on Sunday. That was made clear to the Turks.
Thirdly, the United States will not oppose the invasion militarily. Turkey is a NATO ally of ours. As I said, we do understand their security concerns; we just think that they are making a very big mistake going at it this way. This will not increase their security, our security, or the security of anybody else in the region.
Finally, if Turkey acts in a way that is disproportionate, inhumane, or otherwise goes beyond the lines that the President has in his own mind, the United States is willing to impose significant costs. As he said in his tweets, these would be diplomatic and particularly financial, economic. He cites repeatedly his actions with Turkey back in August, September of 2018 concerning Parson Brunson, which had a significant effect on the Turkish economy.
So at the same time, as he said in this tweet, he is – and he said several times in the last several days – he is trying to find common ground to come up with a ceasefire, come up with a way to bridge the gap between the YPG wing of the PKK and Turkey. Turkey has negotiated in the past with the PKK, it has had ceasefires with the PKK, and in fact, it has negotiated with the political wing of the YPG in Syria for several years until 2015.
So we are hoping and exploring ways with both sides that we could find that path forward. That’s the path the President would most prefer to do, a negotiated settlement of this thing that meets everybody’s needs. So I’ll stop there.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. We also have Senior State Department Official Number Two here, who is going to be available to answer questions. So why don’t we jump into the Q&A.
Sorry, I think that we need the operator to queue up the people that are in line for the questions.
OPERATOR: Okay. And once again, ladies and gentlemen on the phones, if you do have a question, it is * followed by 1 at this time. One moment, please, for our first question.
We’ll go to the line of Andrea Mitchell with NBC News. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Thank you, [Moderator], for doing this. And thanks to the [Senior State Department Officials]. [Senior State Department Official One], if there was no green light, why do you – as the President – as Pompeo said, Secretary Pompeo said to Judy Woodruff yesterday, why does Turkey believe there was a green light? Why were the troops redeployed, those few that were in that area? And how would you address Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Saudi and other regional partners and allies who are extremely distressed by this, believing that it advantages Iran and will permit a resurgence of the ISIS fighters as well as abandoning our allies, the Syrian Kurds?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Let me start —
MODERATOR: Go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Let me start with the last. I’m extremely distressed about this, too. I’m right up there with the Saudis and Bibi Netanyahu. This was a very big mistake and it has very big implications for all of our security. I don’t know of anybody who isn’t upset with it. But I also don’t know why anybody thinks that we gave the Turks a green light. Have the Turks said that we gave them a green light?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The mistake was Turkey.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Pardon?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, the mistake was Turkey.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Right. But I mean, this idea that the Turks made the mistake because we gave them a green light, I don’t think – (a) we didn’t, (b) I don’t think the Turks have asserted that. So I think that this is something that somebody has invented because we gave them a very clear red light. I have been involved in those red lights and I know the President did that on Sunday.
Then the third thing is we withdrew those forces because they were not a defense force; the Turks could have just driven around them. But the commanders on the scene have to be responsible for their troops in a combat environment. When you’re dealing with night operations in a very dangerous area – you not only have Turkish forces there, you have local forces, you have the SDF that will be maneuvering against the Turkish forces, you have Daesh that killed four Americans not far from those outposts in Manbij back about eight months ago. I mean, I’ve been there on the ground at night hearing the heavy machine gun fire in various directions. That was a very prudent and wise decision. Any commander-in-chief, any commander, would have made that decision.
OPERATOR: And next we’ll go to the line of Christina Ruffini with CBS News.
QUESTION: Hi, everybody. [Senior State Department Official One], if you could just talk a little bit about what you know about where the Turkish military assault is at this point. I know that they have some ground forces that have crossed the border. Do we think that’s the predominant bulk? Is there more to come in the next 24, 48 hours? Do we have any additional guidance as to how far in? Well, you said to that – to the highway. Does that still stand as about how far in you think this is going to go?
And then my other question is you’ve said that there wasn’t a green light and you pulled the troops out of the way to be safe, and State Department officials have told me obviously you don’t want to engage Turkey because it’s a NATO force. But why not then leave the troops there if you’re so opposed to this military action and put the onus on Turkey to say if you go in, then you’re going to be – then you’re going to be faced with damaging assets of the U.S., which is, again, your NATO ally? Like, why not put the onus on them and not move out of the way to make it easier —
MODERATOR: Okay, we got it. Thanks, Christina. Go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Once again, we did not have a defense force up there on the border. Our position is that this was a mistake for Turkey to do, that we will try our very best to get this thing stopped and work from there, because we have very important work to do with the SDF, we have very important work to do with Turkey. We cannot accomplish our very important security goals in the region, including the security of America, without doing this.
OPERATOR: And next we’ll go to the line of Margaret Brennan with CBS.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yeah, go ahead, Margaret. Thanks.
QUESTION: Great, thanks. [Senior State Department Official One], thank you for doing this. You mentioned that – the word “disproportionate” or “inhumane” in regard to actions by Turkey that would trigger U.S. sanctions. Can you be more specific what that actually means? I mean, Netanyahu and others have warned of things like ethnic cleansing – pretty loaded terms. How do you define “inhumane” and “disproportionate”?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, it would include ethnic —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: (Off-mike.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It would include ethnic cleansing, Margaret. It would include, in particular, indiscriminate artillery, air, and other fires directed at civilian populations. That is what we’re looking at right now. We have not seen significant examples of that so far, but we’re very early. Turkish forces really have not engaged in great depth or in great numbers inside the border yet. So we’re still in the early phases of this, but that’s one reason why we’re issuing so many warnings, because we’re very, very concerned about such indiscriminate firings.
OPERATOR: And next we’ll go to the line of Francesco Fontemaggi with AFP/Reuters.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you, [Senior State Department Official], for doing this. So it’s for AFP. I wanted to ask you first, the mediation that the President has talked about, have you asked the Turks – Turks and the Kurds if they are ready for such a mediation, and is something, some effort, going on already?
And secondly, about the ISIS jihadists, the President said that two of them have been transferred under U.S. custody outside Syria. Are there more? And if yes, how many? And are there other Europeans and many – and maybe French among them? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There have been two people transferred. I can’t give you any more on that. And what was the first part of your question?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Negotiations.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, yeah. Again, it’s – we don’t usually, particularly in a tense situation like this, talk about the details of diplomatic exchanges, but we’re – have been tasked by the President to try to see if there are areas of commonality between the two sides, if there’s a way that we could find our way to a ceasefire. And right now, that’s the work we’re doing, but I can’t describe it in any more detail.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I would add that – I think [Senior State Department Official One] said this earlier, but the Turks and the Kurds often times come to a modus vivendi. There were terrible problems between the Turks and the Kurds in the ‘80s and ‘90s in Iraq, and they found a way to work it out. It took a long time, but they get along, they trade, and they live side by side these days.
MODERATOR: Great. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll go to the line of Humeyra Pamuk with Reuters. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you very much for doing this. I wanted to ask about the detainees. I was wondering if SDF is still controlling all the prisons. Have there been any reduction in the number of people who are basically guarding them? And President Trump says Turkey’s going to take them over, and you also said that Turkey would be responsible for them if the invasion goes that far. Is there like a formal agreement that’s done with Erdogan? What is the framework for that? Thank you very much.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, that’s a very good question. It’s one that we’re very much concerned with. The SDF is still controlling all of the prisons. We will not discuss what would basically be military intelligence matters of what impact this invasion has on the staffing levels of those security forces at those prisons, but obviously it’s a concern of President Trump’s. He has raised this publicly in his statement on Sunday, and he’s raised this since then. We have raised it at various levels with the Turks. We have received high-level commitments from the Turks that if they take over an area where there are such detention facilities, that they will assume responsibility for the detainees. However, there have not been detailed discussions up to this point on that.
In the area where the Turks are probably going to operate, they’re in – at least for the moment, there are few or no detention facilities in the north as a whole, above that 30 kilometer line, there’s about 15 percent of the total detainees being held of the slightly less than 10,000.
MODERATOR: Great. Next question.
OPERATOR: And next we’ll go to the line of Rosalind Jordan with Al Jazeera English. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much for the call. Two quick questions. Number one: Have there been any conversations through third parties or back channels between the U.S. and the Syrian Government about the invasion? And the other question is regarding the potential use of any sanctions if Turkey misbehaves. I’m thinking of just the two people, the justice minister and the interior minister, who were hit with travel bans, and those bans were lifted after Pastor Brunson’s release. Is there an anticipation that any possible sanctions would actually affect government operations and not just individuals in Ankara? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We have had no contact with the Syrian Government about this issue, first of all. Secondly, we don’t talk about potential sanctions that people are looking at right now. As I said, the President will take those decisions in his cabinet to the extent that there are sanctions that are based upon authorities, for example, CAATSA given to the Secretary of State when the time comes, and we’ll let you know.
OPERATOR: Next, we’ll go to the line of Maria Charlsburg with Al Arabiya.
QUESTION: Hi. This is Nadia Charters with Al Arabiya. Thank you for doing this. I have two questions. Can you tell us if you have any understanding of how long is this operation supposed to take place? And second, your position in the Security Council, my understanding that, along with Russia, you didn’t want to vote to condemn this. And also, in your public statements said you are very concerned, but you didn’t use the word “condemn” while most of the – your partners in Europe and the Middle East did condemn the attack.
MODERATOR: Nadia, say the first part again. We don’t think that we totally got it.
QUESTION: All right. The first part is if you know how long is this operation supposed to take place.
QUESTION: Is it weeks? Is it months? What’s your understanding of the timeframe?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The Turks say that this is a short-term – or that this is a temporary military action. They have also said that about their Jarablus and al-Bab actions west of the Euphrates in northern Syria, where they have been since 2016. In terms of our language used, we have been using for the last 24 to 48 hours one or another variant of: We think that this is a bad idea or a very bad idea. That’s the language that we’ve been putting out in our public statements, and that’s the language that we’re sticking to at this time.
OPERATOR: And next, we’ll go to the line of Lara Jakes with The New York Times.
QUESTION: Hi, everyone. I think it’s great that you’re doing this. We all sorely need this information, so thank you. We had been told by military officials that the belief in the Pentagon is that the State Department has been too passive on this issue, specifically that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been too passive. So I’d like you to give us a sense, if you can, of how active the department has been in dealing with this, if you can outline calls, if you can describe some of the activity. Is Secretary Pompeo going to go to Turkey at any time in the near future? So in other words, what have you done, and have you seen any evidence that President Erdogan is heeding it. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Is that – do you have an on-the-record criticism from the Pentagon on that or is that an anonymous source?
QUESTION: About – it’s about as anonymous as this call is.
MODERATOR: So you have it on background?
MODERATOR: And on background from – what’s the descriptor of the person that gave it to you on background? How did they – what’s the title that they used on background?
QUESTION: Our Pentagon correspondents say that military officials are expressing this.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Can I answer that?
MODERATOR: Yeah, go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Look, as a guy who spent some part of his life in that institution, I can tell you that I have yet to been in a crisis, Lara, in all my years in the Department of State, where there wasn’t some military official who didn’t find the State Department too passive, supine, flaccid, whatever else, because that’s how they look at us. Okay?
And I’m sorry. I don’t know of – I’ve never seen Mike Pompeo, in the time I have worked for him here, put more time on one single subject over a 72 hour period than this. I am not going to list – because it’s insulting to him – the many international contacts that he has had delivering the right message to the right people at the right time, and he’ll continue doing it.
MODERATOR: Yeah, and I don’t – I would just add, I don’t know who these unnamed military officials are, but the – Secretary Pompeo works incredibly closely with Secretary Esper. They’ve obviously known each other for a long time, and I just don’t even think that – that we really need to dignify that with a response.
QUESTION: Can you at least say anything about whether you have seen any evidence that Mr. Erdogan is heeding some of the actions that the State Department has undertaken as a result of their calls and the actions?
MODERATOR: Sure, we can answer that part. Go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. We have had – aside from the call on Sunday, we have had various diplomatic exchanges that President Erdogan in various ways has been involved on. I’ll just leave those – I’ll just leave it at that.
OPERATOR: And our final question will come from the line of Courtney McBride with The Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Thank you all for doing this. Just wondering if you have a sense of the scale of casualties at this stage. I know senior official one, you said you don’t want to get into military intelligence in terms of the prisons, but do you have a sense of casualties on either the Turkish side or the Kurdish side? And then also, have the Turks signaled any plans to escalate beyond the level that we’re looking at right now? And then finally, are there – are discussions ongoing with Europeans or other countries that may have foreign terrorist fighters about repatriations? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There’s constant discussions with countries about repatriation, and we’ve had a good many successes. The main problem, frankly, that leads to comments in the media are the reactions to our – from our European NATO colleagues. Italy has taken one person back. That’s all we’ve seen so far. However, the number of European – Western European prisoners is relatively limited. With many other countries we’ve had considerable success, from Morocco to Kazakhstan. What was the first part of the question?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Whether there’s going to be an escalation.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh yeah. Look, the Turks have given us general guidelines as to where they want to operate and what their military goals are. As I said, we think they’re all a bad idea. But we have no indication that they – they have not given us any indication that they plan on any escalation further than what they’ve told us.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you all for dialing in, and we will try to check in with you again for one of these calls very soon.