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    Top Chinese AI firms added to export blacklist; Iranian hackers target 2020 campaigns; uncertain future for Libra cryptocurrency; U.S. companies confronted by Beijing’s censors on Hong Kong; and Twitter used user email addresses and phone numbers for advertising.
  • Syria

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  • Yemen

    Our panelists discuss the humanitarian and political situation in Yemen, and the state of U.S. involvement in the conflict. AMIRFAR: Good afternoon and welcome, everybody. It’s a real pleasure to be here this afternoon with you here at CFR for “An Inside Look at Yemen.” So, again, good afternoon. My name is Catherine Amirfar. I’m a partner and co-chair of the Public International Law Group at Debevoise & Plimpton here in New York City. And just I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion. And we’re extraordinarily lucky to have this group of four esteemed experts. And with their prior permission, I’m going to grossly truncate their amazing profile and qualifications because you do have it in your materials and I want to spend as much time as possible engaged in a discussion with them. So we have Radhya Almutawakel, who is here with us and co-founder and chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights; Gregory Johnsen, a fellow at Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies; Priyanka Motaparthy, human rights lawyer and advocate; and Peter Salisbury, senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group. So, again, welcome. And just a reminder to everyone that this is an on-the-record conversation. So let me start, Gregory, with you, for the unenviable task of getting us started by really setting the stage. You’ve written extensively on the situation in Yemen and how we got here. So tell us a bit your perspective of how we got here, and including an overview of the current contours of the conflict and the various factions involved. JOHNSEN: Right. Yeah, thanks to—(laughter)—for that enviable task. To set the stage, I think the most helpful way to look at Yemen is to think about it—what we talk about as one war in Yemen, I think it’s much more helpful to think about as three separate wars. So you have the U.S.-led war on al-Qaida and ISIS. The al-Qaida portion’s been going on, obviously, since September 11, maybe even going back to the USS Cole. That’s one war. That’s sort of this broad war on terrorism. You have the war that we always think about, this regional war, which is a Saudi-led war against what they consider an Iranian proxy. So this is Saudi Arabia and the UAE against what they consider an Iranian proxy in the Houthis. And then underlying that you have a longer-lasting and I think a much messier civil war. And this brings in a variety of different actors, from the Houthis up in the north, President Hadi’s government in the south, the Southern Transition(al) Council, al-Qaida and ISIS are both a part of this, as well as a variety of different militia groups and tribal groups spread throughout the country. And I think there’s a couple important things to remember. One is that this civil war has been going on longer than the regional war, the Saudi-led coalition war which started in 2015, and this civil war will likely go on long after the Saudis and the Emiratis eventually go home. I think if I could just add, when we look at the trend lines going forward, Yemen has what I would call a Humpty Dumpty problem; that is, it’s broken and there’s simply too many groups with too many guns for any one of them to ever impose their will upon the entire country. But at the same time, all of those groups have enough power and enough guys and enough guns that they can act as a spoiler to any sort of reconciliation process. So this means that the longer this regional war—this Saudi and Emirati war against the Houthis—goes on, that the more bloody, the more violent, the more fragmented Yemen will become in the civil war which will take place after that. And so I think right now we’re looking at a situation—if you sort of project forward in looking at how this conflict is going to unfold, we have a situation in which the idea of a unified Yemen is really a fiction. And I think that the country has broken not into two pieces, but into multiple little statelets. And that’s going to raise, I think, very serious policy questions for the United States, regional actors, and for Europe moving forward. AMIRFAR: Thanks, Gregory. And I want to come back to where we are going into the future. You mentioned a bit about the reconciliation efforts and the prior reconciliation efforts. Could you give us a little bit more on what’s happened previously and in your estimation why it hasn’t worked out? JOHNSEN: Right. So when we talk—most of the reconciliation efforts have been U.N.-led. This is where crises that have no real solution end up sort of in the forum of last resort, the U.N. Security Council, and the U.N. has a special envoy. They’re now on their third special envoy. The were on their third special envoy in four years. It’s now the third in fifth year—in five years, excuse me. None of them have been very successful. I don’t think this is because the various special envoys aren’t talented diplomats; I think it’s because they’re dealing with a very uneven field. That is, the Houthis up in the north feel as though they have the territory. They feel as though they are negotiating from a position of strength. The Saudi-led coalition has had four-plus years of airstrikes and air campaign, which have done very little to push the Houthis out. In fact, I would argue that it’s given the Houthis, who are very bad at governance, very repressive—it’s given the Houthis in the north a bit of a free pass because you’re not going to have people rising up on the ground when you’re being bombed from the air. And so the Saudis are left in I think a very unenviable position, which is they can continue to do what it is that they’ve been doing for the past four years and continue to get the same results; they can withdraw completely, which would give the Houthis victory; or they can go forward and—with some sort of a ground offensive to try to push the Houthis out. And they are not going to do that, for obviously reasons. Such an offensive would be bloody, long, with no guarantee of success. So with those sort of military options on the table, the Saudis still continue, and the Houthis as well continue, to sort of dance around the edges but not make a whole lot of—whole lot of progress on reconciliation. AMIRFAR: So, Radhya, let me—let me turn to you. At really great personal cost and an amazing amount of bravery you’ve been on the frontlines of trying to shine a light on the human rights situation for Yemenis that have been caught in this conflict. And I think, certainly as you know, the United Nations has warned that this is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with 80 percent of the civilian population in need of some kind of assistance. And since you addressed the U.N. Security Council two years ago in order to give them a picture of the crisis on the ground, there has been a lot of humanitarian relief in the form of billions of dollars and commitments from 190 organizations to commit that money to getting relief into Yemen. Can you give us a sense, two years after you’ve addressed the United Nations, a sense of what the picture is on the ground from a human rights perspective? And is that humanitarian assistance being effective? Is it getting to where it needs to go? ALMUTAWAKEL: Well, the war in Yemen is very preventable, and it’s much cheaper to stop the war than to keep paying this humanitarian assistance. So Yemen started to be known as the worst humanitarian disaster since two years, and now the situation is even worse. So twenty-two millions of Yemenis, they need a certain humanitarian assistance, and this is almost all of us. I stopped counting the numbers since last year. But what we have—keep saying that it’s not—we should remember all the time it’s not a natural disaster; it’s a manmade disaster. So all the violations that is committed by all parties to the conflict led to this disaster. So the humanitarian aid is a lifeline for millions of people now. But even humanitarian NGOs started to say they lost their battle in the face of famine and there should be a solution in Yemen to solve the humanitarian issue. Otherwise, they will just fill—keep filling the gaps and it will never be ended, like, the humanitarian need. And even if the war is still going on in Yemen, Yemen doesn’t have to be the worst humanitarian disaster only if parties to the conflict, they respect the international humanitarian law and they protect civilians and civilian objects. But there is a huge lack of accountability in Yemen. It affects everything regarding the humanitarian aid. So besides all the human rights violations—the very direct ones like the airstrikes, landmines, child soldiers—there is one violation that is even worse than all of these violations, which is starvation. And we keep saying that Yemenis are not starving; they are being starved. And one of the things that caused starvation, it’s not even blocking the humanitarian access; it’s salaries. Thousands of Yemenis are not receiving their salaries since years until now, those who are under the control of Houthi areas. And after the Stockholm peace process some of them started to receive their salaries, like the retired people, the health sector, but suddenly in Aden the proxy forces of the United Arab Emirates decided to control Aden by force. Now, again, no one is receiving their salaries. Really, the salary is one of the things that broke the back of Yemenis more than anything else. AMIRFAR: Radhya, let me pause a moment on accountability. You talked about accountability. When you addressed the Security Council two years ago, you mentioned the necessity of setting up a commission of inquiry in order to document abuses and violations. And more recently, just a month ago the U.N. Group of Eminent Experts released a report and they actually endorsed the establishment of a commission of inquiry. What did you think of that report in terms of its documentation, its utility going forward? And specifically, what does accountability look like in Yemen at this stage? ALMUTAWAKEL: Well, as I said, accountability’s still absent in Yemen, 100 percent. Most of the violations we document are very preventable violations. So, for example, in 2018 we documented only in 2018 about eighty airstrikes where hundreds of civilians were killed and injured. In many of these airstrikes there was no even a military target. We documented about more than one thousand child soldiers, most of them by Houthis, and much more than this. And it’s very preventable, but they don’t care. They trust impunity more than anything else in Yemen. So that’s why the Group of Eminent Experts that established out of the Human Rights Council was very important. It was the only mechanism that concentrate on the human rights in Yemen. And it’s taken seriously by states, by parties to the conflict, and also by people in Yemen. It’s very important. The report is very good. I invite everyone to read their last report. Although they didn’t have access to Yemen, they didn’t have access even to the countries that are part of the Saudi-led coalition, but in spite of this the report was very good. It gives a very good picture of what’s going—what’s happening in Yemen. And they also mentioned the starvation as a method of war. And I think that they need to be supported because they are the only path now toward accountability. We don’t have another path. Security Council cannot be peace process until now. We want to stop the war. So the mechanisms that come out from the Human Rights Council, it’s the only one until now beside the civil society and human rights NGOs, and need to be supported. It was very difficult to have this mechanism. It’s not like other countries. Other countries, they have a commission of inquiry, tribal (IM ?), tribal (IM ?), because, yeah, there are some states who are not allies with the criminals. But Yemen, it’s different because many allies to Saudis and Emiratis didn’t want this to happen. But it happened in spite of this and it should continue. AMIRFAR: Is there something—do you think the report went far enough? Is there something you wish you had seen in the report? ALMUTAWAKEL: I wish that the work will continue. So they covered many types of violations, but still what’s happening in Yemen is much more than all the work that happened in human rights, whether from the GEE or from the human rights NGOs. So I hope that will continue. And I hope that it will be linked to accountability in different ways, so it’s not going to be only documenting violations but going in a process that give a very clear message to parties to the conflict that this is a step toward accountability. AMIRFAR: Thank you. Priyanka, let me turn to you. So war crimes and accountability. Obviously, your prior group, Human Rights Watch, had spent a lot of time extensively documenting what was happening on the ground. Tell us a little bit about your view of the war crimes, particularly in a context where some have noted rightly that there has really been an outsized role, if you will, of third countries in the conflict, whether it’s the United States, the U.K., Iran. What is—what do you think is the approach and the—in terms of documentation of war crimes? And tell me what you think that these participation of the third states, how that impacts the analysis and whether there is complicity there. MOTAPARTHY: Great. So when we’re talking about war crimes in Yemen, the most prominent example of war crimes in Yemen, the one that most people are familiar with, tend to be the airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. These airstrikes have had indiscriminate impact on civilians. The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights has documented more than seven thousand civilian deaths and we know that number is very likely to be much higher than that. But when we talk about war crimes in Yemen, we cannot only focus on the airstrikes. There is, in fact, a very, very long list. I could spend the rest of our time together here today merely listing and categorizing and describing the war crimes that—the apparent war crimes that are happening in Yemen, which have in fact been carried out by all parties to the conflict. When you listen to Greg give his overview of, you know, who are the actors on the ground, how we got here today, each one of those actors is identified with a kind of signature apparent war crime they have carried out. So with the coalition you have the airstrikes. We’ve discussed the humanitarian situation. You have impeding humanitarian aid upon which the civilian population is dependent and needs for their survival. You have starvation as a weapon of war, which includes of course not just food items but medicine, supplies necessary to provide water. All of this is an intricate and linked together structure in Yemen. And when you look at the actions the coalition has carried out to block critical supplies, when you look at actions the Houthis have taken to block humanitarian aid or, indeed, turn back humanitarian aid, these are also examples of potential war crimes. Let us not also forget the potential war crimes associated with detention practices. Both Houthis as well as the Emiratis, who are a party that we often forget to talk about in the context of this conflict, have run extremely abusive detention centers, have carried out widespread arbitrary detentions, have subjected detainees in their control to torture, to sexual and gender-based violence, and to arbitrary killings on a scale that it is difficult for us to fathom given how difficult it is to document these types of violations and given how the scale of these violations so far outstrips what groups even like Radhya’s—like Mwatana, which has more than eighty staff members in Yemen—is able to cover with their resources. So the list of apparent war crimes is wrong. And this ties closely to the issue of accountability because, of course, I say apparent war crimes. It is not my role as a human rights investigator or human rights advocate to make that ultimate decision. That needs to be done through a process that meets legal standards, that is able to collect evidence up to certain standards, and that is able to make what can be quite a complex legal determination with questions of intent and knowledge and all of that. You raised an important question around complicity. Since the beginning of the war the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and of course Iran as well have all taken a lot of criticism for their support for various sides in this conflict. The sort of specter of complicity has been raised. It has been increasingly used by advocates like myself and international lawyers to put these countries on notice that they may be doing something wrong in providing this support. Now we are more than four years into this conflict. The standards around aiding and abetting international crimes are—you know, again, I’m not going to sort of give you the whole legal test, but more or less knowingly contributing to internationally wrongful conduct. Do these countries know that they are contributing to conduct that is very, very likely to be wrongful under international law? I think there is quite a strong argument that they do. And you see this recognition both reflected in the work of the United Nations commission—I’m sorry, the Group of Eminent Experts. If you look at their report on last—from last year, they raise a very strong question: Are these countries complicit? If you look at their language from this year, they go further. You can see that they are hinting that these groups, that they may well—these countries may well be complicit depending on the level of support, the level of influence they have exercised. You also saw that the U.S. scaled back its level of support by stopping the refueling of planes. But complicity is a very, very important question. And at this point, all these countries are both on notice about the severity of abuses in Yemen and about the likelihood that their conduct contributes, and they may be—they may be guilty of aiding and abetting. And you can also see this reflected by the numerous legal cases that have been raised in different jurisdictions. Mwatana is a part of many of these cases. Human Rights Watch participated in a case in the United Kingdom. There’s litigation in France. There’s litigation in Italy, as well. And so you really see this as an increasingly significant issue. AMIRFAR: And can you just speak really brief to the commission of inquiry and what you think— MOTAPARTHY: Yes. AMIRFAR: What role would that play in this type of determination of complicity, of accountability that you’ve just gone through? MOTAPARTHY: I mean, I think that, you know, you see—there’s very clearly a need for accountability in this conflict, you know. Radhya has spoken about the damaging effects of impunity. Neither the coalition nor the Houthis seem to have any real fear that they will held to be—be held to account for their actions. And why should they? In more than four years of war, not a single individual has faced a completed prosecution for actions they have carried out. At the same time, the Group of Eminent Experts, when they had their mandate renewed this fall in Geneva, you saw a slight expansion of that mandate and important expansion, which speaks to the question of accountability. They now have a mandate to—I think it is to collect and preserve evidence that could lead to future accountability. But I think when we talk about accountability we could be talking about a wide range of options. So is there accountability domestically in Yemen? And that has been a very impoverished scene. We haven’t seen that. Is there accountability at the coalition level? Some of you may be familiar with the Joint Investigations (sic; Incidents) Assessment Team, whose work Human Rights Watch and others have examined very carefully and have assessed as not credible, and not even appearing to properly understand and apply principles of international law. Then, at the international level, as Radhya said, the main avenue thus far has been these U.N. panels. And the—you know, the Security Council one calling for sanctions and the one in Geneva fulfilling its investigative mandate. But much more needs to be done. And it’s really about looking for those opportunities and creating those pathways, including pathways to redress for individual victims, so. AMIRFAR: All right. Peter, let me—let me turn to you. You are going to have another unenviable task, which is to peer into the crystal ball. Now, you’ve said and written previously to the point that Riyadh needs a win, I think as you put it, in order to bring an end to this conflict. Now, with also taking account of the scaling down of Emirati forces, is that likely at this stage? Where are we headed with this conflict? SALISBURY: Sure. So we were talking just before we came in about wanting to reframe the question. I’m going to do that slightly, but I will come back—come back to this point. So Greg did a really lovely job earlier of explaining the complexity of the conflict. There’s this internal layer, which is based on local grievances, local rivalries; and then there’s this regional and international layer. And what’s happened over the past year or so, really, is that we’ve seen within Yemen a process of consolidation by certain groups. So we have really three core centers of power in terms of the military and economic capabilities of the groups on the ground. So we’ve got the Houthis in the northwest of the country, who have backing from Iran. In the center of the country we have this collection of groups in Marib, which is a sort of desert area in the center of the country, who are linked to local tribes; to Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party; and remnants of the Yemeni military who didn’t join the Houthis at the outset of the war. And then in August we saw a group called the STC, the Southern Transitional Council, take over Aden in the south. The STC are backed by the UAE and the guys up in Marib are backed by the Saudis. So we’ve got sort of this interesting regional overlay, and we’ve got all these different agendas that the local groups have and the regional groups have. And a lot of the time when we talk about countries like Yemen, we tend to slip into this very linear idea of what a proxy is, what a proxy force is, and we work on the basis that Saudi Arabia has command and control over group X, Iran has command and control over the Houthis, et cetera, et cetera. But in fact, in every single group’s case what we’ve seen is a demonstration of the local group’s willingness to do things that their paymasters, if you like, don’t want them to do on the basis that it better serves their agenda. So the Houthis at the beginning of the war were told by the Iranians fairly clearly don’t try and take Sanaa in its entirety and then don’t expand across the country. And more recently, some people from Iran told the Houthis not to sign up to this agreement that prevented the battle for Hodeidah last year, the Stockholm agreement. In 2016 the Yemeni government vetoed what could have been something like a peace deal which some in Riyadh wanted to see. And then in August we saw the STC moving ahead with a plan that was already in place to take over Aden without a UAE go ahead, largely on the basis that the Emiratis would join them along the way, and that’s what happened. I think that’s a really important thing to bear in mind, that everyone’s got their own agenda. What do the Saudis want in Yemen? At the beginning of the war they said that they wanted to push back Iranian influence in Yemen, prevent the creation of a Hezbollah on their southern border, and restore the legitimate government of the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, to Sanaa. That’s really shifted over time, in part because there is a general consensus that any peace deal for Yemen will usher Hadi out and bring in some new administration. So what the Saudis really want and need at this moment in time is some sort of deal that brings the Houthis into their sphere of influence and removes them from the Iranian sphere of influence, and gives them some sort of veto power over Yemeni politics. What does the UAE want? It wants a group that can act as a bulwark against political Islamism, both in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they see as heavily influencing the groups in the center of the country, and Iran with the Houthis. And what does Iran want? Well, Iran has got an incredibly low-cost opportunity to annoy and pester and distract the Saudis and also the U.S. And it’s also, it has to be said, had an opportunity to test Saudi Arabia’s aerial defense systems. I think that we saw quite recently how that’s played out. They got really good knowledge of how the Saudis defend against things like drones and missiles, and all of a sudden they launch an incredibly sophisticated attack, allegedly, on Saudi Arabia. So when we talk about a move towards a peace process, each of these groups has a different influence internally but also internationally. So at the beginning of the conflict, one of the early diplomatic successes the Saudis had was pushing through at the United Nations a resolution, 2216, which essentially frames the conflict as one between the legitimate internationally recognized government and the Houthis. And there are conversations to be had about the interpretation of that resolution, but that’s really become sort of the way that it’s read internationally, it’s read diplomatically, and it’s become a straitjacket for the special envoy in Yemen. He has to get a deal between these two groups. And really the Saudis, because of their outside influence over the Hadi government, have veto power over any deal. So when we hear about diplomatic initiatives on Yemen, people spend as much time speaking to the Saudis in Riyadh as they do the Yemeni president in Riyadh because they know they need Saudi buy-in. So we’ve got the Saudis as a kind of super spoiler because they can spoil things on the ground, they can spoil things at the diplomatic level, and they can spoil things at the international level. The Emiratis and Iranians don’t have the same level of influence, but they do have a ground game, if you like. They have the ability to push these groups in various different directions. And then the groups on the ground themselves also have agendas and interests. So they want to get things out of this conflict. They’ve shed blood. Their grievances, if they weren’t sort of fully sort of realized in the beginning of the conflict, are very, very real now. So we need an internal reconciliation process, as well as all these sort of international/regional/local layers. And now just to make things easier, we’ve got really strong rumors of the Omanis becoming more involved in the political scene, the Qataris, and the Turkish. So Yemen’s sort of increasingly looking like the way we sometimes imagine Syria, just this sort of really sort of complex, three-dimensional game of chess that’s really hard to resolve. But one of the keys that we have here is that over the past year, arguably, our analysis has been that we have moved towards this place where we’re seeing consolidation and bargaining on the ground. The Houthis are in a very strong, dominant position in the areas they control, but they have an understanding that at this moment in time they can’t expand geographically. They can defend, but they can’t sort of move across the rest of the country. The STC in the south has demonstrated sort of its sort of de facto sovereignty over certain parts of the south, not the south in its entirety. And then the guys in the north also have a strong game there. And all these groups are now talking to one another, and they’re all trying to position for any eventual political settlement that we might see. So what’s needed? The key to unlocking—turning that informal backchannel conversation into something real and diplomatic is really the Saudis because they’re the blocker at every single level that we go down. The positive is that there are voices in Riyadh—there are those who think, do you know what, let’s do it, let’s engage with this recent Houthi offer of a cross-border ceasefire leading to a wider de-escalation process that could lead to political talks. But there are strong voices inside the Kingdom, those who promoted the conflict throughout and have benefited from it, who don’t want that to happen. So we have the dove/hawk problem everywhere across all of these groups. But until the Saudi system really aligns in such a way as they say, OK, we’re ready to do a deal with the Houthis that saves some face but maybe doesn’t allow us to say that we, quote/unquote, “won the war and defeated Iran,” it’s very, very difficult to get to the end there. Sorry, that was a little more than five minutes. AMIRFAR: No, no, no, that was exactly what we needed. Let me—let me just follow up really quickly on one of the—one of the things you mentioned that is strikes me is a structural constraint; which is as you’ve said it’s been conceived since the outset as an international armed conflict, whereas if you look at the facts on the ground you could see some parallel non-international armed conflicts going on at the same time, and that the envoy has been hamstrung as a result of that. Is that perhaps a key, as well, to get all of these various factions to the table in the sense of actually hashing this out, and perhaps in a way that addresses the hawks in Saudi Arabia? SALISBURY: Absolutely, and that’s kind of where our advocacy has been in terms of a peace process. On one side it’s relatively simple. You’ve got the Houthis and some remnants of the GPC, the former ruling party of Yemen. On the other side you’ve got this mishmash of different anti-Houthi groups, we can call them broadly. And up till now the Hadi government, which is based in Riyadh, which has lost its second capital in five years recently, which is not seen as particularly legitimate by many people on the ground, is the representative of Yemen. And what that means is even if we get a deal between the Houthis and Hadi, we end up with a deal that no one’s bought into. And a good example of that is the Stockholm Agreement last year, where the Hadi government had to come in as the representative of the forces fighting the Houthis on the ground even though the vast majority of those on the ground were UAE-backed forces who do not have a lot of time for the government. So if the Hadi government goes in and does a peace deal for Yemen and these groups aren’t at the table or they don’t have a say on what that peace deal looks like and they don’t buy into it and feel bought into it, then really we’re looking at Yemen War 2.0, maybe without some of the international dimensions. AMIRFAR: OK. Well, thank you for that. Let’s open it up. We now have thirty minutes. Want to open it up to the members. Just a reminder, this is on the record. Please wait for the microphone, state your name, and if you could please be concise so that we can get as many members as possible. Please, over there. Q: Hi. Thank you very much. My name is Gary Sick, Columbia University. I have read about most of you, writings, and I appreciate very much the chance to see all of you here today. We’ve never had this much expertise on Yemen in one room, I don’t believe. I would like to ask what I think is a rather simple-minded question. But to sort of simplify where things are, could one say that at this point the Houthis are really winning, that the Saudis are really losing—that they’re taking a beating—and that the UAE has sort of withdrawn from the field but has its proxies in place in the south, and is still trying to influence the way things are going? And even if that is accurate, which it probably is not, the—I’m particularly interested whether the Saudis recognize this. And you talked about the fact that the Saudis—that the Houthis have territory, but have shown an inability to expand to the rest of the country, which is obviously true. What about expanding north? I mean, I’m curious about how much territory the Saudis have actually lost thus far up along the northern border of Yemen, and whether this has really sunk in, and whether there’s even a—does anybody remember the fact that those territories in Saudi Arabia just north of the border were Yemeni within living memory? I just wonder whether anybody is taking that into account. And are the—are the Saudis losing as badly as I suggest? AMIRFAR: Who wants to start us off on this one? Gregory, Peter? JOHNSEN: Yeah, so I’ll—so I think the Houthis are certainly winning on the ground. I think the Saudis see themselves winning in the court of international diplomatic opinion. Despite all the fallout from the Jamal Khashoggi and everything else, there has been very little, I think, international diplomatic pressure where it counts, that being either from the U.S. or the U.K., on Saudi Arabia. And so you have a situation where both sides look and see themselves as being stronger in a particular area—the Houthis holding the territory on the ground, the Saudis internationally. I think a lot of people in Yemen remember that Asir and Najran were Yemeni provinces back in the 1930s. And there are some Zaidis—I think the Saudis have—in a number of border towns have pulled a lot of the residents back. The Houthis have made some incursions, but there’s also pushback from some local Yemeni forces that are being backed and now trained by the Saudis up in—up in Saada. Anyone else? AMIRFAR: Anything to add? SALISBURY: Sure. The one slight corrective, I would say—I would give would be there’s been a lot of talk of the UAE “withdrawing,” quote/unquote, from Yemen. And certainly our research points to a slightly more nuanced read of what’s happened there, which is the UAE had a large number of forces in the country performing a number of different functions; they reached a place where they no longer needed to carry on with offensive operations along the Red Sea coast, and they removed many of the people who ran sort of various high-tech weapons systems from the Red Sea coast and people who were an extra layer. But they left in place those who were coordinating with the local Yemeni forces, who had been doing all of the frontline fighting alongside them or on their behalf since at least 2015. So the UAE position in Yemen actually remained very little changed despite the removal of large numbers of troops. And I think there was a degree of convenience in terms of their messaging and their narrative—that they were ready for peace, that they no longer saw this as a war, and that they did not intend to carry on with the offensive on Hodeidah, which is positive to diplomatic efforts—but didn’t actually take away sort of their strength and their place in the conflict overall. And I think it’s just important to have that little bit of nuance. They definitely still have skin in the game right now. A couple of years ago I was pretty close to the border. I was in Saada itself with the Houthis. And one of the things a fairly member said to me is in 2009 in our border war, when the Saudis started bombing the Houthis, we entered Saudi territory, and that’s what ended the conflict. And a lot of—you could remember that Saada, which is where the Houthis come from, which is their heartland, is directly on the border with Saudi. So the geographical political mentality of many members if the way to defeat our enemy—and they see the Saudis as the, quote/unquote, “aggressor” in this conflict—is to go across the border and attack them. So I think it’s very important and it’s a great point that you make, and they really want to signal they have the ability to do so. And certainly, they’ve shown the Saudi armed forces up a number of times and have really dented the Saudis’ not-great-previously reputation as a military force among sort of the international actors who work with them. AMIRFAR: Here. Q: (Off mic)—Charney of Charney Research. You know, I remember our last roundtable on Yemen. It was about five years ago. And not only were there far fewer experts at the front, but there were also far fewer participants in the room. But I do also remember that at that point, before the new stage of the war had begun, there was a lot of discussion of the National Dialogue and the fact that all sides had become achingly close to a solution with this odd system called democracy, midwifed by USAID. Now, my understanding is that it was the Houthi military actions that actually blew up that process or at least subsequent to a deadlock in the process. Be that as it may, though, I’m wondering, are there any possibilities for moving in this direction again and finding a solution along those lines? ALMUTAWAKEL: So first I want to—want to clarify that it’s not—the situation was not that everything was fine and then the genie just came suddenly out of the lamp and just destroy everything. It was a very complicated—accumulated mistakes from everyone, including the National Dialogue. They wanted to show the National Dialogue as if everything was OK, but while parties to the conflict were discussing in the hotel they were flighting by blood in the ground at the same time. And as I tell a lot, but I don’t know if we should go back to the National Dialogue because the way that was—things was decided just led to the war. But anyway, peace is very possible in Yemen, and I keep saying this all of the time, because there is a balance of weakness between all parties to the conflict. I’m sure that Saudi Arabia is losing, but I’m not sure that Houthis are winning. No one is winning in Yemen. They all, they don’t have a peace plan. They don’t have a war plan. They have a very heavy file of violations. They strength each other by their badness. So Houthis are strong because their enemies are very bad. And also other side, they are getting stronger because Houthis also are very bad, I mean, in the ways they control the areas they are controlling. So there is a balance of weakness between all of them. I don’t know why they are going on the war. It’s very weird because they are all losing, having a very huge file of violations. They couldn’t meet the demands of people in the ground. And so they can be pushed easily to go to the table, and this happened after the Khashoggi murder when the—when the pressure became just suddenly very higher from the U.S. and the U.K., and only in two months they succeed to send Houthis and the government to the table, to Stockholm, and to start a kind of peace process. Only because of the pressure. So they are always ready to be pushed—even Saudis, Emiratis, Houthis, STC, all of these groups. They are—they can—so but if there is no will from the international community, especially the U.S. and the U.K., then the war is going on. Why there is no strong pressure to stop the war? I don’t know. We can discuss this more. Maybe arms trade is part of it. But I will stop here. AMIRFAR: That’s an excellent question. Please? (Laughter.) JOHNSEN: I would also just add I think Yemen has a fundamental problem in that there’s a small pie and there are more players than there are pieces. And right now you have a situation where it you don’t like the results, you can take up arms and you can spoil the whole process. That was the situation—part of the situation then. If the Emiratis complete their drawdown, if the Saudis withdraw, if that—if this war, the war that has taken up most of our interest, if this war ends tomorrow, then the local groups on the ground are in all likelihood going to keep fighting and they are going to try to get as much as the pie as they—as they possibly can. And the Saudis and the Emiratis, by sort of holding I think what Peter called this rickety anti-Houthi alliance, that will fragment and fracture, and they’ll be at each other’s throats. AMIRFAR: So let’s go back to the question, though, that Radhya put out—U.S., U.K., that one of the key pressure points is their ability to bring that to bear with respect to the Saudis and the Emiratis. Why hasn’t that happened? Why did it happen only for, as you put it, for a couple months right after the Khashoggi murder? SALISBURY: So I think last year was an object lesson in shifting narratives, where the U.K. and the U.S. for years had said, look, we’re pressuring the Saudis as much as we possibly can to move in a certain direction but we’ve really used all our leverage. Post-Khashoggi, partly because the Saudis understood that the court of international opinion, as Greg decided it—described it, was turning against them, and that they couldn’t control U.S. Congress, really felt sort of less emboldened. And British and American, specifically American, diplomats and others felt emboldened. But it’s also important to remember that it came down to really an individual last year. So it was Mattis making a phone call to Mohammed bin Salman on pretty much the last day of the talks in Stockholm and saying you have to do this, otherwise you’re toast, basically, here in D.C. and there’s nothing we can do about it that really changed— AMIRFAR: You’re paraphrasing, but yeah. (Laughter.) SALISBURY: Yes. I wasn’t in the room. (Laughter.) That changed the game. I think the thing that we have to be—to be honest about right now is that sort of absent that kind of context, politicians in these two countries are focused on many other things. Yemen has a very low order of priority. The U.S. in particular is very focused on its campaign of maximum pressure against Iran, the U.K. is going through some stuff that we definitely don’t need to discuss right now, and it’s difficult to imagine them returning to this posture. I think it’s almost more helpful to try and think about how do we move toward some kind of process of peace. How do we hand the U.N. leverage in this process rather than waiting for the return of a Mattis-like figure and a Khashoggi-like event? MOTAPARTHY: I think another important current to keep in mind on the role of the U.S. and the U.K., and even countries like France, is how much the citizens of those countries have become aware of the Yemen War, have become aware of the immense humanitarian toll that it is taking, have become—there’s become increasing public awareness of the roles of these governments selling the amounts of arms they do, the kind of contours of these deals, how little some of these governments know about how these arms are being used. There have been various disclaimers used at certain points, so you have, for example, the French government saying, our arms are only being used defensively. And then of course, you know, in the last several months investigative journalists in France came out with this incredible scoop, you know, including secret government documents showing that in fact the government had clearly misrepresented its role in the war, how its arms were being used, the level of knowledge that French politicians had around this. And you see similar dynamics playing out in the U.K. and the U.S. Not to oversimplify, of course, but in the U.S., you know, as an American myself, I’ve found it both fascinating and disturbing to see how the Yemen war has really tested the limits of the government, the different branches of government and actions they have taken to try and hold each other in check or pursue certain lines of policy. And so I think just noting this growing discontent and intolerance of the situation in Yemen amongst the populations of these influential countries is really key. JOHNSEN: Yeah, I would just add as well—sorry, to be really brief, the U.S. is in a really difficult situation in the Yemen War, in that when the war was announced by Saudi Arabia, they did a very strange thing, which was they had their ambassador in Washington, D.C., announce the beginning of the war in D.C., even though the war was taking place from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. And right after that announcement, the Obama administration made an announcement the same night, that they were setting up a joint planning cell to coordinate logistics and intelligence support with the Saudis. This put the U.S. in a situation where they were now tied to this war with no say over how it was going to be conducted on the ground. And the U.S. has been struggling with that ever since. I completely agree with Radhya that unless there is any U.S.—absent U.S. pressure on Saudi Arabia, this war is going to continue because no one else has the leverage to sort of end the war. The U.N., the Security Council, is not going to be able to do it on its own. And as Peter laid out, I think very convincingly, Saudi Arabia is the key to this. So absent that pressure, this war is going to continue and in four or five years, we’ll be back here; we’ll be talking about the same thing except it’ll be much, much worse. AMIRFAR: I think—up here. Q: Thank you. Jeff Laurenti. I wonder if you could tell us whether there are urban centers in Yemen that are sufficiently, quote, “secure” that there is a little bit or greater room for, quote, “civil society” to exist, to flourish, to perhaps create some sort of countervailing social pressures or affecting Yemeni opinion in a way that the warring parties’ leaderships have to pay some attention. And to the point that Gregory Johnsen had raised, in terms of the internal revenue pie being presumably small, what are the sources internally of financing the recruitment of soldiers on one side or another? How long could that continue if external sources were to be phased down in some kind of international agreement to pull back? AMIRFAR: The Yemeni civil society and internal sources. Who wants to take a crack? SALISBURY: I think Radhya’s good—(laughter). AMIRFAR: Radhya, everyone’s looking at you. ALMUTAWAKEL: It’s shrinking very much. So all those who used to be political parties in Yemen, they are parties to the conflict now. And Houthis, al-Manshia, but also the 80 percent that were controlled by the government and the coalition. They empowered armed groups. So it’s—they replaced a militia by another militia in the middle of this. And the civil society is very divided politically, and now it’s even shrinking more. Armed groups, and our neighbor is Saudi Arabia; we are in the middle of a war. So still Yemenis, they are trying to resist through working in civil society. I still, with my NGO on the ground, we are about a team of 80 people working all over Yemen, but we are still considered unique because in general, the civil society is shrinking. And this is very dangerous, because it’s the only civic space for many people who do want to engage in the work to act, to use it as a platform, and it’s shrinking. And this is one of the things that there should be pressure on parties to the conflict to have more space for media, for civil society. So Yemen was never good before, but we used to have diversity and political parties and media and civil society. We used to have a ship of state, and now we don’t have any ship of state and it’s a very difficult situation. It’s not that there is no civil society, but it is shrinking every day. It’s to the maximum, that you have to take permission from Houthis to do, like, this gathering in Sana’a, for example, and you just can’t imagine. So I don’t know to what extent we can depend on it, but we are doing our best. AMIRFAR: Over there. Q: Thank you. Joanna Weschler, Security Council Report. Some of you mentioned accountability, or rather the lack thereof, and the total impunity that is virtually guaranteed for all the atrocities occurring in Yemen. Should the international community get serious about accountability in a meaningful way? Would this make a difference with all the actors that you have been talking about a moment ago, the very numerous actors, Will they—would it penetrate? Would this be something preventing them from committing major abuses? AMIRFAR: Priyanka, want to take that one? MOTAPARTHY: Yeah, sure. I think that the lack of attention to accountability has been really marked, and that if the international community were to take that more seriously it would make a huge difference. We have seen small improvements, as I mentioned, the expansion and the mandate. The renewal first of the mandate, which every time it comes up is a fight, and then the expansion of the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts is a tiny victory, but a very important one. I think that one, you know, in terms of accountability, for the Houthis, of course, in a certain way the international mechanisms work quite well. You have the Panel of Experts. They’ve named a number of Houthi leaders and military officials and recommended them for sanctions; their documentation on that side is quite large. At the same time, you see Houthis behaving in a way where it’s very clear they have no fear of actually facing that accountability. If they did, they would not, for example, carry out attacks on civilian airports, claim those attacks, state publicly in their media that their intention was to hit the civilian target. And so you have on one hand, you know, a source of accountability, but on the other hand, clearly a lot more work needs to be done to figure out how to make that message hit home for the Houthi leadership, how to make it actually seem like a credible threat and start to factor into their decision making. We haven’t reached that point yet. On the coalition side, at Human Rights Watch we spent years, you know, explaining why the coalition accountability or sort of investigative mechanism, the Joint Investigative Assessment Team, was not an effective body, how they did not properly represent facts, they did not appear to understand or correctly apply principles of proportionality and distinction, bedrock principles of international humanitarian law. And yet even with these major Western governments like the United States and the United Kingdom, they continue in advocacy settings to say, well, they’ve made improvements, this is getting better, they are trying, this is a serious effort. They—there has been a real unwillingness to acknowledge this body for what it is, which is a way to sort of nod to this need to investigate without actually carrying out serious investigations using a transparent and credible methodology and producing investigations that hold up to scrutiny. I’ll stop there. JOHNSEN: I just—yeah, so just on accountability, as someone who served on the U.N. Panel of Experts for Yemen for a couple of years, the sanctions right now are very lopsided. So the last set of sanctions was in 2015. I think the mood in the Security Council is, I don’t think Russia or China would be excited about any more sanctions in Yemen. The sanctions that have been levied have all been on the Houthis or on Ali Abdullah Saleh, when he was still alive. And in fact, the sanctions as they were—as they were put into place in 2014 and 2015 actually shifted the conflict, because they had very little impact on the Houthi leadership. The sanctions were basically an asset freeze and a travel embargo, so you couldn’t travel internationally. That didn’t really hurt Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthis, or these guys who are up in the mountains. But it hurt very much Ali Abdullah Saleh, and it really weakened his network. And when the two came into conflict a few years later in 2017, Saleh didn’t have much financial resources upon which to draw. And then his network, he wasn’t able to pay them from 2015, 2016, 2017. He had much more difficulty doing that, and that’s one of the reasons that when they came into conflict, Saleh was so weak and was then eventually killed. I think a strong message, as Priyanka said, would be for any sort of—the threat of sanctions or sanctions against someone in the coalition, then people would pay attention, I think, in a way that they haven’t previously. AMIRFAR: Over there? Q: (Off mic)—Baruch College. I have a couple questions. Which party is more accountable for the war crimes in Yemen, the coalition or the Houthis? And would you say that initiative for peace is coming from primarily the Houthis but not from the Saudis in the latest Stockholm talks? And why aren’t the Saudis not working towards peace? Sorry. And what would be the face-saving measure for the Saudis before they are ready to pull out of the war in Yemen? And lastly, what—(laughter)—any comments on the use of child—children as soldiers? Thank you. AMIRFAR: So you can pick or choose, I think, among the four. Where do you want to start? ALMUTAWAKEL: I’ll take the first question. AMIRFAR: Please. ALMUTAWAKEL: Whenever you see the map of parties in the conflict in Yemen, never try to find the good guy. Never. There is no good guys. And I never—as a human rights defender, I can’t say this one is doing violations more than this, because for the families, if one family was killed because of Houthis, then this is enough for them. It’s the world for them. So all of them are doing horrible violations. Maybe the Saudis and Emiratis, they have more weapons, but it doesn’t mean the Houthis are better than them. And it’s not only the coalition and Houthis. We have also other forces, like the SDC, like proxy forces, like an—and groups loyal to the Hadi government. So they are all complicit in violations against civilians and they are all same. AMIRFAR: And does someone want to briefly just speak to the child soldier’s question, which we haven’t touched on? ALMUTAWAKEL: So the child soldiers story? AMIRFAR: Yeah. ALMUTAWAKEL: We documented—we document the child soldiers by interviews and observation. Because it’s very difficult to take interviews, so we documented thousands of cases. Most of them, it’s by Houthis. Seventy percent of them by Houthis. SALISBURY: So maybe I’ll speak to the face-saving measure and who does the peace initiative come from. Since 2015-2016, the Houthis have said that they’re willing to sit down and work on a peace deal, but on the basis of what they see as the reality on the ground. And again, we’ve had 2216, which in effect demands a total Houthi surrender and handover of everything that they have. So those are the terms that, unsurprisingly, the Hadi government and the Saudis have asked for any peace deal to be based on. The return of sovereignty, the legitimate sovereign government and for the Saudis to sort of in effect be able to declare a win. And clearly that’s not going to happen and the goal posts have shifted. The Saudis need to be able to say at this point in time that they have definitively ended Iranian influence in Yemen. And they need—one of the things they keep returning to is the need for the Houthis to cut all ties with Iran, which is obviously a very clear Catch-22 because, I mean, I can stand here and say that I denounce Iran and I cut all ties. How do you—how do you prove it? And clearly I have no ties with Iran. (Laughter.) At one and the same time, the Houthis need guarantees on their side, so you need some sort of mechanism that sort of point-by-point ratchets things down. We’re moving in that general direction and, hopefully, it won’t just be one thing. It’ll be little bits that sort of build up to something where the Saudis feel confident that they can be part of any process that the Houthis are in and that they can interact with them. But they will need something like some sort of declaration, some kind of statements from the Houthis, which they’ve made many times already, that they are sort of not under the control of any external actor. And they may need some sort of symbolic gesture, like sort of people visibly leaving the country. But a question that I’ve asked repeatedly of the Saudis, the Americans and others is, do you have a list of names of people inside Yemen who you want to go? Or from the IRGC, from Hezbollah? And the problem is that they don’t. So there’s this very strong language around Iran’s influence and their presence, but there’s always been—the Iranians are very good at plausible deniability, and a lot of what’s happened in Yemen has been about skills transfer rather than a command-and-control and staffing relationship. And I don’t think the people have really reached the point where they’re able to deal with that nuance. AMIRFAR: So we just have a couple of minutes. Any final comments from anyone? Yeah, please. ALMUTAWAKEL: So peace in Yemen is not a ceasefire. I’ve heard many from—Saudi officials saying we can protect our borders, and then we leave you for militias to fight forever. And this is true. This can be happen. Houthis can have an agreement about the borders and then they leave us for militias. And the war in Yemen is not the airstrikes. Peace in Yemen, it means a comprehensive political agreement between all parties to the conflict. When we ask for peace, we don’t ask for ceasefire; we ask for a political agreement which we think is very possible. And till now we still have groups who we already know who they are and they can all be in the table and agree on something. Until now, the scenario for the future in Yemen, if we don’t have peace, that fanatic groups will be empowered more and more, expanded more and more. Those people will never go to the table, will never care about accountability and will never—we can be in a civil war forever. So when we ask for peace, we ask for a political agreement between all parties to the conflict in Yemen. SALISBURY: Just to jump on that really quickly, I think that’s such an important point. And as we start talking about the possibility of a U.N. peace process, there’s a real danger—and we saw this, I think, in the past in Yemen—that if you frame the peace process incorrectly, in a way that doesn’t reflect these realities on the ground and doesn’t make it a truly Yemeni-Yemeni process, you’re actually just sort of stopping the internationalized aspect, or removing it from public view, and then moving towards a renewed conflict, Yemen War 2.0 or 3.0. So this is a really fragile moment where we really need to start bringing in some real Yemeni voices into sort of thinking about how to do this, not over the next one year, but ten, twenty, thirty years. JOHNSEN: I would just make two points to end. On the point on—that Peter brought up just a moment ago on the Houthis and Iran, what we’ve seen is Saudi went into the Yemen saying, we want to prevent Iran from coming in. This has become—this war has really become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The longer it’s gone on, the closer the relationship between the Houthis and Iran have become. In fact, just in August the Houthis announced an ambassador to Iran and Iran recognized the Houthis as a legitimate governing authority. This is what the Houthis want. The longer this war goes on, the tougher and the more difficult it will be to peel those two apart. The second thing I would say—and this is sort of more broadly speaking with regards to Yemen, the sooner this war ends, obviously, the better it will be for Yemen. But Yemen is never going to be put back together again into a single country. It won’t even be put back together again into two countries, into an old north and an old south, like it was in the 1990s. I think Yemen will revert to a historic mean in which you have a variety of warlords or militia groups who are in power in different parts of the country. And this raises, I think, some pretty serious policy and security issues for the United States with regards to shipping lanes, with regards to counterterrorism, with regards to Saudi border security, as well as what’s happening in the region. And I don’t think that given, as Peter said, how low Yemen is on the list of priorities for the U.S, that there’s been a lot of attention paid to Yemen the day after. ALMUTAWAKEL: And Yemen can surprise you. (Laughter.) AMIRFAR: Priyanka, anything final? MOTAPARTHY: Yeah. I mean, I think that just, you know, to give a very small example amongst a very big war, even if you follow the conflict only peripherally, I think all of you will remember the airstrike on the funeral hall in Sanaa that led the Obama administration to reconsider its sales of precision-guided weapons. It was in the news for weeks afterwards. I visited the site a few weeks after it happened and just saw the level of devastation that happened there. And, you know—this is falling off, but—but following that case, you know, I—when I returned to Yemen in February of this year, I asked people who was held accountable for that strike, a strike in which more than a hundred civilians or a hundred individuals were killed, including children? One of the things that shocked, you know, shocked the world in terms of the human toll that it took, two mid-level Yemeni military officers referred to prosecution, and that—they were referred to investigation. That did not even reach the stage of becoming a trial. That’s where we are on accountability today. That’s how far we’ve gotten in terms of Yemen and accountability today. I think it’s a very illustrative example. AMIRFAR: And on that note, please join me in thanking this amazing group of experts. (Applause.) (END)
  • Syria

    Northern Syria faces an uncertain future after a U.S. military withdrawal, the fourth Democratic presidential debate is held in Ohio, and Poles go to the polls.

Experts in this Topic

Curtis R.  Bass
Curtis R. Bass

Military Fellow, U.S. Air Force

Richard K. Betts
Richard K. Betts

Adjunct Senior Fellow for National Security Studies

Stephen D. Biddle
Stephen D. Biddle

Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy

Max Boot
Max Boot

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies

John Campbell
John Campbell

Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies

Thomas E. Donilon
Thomas E. Donilon

Distinguished Fellow

Elizabeth C. Economy
Elizabeth C. Economy

C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies

Raymond W. Kelly
Raymond W. Kelly

Distinguished Visiting Fellow

Lori Esposito Murray
Lori Esposito Murray

Adjunct Senior Fellow

Carla Anne Robbins
Carla Anne Robbins

Adjunct Senior Fellow

Sheila A. Smith
Sheila A. Smith

Senior Fellow for Japan Studies

Scott A. Snyder
Scott A. Snyder

Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy

Paul B. Stares
Paul B. Stares

General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action

  • North Korea

    Denuclearization talks over the weekend ended in another stalemate, and it remains to be seen if negotiations will resume in the coming weeks.
  • Cybersecurity

    While the GDPR's "right to be forgotten" expands personal data privacy rights, it could complicate intelligence agencies' data collection efforts by allowing terrorists to request to have social media platforms delete identifiable data.
  • North Korea

    North Korea has embarked on an accelerated buildup of weapons of mass destruction and the modernization of its already large conventional force.
  • Syria

    President Donald J. Trump’s announcement of a troop withdrawal in northern Syria ahead of a Turkish invasion could revive the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war, and signal the end of U.S. influence there.
  • Cybersecurity

    Lawmakers propose $1 billion to replace Huawei equipment in rural networks; Singapore launches ASEAN cybersecurity research center; governments hold social media platforms accountable for content; DOJ renews fight for access to encrypted messages; and backlash in India over proposed facial recognition plan.
  • Ukraine

    U.S. military and economic support for Ukraine has so far weathered the widening impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s contacts with Kyiv. This backing could strengthen Ukraine in the next round of diplomacy with Russia.
  • Syria

    As the Syrian conflict extends into its ninth year, risks to international security and regional stability remain. Our panelists discuss U.S. policy toward Syria, including military, diplomatic, and economic initiatives and multilateral efforts to bring the conflict to a close. SHANKER: Well, good afternoon to all of you and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. The topic is Syria: State of the Conflict and U.S. Policy. I’m Thom Shanker. I’m an editor with the New York Times Washington bureau. And I’m completely thrilled and honored to be here with a blue-chip panel, as always. Whenever the Council convenes on these important questions they get just the absolutely best people to elevate a conversation with all of you today. Just a couple quick housekeeping things. If you have cellphones, please silence them. I’m sure you know that already. We’ll begin with a half-hour discussion here on the stage, and then I’ll move to your Q&A. We will end at 1:30. I lived five years in the Soviet Union, so I run these meetings Stalinist efficiency—(laughter)—and all of you with busy schedules will be out at 1:30 sharp, I promise. And most importantly to me, and many colleagues in the journalism profession, this discussion is on the record today. Our panel includes Gayle Lemmon. She’s adjunct senior fellow for women and foreign policy here at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of a couple outstanding books, I highly recommend them, Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. Welcome. We have Mouaz Moustafa, executive director, Syrian Emergency Taskforce. We have Michael Mulroy, who’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. And we have Joel Rayburn, deputy assistant secretary of state for Levant affairs, and special envoy for Syria. Thank all four of you for being here today. Everything important in life I learned from two sources, Johnny Cash and the United States military. And the military is relevant today because when you look at complex problems like Syria, the military breaks them down into strategic operational and tactical to try to understand. And I thought we would guide our conversation today along the same lines. So I’ll start at the top with a strategic question for all four of you, please. As a nation, we’ve learned since 9/11 that militaries can’t win wars. Militaries can defeat other militaries, but it’s up to the rest of the government, NGOs, and others to actually win the peace. So as you look at the very complex situation on the ground in Syria today, it’s a civil war. There are terrorist safe havens. There’s international meddling. Very complicated relations with neighbors. Walk me through, if you could, what is the route to peace and stabilization? LEMMON: (Laughs.) So I should start with a Johnny Cash song I Walk the Line in giving this answer. I think I’m very keen to hear from the other panelists. It’s delightful to join all of you today. I do think that we have a moment where there is a chance. There is a sense that the Iraq War is the ghost that hangs over every decision that has been made on Syria. And a sense on the ground, certainly when you’re in the northeast, that there actually is a moment, there is something to protect. Because, having had the privilege of traveling in and around the northeast six times in the past two years, I will tell you that it is a story of progress, and very fragile, very endangered, but very real gains that moms and dads are fighting for every single day. And so in this one corner you have a by, with, and through that actually has done its job, and perhaps done too good a job because no one wants to pay attention to it. There’s another Johnny Cash song, It Ain’t Me, Babe, you’re looking for. Everybody’s sort of trying to drop the hot potato and walk out. And I do think that there is a fragile progress that is worth protecting. And then you have the question of how do you get to a diplomatic endgame, and where is the pressure going to be? Who is actually going to help get to some kind of process that works? It’s hard to find people on the ground who believe in Geneva. And I would actually love very much to hear other people’s views on this. But I think that you have a northwest situation, al-Qaida discussions. I know there was a piece from your colleague that is concerning to many. And the question is, how do you solve multiple conflicts at one time? I do think there’s a role for the United States to help exercise leadership and get the concerned parties at the table. I think that our colleagues here from the U.S. government have been working on this and can talk to this. But there is nothing easy about what comes next because I don’t think that, policy aside, anybody sees the Assad regime going anywhere, except perhaps a day trip to either Tehran or Moscow. SHANKER: Thank you. Mouaz, please. MOUSTAFA: So I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for having me here. It’s truly an honor to be back and to sit on such a respected panel. And I want to thank the service of DASD Mulroy and DAS Rayburn for all that they have done in the service of our country, and also to help get Syria through this horrible mess that it’s in. And as we look at the over—I agree with the points that you made, Gayle. And I think that, you know, with all the competing interests in Syria, and the fact that the country now, if you go to a certain, specific geographic location, and the armed groups on the ground, the political powers on the ground differ greatly. And I think one mistake that we have made in the past is we’ll focus—for example, be hyper-focused on the northeast and not think about the implications of the events happening in the northwest and how that affects it. Same applies across the board in the different areas in Syria. I think the complicated conflict, the competing interests from regional countries and others make it very difficult. But at the same time, I think it’s very, very important to stay in tune with the population itself—this population that came out in 2011 in multi-confessional, nonviolent, peaceful protests initially asking for reform. And as the brutality of the regime and its allies increased exponentially, they started asking for a full transition from this dictatorship to something that they’re all hoping for, which is to have their dignity, first and foremost, but to have freedom and democracy in Syria. And I think investing in civil society, investing in these people is very important. I think they look at the situation today and they do not see the United States sitting at the table. In the last administration, and to a degree in this administration, there had been sort of a ceding of the decision-making for long-term strategy future of Syria to Iran, Russia, and Turkey. If you look at Astana and Sochi, these are processes that, at least in our interaction and our work on the ground in Syria, do not vibe and are not respected by the population. I would say to a greater degree they would look, and they would prefer to go back towards Geneva and the agreements that we had there. So I think what’s most important is, first of all, to remember what the Syrian people have gone through, because without justice, without accountability, and without really sort of catering to their grievances and managing their expectations, we can get anywhere. And so you’re looking at around thirteen million people displaced, half a million dead, hundreds of thousands that are in jails, with unequivocal proof of the torture, of what the regime, Russia, and Iran has done. And so what I think is really important is we need to ensure that the Assad regime and its allies understand that they themselves cannot have a military solution to the conflict, that that’s simply not possible. Whenever the regime commits horrendous crimes—whether that be with chemical weapons or conventional weapons—and the world sits on as a bystander, then the regime, again, thinks that he can, by military force, take over Idlib—by the way, potentially doubling the refugees in Europe, empowering extremist propaganda—and he can sort of wait the United States out in the northeast. What’s really important is that we find a way, first of all, to create some sort of continuity between the northwest and the northeast, all the areas that are liberated and free from Assad regime control. It’s important that we do everything we can here, as the United States, to come back and sit at the table, where Sochi and Astana are not the drivers of the future of Syria, but Geneva and Resolution 2254. And at the same time, by doing all we can here to higher the cost of the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran’s criminal activities and genocidal atrocities that are unfolding in Syria. And one way to do that here domestically is something—is, for example, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, one that is not going to solve and end the conflict, but it represents a ray of hope to many Syrians that see this as the very least that the United States can do to help, you know, find a way that’s conductive to a political solution in Syria. SHANKER: Please. MULROY: So, as somebody who spent a whole career in conflict zones, I couldn’t agree more with the premise of the question. The U.S. military plays a part in these, but certainly should not ever be the only answer to these really complex problems. So I break it down to three things in Syria, at least groups I can talk about. The kinetic element. Obviously the quality and the capability of the partner force that was the SDF allowed the U.S. military to do what we call an economy of force mission. So we enabled them. And I think it’s important to note, they bear—they bore most of the burden when it came to defeating a caliphate—a territorial caliphate that got to be the size of West Virginia. And I know we have a lot of work to do, but we shouldn’t just gloss over the efforts that it took to actually accomplish that. We, quite frankly, could not carry out our strategy, our national defense strategy, if it weren’t for partners like that. So that’s the first thing. And I know we’re going to talk a lot more about that. Stabilization. We don’t have the lead, Department of Defense, of stabilization. The State Department does. And the major implementors are USAID. The Defense Department, with our ability to do logistics and security, support them. And we’ve codified that in the SAR 2018 agreement that was between all the heads of those agencies. We are still working through issues that I see in that when it comes to authorities to spend money and then authorities to be protected under the Department of Defense. We can go into that later if you’d like, but those are things that we have to work out internally so that we can maximize the effect of the stabilization operations we have, because at the end of the day the stabilization part of this is just as important as the kinetic. It is just as much a part of defeating ISIS as the military direct-action campaign was. And if we don’t do that, we will be back there, for sure, doing this again. We owe it to the people that live there, who have beared unspeakable burdens, and we owe it to the men and women that are going to come after us at the State Department, at the Defense Department, that we don’t just leave this undone. The last part I’d say is more of a philosophical political part. As Gayle might have mentioned, but I know she just got back from Al-Hawl camp. That is a big concern for us at Defense Department, not just because it’s a massive humanitarian process—or, crisis, but also because these are people, many of them children, who are only going to have one view and one philosophy the entire time they’re in that camp. So if the international community doesn’t come up with a way to rehabilitate them and reintegrate them into society, that’s the next generation of ISIS. They have no other input. And if we don’t do something about that, we consider that to be a substantial issue for the world—not just for the United States, and certainly not just for that region. The last thing, and I know Joel will get into this much more, is the UNSCR 2254 process. We spent a lot of time; we met with Mouaz and Caesar this week. And we also—we also have a representative from the White Helmets here, Asaad Hanna, which I’d really like to recognize, because that’s an organization that we feel is one of the best operating out of Syria. But we’ve had a lot of those discussions this week. And it’s really on us to be there, from my perspective, the military, to enhance the mission of the people leading the charge, which is DAS Rayburn and Ambassador Jeffrey, when it comes to the United States. And just having that presence there, I think, helps that efforts. SHANKER: Joel, please. RAYBURN: Like the other panelists, I appreciate the opportunity to speak today, and for the Council for setting this up. I’m nervous, though, because my West Point debate team partner is in the room, and I’m afraid she’ll stand up and start cross examining me. (Laughter.) She was a much better debater than I was. SHANKER: Whoever it is, feed me some notes. (Laughter.) RAYBURN: But the Syrian conflict is a political conflict. It has political causes, so it has to have a political solution. That’s what we mean when we say there can’t be a military solution to the Syrian conflict. The Russian military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, on behalf of the Assad regime, aided by Lebanese Hezbollah, could attempt to reconquer every square inch of Syria, and that wouldn’t be the end of it. What you’re seeing is a conflict that spans the northern Middle East in such a way that if the political causes are not addressed they will go on, and on, and on, and our children and grandchildren will be dealing with the same conflict. I’m confident of that, having sat through the same movie a number of times in Iraq. Earlier this year the president gave us in the executive branch some very clear guidance on what strategy to implement to try to bring a close to the Syrian conflict. He gave us three strategic objectives—three overarching ones. There were some others that were in support. But the first was to continue the campaign against Daesh so that in the—especially in the former territories of the physical caliphate, Daesh has no chance to come back. In other words, to complete the military phase of the campaign and then to do the things that come after to ensure that you inoculate those territories from Daesh’s return. The second was to—was to achieve a withdrawal from Syria of all Iranian-commanded forces and militias in Syria. In other words, to roll back the Iranian power projection grab that is taking place. The Iranians—the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, IRGC, on behalf of the Iranian regime, has essentially reached across Iraq, Syria, to the Beqaa Valley, trying to threaten the Golan Heights, in a bid to try to establish strategic outposts in Syria that can pose a new kind of existential threat to Israel and to others of Syria’s neighbors. And that’s something it’s in my view, it’s the most dangerous strategic element in the northern Middle East today, and it’s the factor that’s most likely to cause a regional conflict across the northern Middle East. But the third objective that the president gave us was to try to achieve a political resolution to the Syrian conflict under the auspices of U.N. Security Resolution 2254. In other words, to get a political solution to the conflict that could address really the other two objectives, because both the Daesh caliphate and al-Qaida-type safe havens that pop up here and there, and the IRGC power projection across the northern Middle East are symptoms of the underlying conflict. They’re not the cause of the conflict, they’re things that—they’re things that have arisen on the part of those who’ve exploited the underlying conflict. So the proximate cause of the conflict has to do with the nature of the Assad regime. It has to do with the nature of governance in Syria. It has to do with the—with the way the Assad regime has behaved in the region. In order to—a political solution to Syria—to the Syrian conflict, in order for it to be sustainable, the Syrian government’s behavior toward its people and toward the region is going to have to change. And that’s what we’re—that’s the path out of the conflict. That will require serious pressure from the United States and from the rest of the international community, on the Assad regime and on those who are the patrons of the Assad regime, to compel the regime to change its behavior, to make the concessions that are necessary to get to a resolution under 2254. SHANKER: Well, thanks all four of you for that fabulous survey. You’ve touched on all the important issues. I’m going to drill into a couple more here, and then, of course, all the members in attendance will do the same. The question of chemical weapons came up. That is one of the things that does capture the attention of the broader public, when the regime uses chemical and other prohibited weapons. What tools of deterrence does the U.S. and its partner nations have? And what should be done about that? And I don’t even want to raise the “redlines” phrase, but where are we today and what should be done? Please. RAYBURN: Well, you’ve seen two times the president has shown that he’s willing to use military force to try to do—prevent the use, and production, and proliferation of chemical weapons inside Syria. He’s willing to use military force when he deems it necessary. We have other tools that we use. And both times that we did military operations in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons we used economic pressure and diplomatic pressure alongside those. So we have a range of tools. Most recently last week Secretary Pompeo was able to announce that the United States has come to the determination that the Syrian regime used chlorine as a chemical weapon in May in Latakia province. And our response to that was to use our economic sanctions tools and to use political pressure that has only just begun to play out at the U.N. and other international fora. So we do have a range of tools. Clearly the use of chemical weapons in May shows that the Assad regime is not yet deterred from using them. So it’s going to take more pressure on our part, and on the part of the international community. And I would say there’s a strong international consensus behind that. And secondly, it also raises the risk that the Assad regime may not have abandoned the idea that they can somehow rebuild their chemical weapons program with who knows what kind of dangerous chemical weapons. I mean, we know they’ve used chlorine, we know they’ve used sarin. So that’s something that’s a threat, not just to the Syrian people but to the surrounding region. And because of the propensity for proliferation by a rogue regime like that, to international security. So it’s definitely something that, you’re right, does get a lot attention. And it rightly does. But we’re bringing the—we have a pretty full toolbox to use, I think. SHANKER: Michael, thoughts from the Pentagon perspective? MULROY: So to Joel’s point, obviously we have shown that we are politically willing to take action in response to chemical attacks, and the military capabilities are obviously there. I don’t think anybody doubts that. I would say that if you look at the last response in 2018, that was the result of an attack that killed upwards of seventy people—men, women, and children. I’m sure that was a factor that was considered. We are, of course, tracking the same announcement that Secretary Pompeo made at the General Assembly on the last use. I would say going forward factors that will discussed in any response will be—again, to Joel’s point—deterrence, right? So we’ve obviously taken strikes before. They did not deter them. You know, should—whether that level of strike is sufficient or not. And if they were not, then perhaps it would be more substantial. We’d also like to recognize that it wasn’t just us last time. It was also the French and the U.K. And we’d hope that even more countries would join in any response, either politically or even militarily, in the event they’d make the terrible decision to use chemical weapons as a means of war in the future. SHANKER: Joel, you spoke at length about the Iranian influence. I’d love to hear from the panelists about another foreign power that’s very much involved in Syria, which is Russia. Do you have—any of the four of you—what’s your assessment about their role today? How the level of communications is with the U.S.? And, you know, how the U.S. should impose some measures on that, looking to the future? MOUSTAFA: I’d just like to say, I think what’s really important—first of all, Russia coming into Syria was a disaster. I’m speaking strictly from sort of the perspective of just the humanitarian toll that’s happened. We run for school for orphans, women’s center, bakeries in places in Syria. And I remember, when the regime would bombard with its horrendous barrel bombs and take out an entire residential building, killing many civilians, that was horrible. Then when the Russians came in, they’re essentially testing weapons on Syrian people, I think by their own admission, even in terms of the new weapons that they’re utilizing. And they’re taking out entire city blocks. This is resulting in things like massive flows of refugees and so on. I think what’s important about Russia is I think it’s easy—first of all, we shouldn’t overstate its leverage over the Assad regime. In a way, I think the Iranians have even more leverage with Assad, and they’ve sacrificed a lot more in blood and money there. But there are places—they’re not sort of—they don’t have the same interests in the country. And I think we need to find ways of exploiting that difference between Iran and Russia to help drive the Iranians completely out, and make Russia understand that in the long run they cannot afford to keep up what they’re doing there, and try to give them some guarantees for things that they would care about, whether it is their Tartus space on the Mediterranean, and others. But the Russian role in Syria I think is a result of the United States sort of ceding that whole area. And, again, that began under the previous administration. I just want to add one more thing on chemical weapons. I think it’s really important that the next time, God forbid, the Assad regime uses chemical weapons against civilians, the strike must be much harder than it was. I Think the—what President Obama’s inaction on that was a disaster. The Trump administration deserves credit for its response on the first attack. And then on the second attack, the response was even weaker. And I think we need to up the price for the Assad regime, to ensure that never happens again. SHANKER: Gayle. LEMMON: Just on the Russian front, I mean, having written for Kevin Baron and some others here on this for the early years of this conflict, right, that Russia has been all-in on the side of the regime, while folks struggled for years to understand where the Americans were, and what their equities were, at what point they were willing to intervene. And so when you have this Russia and Iran are all in versus a United States that couldn’t quite decide how much, right? And I think this is now the second administration that really hasn’t, for very understandable reasons, wanted to get further into wars in the Middle East, right? And I think that has been a defining both characteristic and, I think, a behavior shaper of the previous two administrations. And when you are on the ground it’s very clear that Russia has really seen this as a success story in many ways. And it has used it as a testbed of unmanned in particular, if you look at what they have used in terms of testing, because even if there’s a failure of those systems it’s a learning point. And I do think you see what happens when there is no U.S. leadership. Or, I shouldn’t say no, you see what’s happens when there’s very little U.S. leadership. SHANKER: But even for those who may think that the Syrian conflict is away and doesn’t affect, the Times did a story in recent days, it was referenced earlier, that the Russian air defenses in the northwest that are there to protect their allies in the Assad regime are actually giving cover to a new Qaida affiliate, creating a safe haven that may, again, launch attacks against the West. So, I mean, is there some way to work with the Russians against that real and clear and present threat? RAYBURN: Can I? SHANKER: Please. RAYBURN: First, just to address the overall Russian role. The Russians, in my view, have decisive influence over the Assad regime. The Assad regime could not survive without the support that the Russians give them. If the Russian Air Force were to ground itself tomorrow, I think within a month the Assad regime would be losing the war again. The Assad regime military is extremely weak, and without heavy, heavy support from the Russian Air Force and from Russian private security contractors, who act as ground forces, I don’t think the Assad regime would be taking back any territory at all. That seems demonstrable on the ground. The Syrian government operates at a deep deficit. No one, really, I think knows how much, but it’s big. And that deficit is made up by the Russians. It’s made up—and partly by the Iranians too. The Iranians are quasi-gifting oil to the Assad regime right now. But the Russians are making up deficits in wheat, and in a whole host of other things that the Syrian regime needs, and in cash. Usually lines of credit, I think, by this point, not actual cash, that the Assad regime needs just to keep going. The state apparatus in Syria could not run without these things. So if the Russians took the decision tomorrow to actually work with the international community on a political resolution of the conflict through UNSCR 2254, the Assad regime could not defy them. The Russians can’t—the Iranians can’t possibly replace all the support that the Russians give. So the Russians are in a good position. They can make the Assad regime do whatever really they think they need them to. Recently the Russians—we do have—we do have continuing contact with the Russians on a diplomatic level. Nick can talk about military deconfliction. That’s not in my lane. But on a diplomatic level we’re in pretty constant touch with the Russians on ways to get to an end state that, I think, we both roughly agree with, which is that, as I said before, governance inside Syria and the Syrian government’s behavior in the region has to change in order for the underlying causes of the conflict to be addressed. But how we get there, we have a lot of disagreements about. And we talk about those all the time. One way in which we were recently able to—one area in which we were recently able to agree, though, was in the establishment of the constitutional committee, which we’ll try to—which will be charged with undertaking constitutional reform to try to address some of these structural problems in Syrian governance. So we have high hopes for that. It’ll kick off at the end of this month in Geneva. But the Russian role. Let’s not be—there’s a lot of speculation about, well, how much leverage do the Russians have over Bashar al-Assad? He’s a very tough client, et cetera. I don’t—I don’t buy that. SHANKER: But we haven’t really seen Russia doing much. RAYBURN: Yeah, so it’s a matter of—it’s Russian will. It’s not that they don’t have the ability. It’s not that they don’t have the leverage. Of course they have the leverage. SHANKER: Please. MULROY: Sure. To Gayle’s all-in point, which I agree with, they are all in, but they should be all-in for all the consequences as well, right? So we could spend the rest of the time talking about the atrocities done by the regime and their Russian backers here, so I won’t do that. But I will point to one statistic that stood out at me as were preparing for this. Between April and September, fifty-nine schools have been destroyed in Idlib province—fifty-nine schools. RAYBURN: By aerial bombardment or shelling? MULROY: Yes, shelling, right? So it’s not just chemical weapons use that’s bad, but killing innocent civilians by any means is wrong, and they need to be held accountable, to the point of— RAYBURN: And in lot of cases, it is a war crime. MULROY: It is. So I like to point that out. They’re all-in for the consequences of all the bad decisions that the regime makes. To your point on al-Qaida affiliates, obviously there’s many. And they keep spawning additional ones. And so you had Al Nusra, then you had HTS, and now you have Hurras al-Din. We’re not going to mitigate our efforts to attack them and to ensure that they’re not plotting external plots outside of Syria, or whether it’s, you know, in Europe, anywhere in the world. And you can see that. We just—we just conducted an attack that was very successful. I know I already brought up the National Defense Strategy. Counterterrorism is, like, the fifth priority. And that’s where it should be. However, one of those attacks is successful, and you know how that’ll turn out. So we’re never going to let off the gas when it comes to the threat, specifically posed now—and I’ve seen this, I would say, on my past job. Oftentimes when a terrorist organization is relieved from the burden of governance—I take that from a quote that was written on a wall once when we liberated an area—they’d get back to their true calling, which is killing the infidel. RAYBURN: Right. MULROY: And I think that is something that we, and particularly DOD but also my old organization, will spend a lot of time ensuring that if they return to that, and we know they are, that we will do everything we can to mitigate it. SHANKER: Right. I know the members here have lots of questions, so I’ll self-edit. But I do want to ask one more before I go to questions from the members. It’s about the humanitarian catastrophe, but a very specific part. You know, there are two thousand foreign fighters in SDF camps, and more than seventy thousand ISIS women and children. And there’s lots of hang-wringing about that. But I’d love to hear specifically in a concrete and tactical way, how we deal with that? And, again, not to be too practical, but it’s not just a humanitarian disaster, but it’s setting up all of the prerequisites for ISIS 3.0. What do we do? Gayle, please. LEMMON: So I was in Hawl camp in May. And I just want to say, I deeply believe that this is entirely foreseeable overnight crisis six months in the making. It is almost as if, to use an example some are more familiar with, we took the Northern Alliance post-2001 and said: Hey, seventy-three thousand Taliban families from all over the world, please, find a way to house, feed, care, educate them. And the international community cellphone is going to be off in case you need any help. It is absolutely astounding to me that folks whose children and whose colleagues died fighting ISIS are now really being held responsible solo, in many ways, to take care of the children and the wives of those—and members. Because I do think it’s more than ISIS wives. I think that reduces the agency for many of these women, who deeply believe in the Islamic State. And people are pleading. People who run these camps are pleading for assistance from the international community. You know, this one woman said to me: You know, one of the main challenges is the mentality of the new arrivals. We can’t do much for them, and they’re having a big impact on the people who are already there. This is a camp that nine thousand people, had kids going to school, and it was prepared for twenty (thousand), thirty thousand more. And now they’ve seventy-three thousand. And when you go, it is more or less the United Nations of the Islamic State. I mean, there’s so many different languages. My colleague and I—my wonderful colleague and I were trying to figure out if we could decipher. There were many—which I think I’m pretty fluent in a number of them—they we couldn’t identify. There were folks we met from Seychelles, folks we met from Germany, folks we met from Egypt. And I am not arguing, actually, that all of these people are ISIS members, or should be imprisoned. It requires the international community to come and help solve an international problem. This is not a solely homegrown effort that requires folks who are stretched thin to resolve on their own. You now have a nonstate actor, in the form of the SDF and the SDC, faced with real state problems, and nation-states who don’t want to pony up and help. And I do think we have to address this, because it is about the little ones and the next generation. These kids did not choose to be in this camp. They did not choose the ideology of their parents. And I’m telling you, there’s great fear in the region. One mother I met who was—I think probably gave birth baby in Ayn Issa camp during the Raqqa campaign the summer of 2017. I saw her again. We’ve been tracking her story for the last two years. We saw her. She’s now cleaning at Mercy Corps in Raqqa. And she’s just, you know, one of the most articulate, powerful voices in terms of Syrians who have seen too much, whose children have seen too much, and who are fighting for their kids’ futures. And she told me there were twenty-four ISIS family orphans. I don’t want to call anybody an ISIS orphan. But children of ISIS, of followers, who came to Ayn Issa. And I said, oh—she said, they’re so cute, but nobody wants to take them because no one knows what’s in their heart. And I’m telling you, this is not just her issue alone. SHANKER: Thank you very much. I’m eager now to invite members to join the conversation with your questions. I’ll remind you this is on the record. If you would please wait for the microphone, stand, identify yourself, and please be concise. Sir. Q: I’m Don Alishek (ph) from Turkish embassy. You may know there is a terrorist organization that’s called MLKP, which is Marxist-Leninist Communist Party. They are based in northeast Syria. They have a camp there. They do military training and then they sign songs about starting the revolutionary violence in Turkey. And last weekend they attacked a bus carrying Turkish police officers in Adana, Turkey. And they announced it on their Twitter account. They put photos glorifying the great attack against Turkey. And we know there are other European— SHANKER: Sir, can I ask for your question, please? Q: Yeah, yeah, I’m coming. SHANKER: Well, I’d like to hear the question now, please. Q: For sure. For sure. The other European far-left organizations that are also getting military training in the northeast. So what is the U.S. position regarding these structures that definitely PKK is fostering in northeast Syria? Thank you. RAYBURN: So you know, right now at both—on both the diplomatic side and the military side—we’re embarked on implementing an agreement that would establish a zone along the Turkey-Syria border of varying depth that’s meant to—we’re meant to have a security mechanism within that zone that will ensure that there can be no threats that would emanate from that zone against Turkey, and that there would be no threats that would emanate from within that zone against the people of northeast Syria. It’s meant to be a zone that’s safe for both Turkey and for—and for Syrians. So far, the implementation is going pretty well. It’s going apace. We have a lot of military to military coordination on the ground, but I would leave DASD Mulroy to comment on that. But I would say that this is part—this is part of a larger effort to stabilize at a political level the border between Turkey and Syria east of the Euphrates, because we think that’s the only—that’s a necessary condition for the resolution of the overall conflict. As long as there is the danger of a conflict along the Turkey-Syria border, it’ll be difficult—that’ll make the job of reaching a political resolution of the conflict much, much harder. And we certainly think that a conflict along the Turkey-Syria border would serve the interests of all the bad actors in the conflict and in the surrounding region—whether that’s Daesh, or al-Qaida, or the Iranian regime, or what have you. MULROY: So on the security mechanism, we do believe there’s been progress from the military side. We’ve established a joint operations center on the border. We’ve begun joint patrols both in the air and on the ground. And some of the fortifications that were of concern have been destroyed. So we think working together we have made progress on that, for all the reasons that Joel just mentioned. SHANKER: Thanks. Michael. I’ll abuse the power of the chair and call on a friend and colleague. (Laughter.) Q: I’m Michael Gordon, Wall Street Journal. A question for the DOD and State Department reps. It was stated that President Trump’s goal is to have Iranian forces leave Syria. How do you propose to do that, since striking Iranian forces is not within the mandate of the U.S. military in Syria? The Russians seem to have no interest, or even the capability in getting the Iranians out of Syria. They don’t want to be the ground element. And while the sanctions may be hurting the Iranian economy, Iran has become more aggressive, to witness the attack on the Saudi oil facility. So what’s your plan to get Iranian forces out of Syria? Or is there a real plan, beyond relying on Israel? RAYBURN: So there are a number of things that we’ve undertaken to try to bring pressure to bear on the Iranians and on the Assad regime to get Iranian forces—Iranian-commanded forces, which is not just the IRGC; it’s also the militias that they’ve exported into Syria—out. First of all, we use economic pressure. We use economic pressure against the Assad regime. We use economic pressure against the actual forces themselves. And we link the pressure campaign that we have inside Syria to the maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime. Those of us who are implementing the president’s Syria policy and strategy stay very tightly coordinated with our colleagues who are managing the Iran front, such as Brian Hook. And you’ll recall that when Secretary Pompeo described the outlines, the conditions that the United States would have for essentially relieving the maximum pressure campaign in his speech that he made in the spring of 2018, as he laid out his twelve conditions on of the conditions on the list of that Iran policy was that IRGC and militias should leave Syria. So it’s very—we’ve made it very clear to the Iranian regime that one of the things that it’s going to have to do if, at the end of the day, it wants to get out from under the pressure from the United States and from the rest of the international community that cooperates with us, is they’re going to have to exit Syria. We think that’s pretty powerful. The Iranian military presence in Syria comes under pressure from other powers, not from us. We watch that out of the corner of our eye. And we just predict—we observe that that kind of pressure is probably going to continue for as long as those Iranian-commanded forces are in Syria and are posing a serious threat to Syria’s neighbors. MULROY: So I agree. You’re right. We’re not—we do not have the authorization for direct military action against Iran in this area. We’re there to defeat ISIS, and that’s the authorization. But I would say that our presence, just like with stabilization, also has a positive effect when it comes to the Iranian problem. Physically, being there obstructs—not completely, but it does obstruct the routes that—what we call the GLOCs, but in regular terms the routes that the Iranians use to move weapons systems, some of them very lethal and very precise, right next to—right over the border with Israel. Being there actually makes it difficult for them. Al-Tanf garrison is a good example of that. And also, being there does provide both DAS Rayburn and Ambassador Jeffrey leverage when it comes to the whole political process, part of which, as just described, is their reduction or elimination of Iranian-backed forces in Syria. That’s part of the process. It won’t be easy, but it is there. SHANKER: Thanks. I want to go to the back of the room and work my way around. There, in the corner, please. Q: Kevin Baron from Defense One. A question from, first, the two gentlemen from the administration. I heard in the beginning you mentioned stabilization efforts be as important as the military. But we’ve heard that, and we’ve heard generals and others asking for a much larger presence of the U.S. stabilization projects, or something, for years now. So give us the current state of what the U.S. contribution to that is, versus what the international community has been able to contribute. And for the other two on the left, the on-the-ground perspective of the same question. What are you seeing out there? How effective is that? I mean, I was—it’s been a while—I was in Raqqa a couple months after the liberation. And there were about, you know, three or four bulldozers with the State Department logos on them, or AID, for a whole city. But that was a couple years ago. So where are we now? Are we really getting—is the U.S. really involved? Or is this, you know, Band-Aid level stuff? RAYBURN: So we have—we have some pretty good burden-sharing going on in northeast Syria, especially in Raqqa and some of the other areas that were once under the control of Daesh not too—not too long ago. The U.S. does have some portion of funding that we’ve been executing. But we’ve gotten really good contributions from our coalition partners, from some of the Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, that’s helped us to be able to do the kind of restoration of essential services and those kind of stabilization activities that we’re used to, as well as some very good contributions from European countries. The United States does a lot in northeast Syria. We have a lot of—our military forces that are there do a lot through their advising of local partners, and through the kind of—through the kind of projects that they’re able to do. And of course, we have humanitarian assistance throughout the country. It’s never—the Syrian conflict is such a deep hole of instability that we’re always going to feel like we’re running behind in the funding that is necessary to address it. But I do think that there’s a pretty good commitment—right now, the kind of things we do at a diplomatic level and to try and keep the international community focused on the Syria problem. And so that the international community doesn’t just conclude that because the Daesh territorial caliphate is destroyed that it’s time to move on, and the funding would dry up, and so on. We’ve been pretty successful at that so far, but it’s always something that we have to—it takes—it takes constant tending. MULROY: So, like I mentioned, the—I focus on conflicts, and my travel reflects that. I go to a lot of these areas, and that’s where I know the most people actually. And one of the things they all tell me is how important stabilization is. We’ll never get from phase three—and using DOD parlance, the kinetic phase—to phase four if you don’t have that. The Department of Defense does have the authority to do humanitarian aid, and we do, in Syria right now. We also have stabilization with our partners. We are pushing to have—in the cases where the only personnel can get to these areas are DOD, for us to actually have the authority to deliver the stabilization funding, which is different from humanitarian aid. It’s more about economic infrastructure—turning the lights on, turning the water on, and getting life back going. It’s called defense support to stabilization. And we’re talking to all of our committees in Congress right now about making sure that we can do that and increasing the actual funding. And we are grateful for all the countries that do contribute. And one of the reasons why we wanted to have this event today was to bring this issue to the forefront, through all of you, so we can talk about contributing more to that effort. SHANKER: Thanks. Mouaz, did you want to comment? MOUSTAFA: Yeah. So I think it’s a very important question, Kevin. And I think that a lot of amazing work is being done by the State Department and Department of Defense. But I think that—for example, the cutting off of humanitarian aid and support that was going to the northwest, I think that’s a problem. One thing that is important to mention, especially when there is lulls in bombardment by the Assad regime and Russia on places like Idlib, that’s when the population goes out, not to protest Assad, and Russia, and Iran, but to protest against things like HTS and like others. And so ensuring that what we’ve already invested in in the northwest, whether it the amazing work of the White Helmets or the civil society organizations there, and the people that are trying to rule and govern local communities in a way that keeps at the heart of their sort of vision, which is the values that they came out with so many years ago, calling for democracy and for their voice to be heard. That is disappointing that that has stopped. And continuing that isn’t just humanitarian aid and stabilization. It’s a very important counterterrorism tool. When it comes to the northeast, I think what’s really important is to try to empower as much as possible not just our direct partner forces that played a role in defeating ISIS—which, by the way, has a huge contingent of Arab fighters that were there but that feel in a lot of way disenfranchised. They feel that there as more token representatives than people that can make decisions. So empowering the majority Arab Sunni population in that area, both in ensuring that they’re playing an important role that’s not just a symbolic role in governance, and supporting them, I think that’s something that is very important to do, because that’s what’s going to keep them away from being prey to the messaging of violent extremist actors. And that’s something that I think we could do a lot better job of. And finally, when it comes to places that have been very difficult for the United States’ State Department to reach, and I bring up again Rukban camp that’s next to the Tanf base, there are some situations where it might be the best decision to declare at the State Department that this is something—due to the Russian and the regime blockading and hurting the sort of U.N. process of providing these people aid—and allow the Department of Defense to bring direct aid there. I already know that the amazing work of American servicemen and -women is already overwhelming, such a huge responsibility. And I don’t say it easily that—or take it lightly that they should take a role in providing that direct aid to Rukban camp, for example. But that’s a camp within ten miles from a military base. And these are the families of some of the partner forces that are fighting against ISIS and keeping Iran, Assad regime, and other enemies at bay. So we owe them that. So I think there’s a lot more that could be done. SHANKER: Gayle, please. LEMMON: So stabilization is the thirteen-letter word that has been a four-letter word, even though it’s absolutely central to keeping conflicts ended. And when you see it on the ground, what you see are people—I went in Raqqa April of 2018. And there were very few people there in term of if you compare it to now. Now there are traffic jams, you know, a very fragile stability that those on the ground are the ones fighting for. And the first thing you heard was the sound of generators, you know, people who had spent their money on getting generators going, who had either rented, or borrowed, or somehow gotten ahold of very light equipment to do rubble removal. And you think, you know, these are folks who are working themselves to rebuild their lives. And stabilization dollars that could do rubble removal, demining, very basic, you know, water, power, light—that is, I think, central to keeping conflicts ended, which has been a challenge for the United States. And here, you have folks on the ground who are willing to do the work. You know, one mother I met—there’s a shopkeeper I met who was one of the first women I met in April of 2018 who had a shop. We went and talked to her. And then we visited again. Business was very slow, so we visited again in May of 2019. And I thought her shop would be closed. And so we walked in. And actually now she had a sixteen-year-old girl who was nearly arrested for ISIS for crossing between apartment buildings and going to see here family uncovered. And she had been very scared to come out and to, you know, go to this shop but to work. But because her cousin had this shop, and the shop was doing well, she came and started working there. And the shopkeeper said to me, you know, I was open till 12:30 a.m. last night because of Eid. You know, people were coming out. She said, we see this city. We are willing to do the work. We just need the basics of help. And so I think that it is absolutely true, this often becomes it’s the Kurds versus everybody else, especially from the Washington discussion. But when you go around Raqqa, you hear a very different story about people who are simply pushing ahead. And my final story is I went to the opening of the Raqqa Women’s Council in summer of 2018. And I interviewed people—woman after woman who was telling me they were there because many of them had husbands who were pushed too far by ISIS. So one woman had three of her husband’s relatives were hung by ISIS. And so they had to assume responsibility for all the wives and all the children of that family. And she was just talking about the fact that what we have now is room for us to rebuild our own society. And I think that’s where the stabilization dollars go in to make a difference, is helping with the basics for stability and people who are fighting for their own futures. SHANKER: Thanks. This table, yes, please. Mmm hmm. Q: Thank you. I’m Asaad Hanna from the White Helmet. So I have very quick two questions. First thing, when we talk about changing the behavior of the regime, that doesn’t—you don’t see it, like, in message to the regime that if you change something, we will keep you in power. For example, if he released all the detainees now, and he became, like, the best regime in the world, we will forgive him for killing half-million people? Will we forget him for using the chemical weapons in Syria, and for using the bomb barrels? So what’s that? Like, how we identify changing the behavior of the regime? Isn’t that a solution who—like, which kill all the accountability process in Syria? First thing about—second thing about civilization, how can we talk about making civilization in Syria, meanwhile the countries and U.S. starting the fund for the hospitals and for the education and for—like, they started all the fund for the civil society organizations in the northwest of Syria, not in the northeast. So how can those people, which—as a city—there is more than four million people now in Idlib under the attacks, under everything. And we started the main—the essential two things for them. We started the hospitals, and we started the schools. So what do we think, in the future, those people will have? SHANKER: Thank you very much. Who wants to take that one? RAYBURN: On the question of the Syrian—the way I would term it is the Syrian government’s behavior. The U.S., as we went through our policy process that the president decided upon earlier this year, we came down to a set of conditions the United States would have to have any Syrian government meet—whether it’s the current one or a future one—in order for the U.S. to have normal relations with that government in Damascus. And they amount to a change of policy and behavior by the Syrian government. The first is we would require that that government sever its ties with the Iranian regime military and its militant proxies. Second is we would require that that government cease being a state sponsor of terrorism. Third, cease being a threat to its neighbors. Fourth, surrender its weapons of mass destruction programs, verifiably. Fifth, create the conditions on the ground for refugees and displaced persons to return safely and voluntarily to their homes. And sixth, and gets to the point that Assad Hanna was making, is we would require that that government hold war criminals and atrocity criminals accountable or cooperate with the international community in doing so. I agree with Mr. Hanna that you can’t have political stabilization in Syria without real political reconciliation. And you’re not going to have political reconciliation unless there’s an accounting for what has happened. The Syrian population that has voted with its feet is not going to go back home into the teeth of a killing machine that’s still there unchanged, unreformed. So there has to be some measure of accountability. And we have not just an interest in that for the purposes of stabilizing Syria, but also for the global example. There are some NGOs that are quite reputable that estimate that there could be up to or maybe even now exceeding 215,000 people who have disappeared into the Assad regime’s detention centers whose fate is unknown. The Assad regime is re-running the Holocaust in the twenty-first century. And we, all of us, have an important stake in making sure that one of the lessons of the Syrian conflict is not that an authoritarian regime can kill its way out of a crisis that it has created because of its unwillingness to acknowledge legitimate calls of reform from its people. Because if that’s the lesson that people take from the Syrian conflict, then the twenty-first century is going to see that repeated—that method repeated over, and over, and over again. SHANKER: Well, we could spend the rest of the day talking about how we get from here to resolving those six points. That’s the hard part. But in the three minutes left, I know there was a question in the back. Yes, ma’am. Q: Missy Ryan from The Washington Post. (Comes on mic.) Thanks for being here. My question is for DASD Mulroy and DAS Rayburn, and building on your earlier question, Thom, about what to do with the foreign fighters, and their families, in the camps in Syria. So just so I can understand what—again, what the—what the plan is, if—what is the plan B if the European countries and the other countries of origin do not take large numbers of their citizens back in a timely manner/ You know, it seems like from what everybody said, if you wait several years the problem—the radicalization problem is going to increase exponentially. What is the plan B? What is Iraq’s role in all that? Any details would be great. Thanks. SHANKER: Do you want to start? MULROY: Sure. I mean, it’s already been pointed out there are about seventy thousand families, right? Well, there’s about eleven thousand fighters that are being held. Two thousand of them—over two thousand of them are foreign. And they come from fifty different countries. So I know this is a lot of admiration of the problem, but I guess that’s the first step, right? You need to identify the issue. We expect countries to take them back. As has been pointed out by many of the panelists, this is a nonstate entity who’s bearing the burden the world, housing their most dangerous problems. There’s a lot of people, or countries, on the sideline criticizing the conditions, et cetera, but quite frankly they only have so many resources so be able to do this. We’re going to keep pushing countries to take back their foreign fighters that came from their countries. And there does have to be a plan B of what we do next. I can’t declare what that is here today because, quite frankly, we haven’t developed it entirely. And it’s not up to me to be the one to say that. But the problem, just like you said, is serious. And if it’s not addressed directly—not just the fighters. We already know they’re a problem. They’ve proven to be a problem. But what are we going to do with the children, for example? They didn’t do anything. And they’re not going to stay incarcerated, because you can’t do that. They’re going to—they’re going to get out. And we think as an international community we have to come up with a plan to rehabilitate them so they can get back into society and not follow the path of their fathers. SHANKER: Thanks. And I do need to keep my promise to the Council and to the members. I know, again, this topic is so rich, the panel is so expert, your questions are so smart, but we do have to adjourn now. I thank the four panelists for a very thought-provoking, if troubling, discussion. I thank the Council for hosting this terrific event. And I thank all of you for coming and sharing your thoughts with us. (Applause.) (END)
  • Human Trafficking

    Human trafficking can fuel conflict, drive displacement, and undercut the ability of international institutions to promote stability. The United States should work to disrupt and dismantle the criminal networks and terrorist groups that exploit conflict-related human trafficking, while prioritizing the prevention and prosecution of and protection from human trafficking in conflict contexts.