Briefing on Russian Engagement in the Middle East

Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Ambassador James Jeffrey, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Henry Wooster, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Christoper Robinson On Russian Engagement in the Middle East

Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
ON-THE-RECORD-BRIEFING
May 7, 2020
Via Teleconference

MS ORTAGUS:  Thank you very much.  Appreciate it.  Good to be on with everybody this Thursday afternoon.  This is going to be another on-the-record briefing here at the State Department, and please, as always, this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call.

Today we want to shed some light on Russians’ – Russian malign engagement in the Middle East with a specific focus on Russian actions in Syria and in Libya.  We have all been witnesses to Russia cynically helping the deadly Assad regime stay in power, hanging on by a thread and refusing to budge on meaningful political dialogue with the Syrian opposition.  More recently, Russia has exploited instability in Libya to advance its own military, economic, and geopolitical interest in that country and throughout North America.[1]

To help provide additional context, we have an all-star cast of briefers today, real experts in the field whom most of you know on this topic.  We have Deputy Assistant Secretary Christopher Robin[2] from our Bureau of European and Eurasian affairs.  He’ll speak first.  We’ll be followed – he’ll be followed by Deputy Assistant Secretary Henry Wooster from our Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs who covers the Maghreb and Egypt portfolios.  Last but not least, we have my favorite ambassador, of course, Jim Jeffrey, who’s our special representative for Syria engagement and the special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

And just a reminder that while this call is on the record, this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call.  Chris, go ahead.

MR ROBINSON:  All right.  So good afternoon.  It’s a real pleasure to be here with all of you.  Wish we could do this in person, but allow me to frame the conversation from the Russia perspective to start this out.  As I recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Russia has ramped up its unconstructive behavior in the Middle East since 2015, when Russia expanded its actions in Syria in support of the Assad regime.  More recently, Libya has become the next venue for Russia’s malign efforts to exploit regional conflicts for its own narrow political and economic gain.  While Russia often publicly claims support for a political solution, such as in Syria or Libya, it simultaneously engages in activities that undermine a political peace process and widen the conflict.

In Libya, Russia continues its military support for the Libyan National Army of General Haftar.  Russia has provided material and logistical support to the Wagner Group, a U.S.-sanctioned entity led by Putin crony Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is also sanctioned by the United States.  Russia’s surge in support to the LNA has led to a significant escalation of the conflict and a worsening of the humanitarian situation in Libya.  Wagner is often misleadingly referred to as a Russian private military company, but in fact it’s an instrument of the Russian Government which the Kremlin uses as a low-cost and low-risk instrument to advance its goals.  More recently, Russia in coordination with the Assad regime has ferried Syrian fighters to Libya to participate in Wagner operations in support of the LNA.

Meanwhile, Russia for years has conducted a disinformation campaign to discredit international organizations working on these conflicts such as the United Nations and the OPCW.  Russia has leveled ludicrous claims that the United States is responsible for the creation of ISIS, that the White Helmets in Syria have links to terrorism, and that the UK special forces fabricated the 2018 chemical attack in Douma.

Finally, Russia has engaged in a disinformation campaign to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic.  Russian disinformation claims that the United States or Western powers are the origin of the virus while instilling uncertainty about the international response.  Through such tactics, Russia clearly signals it’s willing to take advantage of a global crisis in order to pursue its own destabilizing agenda without any regard for the human consequences.  This administration is engaged in a range of actions to blunt Moscow’s efforts to exert malign influence in Libya and Syria, and it’s not too late for Moscow to change course and genuinely support a political settlement to both of these conflicts.

I’ll stop there and then we can move on to – and get to questions.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay, great.  Thanks so much.  Henry.

MR WOOSTER:  Hey, thanks, Morgan, and thanks, Chris.  Good afternoon, folks out in the virtual ether.  In Libya we’ve got two goals: one, an immediate end to the conflict; and two, a return to political negotiations, or dialogue, if you will.  So let me walk you through how we see malign influence out there.

Our starting point is that foreign intervention has exacerbated divisions, widened the conflict, transformed it into a proxy war, threatened regional stability, and as you can imagine, in combination all of these things impinge upon (inaudible) if they don’t harm, in fact, U.S. interests – thus our interests.  So as Chris noted, the Kremlin uses this combination of military power, proxies, and disinformation to shape outcomes, and specifically, Moscow is seeking an enhanced presence in Libya to expand its influence across the Med and also onto the African continent.

And more specifically, Wagner support to Haftar’s LNA or, if you will, the Libyan National Army has escalated the conflict.  It’s emboldened the LNA to continue its offensive which in turn is destabilizing, pushing the Government of National Accord – the internationally recognized government which the United States recognizes – it’s pushed them to seek increased Turkish support to counter the Wagner-based LNA assault.  So you see the escalatory effects here.

No one should think that Russia is going to pack up and leave now that they’ve invested in the Libyan conflict.  So the way to end Russian and other foreign interference in Libya is to first end the Tripoli conflict – of course, that’s the pretext – end that and revive political talks between the Libyans, and this done through UN-facilitated negotiations.

Lastly, on my end of it, a coordinated response from the international community pressing all the actors, Libyan and external, to deescalate is imperative.  We, the United States, for our part will continue to press Russia, Turkey, the UAE, among others to encourage LNA and the GNA to return to these UN negotiations.  We’re looking for a lasting ceasefire that they (inaudible) sides had agreed to in Geneva in February.  Thank you much.

MS ORTAGUS:  Thanks so much, and now Jim.  Jim Jeffrey, do we got you?

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY:  Hi, Morgan.  Thank you very much for those kind words, and hello everybody.

Let me give a little bit of background on Russia in Syria.  Most of you follow the day-in day-out stuff quite well.  First of all, Russia came in in 2015 to save the Assad regime, which was apparently on its last legs facing an uprising of much of its population.  Russia succeeded quite quickly in its initial goal of stabilizing the situation.  At the end of 2015, it agreed to a UN resolution, 2254, which is still the relevant resolution for resolving the Syrian conflict that calls for a compromise political solution under the UN, a new constitution, and UN-monitored elections.

Meanwhile, however, in the subsequent two years, Russia, with Iranian engagement as well, saw the Assad regime retake much of Syrian territory from the opposition.  So its ambitions seemed to grow.  The problem is that two new factors complicated Russia’s life.  First of all, Iran not only was willing to use forces to bolster the Syrian regime, it also started introducing long-range weapon systems, precision-guided missiles – some for its own forces in Syria, some pushed onward to Hizballah to seriously threaten Israeli security, and the Israelis have reacted in various ways.  Occasionally they talk about their operations over Syria to that end.  That complicated Russia’s calculations.  We see no indication they thought that the Syrians would allow the Iranians to exploit it that way.

Secondly, the Assad regime has run into considerable trouble retaking the rest of Syria.  For various reasons, U.S. and Turkish forces, as well as Israelis, have entered Syria for one or another security reason.  This complicates both Russia and Assad’s situation.  And Assad has done nothing to help the Russians sell this regime.  It is being condemned, as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, by the secretary-general of the UN himself on the refusal to allow cross-border humanitarian deliveries, by the board of inquiry; the secretary-general (inaudible) for the deliberate attack on supposedly off-limits humanitarian sites such as hospitals in Idlib, and thirdly for use of chemical weapons in 2017 that the OPCW has come out with.

There’s obviously growing Russian frustration with Assad because he will not bend.  Compare the way the Iranians try to sell themselves with people like Zarif and Rouhani.  You find Assad has nothing but thugs around him, and they don’t sell well either in the Arab world or in Europe.

Russia seemed to be willing to look at a compromise about a year ago.  Mike Pompeo went along with Morgan and me to Sochi to meet with Lavrov and with Putin, and we laid out a way to resolve this on a step-by-step basis.  But then soon after, Russia seemed committed to a military solution.  That led to the debacle from the standpoint of the Syrian forces in Idlib who now have a ceasefire that appears to be holding.  Russia may be more willing now – we’ve seen some indications in the Russian media and in certain Russian actions to be more flexible on the constitutional committee, but they may once again be willing to talk with us about a way to resolve this short of a military victory, because it’s very clear at this point to Russia that they’re not going to get a military victory certainly no time soon in Syria.  Meanwhile, the Syrian economy is in freefall and the diplomatic isolation continues.

I’ll stop there.

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