Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey Remarks to the Traveling Press (October 17)
MS ORTAGUS: Do you have something to say first?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Yeah, just the Vice President, Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor O’Brien came out here to carry out the President’s directive to get a ceasefire as soon as possible in those areas where the Turks have penetrated into northeast Syria. And in return, we would work with them to see what we could do about the sanctions – not putting new sanctions on and eventually, if things went in the right direction, lifting the sanctions that we have already put on at the beginning of the week.
We had extensive negotiations with President Erdogan directly and with his staff – foreign, defense minister, national security advisor, and minister of finance – in an effort to try to get a solution. As you’ve seen in this 13-point document, we have a ceasefire. It is not called a ceasefire in the document. It is called a pause, where the Turks will cease moving forward and taking military actions other than self-defense for a 5-day period in those areas that they control.
We talk about the safe zone here, and the Turks talk about an aspirational safe zone based upon what we had done with them back in August, where the safe zone was from the Euphrates to the Iraqi border and we had various levels of Turkish observation or movement or whatever down to 30 kilometers, with the withdrawal of the YPG from some of them.
What we have now is a different situation where the Turks have pushed down to that 30-kilometer level in a central part of the northeast and they’re still fighting in there, and that’s the focus of our attention now because that’s the area that we define as the Turkish-controlled safe zone.
So the idea is, sequentially, the Turks will have a pause in military operations, the YPG elements in these areas that the Turks control will withdraw south of that area – that’s basically the 30-kilometer area, which is also the road, M4-M10 – and then we will work with the Turks to focus on taking care of humanitarian issues in the zone, protection of religious and ethnic minorities, taking care of civilian, humanitarian issues, and managing and monitoring human rights. This is all based upon prior agreements that we had done with the Turks and the – indirectly the SDF back in August on the ways that we would be helpful on monitoring all of that through mainly non-military means or air means, not ground troops. We’re not talking about American ground troops.
As you know, we have a very convoluted situation now with Russian, Syrian army, Turkish, American, SDF, and some Daesh elements all floating around in a very wild way, and we are most concerned about getting our troops out of the way, which is what DOD is doing at this point. But they have the details on where their troops are and what they’re doing. Essentially, we have this pause in the Turkish operations for five days as the SDF withdraws from those areas where the Turks are. At the end of that five days, if the SDF has withdrawn, the Turks will cease all operations in northeast Syria.
Now, the Turks have their own discussions going on with the Russians and with the Syrians in other areas of the northeast and in Manbij to the west of the Euphrates. Whether they incorporate that later into a Turkish-controlled safe zone, it was not discussed in any detail. That right now is not Turkish-controlled territory. It’s controlled by the Russians or it’s controlled by a mix of Russians and Syrians or by Syrians.
So that’s where we are in terms of the background to this.
MS ORTAGUS: Lara.
QUESTION: At what point did the YPG enter into the negotiations for this specific agreement, and what do you say to concerns that they are basically being forced from territory that they had held and this is being ceded to the Turks? They’re basically pushing their border 20 miles into Syria.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We informed the YPG of this. We’re basically doing our best efforts to get the YPG to withdraw using as carrot and a stick the sanctions levers that we have – not only the Executive Branch’s, but also the very likely impending sanctions from Congress if we don’t see a ceasefire.
In terms of YPG territory, I mean, there is a military situation on the ground back before the Turks came in against our very strong urging. You had in that whole zone a combined American-YPG/SDF force. That has changed dramatically on the ground, where you have Turkish forces occupying much of the central third of the area down 30 kilometers, again, with some YPG elements in there fighting them still who are the ones who would withdraw. You then have mixes of YPG and Syrian troops, along with some Russian advisors, to the west and to the east, and we don’t really have eyes on in that situation. This thing right now is focused on – again, as the document says – areas that are controlled by the Turks and a ceasefire there because that’s where the Turks can do a ceasefire, and a withdrawal of the YPG from those areas.
QUESTION: But can I just get – I don’t understand. Was the YPG involved in this specific round of negotiations with the Turks, and are they being pushed from land that they had held?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: There’s no doubt that the YPG wishes that they could stay in these areas. It is our assessment that they had no military ability to hold onto these areas, and therefore, we thought that a ceasefire would be much better for the eventual – aside from saving lives, which was very important for President Trump and Vice President Pence, we also thought it would be much better for trying to get some kind of control over this chaotic situation. The Turkish army has seized a great deal of territory in a very short period of time. We had no doubt whatsoever that they would not continue seizing territory if we couldn’t get a ceasefire. That’s what we’re trying to do.
QUESTION: So last question, sorry. When did the YPG become informed that this was happening?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We’ve been informing the YPG all along of our efforts, of the idea of coming out here, of some of the ideas going on, and we had an extensive back-and-forth with various ideas with them this afternoon.
MS ORTAGUS: Jake.
QUESTION: The Turks are out with a statement saying this is not a ceasefire, trying to downplay it. What’s your reaction to that?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Now, what do we say in the document? What we say in the document is, in paragraph 11 – what the Turks say is that we’ll pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow the withdrawal of YPG from the safe zone within 120 hours. Operation Peace Spring will be halted upon completion of this withdrawal. We use the word ceasefire. The Turks do not because it’s not in the agreement. But what we mean is – and we defined this very carefully – a ceasefire is no forward movement of troops on the ground and no military action other than self-defense.
QUESTION: Ambassador Jeffrey, last week a senior administration official said they were aware that Turks had reneged on a past agreement and there were concerns that this could happen again. What was said today to assuage those concerns?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Well, again, the past agreement was the safe zone agreement we had in August. There the Turks’ carrot, and the whole reason we had gone into that in the first place, was threats by the Turkish Government to intervene unilaterally in northeastern Syria that they had been making back since November or December of 2018, and the whole idea was to try to find a security arrangement that would satisfy them with patrols and the other things we were doing.
Against our very strong advice, once again, and we think tragically, President Erdogan decided to go in militarily. This was a huge mistake. We condemned it at the time, and what we’re trying to do now is to fix it. But the situation on the ground is the Turks are there, and you’ve got all kinds of other forces that have now, as a result of this attack, gone in.
The point is we have agreed with them to only, if they adhere to the terms of this in terms of a pause and then a halt, will we act on these sanctions: first, not to have new sanctions beginning as soon as the pause goes into effect; and then after five days, if they do halt permanently, no more military action in the northeast other than self-defense, then we will lift those sanctions that were imposed last Monday – or this Monday.
QUESTION: Could I quickly follow up? Were there any other warnings beyond the sanctions if they don’t honor this agreement?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: There are always diplomatic exchanges about the nature of the relationship, how the relationship can go up or down. They were a significant part of this discussion.
QUESTION: Can you give us any details?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: No details. Focus on the sanctions.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) The United States has spoken in the past about the territorial integrity of Syria.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Right.
QUESTION: Does this at all change that? I mean, it effectively – say that Turkey has control over part of Syria. Does that change the dynamic? Do you still believe that it’s sovereign Syrian territory? And had there been talks – probably not directly with the United States, but with the Assad regime? Are sure that the Assad regime will be in agreement with this (inaudible)?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Well, absolutely. The Turks have reassured us many times that they have no intention, no intention whatsoever, from President Erdogan personally on down today, of staying in Syria very long. And of course, this is nothing new. The Turks have huge chunks of northwest Syria either under their direct control or in Idlib, where they share it with a motley band of opposition forces, HTS terrorists, and others. And of course, we still maintain our forces in the south and al-Tanf. The President has decided not to remove them.
So there’s a lot of people from other countries floating around Syria today because it’s a chaotic situation brought about by Assad, influenced by Iran, from 2011 on. That’s why we’re all here trying to fix all this.
QUESTION: And the other major players here – I mean, do you think they’re also going to be in agreement with this?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Who?
QUESTION: The other – the Assad regime and Russia, mainly. Do you think they’ll be – have they been informed of this? Do you think that they’ll be in agreement with this (inaudible)?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: One of the reasons that we took the various positions we did with the SDF in the fight against Daesh with Turkey in the northeast was because we were afraid that if there was any major change, such as a Turkish intervention, you would get the SDF turning, as they did. They made an agreement with the Assad regime. And we weren’t going to stop the Assad regime troops from flowing in with the SDF, obviously, so this created a new situation on the ground with various elements now aligning with each other. And again, in the midst of this, the one – the two groups that we deal with are the SDF and the Turks, so we thought that a cease-fire arrangement, or you can call it a pause-and-halt arrangement, would make sense. That was the President’s task to Vice President Pence.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) The – in the zone, the YPG – is it only the fighters, or do you expect a mass movement of people outside of that zone? Where do you expect them to actually go?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We hope that there will be no mass movement of people. There’s very strong – and we insisted – Vice President Pence personally insisted on very strong language. You can see some of it in here. There’s three different paragraphs that talk about civilian casualties, human rights, taking care of religious and ethnic minorities. That, of course, includes the Kurds. We were very, very strong and very, very insistent on that.
But again, we will see. And the proof will be whether it’s carried out on the ground. If it’s carried out on the ground, then we act positively with our sanctions.
MS ORTAGUS: Anything (inaudible)?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Anything else?
MS ORTAGUS: Does anybody want – no?
QUESTION: Was there any discussion about Erdogan’s White House visit? Is that still on?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The discussion was focused, as I said, on certain aspects of the relationship but primarily on this and on trade and economic issues a little bit, not very much. No, it didn’t come up when I was there.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay.
QUESTION: Thank you.