Background Briefing on Syria

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
September 13, 2016


MODERATOR: Thanks very much. And thanks to everyone for joining us. Look, we heard from many of you that there were still some residual questions about the mechanics of this agreement and some of the details. We wanted to try to get two of the senior Administration officials who’ve worked on this agreement very closely over the past months, weeks and months, on the phone to try to answer remaining questions that you might have. For your reporting purposes – or not for your reporting purposes but for your information, rather, the two people we have joining us today are [Senior Administration Official One] as well as [Senior Administration Official Two]. So they’ll be henceforth known as Senior Administration One and – Official One and Senior Administration Official Number Two.

So we’ll try to open it up to your questions. I think Senior Administration Official Number One will start us off with just a quick summary of kind of where we are after a little over 24 hours of the cessation of hostilities.

Go ahead, Senior Administration Official.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Right, so I’ll be very quick. I think – as I think you’ve followed the reports, in the past 24 hours or so – it’s now been a bit more than 24 hours – there has been some violence, some incidents, especially in the early hours after the cessation of hostilities was supposed – came back into effect. We get our information with some time lag because – with some lag time because we want to check it. We’re not only believing what we see in open sources, so we’re trying to verify it.

But one thing we can say with confidence – and it’s been backed up by what the Staffan de Mistura said, what opposition sources have said, and what civilians in Syria have told us – is there has been a significant drop in the level of violence – not to zero, obviously, and we would like to see an even greater drop in the days to come.

But what we’ve seen has meant lives saved and a little taste of more normalcy for the Syrian people, and we’re determined to do what we can to see that continue and to see even more lives saved and greater normalcy and greater humanitarian access for the Syrian people as the cessation continues to hold.

MODERATOR: Great. Well, thanks so much, Senior Administration Official Number One. Look, let’s get to your questions because that’s why we’re doing this. So without further ado, we’ll hand it over to our first questioner.

OPERATOR: And our first question comes from the line of Elise Labott with CNN. Please go ahead, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. I know you are saying that the trend lines are looking good, but I’m just wondering, can you – we talked a little bit about this over the last couple of days, but can you just like shed a little bit more light on the Syrian air force and strikes and what – and especially particularly in the next seven days, what it is and what it is not allowed to do? And then what happens when the JIC gets set up and – I know that there was some back and forth of what specifically Secretary Kerry and others meant what they said. I know you’re saying there’s no coordination, but what is it that the Syrian air force is allowed to do, and how does that fall into what you are approving? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Let me just say one thing and then I’ll let Senior Official Number Two answer on your question. But I don’t think – one day is not a trend line, so I don’t want you to take that conclusion from what I said. It’s that the first day saw a marked reduction in violence, and that’s good for the Syrian people, but I don’t want to – we can’t reach any conclusions. We still have a ways to go.

But on your question on the Syrian air force, my colleague may want to answer that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: All right. Well, sure. And then maybe you can elaborate. But for the time being, until we get seven continuous days of reduced violence to our mutual satisfaction, the rules that are in place are essentially the same as the rules that were in place during the previous cessation of hostilities period. And that means that the only legitimate targets for anyone in the conflict, whether it’s the Syrian regime air force, Russia, the United States coalition, whoever else, are ISIL and al-Nusrah Front targets.

After the seven continuous days of reduced violence, if we get to that point, when we set up the Joint Implementation Center and then begin the first strikes through the Joint Implementation Center, at that time the Syrian regime air force will no longer be able to fly in any areas of Syria where there is opposition or al-Nusrah Front presence. So the key difference at that point is that during the current period the regime air force is still permitted technically to strike the al-Nusrah Front in Syria. After the time at which the JIC is established and the regime air force new restrictions go into effect, at which point it is no longer able to strike the al-Nusrah Front, again, in this large agreed map where either Nusrah or the opposition is present.

Now, the one caveat I want to put on the way this should work during this early period before we get to the JIC is that we really do need seven days of reduced violence. And one of the biggest problems we had in the previous cessation of hostilities period was that the regime would strike what it claimed to be al-Nusrah Front targets that ended up being, in our view, targets that were associated either with other opposition groups or civilian targets.

If that happens again during this period, it will be impossible to produce seven days of reduced violence. So it really is up to the regime and up to the Russians to work to bring about that seven-day period of reduced violence, or else we will not get to the JIC at all.

MODERATOR: Great. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next we turn to the line of Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. The one – first of all, do you need to reach a separate agreement with Russia on the military cooperation? So before you actually get into that, does there actually have to be some kind of separate discussions on how that will take place?

Number two, our difficulty right now is trying to figure out who’s part of the ceasefire and who’s not; for example, today – in fact this evening – in the village of Maan in Hama province, insurgents operating – they included jihadists and national rebels fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner. Are they part of the ceasefire or not? I mean, what do we call – who’s going to be against – who’s going to be part of the ceasefire, who’s not? And if you can’t give it to us, can you maybe provide us with a list?

And also, could you tell us what you think about the status of the Turkistan Islamic Party and other kind of likeminded groups? Are they part of the ceasefire as well?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So do you want me to start, or would you like to?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Sure, go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. So on your first question, I guess what I would say is that we have had extensive, detailed technical conversations with the Russians about how the JIC would work in the event we get to that point. So we do not envision the need for either further detailed technical conversations or any further agreements once the JIC is – once we’ve had seven continuous days of reduced violence and are ready to set up the JIC.

That said, I think there is going to be a lot of work that will need to be done in that early period to figure out in the doing, in the practice, how this center will actually function when it comes to that point. But there does not need to be extensive further technical conversation or any further agreements, to my understanding.

As for which groups are and are not part of the cessation of hostilities, I don’t think we want to be in the position of going through group by group as you raise them. Our current understanding is that the only groups that are eligible to be targeted in Syria during this period are ISIL and the al-Nusrah Front, but can my colleague can add anything he’d like.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, and I’d add to that obviously that’s (inaudible) right. Now, if a group – an opposition group – comes out and decides that it doesn’t want to be part of the cessation, it launches attacks against the regime, then they take themselves out of the cessation of hostilities.

But we have spoken to opposition groups. All the major opposition groups have told us – with the exception of Nusrah and ISIL, who we don’t talk to – have told us that they want to give this a chance. And that’s what we’ve told the Russians. And so at this point, other than Nusrah and ISIL, the groups that are on the ground are supposed to be abiding by the cessation.

OPERATOR: And we next turn to the line of John Hudson with Foreign Policy magazine. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing the call. During the announcement on Friday, Lavrov said he was pleased that Kerry dropped talk of a Plan B, which the Russians interpreted as using al-Nusrah as a reserve force to attack Assad at some point in time. Was that ever under consideration?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No.

OPERATOR: We have a question from the line of Rosiland Jordan with Al Jazeera English. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you hear me? Hello?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.

QUESTION: Okay. Hi. Thanks for the call. I have a question about humanitarian aid. We were getting conflicting reports earlier today on the ground on the border between Turkey and Syria about whether UN convoys, one, had actually crossed the border; and two, whether they would actually be allowed to access – I think it’s called Castello Road – one of the main access highways into Aleppo. Do you have any status report on the delivery of humanitarian aid, or is it still just too soon for that part of the solution to be worked out?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’ll give it a try. First, it’s not too soon. We want it to happen as soon as possible, which ideally would have been today. It’s lagging behind for a number of technical reasons and also because we still want to make sure that the Syrian regime gives all the approvals that the UN needs for internal delivery.

Our understanding is that the convoy that crossed from Turkey – there was no UN convoy that went into Syria. I think there was some – may have been some misunderstanding about that, but we are still working hard on that. We spent much of the day pressing not just the Russians and through the Russians the regime, but also some of the opposition parties, to make sure that we can get the kind of unfettered humanitarian access that our agreement with the Russians calls for. So that was an area where we still are not fully satisfied, and we’re going to be working on it and we hope that tomorrow will be better than today.

OPERATOR: Next we turn to the line of Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. I’m wondering if the agreement says anything about consequences for failure and whether you have sort of next steps charted out. I mean, how do you adhere compliance to this deal? And then what do you do if, like the previous cessations of hostilities, this one breaks down and it becomes clear it’s not working? Are there punishments or enticements or ways to enforce it, and what do you do in the event of failure? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So I can start this one. So per the terms of the agreement, the only consequences of failure per se in the agreement are the end of the agreement. But that said, both sides certainly retain the full range of policy options that we had available to us going into this agreement, and I don’t think now on sort of day one and a half of us trying to make this work is the time to talk in detail about what consequences we may or may not consider in the event that this doesn’t work out the way we intend and will attempt to make work. I’ll leave it at that.

OPERATOR: Next we turn to the line of Laura Rozen with Al Monitor. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this. Some of the opposition I’ve talked to expressed concerns that they hadn’t seen the deal text. They’ve been offered briefings. And their suspicion was that it was too favorable – that the agreement was too favorable to the regime and that was why the U.S. was reluctant to share it with them. Can you speak to that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So we haven’t released the document. This is something that we’ve discussed with the Russians. There’s some technical issues, some security-related issues that make it somewhat sensitive to release everything. I think we’re still talking about the format in which we might be able to give more details. But we have briefed the opposition in full, every detail that they would need, and there’s nothing in the document that is in any way different from what we briefed them or that should give them any cause for concern.

Yes, they’re understandably suspicious and skeptical, particularly of the Russians and the regime, but we have not hidden anything that is – that would in any way affect the obligations either of the regime or of the Russians or of the opposition, for that matter. So we – and we are prepared to brief them as comprehensively as they would like.

OPERATOR: Next we turn to the line of Brad Klapper with AP. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you describe any obligation for Kurdish forces under the deal or any expectation for them in the area of Castello Road? And if there is anything regarding the Kurds, who is the one who kind of pushed for them to be kind of part of this? Was that something done on behalf of Turkey? Was that Russia’s demand, U.S.? Where did that come from?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Do you want me to --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Oh, sorry. Go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So Kurdish forces – as was the case with the cessation of hostilities, they are a party on the ground, so they are also party to the cessation, which means that they should not be attacked or attack other parties to the cessation. And that was true back in February and it’s true now, and it’s not a matter of anyone pushing for that. That was just an obligation that every fighting force on the ground – again, other than ISIL and Nusrah – was asked to subscribe to, and the Kurdish forces agreed to it.

There’s separate obligations when it comes to Castello Road about pullback from the road by any force that is present within a certain distance of it. The Kurds are present and so there’s some steps that they might be – they might have to take a little bit further in the coming days just to make sure that Castello Road is viewed and that area is viewed as a demilitarized zone where there could be greater traffic, greater humanitarian traffic, unimpeded and unthreatened.

So I don’t think there was any – it wasn’t as if we or the Russians or anyone else pushed for this. It was part of the overall negotiation, first to make sure that all parties would commit to the cessation, and second for the separate arrangement having to do with Castello Road because there are some Kurdish forces in proximity to the road.

MODERATOR: I think time for just a couple more questions.

OPERATOR: Next we turn to the line of Julian Borger with The Guardian. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello. Thanks for doing the call. I just wanted to get some more clarity about the 20 trucks that are waiting to go through that Staffan de Mistura talked about. Are you clear about who is stopping them moving along the Castello Road? Are these regime forces still on the road? And maybe a bit more detail on what is being done to allow them to get through.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So those trucks, they are waiting – I don’t know how much detail Staffan de Mistura went into, so I don’t want to say more than he did. There’s some technical issues that have to be addressed to make sure – the regime is still present on the road. Under our agreement, at some point they will be – in the coming days, they should be pulling back. They’re still on the road, and I think the UN wants to make sure that their convoys could get through both unhindered in terms of the regime, unthreatened in terms of the opposition, and to be able to get safely into eastern Aleppo. So there’s some work that we’re trying to clarify with the Russians and obviously through the Russians with the regime and with the opposition forces in eastern Aleppo to make sure that there be no threat to the convoys and they could go through unhindered. And hopefully, that could be resolved very quickly.

MODERATOR: Great. Last question, I think.

OPERATOR: And that comes from the line of Barbara Usher with BBC. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Just a quick one to follow up on the concerns of the opposition, some of whom have said that if the regime violates the agreement – as you said, the consequence is that the agreement would fail. But if the regime – if the opposition violates the agreement by not pulling back from al-Nusrah, then they get bombed, which is – which means that they are put in an unfair or weaker position. They have consequences that are directly related to them and the regime does not. How do you respond to that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Do you want to go ahead?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sorry, do you want me to do this, or do you want to go ahead?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Sure, why don’t you go ahead, and then I’ll --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. Look, I guess with regard to that question what I would say is we don’t want to get into a scenario in which we’re describing – laying out all the different consequences that we might impose in the event that the agreement doesn’t come to fruition. What you’re describing is a scenario in which essentially the agreement will have fallen apart because the opposition will not have adhered to it. That is a – there’s nothing explicitly in the agreement that suggests that the opposition will be subject to bombardment by us, by Russians, by anyone else. The only groups that are authorized for bombardment inside the agreement, for strikes inside the agreement, are the Nusrah and ISIL.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: If I could just add – I mean, obviously, this is one of the sensitive parts of the – and difficult parts, which is our desire, which Secretary Kerry made clear again yesterday, for the opposition to distance itself from Nusrah. This is not – we’re not being unrealistic. It’s not going to happen overnight and it certainly is not going to happen if the regime and the Russians don’t adhere to the cessation of hostilities. It’s the bombing, it’s the indiscriminate shelling, that has led the opposition to move towards Nusrah.

By the same token – and we just marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11 – I think particularly for the American people but not just them, it is hard to accept a continued intermingling and cooperation between the opposition and an organization which is al-Qaida in Syria. So at some point, it is going to be important for the opposition to distance itself and to, if the cessation holds, no longer to be associated with an organization that has represented a great threat to us in the past and represents a threat to us in the future.

MODERATOR: Great. Look, I know that some folks, including our two senior Administration officials, are very pressed for time tonight. I want to just say thank you for both – to both of them for joining us and trying to further clarify some of the aspects of this agreement as we move forward. And thanks to everyone else for joining us too in – this evening. So on that, we’ll conclude.