U.S. Official On Syria
MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining us on such short notice. We don’t have a lot of time today, so I’m going to get straight to the point. Today we will have a background briefing and an update on Syria by [U.S. Official]. He is also engaged on the ceasefire task force and various aspects of the cessation of hostilities. From here on out he will be known as a U.S. official. That’s a U.S. official. I want to reiterate that this call is on background.
With that, I’ll turn it over to our U.S. official.
U.S. OFFICIAL: Hi, everyone. Nice talking to you. You have the statement in front of you so I’m not going to speak for long, but I would just highlight some main points. First is that the statement with Russia affirms our shared understanding of efforts to revitalize the nationwide cessation of hostilities in Syria, and that’s opposed to reverting to local ceasefires. It also explains our commitment to making particularly intensive efforts in specific hot spot areas of Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, and Latakia. It has a clear demand which Russia joins on parties to cease any indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including civilian infrastructure and medical facilities. It has a commitment for undertaking a joint assessment where such incidents are reported to have occurred with casualties, as well as to share that with the members of the task force and through the UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura to the UN Security Council.
There’s also a commitment by Russia to work with the Syrian authorities to minimize aviation operations over areas that are predominantly inhabited by civilians or parties to the cessation. There’s also a clear call on the parties for ensuring continuous delivery of humanitarian access including to besieged areas that haven’t been reached yet, and those are specifically named, and for unconditional delivery without obstruction of medical personnel and equipment, having access to those areas as well.
So those are some highlights, but I’ll stop there. I’m happy to take questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much. And ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to queue up for a question you may press * followed by 1. You will hear a tone indicating that you have been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you are using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the number. So again, for your questions you may place yourselves in queue by pressing * followed by 1, and please allow just a few moments as questioners do queue up.
All right, I’ll take our first question in queue from Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. On the part about Nusrah and seeking an understanding about where they are, is that different than – is this a fresh or different effort than what you’ve been trying to do in the past?
And then the second question is the Aleppo ceasefire is going to expire at 5:00 today Eastern Time, so is there a reason that there wasn’t a fresh commitment from U.S. and Russia to extend that ceasefire today? Thanks.
U.S. OFFICIAL: Sure, thanks. On the Nusrah piece there’s an emphasis on it because both Nusrah and ISIL are, of course, excluded from the cessation of hostilities, but Nusrah is present in areas where they are proximate to civilians or and/or parties to the cessation. And over the last several weeks of the cessation the presence of Nusrah has been a complicating factor, and so we’re making a fresh commitment to look at that in relation to the cessation of hostilities and try to come to a clearer shared understanding of where they’re operating and what threat they pose to the cessation.
On Aleppo on the ideas that the particular special measures that we had in place for these specific areas or hot spots is making sure that it’s understood they’re folded in within a commitment to a renewal of the cessation nationwide. So the intention is for that very much to be extended.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Bill Faries with Bloomberg News. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks again for having this. Could you – can you give us – can you say anything more about – you said the intention is very much for this ceasefire to be extended in and around Aleppo. Is there going to be another time period set on that or – and what has the status been, I guess, over the last 12 to 24 hours? Thank you.
U.S. OFFICIAL: There has been a reduction in violence in various parts of Aleppo. We’ve seen a decrease, although there are pockets where that has not been the case. There has been fighting in the southwest, for example, fairly intensive, although that fighting is involving Nusrah and other groups that are not party to the cessation. So fighting there shouldn’t be seen as indicative of the cessation not being in effect or being extended in Aleppo. We are fully committed to its extension in Aleppo. Each side has communicated with commanders, saying that the other side is called upon to honor the cessation and that they should reciprocate.
So the cessation of hostilities is in effect in Aleppo, but there are periods – pockets where there has been fighting, certainly in the last 12 to 24 hours. One would like to see a decrease there, but in the areas I just mentioned where Nusrah is operating we may not see that right away.
OPERATOR: All right, thank you. The next question will come from Curt Mills with U.S. News & World Report. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, thank you. So is it the U.S.’s current contention that there is currently a ceasefire in Aleppo, just to be clear?
U.S. OFFICIAL: Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much. And next in queue is Rosiland Jordan with Al Jazeera English. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for the call. I want to go to the section of the statement that deals with the COH item number three: “The Russians will work with the Syrians to minimize aviation operations over areas that are currently inhabited by civilians.” Does this mean that Russia has committed, one, to compelling the Assad government to stop airstrikes over areas such as large parts of Aleppo, and does that mean that the Russians themselves will not be carrying out airstrikes, as has been alleged by some in the opposition? Thanks.
U.S. OFFICIAL: So the language in that paragraph is “to work with the Syrian authorities to minimize aviation operations over areas that are predominantly inhabited by civilians or parties,” so I think the words are carefully chosen. What we would like to see as a result of that work is a real reduction in Syrian authorities’ or Syrian air force overflights of those areas. Even if they’re not dropping ordnance, just the mere hovering of a helicopter overhead has had a particularly worrying effect for understandable reasons for civilians who have witnessed that over the last years of the conflict. So the commitment, however, is quite specifically related to the Syrian authorities.
As for Russia, they are a party to the cessation with respect to not striking parties to the cessation, and in the actual terms of the agreement it makes clear that neither Russian nor Syrian air forces should be striking either civilians targets or parties to the cessation.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much. The next question will come from Margaret Warner with PBS NewsHour. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. This is actually a follow-up to the question just asked. Obviously, the Russian Federation had made some commitments to you all to try to restrain the Syrian authorities from bombing, and the same for themselves. And so what is new about this? Are the Russians now more committed? Is this just kind of a shell game on their part? I mean, what makes you think this will work any better than before?
U.S. OFFICIAL: Well, I think that what it is a – the commitment, as you say, has been there in effect since the cessation went into effect on the 27th of February as far as not striking parties to the cessation or civilians. I think we’ve raised serious concerns about the strains and the very real strains the cessation underwent and violations that we’ve seen in recent weeks, and so we believe that it was quite important to renew the commitment with a particularly intensive focus on areas or hot spots where we’ve seen more violence, Aleppo being among them.
Now, there is no prohibition on overflight or general air operations, so an undertaking on their part to work with minimizing air operations over these areas is an additional measure that, if implemented, would strengthen the COH. They are not restricted from striking Nusrah, but minimizing air operations even where Nusrah is present, if in an area that’s predominantly inhabited by civilians or the parties to the cessation would help with implementation of the cessation more generally.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And next is Nike Chang with Voice of America. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. It’s Pam Dockins, actually, with Voice of America. But a question about section four of the joint U.S.-Russian statement. Down in the bottom of that paragraph it says the U.S. is committed to intensifying its support and assistance to regional allies. Can you elaborate on that and indicate whether or not that indicates some type of new commitment or any additional material support to allies, and if so, what is that?
And then secondly, concerning the localized ceasefires such as the one in Aleppo and Latakia: Is there concern that at some point it’s going to get overwhelming or too difficult to continue to try to maintain these 48, 72-hour ceasefires? The overall goal, of course, is the nationwide ceasefire, but as you look at these localized attempts, at what point does it become too cumbersome to try to keep up this pace?
U.S. OFFICIAL: So I’ll take the last question first. The use of these 24, 48-hour periods in places like Latakia, Eastern Ghouta, and Aleppo were because the exchanges of fire on both sides had become quite intense, particularly in Latakia and Aleppo. And so it was a means by which to get local commanders to be assured of the other side’s readiness to renew the implementation of the cessation. In Latakia I think we’ve seen the violence come down quite significantly through the result of those efforts, and therefore folding it into the normal order with the nationwide cessation makes eminent sense, and that’s what we’re doing with the other two areas as well. Aleppo, there is still work to be done to bring the violence down in pockets of the city, so – in pockets of the – in the environment, and so that’s what we’re working on now.
As concerns your first question, we’re not right now announcing or indicating any fresh or additional specific measures, just a willingness at this stage to intensify efforts in that direction as needed.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Next question will come from Michele Kelemen with NPR. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: All right, thanks. I’m wondering about this question of Nusrah in the Aleppo area. Can you explain how the U.S.-Russian task force works? Are they actually looking at maps and deciding which group holds which block?
And then, secondly, do you have a shared understanding with the Russians as to the consequences for violations of the ceasefire?
U.S. OFFICIAL: Yeah, so – I mean, we have had multiple conversations in various fora, both in Geneva and in the region and between our capitals, because we have multiple channels of communication to exchange information on our views on where Nusrah and the parties are located. The challenge is, of course, where Nusrah and parties to the cessation may be located quite closely together. And there our view is that while Nusrah is excluded from the cessation and therefore it is permissible to take action against them, you nonetheless are also required under the terms of the COH to ensure any action you take does not harm civilians or parties to the cessation, and that’s where we believe additional work is needed to reach a shared understanding on how you honor that fully. And in some cases it’s not simply a matter of having a general understanding, but you have to get more granular, and so we’re making a commitment to try to deepen our understanding of that challenge. And it’s different in different specific locations of the country, so there isn’t a – one approach that applies equally to all, because it depends on the disposition of forces on the ground in specific areas and also the extent to which areas are more densely populated versus more remote.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much. And we do have time for one final question. That will come from Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. It’s got to do with the political process. How realistic is it that you can actually, as you say, redouble efforts to reach a political settlement when these sides are still in battle? And if you think that you – do you think that you can realistically actually get the parties together this month, as suggested last week?
U.S. OFFICIAL: So our view is that the renewal of the cessation of hostilities coupled with humanitarian access – indeed being allowed in the besieged and hard-to-reach areas and for the assistance to be continuous – these things create a much better – a far more conducive environment towards the parties being able to tackle very difficult political issues.
The statement points to the mediator’s summary that was issued following the last round of talks between the 13th and the 27th of April, which in its annex listed many different issues that the parties need to tackle for the political transition to be viable. And it’s important to note in there that among the things it covers are how is power to be exercised in practice by the transitional governance, including in relation to the presidency, executive powers, control over the government’s own security institutions.
And so by making clear that these things are very much the subject of discussion, it certainly clarifies for those who were wondering, well, is this a real discussion on political transition, to make clear that the co-chairs’ shared understanding as these things are front and center on the table for discussion. So to the extent that there was any lack of clarity among some of the parties as to what are the items that are meant to be discussed, having a list of issues spelled out as to what will inform the agenda for the talks going forward can help. But they’re very, very difficult issues, to be certain. So the issues are difficult, and equally the cessation – it’s going to face – when it went into effect, we knew that it would face setbacks and that it would take strenuous efforts to get it back on track. The same remains today. But the commitment that we have from both co-chairs is to work through those challenges – indeed, to try to get it back on track.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much. At this time we’ll turn the conference back over to our presenters for any closing comments.
MODERATOR: I just want to thank our U.S. official for taking time out today, and thank you all for calling in. This will conclude today’s call.