On-the-Record Briefing With Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield on Syria

Special Briefing Heather Nauert
Department Spokesperson
The Palace Hotel
New York City
September 18, 2017

MS NAUERT: Hi, everyone.

QUESTION: Hi. How are you?

MS NAUERT: Oh my Gosh, such a steamy room here. (Laughter.) Let me just come on up with you and introduce you to our guest here. Come on up, Ambassador.

We just finished up a meeting of likeminded countries. I think you all have a list of the nations and the individuals that were represented here. Our Acting Assistant Secretary David Satterfield, Ambassador Satterfield, is going to provide a readout of that meeting and answer some of your questions. We don’t have too much time this afternoon or this evening, but want to give you what we can. Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: Great. Thanks, you all, for coming. A year ago, this same collective of likeminded states from the region, from the international community met in this same place – I think in the same room – to review the situation in Syria. And every party present reflected on the distinct difference between this meeting and that meeting a year ago. The situation in Syria a year ago was marked with rampant violence, a humanitarian disaster, displaced person flight. It was a crisis, it was chaos, and it showed no prospect of improving in any of those dimensions. The need for a political resolution was clear a year ago, but that path to a political resolution couldn’t be advanced while the violence was as profound as was the case then.

We contrast the situation then with the situation now. Because of the role of the de-escalation zones, because of the common work of the parties represented in the room today, violence is down dramatically. The generation of new internally displaced persons is dramatically reduced and, equally important, those displaced outside of Syria’s boundaries have begun to return in significant numbers.

The process of stabilizing Syria in any meaningful sense – and this was a point underscored by the Secretary but reflected in the consensus of every remark by the participants in the room – is that military actions alone, security actions alone, while they bring violence ultimately down, do not produce a stable Syria. Only a credible political process that reflects the will of the majority of Syrians can achieve that goal, and we talked quite a bit – the Secretary led and his remarks were absolutely agreed to by everyone present. There’s got to be a political process if there is to be any international participation in the reconstruction of Syria.

To put this another way, the regime and the regime’s supporters cannot declare a victory solely based on a map and colors of positions on the ground. Without a political process, the international community – all of those states represented in the room today – are not going to contribute to a legitimization or authenticization or to the reconstruction of Syria. We are all committed to humanitarian aid, and that will continue to flow, of course. But the reconstruction of Syria depends very much on that credible – credible political process.

Now, that political process is focused on Geneva and the role of the United Nations. There was much discussion at the meeting today of how do we generate focus on Geneva, on the political track. Everyone underscored in their remarks words like pragmatic, practical, realistic. But in saying pragmatic, practical, and realistic, everyone also caveated this does not mean accepting a fait accompli by the regime and its supporters. It means we work to move as rapidly as we can from a military or security resolution bringing down violence as the key to opening the next step, and frankly, it’s a more difficult step, and that’s the political engagement.

The defeat of ISIS is well underway. The reduction of ISIS in terms of territory the so-called caliphate holds in Syria and in Iraq has progressed dramatically. It is moving faster than any of us expected. We can see the path forward to an ending of the territorial caliphate. That’s the easy part, in many ways. The hard part is that political process that I continue to underscore, that the Secretary underscored, that the parties in the room absolutely believe is essential. How do you get it started? How do you move it forward?

Well, that process is critical not just to us, to the likeminded. It ought to be critical to the regime and it ought to be critical to supporters of the regime such as Russia. Without the political process, to go back to a comment the Secretary and everyone in the room made, you’re not going to get international participation in Syria, and that’s vital. The regime needs it. Russia needs it. All of those engaged should see the advisability of a credible process moving forward.

Now, the question will come: Where does the U.S., where do those in the room envision that process ending? We’ve made clear many times that we do not believe at the end of this process that Assad should remain, that he has lost his legitimacy and his right to rule. But that is a decision for the Syrian people to make. That is the outcome of the process. The process itself has to begin, has to be launched.

I can’t close this without underscoring more clearly the consensus view: defeat Daesh, priority; end the violence, priority; basic stabilization to address the humanitarian situation in Syria produced by the violence; allow the return of displaced persons both within Syria to their homes but also from outside Syria back into the country.

But as we move on that path, and the movement there is quite rapid, switch to the political process as quickly as we can. Give that empowerment and move that forward as rapidly as the security campaigns are moving. See at the end a intact, nonpartitioned, independent Syria, a Syria which is not a proxy for any external state – Iran or anyone else. That was the universal goals and the priorities, the sequencing expressed by everybody in the room.

MS NAUERT: Thank you, sir. I’ll just take a few questions, then. Hi, John.

QUESTION: So the —

MS NAUERT: If you could all just tell me your organizations at the beginning.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you. John Hudson of BuzzFeed News. If that was the priority, to have an independent Syria free of proxies of any external state, wouldn’t it behoove to have Iran or Russia present at the meeting, or is that – is it going to be difficult making headway without them there? And then just secondly, when you say “no reconstruction until Assad is gone,” what sort of funds and resources is that preventing the U.S. and some of the partners from dedicating?

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: First a comment and then a correction. But the comment is, look, this is a likeminded group. All of the parties in the room have a consensus, a remarkably consistent consensus view, that these are the priorities: switch from defeating ISIS, stabilization, then move on to the political process, independent Syria, free as a non-proxy of external parties. That’s where we want to get. It’s not easy. This is a difficult thing to move ahead and everyone acknowledges that.

But we do have certain resources, and the biggest resource, the biggest lever, if you want to call it that we have, is that without a political process, a credible political process, one supported by the majority of the Syrian people, you’re not going to get the kind of investment by the international community that’s really necessary for the reconstruction of Syria.

The correction is you said until Assad is out. It is a credible political process that is required that is the key. The outcome to that process may be protracted, but it’s the process itself that’s the key to unlocking the door, not the actual outcome of the process.

QUESTION: And what sort of funds would be unlocked?

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: There are considerable resources in the international community which would be available for the reconstruction of Syria. Why? Why would the international community make this investment? Very simple answer. Because uniformly, everyone in the room today, led by the Secretary, expressed the obvious: If Syria does not rebuild, if it isn’t truly stable, and that’s not something that can be achieved militarily, you’re going to have a resumption of violence. It may be under a different name. It won’t be Daesh, it won’t be Nusrah, it won’t be al-Qaida, but it will be something else. This is how you get at the root generator of violence and instability, by true stabilization.

And that’s why we believe – certainly everyone in the room, which represent the majority of developed countries in the region – are absolutely committed to significant investment assuming that credible political process is launched and moves forward.

MS NAUERT: Felicia.

QUESTION: Hi. Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. I guess the Secretary was asked at the beginning of the meeting about what happened in Deir ez-Zor and if it killed the deconfliction agreement. How – did that come up in the talks? And —

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: The Secretary noted to the group we are working closely on deconfliction of operations in the Deir ez-Zor and Euphrates Valley area. We are confident that the deconfliction process can work, can succeed and move ahead. That is what we are committed to. That is what our Russian counterparts tell us they are committed to.

QUESTION: What if this happens again, if there’s another strike? (Inaudible.)

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: I’m not going to – I am not going to go into hypotheticals. We believe we have an effective deconfliction mechanism. That mechanism is underway. We think it can work.

QUESTION: And as to the —

MS NAUERT: Michelle.

QUESTION: You started this off – thank you, I’m with CNN – by talking about the differences between this year and last year. But given all that has happened in the fight against ISIS, would you say at this point that you’re really any closer to starting the political process anyway?

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: Absolutely. That political process, I said at the beginning of my remarks, couldn’t begin a year ago. Violence consumed everything. Humanitarian crisis, flight of displaced persons – that consumed all of the bandwidth. We are dramatically in a better place on all of those issues today, and it is why at this meeting the focus really could be both looking back at how much had been achieved and, based on that achievement, now switch attention to the political track. This is not a discussion or a consensus that any of us could have held a year ago.

MS NAUERT: Sir, in the back of the room.

QUESTION: Yes, (inaudible), Al Jazeera. Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. Being realistic and practical, does that include admitting the right of Bashar al-Assad to run for the election, presidential election? And secondly, did you discuss the French proposal about creating a contact group, and would you accept any Iranian role in such a proposed contact group?

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: We have made – the U.S. and many of the parties in the room, who can speak for themselves, have made clear their view that at the end of the day we do not believe that the majority of the Syrian people wish to see Bashar al-Assad continue in power. The U.S. view is he has lost his legitimacy, has lost his right to be in power. But that is the product, the end state, of a political process. And it’s the launch of the political process that has to begin now that takes you, takes Syrians, to that end state.

However the end state is achieved, through whatever modalities or means, it’s the process that has to be the focus. Now, in Geneva is the place where that process, under UN auspices, now needs to really take life and to take off. And no, there were no discussion of other fora in this session.

MS NAUERT: Josh, Matt, you have a question?

QUESTION: Yeah. This is extremely brief. I’m just trying to figure out – I mean, since the Geneva communique was issued five years ago or whatever it was, the political process has always been a priority and it’s never gone anywhere.


QUESTION: Why is it – why is it somehow different today?


QUESTION: The commitment to a political process has always been there for the likemindeds.

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: It was a commitment, very frankly, that the circumstances on the ground could not enable with the kind of life that we now believe is possible. It is the very change in circumstances in Syria and the fact that we do believe – and the we is the collective we of those sitting in that room – that there are powerful incentives for all involved in the political process and those associated with them to move forward now in a genuine fashion, because without it there is not going to be an international legitimization of the situation in Syria or the development reconstruction assistance which is vital, vital for everyone.

QUESTION: Right. But when the Geneva accord – communique was entered into in 2012, wasn’t the situation in Syria now much like it was then?

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: No, I would say absolutely not. There is a certain resolution on the ground after a great deal of suffering and disruption which we believe provides a greater incentive for all parties concerned to look seriously now at Geneva, if for no other reason than without it they are simply not going to get the things that are needed for basic stabilization.

MS NAUERT: (Inaudible) Josh.

QUESTION: You talked about the need for an intact, nonpartitioned, independent Syria. What do you then say to the Kurds who, let’s face it, did a lot of the hard fighting for us for the last several years and are now seeing their aspirations for independence being suppressed in multiple parts of the region?

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: Well, we would certainly not agree with that characterization. There was discussion —

QUESTION: Which part of the characterization are you disputing?

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: The suppression of Kurdish desires for independence. There was discussion during this meeting which was focused on Syria – I want to underscore that – but there was discussion of the Kurdish referendum. And I’ll be very clear that there was uniform consensus in the room that now was not the moment for this referendum, announced and advocated as it has been, to proceed. I think there is an international consensus on that point. But frankly, this was a Syria discussion, not a Kurdish-focused discussion.

MS NAUERT: Just a couple more questions now. Carol.

QUESTION: I was wondering if there was any discussion today about the Russians saying that they wanted to expand their footprint and move eastward, something – towards the Iraq border, something that the U.S. has opposed before. Was that kind of the expansion of the – of Russia and the Syrian army moving towards Iraq or moving east, was that discussed at all?

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: Carol, there is a campaign underway, as you know, in and around Deir ez-Zor. That campaign will continue as part of the defeat ISIS strategy down the Eastern Euphrates or the Middle Euphrates Valley, whatever you want to refer to it as. That’s a campaign that Russia is engaged in; it’s a campaign we are engaged in as well. When I speak of de-confliction, that is precisely Deir ez-Zor and the movement east or southeast down the Middle Euphrates Valley that we’re talking about in de-confliction.

There’s not a contest here. It is part of defeating ISIS in the remaining key territory ISIS controls and from which it continues to launch, continues to direct its disruptive activities.

QUESTION: If they keep moving forward, will the United States – what will the United States do? Anything?

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: We are engaged in working with Russia, de-confliction with Russia, as we each move on defeating ISIS. It’s not a rivalry. It’s not a contest.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Miss.

QUESTION: Thanks. Hi, I’m Laura Rozen from Al-Monitor. Thanks for doing this. Following up a little bit on what Matt was asking, so what are you all asking the Syrian opposition to do since the likeminded countries have more influence with them when they show up in Geneva? And are you asking the HNC to fold in with the Moscow and Cairo groups?

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: What we are urging the opposition to do is to be credible in its positions, to work together, to come to Geneva with positions that reflect what we believe to be consensus views, to be able to play the role coherently, and to the extent that the opposition can focus on Geneva as the venue for advancing their political goals, we think they can be more influential in achieving the results they want for themselves and above all for the Syrian people that they represent.

MS NAUERT: And last question. Sorry, Dave from AFP.

QUESTION: Hi, Dave Clark from AFP. In your answer to Matt’s question, you said that the political situation is much different than it was five years ago when these goals were set out. But the only thing that’s changed on the ground is that Russia, Iran, and the U.S. have made military advances in various sections of the country. You say there’s no military solution to this, but if there is an opportunity now, isn’t it because of military successes by outside powers?

AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: There is a recognition in Syria, we believe, by all parties that the violence has to come to a close, and that through the ending of violence, a political process must begin. Five years ago, there were a mix of very different goals and objectives and tactics to get there. We are focused now, all of us in the room, on a practical, realistic approach that can yield both the end of violence and the political process that’s necessary for a truly stabilized Syria to begin.

The approaches taken, the efforts made five years ago did not, obviously, yield success. We believe the circumstances are such today that they can.

MS NAUERT: Thank you, everybody. Thank you, Acting Assistant Secretary for —


MS NAUERT: — Near Eastern Affairs Bureau David Satterfield.

QUESTION: Thank you.


MS NAUERT: Thank you, everybody.

QUESTION: Thank you.