In August 2018, Ambassador James Jeffrey was appointed as the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement. He became the lead State Department contact on all aspects of the Syrian conflict apart from the campaign to defeat ISIS. On September 27, Jeffrey said U.S. goals included defeating ISIS, reinvigorating the political process, and removing all Iranian-commanded forces, including proxies, from Syria. He emphasized that the United States would use political pressure, not military force, to prompt the removal of Iranians from Syria. “Eventually, technically, the Syrian Government invited them in; we expect the Syrian Government to ask them to leave,” he explained in November. Jeffrey also said that U.S. sanctions on Iran would help persuade Iran to scale back its presence in Syria. The following are excerpted remarks by Jeffrey on Iran’s role in Syria in reverse chronological order.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Let me start with our goals in Syria. The President laid them out very forcefully during his remarks in the UN General Assembly now almost two months ago. What we’re looking for is the enduring defeat of ISIS, a reinvigorated and irreversible political process in Syria led by the Syrian people and facilitated by the UN, and de-escalation of the conflict that will include all Iranian-commanded forces departing from the entirety of Syria.
Before I get into how we’re going to carry out what is obviously an ambitious program but we think a very necessary one, let me describe the situation today. Other than fighting that we are leading with our SDF allies along the Euphrates River against ISIS, there’s a relative ceasefire in Syria today, but the conflict is, alas, not over and there are still dangers. There are five outside forces – U.S., Iranian, Turkish, Russian, and at times Israeli Air Force units – involved in Syria for important, or in several cases of the neighbors, existential interests. And as we saw with the recent shoot-down of a Russian IL-20 military aircraft, the danger of escalation is ever present, including between various national actors, not just with subnational actors of which there are many there, including very dangerous groups such as Hizballah, ISIS, and al-Qaida, al-Nusrah offshoots. …
At the same time, military presence, while it is – has one mission, which is the defeat of ISIS, indirectly supports, through secondary effects, other goals. It, in its work with our partners, indirectly helps affect Iran’s malign activities, and by our presence and by our commitment to security in Syria and in the region, we demonstrate an interest in achieving a political solution by the various ways that we have, not just diplomatic but security and military, through economic tools and other assets that we have and that we’re deploying in this conflict.
We also think that you cannot have an enduring defeat of ISIS until you have fundamental change in the Syrian regime and fundamental change in Iran’s role in Syria, which contributed greatly to the rise of ISIS in the first place in 2013, 2014.
QUESTION: Two questions. This goal of yours to get Iran out of Syria – do you see that as the outcome of the political process, or more like a condition for going into it? And if it’s the former, how would that work? And then secondly, when it comes to the constitutional committee, are you optimistic, or what makes you think it’s actually going to be productive given that the Syrian Government is still not accepting the third list?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Good point. On getting Iran out, that is basically part of a process. It’s not a military goal of the United States, it’s not a mission of U.S. military forces; rather, we see this as the outcome of process that would end the internal conflict and provide guarantees to the Syrian people and the neighbors towards their security. And under those circumstances, we see an Iran with its power projection capabilities as a threat to three of our partners and allies around Syria: Israel, first of all, and then Turkey and Jordan. So we think that it is an important criteria for any lasting peace. You will not have a lasting peace in Syria if Iran is doing the kind of power projection policies out of Syria that it has done through Hizballah in southern Lebanon and done through the Houthis in northern Yemen.
QUESTION: But how do you get there, though?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We think that a process that will encourage all sides to restore the refugees, begin reconstruction assistance, and lead to the withdrawal of all other forces would be an offer that the Syrian Government would be encouraged to take. Right now, as I said, the Syrian Government is not in a particularly enviable position – in terms of its economy, which is in ruins; in terms of its control over the population, which is limited; and in terms of its control over territory, which again is a little bit over half. And it is in a very dangerous situation because you have all of these outside forces and the risk of an escalation at any time.
QUESTION: So you’re depending on the Syrian Government to ask the Iranians to leave? Is that the plan?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Eventually, technically, the Syrian Government invited them in; we expect the Syrian Government to ask them to leave. In terms of getting the Syrian Government to commit to the process, first of all, it is important that the Syrian Government do this, but it is not absolutely necessary. The UN special envoy, under 2254, has the authority to convoke the constitutional committee. He has indicated that he is ready to do so. He is encouraged by us and other nations to do so as soon as possible. And even the Russians, as I said, have agreed by the end of this year. We will see whether Damascus goes along or whether Damascus is willing to bear the burden of responsibility for blocking a process that the entire Security Council has been pressing for now three years.
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, one of the things that just sort of consistently comes out with confusion, at least on our part, when you talk is what you – how the U.S. will dispose of its forces vis-a-vis Iran. I think you’ve said several times that the United States wants to keep a presence in Syria until Iran leaves, and that is sometimes interpreted as a military presence. You just once again confirmed that the only military goal for the United States is the defeat – the enduring defeat of ISIS.
If in a few months you succeed in defeating ISIS, will American troops then leave even if Iran stays in Syria? Help us unpack where our forces are vis-a-vis where Iran is and how those two impact each other.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Sure. Again, our forces are there under a set of legal and diplomatic documents, beginning with the Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001 on the fight against international terror. And that is their military mission where they can engage an enemy force. But their mission right now from the President is the enduring defeat, and the enduring defeat means not simply smashing the last of ISIS’s conventional military units holding terrain, but ensuring that ISIS doesn’t immediately come back and sleeper cells come back as an insurgent movement.
We’ve seen this several times, of course, across the border in Iraq, including ISIS itself. ISIS’s predecessor under the same leader, al-Baghdadi, al-Qaida in Iraq, was almost totally defeated when I was in Iraq. I wasn’t the person defeating it, but I was there to see it happen in 2010 to 2012. But it was able to re-generate itself because there was no long-term strategy in either Syria or Iraq, but particularly in Iraq at the time because that’s where we were focused on, to ensure the enduring defeat of these elements.
So there’s a – what the military calls a stabilization or stage-four aspect to the military, political, diplomatic, economic effort to try to ensure that something like ISIS doesn’t return. Again, that’s more than the military. We have civilians working on assistance, political officers in northeastern Syria trying to help on that longer-term process.
Again, indirectly, our military presence, as I said, has indirect impact on the Iranian presence there. It has an indirect impact on our political activities in support of the UN resolution. But the decision on when the enduring defeat of ISIS has been achieved is one that the President takes as Commander-in-Chief. In terms of us staying on until we have achieved our goals, our staying on is something that the President and his advisors and our allies and partners will work on based upon the various tools we have: the diplomatic tools, the military tools, the military tools using partner forces, the military tools using assistance and training. There are, again, tools such as sanctions, tools such as either granting or withholding reconstruction assistance. There’s a whole palate of tools.
For example, in Georgia in 2008, without using American military forces on the ground, we used a whole set of – a whole smorgasbord of tools, international tools with Sarkozy, the president of France at the time, leading the international diplomatic effort, sanctions and other actions that eventually saw the Russians withdrawing to their start positions at the beginning of that conflict in Georgia. So that’s an example of how you can do it.
QUESTION: Is there any evidence that the Iranians are withdrawing or scaling back their military presence there, or in fact are they expanding their presence or their supplying of weapons to the regime for their own purposes in Syria?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: They’re not expanding. Again, the military situation right now is frozen on the ground; there’s very little Iranian combat involvement other than some movements in the vicinity of some ISIS elements. I can’t get into questions of whether they’re pulling back or slowing down at this point.
QUESTION: And just to follow up, do you – is it your belief that sanctions, U.S. sanctions, will help force or persuade Iran to scale back their presence in Syria?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I do.
QUESTION: Ambassador Jeffrey, going back to the Iranian presence in Syria, are the Russians on board with the U.S.? And how much talk have you had with the Russians regarding Iranian forces leaving Syria once the clashes have subsided?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We’re not going to go into the details of discussions we’ve had. We’ve made clear to everyone our three strategic goals in Syria. We don’t see why it is in the interest of anyone to have Iranian forces, particularly power projection forces – long-range missiles and other systems that can threaten other countries – present in Syria if we have resolved the underlying conflict. And it’s our job to convince everybody, including the Russians, that that’s the best way to secure a peaceful result and stability and security, not just in Syria but in the region, and we’ll keep on working until we achieve that.
—Nov. 14, 2018, in a briefing
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: This policy is one of the key components of President Trump’s approach to the situation in the Near East. It’s very closely tied to our overall approach to Iran, but also to our approach to defeating terror throughout the region, but specifically with Syria.
The approach was developed over the past, at this point, nine or ten months but it really gained momentum when the President talked about Syria with President Putin in Helsinki and emphasized that the U.S. would be staying on in the long run in Syria to try to come up with a solution that meets the needs of the Syrian people, meets the needs of the region, and the international community in line with the relevant UN resolutions.
The policy, as summed up by the President in New York, thereafter at the UN, is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS, to work on a solution to Syria under the terms of the 2015 UN Resolution 2254 that would involve, again this is a Trump quote, “de-escalating the military situation”, and revitalizing the political track for a constitutional committee and eventually elections in Syria to try to get to the underlying problems in Syria, that has led to half a million people dying, a huge flow of refugees throughout the region, and into Europe and the rise of Daesh.
Finally, as part of this, to ensure that all Iranian-commanded forces leave the entirety of Syria because we see the Iranians as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
So, our approach to this has been to strongly support the UN effort. We welcome the decision by the French, British, Turks and Russians at the Istanbul Summit now ten days ago, to call for a long-term ceasefire in Idlib, which is a key area in the conflict right now in the northwest of the country, and to launch the constitutional committee by the end of December.
Our focus is to try to encourage these two processes ultimately through a UN process, and it is actually all sketched out pretty well in 2254, to regularize the ceasefires, work on that to develop the political situation, and finally, have a situation where all foreign forces that have entered the conflict since 2011 will withdraw.
The Russians, having been there before, would not themselves withdraw, but you’ve got four other outside military forces -- the Israeli, the Turkish, the Iranian and the American -- all operating inside Syria right now. It’s a dangerous situation as we saw with the shoot-down of the IL-20 Russian aircraft by the Syrian military who thought they were shooting at the Israeli military who allegedly were shooting at Iranian military targets. So, that’s the kind of dangerous situation we have right now in Syria.
Our immediate effort is to try to calm that situation down and then work for a long-term solution.
QUESTION: My question is Iran has been in Syria for six years, and without its support and Russia for the Syria regime, to [inaudible] the early days. The question is why you left Iran to expand into Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon and now want to trim its nails and hold them accountable at this time?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: America has a broad set of alliance partners and friendly countries and security relationships throughout the region. They all feel threatened by Iran’s activities in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, other places as well from Afghanistan to Bahrain. And they turn to us to work with them to try to find a way to push back.
The last administration saw the solution in negotiating a nuclear deal with the Iranian regime. The nuclear deal was achieved. The problem is that that had no effect, or it actually had a bad effect on Iran’s behavior throughout the region. That is, Iran accelerated its activities.
Based upon that, the Trump administration is now focusing on, first of all, reversing the nuclear deal in order to put Iran under financial pressure; and secondly, contesting more actively Iran’s activities, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and that’s much of our policy right now in the Middle East.
Ambassador Jeffrey: We’re concerned very much about the S-300 system being deployed to Syria. The issue is at the detail level who will control it. What role will it play?
In the past Russia has been permissive in consultation with the Israelis about Israeli strikes against Iranian targets inside Syria. We certainly hope that that permissive approach will continue. But let me be clear. Israel has an existential interest in blocking Iran from deploying long-range power projection systems such as surface-to-surface missiles, air defense systems to protect them, and drones in Syria aimed at and used against Israel. We understand the existential interest and we support Israel.
QUESTION: It looks like, at the beginning you mentioned that your mission is about getting rid of ISIS completely, but it looks like Iran is as important as that because in every other sentence you repeated Iran’s name and its influence in Syria.
Could you clear for us, what is your stand on Iran? And how much you’re happy to go to make sure Iran doesn’t have any presence in Syria? What is the end line?
Ambassador Jeffrey: Well, the end line is Iran not having, Iranian-commanded forces have departed the entirety of Syria. Obviously, that has to come in conjunction with various other developments. Eventually there should be a ceasefire in one or another way, overseen or executed by the UN, a new political regime for Syria which is what 2254 points towards. And in conjunction with that we see an Iranian withdrawal of forces as absolutely necessary to preserve the peace.
When I keep talking about Iran as a parallel objective to the defeat of ISIS, we see these in many respects as very closely linked.
ISIS, to a large degree, certainly its success in both Syria and Iraq, is based upon the populations, at least the Sunni Arab populations of much of Syria and Iraq seeing Iran’s encroachment into Arab areas and seeing no alternative to push back Iran than to throw support behind ISIS, unfortunately. So therefore Iran and ISIS are both linked.
—Nov. 7, 2018, during a telephonic briefing
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Before I get into the statement and the background too, a little bit on our policy. The policy that we’ve been working on for the last few months, certainly well before I came, is focused on three elements. First of all, the U.S. will remain in Syria until the enduring defeat of ISIS. Now, that’s the military mission. It’s not broader than that, but for the moment, that has, by their mere presence and denial, certain implications for the rest of the situation.
We are pushing towards freezing the conflict in every way possible and then seizing a diplomatic opportunity to push for the implementation of the UN Security Council resolution that covers ending conflict in Syria, 2254. One reason why this is so urgent is the situation as it has evolved over the last few months. On top of a raging internal conflict that you’ve all been covering since 2011, you now have five states’ military forces – U.S., Russian, Turkish, Iranian, and Israeli, at least in the air – over and around Syria, bumping into each other. Most of you have covered some of the bumps against our forces over the past year and a half, but you just saw a dramatic example of what we’re trying to avoid on a larger scale 10 days ago when Israeli forces allegedly engaged Iranian military targets, resulting in Syrian military forces attempting to engage the Israeli alleged forces and, in the end, hitting Russian military forces. This is the kind of escalation scenario we urgently need to stop. So thus, there has to be an outcome.
Our goals were laid out in dramatic form by President Trump himself, who has been very, very active on that, and those of us working on this agenda feel that he has our back. On the Idlib conflict a few weeks ago, he came out with a very strong statement that reverberated all around the international community on Idlib, which is that any movement in would be reckless escalation – not simply if they use chemical weapons, not simply the problem of refugee flows, perhaps a million or more, although those are really, really serious worrisome things, but that kind of offensive in and of itself was wrong.
So, as he said yesterday, the situation in Syria is heartbreaking. We want to see a de-escalation of the military conflict, a political solution that honors the Syrian people, and thus want to see the UN peace process be reinvigorated. I always have a problem with that word. So – and as part of that policy, the defeat of ISIS, which – a enduring defeat of ISIS; the reinvigoration of the political process; and thirdly, the removal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria. As he spelled out, the Iranian forces are accelerants to everything that is going wrong in Syria.
To the end of reinvigorating the political process, after extensive consultations throughout the international community, a group of us met at the ministerial level today chaired by France, including Mike Pompeo, and issued the statement you have before you. The idea is and the key to it is to call on Staffan de Mistura, who has been charged by the UN to put together a constitutional committee as the first of a series of steps to transform the internal political situation in Syria, to call it forth. The lists have been prepared, one approved by the regime, or so we understand, for the regime side; another approved by the opposition of 50 each; and then the third, somewhat more controversial, where there is some debate that Staffan himself was charged to put together essentially neutral or civil society.
The regime through its Russian and Iranian front men have been delaying this thing for many months. It’s time now to move forward, thus the key language in this statement is “To move forward with the political solution consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, the special envoy for Syria is called upon to convene as quickly as possible a credible, inclusive constitutional committee that will begin the work of drafting a new Syrian constitution and to report back to the Security Council on his progress no later than October 31st.”
Now, some – mainly some living east of Poland and the Baltics – have said that this is an artificial ultimatum or deadline. It’s not. The only deadline is to report back to the UN. Staffan can decide, as is specific in his mandate, when this list is ready to be called forth. And we trust him on this. He’s put a lot of work into it. He’s consulted endlessly with the Turks, the Iranians, and the Russians, and most importantly with many Syrians. All, again, we are asking for is for him to report back by the 31st of October.
So our hope is with the situation in Idlib at least for the moment frozen by the Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia, a near miracle itself if you remember a few – 10 days before in Astana, the Turks, the Russians, and the Iranians had a huge falling out about the future in Idlib, where President Putin publicly humiliated President Erdogan by refusing to accept a ceasefire. And Article 9 of the Idlib – or Sochi agreement on Idlib the words “sustaining ceasefire” is in there.
So what changed? First of all, the Turks did not back down. The international community did not back down. It was horrified by the idea of three million people being subjected to another barrel bombing, possibly chemical weapons attack. The U.S. position, be it the President’s statement on reckless escalation or our very, very clear statements that this time when we reacted to chemical weapons it would be quite a bit stronger than the last two times, and the situation throughout the country, where wherever the Russians and the Syrians turned they were running into, let’s just say, opposition.
So we now have the opportunity here in the UN. We are building up a tremendous amount of momentum for this statement. Almost no country is siding with the Russians and the Iranians and the Syrian regime on trying to delay the movement towards a political settlement. And if we can move to a political settlement, that will reinforce the tendency of this conflict to shift to the political rather than to – rather than where it is now in the military arena.
QUESTION: Why do you think that you seven, the seven countries in the small group, urging Staffan de Mistura to convene this constitutional council as soon as possible and then report back by Halloween is – I mean, what is it that makes you think that you have any kind of momentum that you didn’t have in the past?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Well, we have a negative momentum because of the, as I said, the incident involving the Russian aircraft where you have all of these militaries. Now, leaving aside our own, who I covered, we spend considerable time talking to certainly three of the others. We don’t talk with the Iranians, but we follow what they do pretty well. None of them are happy with the security situation now in Syria. None of them have plans of pulling out anytime soon. So you have a real risk, if you do not get some kind of a political settlement, of a much larger conflict, a red-on-blue conflict as opposed to a conflict of military forces with local jihadis or local rebels. And that’s the difference from when we did this --
QUESTION: I – that was the same situation five years ago.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: No, you had no Russian troops, you had no U.S. troops, you had no Israeli troops, and you had no Turkish troops. So there’s four – you had Iranians, some, but nothing like what we have now. And you had no Iranian power projection. So four and a half of the five outside military forces that I’ve talked about today – and I’m putting a fair amount of emphasis on – were not there when you were in Geneva – I’m sorry – period.
QUESTION: Two parts. First of all, it’s the other half of Matt’s question. How, when the Russians, the Turks, and the Iranians have much more momentum on the Astana peace process, and your statement noticeably does not include any of those players, how do you try to bridge the gap, get them engaged? And the second question: I happened to see President Rouhani on Monday night, and I asked him directly, “Under what conditions will you withdraw your forces from Syria?” And he said, “We intend to stay as long as there is a – as we are there at the request of the government and there is a need for us to be there militarily.”
So how do you also, when you want the Iranians to – how do you create an incentive or a situation where they don’t want to be there anymore?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Look, at one point the international community turned to the three members of the Astana group to be helpful in putting together the list, because Turkey has very good contacts with the resistance forces, and obviously the Russians and the Iranians talk with the regime. And they did so. They put together two lists that my understanding is have been totally approved. There have been some relatively minor dickering over the third list, the civil society, but what we keep on hearing from our Russian friends is that the regime won’t move.
The list exists and Staffan de Mistura has the authority of the UN to go forward. He was tasked – and this was agreed by the Russians and the Iranians and the Turks – he was tasked to come up with the third list. He has done so. He has spent nine months coordinating name by name with everybody in the Astana group, so they are very much a part of this. They have been there at the creation of this list. It’s just that the first tactic, which was to try to get the regime to approve this in one or another way, or at least be happy with it, has not occurred.
In terms of the Iranians, the Iranians are not only there to help the Assad regime defend itself against its own citizenry armed with rifles. It has long-range missiles, it has radar systems, it has anti-aircraft systems and other military capabilities that we would associate with power projection over the region. Very similar to what we’ve seen in southern Lebanon, very similar to what we have seen in northern Yemen. That is what I believe, though you would have to ask the Israelis, triggered the Israeli intervention. As I said back in 2015, I don’t think the Israelis, other than one incident in the Golan Heights, were involved militarily in Syria. They are obviously very, very active now. What’s the difference? It all – it goes to Iran and what Iran is trying to do there. I respectfully would argue it has little to do with saving the Damascus regime from its own citizens.
QUESTION: Yes, but that doesn’t answer my question, which was how do you create incentives or conditions that Iran would be willing to withdraw, whether it’s because it’s under pressure or because it thinks it’s a smart political move?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Under pressure, because our assessment, at least of the Russians, there is – we – the Russians and the Iranians want to save, if not the Assad regime, they want to have a friendly regime in Damascus. The political process gives them a way to try to get that, just like the military campaign has allowed them to defend it. But if you will, a military presence long term, including power projection – which the Iranians seem to be aiming for – is a little bit more than their minimum goals and seems to be frosting on the cake. What we’re trying to suggest is let’s put pressure on them to leave.
QUESTION: Is there any – are you going to try with the Russians to force the Iranians out of Syria? Is this part of your calculus? And my second questions is about the Kurds. Are they – where are they in your strategy in Syria? They are not part of the Staffan de Mistura political process, they are not – there’s no clear vision for their – there’s a lot of uncertainty about their future. Is there any U.S. plan for them?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay, first, we’re not going to force the Iranians out of Syria. We don’t even think the Russians can force the Iranians out of Syria, because force implies force, military action, to get – like we used – we forced the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait in 1991. This is all about political pressure. Now, every time I say this, people roll their eyes. I was part of a departure of American – all American forces – same language that has applied to Iran – from Vietnam in 1973. The Israelis left Lebanon in 2006. I was involved in that, in (inaudible). I can cite a half dozen, just in the Middle East, examples of military forces leaving territories once there is a political process, once there is an understanding in the international community that you go back to status quo ante, or some other political result.
That’s what we’re looking for. This is not forcing anybody out. Technically, it’s the Syrian Government that has invited the Iranians in. It is our expectation that the Syrian Government, whatever government is there at the end of this political process, or at some point in the political process, would no longer feel the need to have Iranian forces there, particularly Iranian forces who seem to be there for purposes other than helping the Syrian regime.
QUESTION: Ambassador Jeffrey, just two quickies, I’m – you say that the Russians and the Iranians want to have a friendly regime. Why then would they participate in the political process that would jeopardize that? I mean, Assad has shown he’s perfectly willing to preside over, as you put it, a cadaver state. And then secondly, on the Iranian presence, do you believe that their presence sort of creates fertile ground for the reemergence of ISIS? Is that another concern that you have about the process?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The second one, yes. There’s one who, when I look at people around here, remember what happened in both Iraq and Syria in 2012 and 2013. Yes, if you are ruled by despots who in particular target Sunni Arab populations, and if the international community feels in its duty to respond to that, as we certainly did in 2012, 2013, you get al-Qaida 2.0, which is called as ISIS, or you’ll get al-Qaida 3.0, which will be called son of ISIS.
Now in terms of the Russians and Iranians, a friendly government does not necessarily mean a cadaver government sitting on the rubble of half its country, still, to this day, if you look at your own reporting, finding new devilish ways to oppress its own population, including some of the people who they’ve invited to come back, either drafted into the military or thrown back in jail or denied their property and such.
I don’t see that the Russians necessarily need that particular friendly government, particularly a government like that that is going to be very expensive to prop up – and I use that verb specifically, prop up – and raise – opens a door to serious military confrontations like we just saw a week ago Monday because the international community, or much of it and the neighbors are not happy with that particular friend of Russia and Iran. That’s the only answer I can give you. If they want that guy, then it’s going to be hard for us to convince them not to have him, but boy does he come with a lot of cost.
QUESTION: I mean, they seem willing to tolerate him so far.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: They haven’t been facing some of the costs they are now facing. They have thought all along they would win the war – okay I’ll spend a little bit of time. This is my interpretation of how the Russians and Iranians saw the middle third of 2018. They would build up a military offensive, the United States they thought was pulling its troops out, they would pretend to be participating in the political process so that the international community would get reports by Mr. de Mistura in the – here in New York from time to time or in Geneva or in – there would be some press conferences but nothing would happen.
And meanwhile, they would take territory after territory after territory, and then they would turn around and say, okay, new situation. The regime clearly has been reestablished. The regime is a reality. Live with it, let the reconstruction money flow. There’s plenty of good deals for you. Let the refugees – or rather, better, force the refugees, at least the ones Assad wants, because believe me, the regime rules out – in one case I’ve heard recently from one country about half the people who actually want to come back – let the refugees that your regime wants come back, forget about the UN process, 2254 is in the ashcan of history, and let’s rock and roll with the Assad regime. That I think was what they were thinking that they were going to see by – what was the term? Oh, Halloween. That’s not what they’re going to see by Halloween.
—Sept. 27, 2018, during a briefing in New York