Syria: State of the Conflict and U.S. Policy
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)