MODERATOR: Great, thank you so much. Thank you to our AT&T colleagues. Good afternoon to everyone from the Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record press briefing with Ethan Goldrich, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Syria and the Levant in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs; Erik Woodhouse, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs; and Zehra Bell, Director for Iraq and Syria at the National Security Council.
Our speakers today will discuss the publication of Syria General License 22, which is designed to improve the economic conditions in non-regime-held areas of northeast and northwest Syria and support ongoing stabilization efforts in the region. After opening remarks, our speakers will take questions from participating journalists.
I’ll now turn it over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Goldrich for his opening remarks, after which we’ll go right into taking your questions. DAS Goldrich, the floor is yours.
DAS GOLDRICH: Thank you very much. Good afternoon, everybody. First of all, thanks for the opportunity to discuss our policy with you today. I think you know that this week, we had a D-ISIS ministerial in Marrakech, Morocco, where the United States announced nearly $110 million in stabilization funds for areas liberated from ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and we stressed the importance of continued coalition efforts to erode support for violent extremism through initiatives designed to improve stability.
So, what I want to talk to you about today is an effort on our part to improve stability. In this case, on May 12th, yesterday, the Treasury Department, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a new general license that authorizes private sector investment and other activities in non-regime-held areas of northeast and northwest Syria, and the new authorization supports the Biden administration’s strategy to defeat ISIS by promoting economic stabilization in areas liberated from the terrorist group’s control.
Our aim with this authorization is to prevent the resurgence of ISIS by mitigating growing economic insecurity and restoring essential services in areas liberated from the terrorist group. The general license is designed to improve the economic conditions in non-regime-held areas of northeast and northwest Syria in support of ongoing U.S.-led D-ISIS stabilization efforts. The authorization does not permit any activity with the Government of Syria or other sanctioned persons and does not alter existing counterterrorism sanctions. Our stabilization efforts – including restoring essential services, bolstering livelihood opportunities to help Syrians return to normal life, and providing support for individuals returning from displacement as well as the communities receiving them – are critical components of our D-ISIS strategy.
However, the needs of the Syrian people are greater than what we and any of us in the D-ISIS Coalition can provide. International donor funds are stretched thin. Without economic stability, these areas are vulnerable to exploitation by terrorist groups, especially ISIS. Private sector investment in these areas will help reduce the likelihood of ISIS’s resurgence by combating the desperate conditions that enable the terrorist group’s recruitment and support networks.
Syria General License 22 is also intended to demonstrate that U.S. sanctions are intended to pressure the Assad regime and not the Syrian people, including people in areas of the country beyond his control. So again, our sanctions are aimed at the regime and the people around the regime, and not at people who are in areas that are not even under the regime’s control. This authorization does not waive any Syria sanctions on the Assad regime, and it does not permit any transactions with the Assad regime. So again, what we’ve done today is not a sanctions waiver, and the Syria sanctions remain a vital tool to push for accountability in Syria, especially for those who have committed serious human rights abuses and violations.
So, we will continue to use sanctions as they’re intended to hold people accountable for the deeds that they have done. We will not lift sanctions against the Assad regime or its cronies, nor will we normalize relations with the Assad regime until there is irreversible progress toward a political resolution to the conflict in line with UNSCR 2254, which we have not seen. We also continue to oppose reconstruction directed by or for the Assad regime, which would only serve the regime’s narrow interests and not those of the Syrian people.
So, with that, my colleagues and I would be very happy to answer your questions.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you so much, Deputy Assistant Secretary Goldrich. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. All three of our speakers today are here to answer your questions, and I will try to direct the questions towards them or defer to them on who is best positioned to answer each question. The questions submitted in advance, as I said, have been incorporated into the queue.
So, our first question is a pre-submitted question from Jihad Abdallah from Syria’s Step News Agency, and Mr. Abdallah asks – and I think this question maybe is directed towards both Deputy Assistant Secretary Goldrich and DAS Woodhouse – “Which companies exactly will be allowed to invest in northeast Syria? And is this a step towards giving the region some kind of autonomy in the event of any new agreement in the Syrian file and a new form of the Syrian state?” Speakers, over to you to answer.
DAS GOLDRICH: Okay, so I’ll start and I’ll certainly pass to DAS Woodhouse as well. So, this is a general license open to any companies that are interested in the private investment opportunities in the sectors of the economy that are scoped in the license and in the geographic areas that are scoped in the license. So the companies may come from many different countries, and I think it’ll be determined by what opportunities they see in investing there. And it’s not a political step, it’s an economic step and a stabilization step to help improve conditions for people living in these non-regime areas, make it easier for them to find jobs and livelihoods, bring more income into the areas that would not have come in just through humanitarian and stabilization assistance. So, it opens up other private sector money that can come into the areas and help benefit them, and we see that as benefiting the overall D-ISIS effort by making it a more comfortable and stable place to live, and therefore less likely that people would be attracted to extremist organizations.
Over to you, Erik.
DAS WOODHOUSE: Thanks, Ethan, and I think you explained it very well. The only thing I would add on the first part of the question about which companies will be able to benefit from the license – you’re right, since it’s drafted as a general license, it is open to anyone who wants to engage in the covered activities in the covered areas. The one thing I would just add is to highlight again a point that you made in your opening remarks, which is that the general license does exclude and thus does not authorize activities involving persons who are themselves designated under the Syria program or under the Syria act or under our other sanctions programs, including our counterterrorism sanctions programs. Importantly, this means that the general license does not authorize any activities with the Government of Syria or actors who would be designated under the Syria program or other counterterrorism programs.
So, persons – companies and others who want to be – take advantage of the license need to be monitoring to ensure they’re not engaging with designated counterparties in doing so. Thank you.
MS. BELL: Sorry, this is Zehra Bell.
MODERATOR: Sure, go ahead.
MS. BELL: I’d just like to add one point. To be very clear, this step does not promote, support, or endorse autonomy in any part of Syria. The United States of America is deeply committed to the territorial integrity of Syria. What this action does, as my colleagues pointed out, is allow for the recovery of areas damaged in the ISIS campaign outside of regime control, and as was made clear, sanctions on the Assad regime will remain in place until we see steps by the Assad regime to make political reforms in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, speakers. And now we’ll go to a question from our live queue.
So now a question from our live queue goes to Mr. Ibrahim Hamidi from the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Hello, (inaudible) and everyone. I have lots of questions. Just I will be very specific and – about my – in my question. If someone establishes a business investment in Azaz, right, in the [inaudible] of Aleppo, and then, like, own workers and raw materials come from [inaudible], do you consider that like a – like a violation of the sanctions or not? Thank you.
DAS GOLDRICH: Okay, I’ll suggest Erik answer that one.
DAS WOODHOUSE: Thank you. Thanks for that question. So again, I think the key is going to be to ensure that you’re not doing the – whoever seeks to benefit from the license (a) is not engaged with persons who are designated under – individual persons who are designated either under the Syria program or under sanctions authorities, and also it doesn’t authorize activities in areas that are not covered. So, it would be difficult to obtain materials from non-covered areas without engaging in activities there, so I think you’d need to be careful on that front.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. Thank you, speakers. We’ll go to another pre-submitted question, and this question may be for you, DAS Woodhouse, but also for the others if they want to jump in. And it comes from our colleague Hoshang Hasan from Syria’s North Press media agency, and he asks: “Since the implementation of the Caesar sanctions on the Syria regime, U.S. officials have reiterated that those sanctions will not target SDF areas, but the truth is that this region suffers from inflation and a high cost of living.” So he asks, “What are the practical – different practical steps this time with this new license to ease those burdens, and will the investing companies target specific areas of northeast Syria, for example Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa only or all areas under SDF control?” Over to you, speakers.
DAS GOLDRICH: Okay. So, I would say again that the intent of the license now is to open up many economic sectors in the geographic areas covered by the license to allow for economic activity there and to make it clear to companies that are interested in investing that they are not subject to our sanctions and that that will in turn bring economic benefit to the people living in the areas. And we’re very conscious of the economic conditions right now, and we looked carefully at ways that we could help improve the economic situation, and that’s how we came up with this license as a mechanism that will contribute to improving economic conditions.
And again, over to my colleagues to address any other aspects of the question. Over.
MS. BELL: Hi, this is Zehra Bell. Just to add on top of what my colleague Ethan said, while it is correct that the Caesar Act is designed to target the Assad regime for the atrocities it has committed against the Syrian people, we recognize from our colleagues in northeast Syria that the deteriorating economic situation in areas outside of regime control have a negative impact on stability. And that is precisely why we have promoted this general license – in order to expand economic opportunities in these areas which are open to all of the geographic areas that are listed in the annex of the general license. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay. Hearing no further comments on that question, we’ll go to a question on our live queue, and this next question goes to Mike Wagenheim from the i24News agency. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Hey, good morning, good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for doing this. I think this question is directed toward Mr. Goldrich, but obviously anybody with insight can answer. Lawmakers in the U.S. a couple of months ago urged the Biden administration to address the situation at the Rukban camp on the border between Syria and Jordan to try to help those refugees there in the non-regime-held area. Is there any update that State or anybody can give on whether the U.S. intends to address the issues in that camp, including the fears in Jordan that it might have been infiltrated by ISIS elements?
DAS GOLDRICH: Let’s see, this is a little bit outside the scope of what we’re talking about today. So let me first turn to our moderator. Are we taking questions outside the scope of the general license, briefing moderator?
MODERATOR: Well, I mean, I defer to you all on that if anyone wants to address it. Otherwise, we can take the question and certainly look for another opportunity in the future to address it in a separate venue.
DAS GOLDRICH: Yeah, for the time being, I would just say that we’re aware of the situation and conditions in the Rukban camp, and we look to try to improve the situation in whatever ways that we can, and we understand that the inability to get cross-line assistance to the camp is the most important problem, is inability to get assistance in from other parts of Syria. It exacerbates all the other problems that they’re dealing with. And if you’d like a more specific conversation on Rukban, maybe we could follow up since this briefing is supposed to be about something else.
MODERATOR: Okay. With that, we’ll go to the next question will be one of our many pre-submitted questions today, and this question I think is for you, Director Zehra Bell from the NSC, and it’s from Tamam Abusafi and from Bahrain’s Alayam Daily. And he says: “American officials have assured that sanctions will not be lifted against the Assad regime without real progress toward a political solution. What is the political solution you are looking for in Syria?” And that can obviously be for any of our speakers to address, but maybe, Director Bell, why don’t you get us started with that one?
MS. BELL: Thank you. You are exactly right that the United States will not lift or waive sanctions on the Assad regime until we see progress towards a political solution. That political solution is UN Security Council 2254, in which members of the Security Council, including the United States, agreed to a political roadmap for the future of Syria that addresses key questions regarding accountability, detainees and missing persons, the environment for safe and secure elections, and political reforms and transition. That is the political roadmap which the United States remains committed to, and unfortunately to which we have not yet seen progress. In the absence of that progress, the United States and this administration is committed to a strategy for Syria that seeks to improve the lives of the Syrian people, to mitigate suffering, to increase access to humanitarian assistance, to continue the campaign against terrorism, and to ensure that levels of violence in Syria remain low while access to food and life-saving assistance remains high. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay, if none of our other speakers have anything to add on that one, we’ll go to a question from the live queue. I will just note that I am aware that I believe that our colleague from the NSC Zehra Bell and our colleague Deputy Assistant Secretary Woodhouse may need to jump off, but Deputy Assistant Secretary Goldrich, if you can stay on for a few more minutes we’ll try to squeeze in a few more questions. We had many, many pre-submitted questions and we’ve got quite a few people in the live queue. I apologize, we won’t be able to get to all of your questions, but we’ll try to take a few more.
So why don’t we go ahead and go to the live queue, and let’s go to our colleague Mohammed Othman from the Rudaw Media Network. Operator, please open the line.
OPERATOR: And your line is open, sir. Please go ahead with your question.
MODERATOR: Mohammed Othman, are you there?
QUESTION: Can you hear me now?
MODERATOR: Yes, we can hear you.
QUESTION: So, good afternoon and actually good morning for you as well. So basically, as a Kurd, there is a lot of questions for us, especially in Syria. It’s already actually involved with Turkey invasion, especially in the northern east of Syria. So, the question is, there is a lot of speculations that Turkey is trying to change the – how can I say it? – trying to change the demography in the places, especially in the Afrin district. So, what is the, like, USA position about this, like, process? Is it true that they are trying to change the demography out there, and what’s your position and what’s your stand against that?
DAS GOLDRICH: So I think earlier my colleague Zehra mentioned the strong U.S. support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. And again, on taking an action with our general license that helps improve the economic conditions and builds stability in the non-regime areas that are scoped under the general license we think that we’re promoting a more stable situation in the country. Our policy also calls for a reduction in violence and maintaining ceasefires. So, we work toward that aspect of our policy as well that we don’t want to see any escalations of violence in Syria which contributes to worsening conditions for the people in Syria, which is what we’re trying to avoid.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, DAS Goldrich. I believe our other colleagues may have had to drop off the call, so DAS Goldrich, if you’re okay, I’ll do one more question.
DAS GOLDRICH: Sure, let’s do one more question.
MODERATOR: Sure, okay. So, our final question is a pre-submitted question and it comes from Laurie Mylroie from the Kurdistan24 outlet. And she asks: “What is the general – in your sense, what is the general Arab attitude towards this new general license, towards general licenses like this? You just had a meeting on Syria that involved the Arab League and others. Do they all or at least most of them support this? Do you have any sense of that?” DAS Goldrich, over to you.
DAS GOLDRICH: Okay. So, I don’t want to speak on behalf of any particular country and their positions, but I will say that we consulted extensively with our key allies and partners, including as we have had a few meetings over the past few months. We had meetings in Brussels in December and Washington in March; we joined a meeting the French hosted in Paris and had another meeting in Brussels this week. And we have kept meeting participants informed that we have a general license that was in preparation and eventually being issued. I think Under Secretary Nuland also mentioned it at the Marrakech meeting. So, we have been keeping partners and allies informed on this. We think that there are opportunities for companies from many different countries to invest there and to help the people in the region through private investment. So now that we have published the license, we’re looking forward to seeing which companies and countries become involved.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, DAS Goldrich. And again, apologies to all of our callers on the line and all those who submitted pre-submitted questions. We had many, many, many questions today and we could not get to all of them. Hopefully we can get our speakers back. Let me turn it back over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Goldrich for any closing remarks that he might have.
DAS GOLDRICH: Just on behalf of my colleagues to thank all of you for joining with us and for taking an interest in the initiative. We hope that you will look into the details and continue to watch as it’s implemented. And again, thank you very much for joining today.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Well, that concludes today’s call. We’d like to thank everyone for dialing in today and we thank our speakers Ethan Goldrich, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Syria and the Levant in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs; Erik Woodhouse, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs; and Zehra Bell, Director for Iraq and Syria at the National Security Council. We thank all of them for their time.
If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you for joining us and have a great day.
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