The following is an unedited exchange between SY24’s correspondent Ahmed Zakaria with Sofia Khilji, a US State Department spokeswoman for Syrian affairs, at the US Embassy in Ankara. The exchange focused on key security and humanitarian dynamics in Syria, namely: The US perspective on the Idlib agreement, Iranian presence in Syria, reconstruction in Raqqa, Rukban IDP camp and UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
Q. First off how does the United States view the Idlib agreement between Russia and Turkey? And what do you make of Russia’s statements that the Idlib agreement is temporary and that Idlib will return to regime territory sooner or later?
A. The United States welcomes Russia and Turkey’s efforts to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib, prevent the use of chemical weapons, and defuse tensions through dialogue. We have long called for this. As Special Representative for Syrian Engagement Ambassador James Jeffrey has noted, the Sochi agreement is a step in the right direction. It can lead to broader progress in moving this war from the battle field to the negotiating table in Geneva in accordance with UNSCR 2254. We are also closely monitoring actions and statements by parties that want to derail this progress. It’s important that the ceasefire in Idlib hold and create space for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
Q. Iran has been on the ground in Syria for years now and long before the Trump administration. How to understand the recent U.S. statements about Iran’s presence? Was there no movement against them before this?
A. Countering Iranian influence and the removal of all Iranian and Iranian-backed forces from Syria is a strategic, long-term goal for the United States that draws on diplomatic, economic and other tools. Our long-term priorities and objectives have not changed.
Q. Amnesty International announced Friday that the US-led Coalition destroyed large parts of Raqqa City in airstrikes but hasn’t done much to rebuild it. What is your comment on that? And what is your assessment of humanitarian conditions and services in Raqqa?
A. October 17 marks a year since the liberation of Raqqa from Daesh. The fierceness of that battle is still evident today. I walked through Raqqa City a few weeks ago. There’s still a long way to go; but I also see life returning to the city as its residents rebuild and move forward. The coalition took pains to protect civilian life and respect the laws of war, but the task of evicting Daesh, a morally corrupt enemy of humanity that hid in hospitals, schools and mosques behind innocent civilians, made its wounds destructive and deep. The mines Daesh left behind, that we’ve been clearing, the mass graves we are finding, the schools we’ve been rebuilding, show that the battle against this kind of violent extremism cannot only be won militarily. It requires the Syrian people’s determination, skills and talent. Thankfully we have that in spades. We have also removed IEDs planted by Daesh from 3.15 million square meters of area in Raqqa and Tabqa, cleared rubble from nearly 237,000 cubic meters, restored water pumps to all 26 sectors of Raqqa, repaired the electrical grid and restored connections to all critical infrastructure.
One of the top priorities in Raqqa is getting children, deprived of education for seven years under ISIS, back to school. We must focus on this generation to ensure Daesh or other terrorists like them do not return. U.S. stabilization assistance supports local initiatives to train teachers, deliver school supplies, repair schools, and address children’s trauma and psychosocial needs alongside basic literacy courses. Saying there’s been no progress is unfair to the hundreds of thousands of Raqqawis that have returned, opened their markets, cleared their streets, rebuilt their homes, and reclaimed their proud identity. They need help and we remain committed to standing by them and all Syrian people working for a safe, stable and secure country.
Q. The al-Rukban IDP camp is home to 70,000 civilians living in dire medical and humanitarian conditions. It’s on the Syrian-Jordanian border and close to the U.S. al-Tanf military base. Will the U.S. administration exert pressure to permit aid to reach al-Rukban?
A. The United States demands the Assad regime permit the UN humanitarian access to Rukban and stands ready to facilitate UN access to the camp, which is the critical first step to addressing the situation at Rukban. The humanitarian situation in Rukban camp is a tragedy. We will continue to press Russia to use its influence to urge the Syrian regime to allow the delivery of critical humanitarian aid, and we will remain in close touch with the UN on these issues.
Q. The United States is working towards a political solution in Syria through the Small Group and the UN Security Council, while Russia is sticking with Assad and supporting the Sochi “vision.” What keys does the US administration possess to unlocking this impasse and getting the international community behind UNSCR 2254?
A. The United States stands with the UN-led peace process. This process reflects the will of the international community and preserves the right of the Syrian people to shape their own future peacefully through dialogue and not violence. The United States will not take part in so-called “reconstruction efforts” or any normalization of relations with this regime until there is irreversible progress in the Geneva process and there have been national elections that the UN certifies are free and fair. We are using all means necessary to defeat Daesh and other terrorists, deny Iran a perch from which to menace the region, and resolve the Syrian crisis politically, not militarily.