U.S. Mission to the United Nations
June 1, 2021
USUN STAFF: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining this afternoon, and welcome to our background briefing call. With me here today is [Senior USUN Official One] and [Senior USUN Official Two]. They’re here to do a background briefing call with you all, previewing Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s trip to Turkey this week.
We will be doing this call on background, with senior USUN officials for attribution. The call will just be embargoed for the end of the call, so just consider the remarks on the call embargoed for the end of the call today. At the end of [Senior USUN Official Two]’s brief remarks at the top, I’ll turn it back over to the moderator to moderate some questions from you all. And you can, of course, follow up with me any time over email.
With that, I’ll turn it over to [Senior USUN Official Two] for some opening comments.
SENIOR USUN OFFICIAL TWO: Great. Thanks, and thanks, everybody, for hopping on the call. We wanted to just walk through a bit of a preview and overview of Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s upcoming travel to Turkey this week.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will travel to Turkey June 2 to 4. We’re going to leave here shortly. She’ll have a series of meetings and engagements with senior Turkish Government officials, some UN – United Nations partners on the ground, with NGOs and humanitarian groups, and some of the millions of refugees that tragically have been displaced by the civil war in Syria and generously welcomed by Turkey, part of the larger regional refugee crisis that is an effect of the civil war in Syria.
Her visit comes ahead of a crucial opportunity at the United Nations Security Council to reauthorize the last remaining crossing on the Turkey-Syria border, delivering lifesaving humanitarian aid to millions of Syrians. In the 10 years since the start of the conflict in Syria, the humanitarian crisis has grown exponentially worse, just as many of you know and have covered, compounded recently by closure of two of the border crossings and, of course, compounded by the COVID pandemic, which has made everything harder on the humanitarian side.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield and Secretary Blinken have been vocal about the need to bring an end to this conflict, about the need to maintain and even expand cross-border access to address the humanitarian crisis. And those are two of the goals that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will be bringing to her meetings with senior Turkish officials during our trip. It’s also two goals that both the United States and Turkey share, and will really be a focal point for the conversations we’ll be having over the next couple of days.
She’ll also have the opportunity to compare notes on regional and global issues with our NATO ally in Turkey. This is a moment of intensive engagement with senior Turkish officials, including Deputy Secretary Sherman’s visit last week in advance of the President’s potential meeting with President Erdogan on the margins of the NATO summit in a couple of weeks.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will have the opportunity to discuss some of the areas of cooperation on Syria, Turkey’s critical role in the facilitation of cross-border assistance, and Turkey’s work to welcome and provide refuge to millions of refugees from Syria and elsewhere around the world. In that vein, during this trip, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will also make a visit to the Turkish-Syrian border. There she’ll have an opportunity to connect with United Nations partners, civil society groups, and NGOs and humanitarian organizations that have been working tirelessly to ensure lifesaving aid reaches millions of vulnerable Syrians amid an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis.
And perhaps most importantly, the ambassador will also have an opportunity to speak with Syrian refugees, hear about the challenges they are facing, the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on their communities, as well as the rest of Turkey and Syria, and also convey the United States’ strong support for humanitarian access into Syria and the U.S. commitment to the people of Syria. In our view, nothing could be more urgent than continuing to provide lifesaving aid through the cross-border mechanism, and in fact, this need has grown even more significant and more dire since the Security Council failed to reauthorize two crossings last year.
And let me just close with the thought that, as the kind of point that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, Secretary Blinken, other senior officials, have been making that has been echoed by officials of the UN, including the Secretary-General, NGOs, humanitarian organizations, and other senior government leaders, there is just simply no alternative to the UN cross-border mechanism in Syria to providing this critical assistance. Nothing else can deliver the amount of aid in the frequency needed to support vulnerable populations in Northern Syria.
So that’s a number of issues on the agenda for the trip, but that’s really where our focus is going to be. And with that brief overview of the trip, why don’t we turn to your questions.
USUN STAFF: Thanks, [Senior USUN Official Two]. Moderator, would you mind giving the instructions so folks can open their lines and ask questions?
MODERATOR: Certainly. Ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press 1 and then 0 on your telephone keypad. You can withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1, 0 command. If using a speaker phone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Again, it’s 1, 0. And we’ll first go to the line of Pamela Falk with CBS News. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Good afternoon. Thank you, [USUN Staff], and thank you, [Senior USUN Official Two], for the briefing. It’s Pamela Falk from CBS News. My question is about the detention of the nephew of Fethullah Gülen. Is there anything broader including that on your – you – Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s agenda on this trip in terms of U.S. policy with Turkey? Thank you.
SENIOR USUN OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks so much. Just sitting here, we don’t have anything further on that for you. Obviously, in her conversations in Turkey with senior Turkish officials, we’ll have an opportunity to review the full range of issues in the bilateral relationship. But frankly, I think we’ll be focused particularly on the regional issues, including the crisis in Syria, since that’s the kind of focus of the itinerary. But I’m sure we’ll have an opportunity to talk through a number of officials, and may have more for you during the trip. Over.
QUESTION: All right. And I’m sorry, I was addressing Ambassador Greenfield, just sort of phased out. To you two, my question is also: What is your view of how likely it is that the Security Council and the P5 will authorize this additional cross-border border crossing? Thank you.
SENIOR USUN OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I can start, and my colleagues may want to jump in. I mean, I think – I guess what I would say at this point is we’ve heard a number of members of the Security Council speak very directly about how urgent it is to keep cross-border assistance flowing. You heard that – Secretary Blinken participated in a Security Council session earlier this year that highlighted that. And you heard a number of members of the council speak to its importance, not only of continuing cross-border assistance but even expanding the level of access. United Nations officials in their briefs to the Security Council have made clear how urgent the situation is; in fact, needs have gone up, perhaps as much as 20, 25 percent during the course of the year.
So, the problem is not – and of course all of this is compounded by the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccine distribution is just beginning to flow, and even our frontline healthcare and humanitarian workers are in need of assistance when it comes to COVID as well. So, I guess I would say the facts on the ground suggest that, if anything, the problem – the challenge is getting worse. The urgency is more acute. And we’ve actually seen the situation get worse since two of the border crossings were closed last year. So certainly, our position is that it’s going to be necessary to not only renew but really expand access to this lifesaving aid, and that’s the case that we have been making and will continue to make in the Security Council.
I think Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will have an opportunity on this trip to engage not only with our ally in Turkey but also to talk to the institutions that are working on this problem firsthand and may be able to bring some of that information back to her fellow council members as this debate continues in the coming weeks.
USUN STAFF: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next, we’ll go to the line of Michelle Nichols. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, [Senior USUN Official Two], [USUN Staff], and [Senior USUN Official One]. Thanks so much for the briefing. Just a follow-up to what you were just saying, [Senior USUN Official Two], about expanding the access. Does the U.S. want to see the draft go for not just a renewal of the one crossing, but to bring back the other two? Do you want to see the council reauthorize all three?
And what conversations, if any, have U.S. officials been having directly with the Russians about this? Is it something that’s being raised? And have you seen any signals from the Russians that they’re willing to reauthorize one, let alone three? Thanks.
SENIOR USUN OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I think it’s a very good question. I think you’ve heard senior U.S. officials speak consistently for the need to address the humanitarian situation in Syria. You’ve heard – obviously, we’ve done this publicly and openly – you’ve seen Secretary Blinken speak to it directly at the Security Council. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has been consistent on this as well. It’s safe to say that we’ve had a number of diplomatic engagements that we’ve read out where Syria has been on the agenda with council members, both in New York and here in Washington, and also in capitals around the world. When you see Syria on the agenda, you can be sure that we’re addressing these issues and consulting with fellow council members on the way forward.
I think our position certainly is that the Council should respond to the needs on the ground, and what UN officials and humanitarian experts and the NGOs and the refugees themselves are saying and hearing and seeing and feeling on the ground in Northwest Syria, and indeed across Syria. And what we’re hearing is that the situation is getting worse, that the humanitarian needs are more acute, that the COVID situation has made it even more complex, and that there’s an urgency to continue this cross-border assistance and even expand that assistance.
So, I think what we would like to see is the council respond to needs on the ground, and that means really identifying areas where the UN can, if anything, ramp up the capacity across the border. I think right now there’s something like a thousand trucks of assistance that are using the single border crossing for providing this assistance right now. It’s clear from the situation on the ground that that’s not enough. And so, we’ll be arguing for an expansion of that.
We’ll obviously be engaged with Russia – to your question about Russia, we’ll be engaged with countries that share our view about the urgency of the situation and the need to address it before it gets even worse. You’ve seen us do this in the Security Council already in the debates over the last couple of months and, obviously, we’ll be engaged with all of the Security Council members, including Russia, over the urgency and the importance of getting this done.
Obviously, we’ve also had a number of high-level engagements in the U.S.-Russia bilateral conversation, including the Secretary’s conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov just a week or so ago. So, you can be sure this will be on the agenda with – in those conversations as well.
SENIOR USUN OFFICIAL ONE: And I would just add, I think, as [Senior USUN Official Two] said, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and what we need now is more aid and more access rather than less. And I think we’ve seen a clear impact on the ground with the closure of Bab al Salam. That was a direct route for vaccines. There were facilities that could hold the vaccines. They could be efficiently carried over through that border crossing. And now, other ways – having to go through the Bab al Hawa crossing can be very difficult and not as efficient for many of the goods that need to be procured.
And with the al Yaroubiyah closure, we’ve seen NGOs have to shutter their facilities. Healthcare facilities have had to close because they cannot procure what’s needed. And I think that’s really a point that we’ve tried to make in the council very clearly, is that at a time, particularly, of rising needs, and in the middle of a global pandemic where we need to be able to quickly transfer vaccines, PPE, all of these things, we really need to be opening up access. And that needs to be done through this next renewal, and that’s something that we’ve tried to make very clear.
QUESTION: Thank you. And just a quick scheduling question: Will the ambassador meet with the president?
SENIOR USUN OFFICIAL TWO: We’ll have more to say about the schedule as we go forward. Suffice it to say, she will have a number of engagements with senior Turkish officials during this trip, and we’ll have more detail on the schedule as we get underway.
MODERATOR: Next, we can go to the line of Betul Yuruk with UN Press Corporation. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, this is Betul Yuruk from the Turkish news agency Anadolu. I just wanted to follow up on Michelle’s question. And also, if you could clarify when exactly the ambassador will be traveling. And you also said that she will be talking to the refugees. What Turkish city will she traveling? And also, just last week, the U.S. deputy secretary of state was in Turkey ahead of the upcoming plans with – between President Biden and the Turkish president. Does this trip of the ambassador have anything to do with that? Will she be discussing other issues, like the S-400 missile defense system and F-35 program, and any other issues? And if you could also tell us who she will be visiting – what Turkish officials meeting, that would be great. Thank you.
SENIOR USUN OFFICIAL TWO: Well, thanks for that. Thanks for that question. Obviously, as I noted at the top, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s trip does come amid a series of senior-level engagements with Turkey, including Deputy Secretary Sherman’s trip. Obviously, Secretary Blinken has been in regular touch with his counterpart, as has Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield both in New York and in Washington. And as you mentioned, there is – there will be an opportunity for the President and President Erdogan to meet in the coming weeks.
So yeah, this is a series. Obviously, Turkey is a critical NATO ally, and we have a strategic relationship that spans an enormous breadth of issues and concerns, including global and regional security issues, obviously, economic issues related to democracy and human rights – a whole variety of issues. I expect, and we expect, that the full range of those issues will be in the conversations that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will be having while in Turkey, building on the trip last week and previewing things that will be to come.
We’ll have more to say about the specific engagements as we get into the trip. But I would say the focus here and the focus of the trip is really on the issues that we’ve been talking around: the refugee crisis in Syria, the urgent need for humanitarian assistance, and the work that Turkey is already doing to welcome and provide refuge to millions of refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the world, and the critical need to provide humanitarian assistance. And that’s where I think, given the itinerary and the kind of engagements that we’ve talked about, that’s where the focus will be.
In terms of the details of the trip, we’ll have more to say about that as we get underway. But it will involve the types of engagements that we’ve talked about on this call.
USUN STAFF: Thanks. And Moderator, I think we have time for one last question.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And that will come from David Wainer with Bloomberg. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this. Just obviously, you’re trying to expand the crossings here, but would you be able to talk about what could be the impact of closing of al Hawa? And is there a backup plan in place that the U.S. is discussing with Turkey and UN and others if Russia forces the closure of this vital crossing?
And then also, just would like to hear a little bit about whether the ambassador might be discussing a broader diplomatic effort with regards to Syria beyond humanitarian issues. Thank you.
SENIOR USUN OFFICIAL TWO: Well, let me start with the first part of your question, which is a critical one and really important. The United States is currently – well, is currently the world’s leading supplier of humanitarian assistance to Syrians, by far, and we want to bring others along with us. And so, the focus is on ensuring that the critically needed assistance continues to flow.
As I mentioned a minute ago, we think that the needs have actually become more acute especially given the impact, as my colleague mentioned, of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some estimates suggest 20-25 percent more assistance is necessary right now. We know basically that there’s no alternative to this cross-border mechanism to providing assistance to 2.5 million Syrians in northern Syria that urgently need this assistance. There are millions more that are affected by those who receive the assistance, and we know from the Secretary-General’s assessment, from UN Under-Secretary-General Mark Lowcock’s assessment that has been briefed to the Council that there’s just no other way to replicate this urgently needed assistance without this operation providing assistance cross-border. So, without that, we’re basically talking about putting at risk millions of people who are in need each month, and that’s basically half the population of over four million people in the northwest of Syria.
So, without it, we know that millions will suffer even more than they have over the course of this conflict, hunger will increase, and the humanitarian catastrophe will deepen even further. So that’s really what’s at stake here. That’s why we’re putting time on the ambassador’s schedule to go and personally meet with and hear from those who are most directly affected by this crisis.
And it’s not just a humanitarian crisis. To the last part of your question, there’s a larger conflict here that we all want to see come to an end. And I’m certain that in her diplomatic conversations and in the broader set of engagements during the course of this next couple of days, the ambassador will have an opportunity to both explore and continue to develop some of her own ideas for ways in which we could help bring the broader conflict to a close. So that’s what we’re going to be focused on. But there’s a real urgency to ensuring that this critical lifesaving assistance continues to flow, and that’s part of what we’ll be seeing and talking about. And we’ll have more to say about it over the next couple of days.
USUN STAFF: Thanks, [Senior USUN Official Two], thanks, [Senior USUN Official One], thanks, operator, and thanks to all of you for joining today’s call. Please don’t hesitate to follow up with me if you have any additional questions. And I will turn it back to you, operator, to close this out.