Special Briefing with Jeffrey Prescott, Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

Jeffrey Prescott
Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations
Washington, D.C.
June 6, 2021

AS DELIVERED

MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. 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 briefing with Jeffrey Prescott, Deputy to the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.

Deputy Prescott will discuss U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s recent travel to Turkey and the recently announced more than $239 million in additional humanitarian assistance for the people of Syria. After his opening remarks, he will then take questions from participating journalists. We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.

I will now turn it over to Deputy Prescott for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.

MR. PRESCOTT: Thanks so much, and hi, everybody. Thank you for joining us today. I wanted to start – I thought it might be useful to start just by offering a brief recap of Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s recent travel, and then I’ll be happy to take any questions you may have.

As you know, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield just returned from a very productive three-day visit to Turkey, including a visit to the border region of Hatay on the Turkey-Syria border, where she announced that the United States will be providing nearly $240 million in new humanitarian funding for the people of Syria and the communities that are hosting Syrian refugees and others displaced by the conflict in Syria.

In a few weeks, the UN Security Council has to reauthorize the last remaining crossing on the Turkey-Syria border, and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield wanted to travel there to see the crossing for herself and to be able to brief the Council firsthand based on an understanding of what’s happening in the border region and what’s happening with those displaced by the conflict in Syria.

The Bab al-Hawa crossing delivers lifesaving humanitarian aid to millions of Syrians. It’s quite literally a lifeline for millions of Syrians. COVID-19 and the pandemic has, of course, only made the situation more dire and the delivery of lifesaving assistance more dangerous. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield met with UN officials during her visit to the border, including UN Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Cutts, humanitarian workers on the front lines, and NGO representatives, civil society representatives who are also on the front lines of delivering this lifesaving aid. They’re working around the clock in dangerous conditions to deliver support to those in need.

Right now, almost all, or many of these frontline humanitarian workers, are unvaccinated despite the rampant COVID spread within the region. And that also highlights the announcement yesterday from President Biden of a first tranche of 25 million vaccines that the United States will be sharing around the globe. These vaccines will go to priority areas and groups and regions, like the UN frontline workers that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield met with on her trip.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield also met with the White Helmets, whom she called superheroes. They told her stories of the cruelty of the Assad regime, the desperation of the people of Syria, and they explained how cross-line aid from within Syria is routinely ransacked or diverted, depriving the people who need it most of the assistance that they need.

She also met with Syrian refugees in Turkey and heard their stories, including how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic firsthand. She heard their stories of displacement, violence, starvation, the spread of COVID. Frankly, the suffering of the Syrian people is seemingly endless. And everything that she saw and heard only reinforced what Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, Secretary Blinken, and other senior U.S. officials have been saying for months: there simply is no alternative to the cross-border mechanism to get needed assistance into Syria.

The evidence of the last year shows how devastating the other border closures have been over the last year. Need has surged 20 percent over the course of the last year. It’s been compounded by pandemic conditions. And as Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said on the visit, the cruelty of closing the final humanitarian border crossing into Syria would be incalculable. Many people would die. It’s literally a matter of life and death.

Other members of the Security Council have asked the Ambassador to brief them urgently upon her return. They are eager to hear about what she saw firsthand, and she’s looking forward to doing that and sharing what she has witnessed.

While in Turkey, of course, the Ambassador also met with senior Turkish officials to further advance our strategic partnership with Turkey, a NATO ally. In Ankara, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield had meetings with Turkey’s foreign minister and presidential spokesperson, our national security advisor equivalent. In those meetings, she reiterated the value of the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Turkey in advance of the upcoming NATO summit. They also discussed the Syrian cross-border issue and the importance of continued collaboration on this issue and others in the days and months ahead, including in advance of President Biden’s meeting with President Erdogan on the margins of the NATO summit.

So why don’t I stop there? I think that might be a good place to stop for now, and I’ll be happy to get to your questions. Over.

MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.

Questions submitted in advance have been incorporated into the queue. Our first question is one of those pre-submitted questions, from Subhi Franjieh from Al-Arabi al-Jadeed. And Subhi asks if you can speak about Washington’s efforts to prevent Russia from forcing humanitarian assistance to go through crossings only controlled by the Syrian regime. Over to you, sir.

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, thank you for the question. It’s a very important one. I think you’ve heard American officials, officials in the U.S. administration, consistently press for additional action to address the humanitarian situation in Syria, and obviously we’re not alone on that. You’ve heard many members of the UN Security Council support – indeed, overwhelmingly support – the need to continue this vital cross-border humanitarian assistance. And I think what Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield saw on this trip is just how critical continuation of this cross-border assistance is to meeting the needs of Syrians displaced in Syria and Syrian refugees directly.

The fact is there’s millions of refugees and internally displaced people who rely on this assistance. There – what Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield heard firsthand from those directly involved in providing this assistance is that there is no alternative to that assistance. And she’s looking forward to going back to the Security Council, briefing them on what she’s seen and heard, and to make sure that every member of the Council understands what’s at stake and why it’s essential to reauthorize and expand the number of border crossings.

What we heard on this trip is that the need has really increased – 20 percent more assistance is needed this year than last year, and that comes after we have seen over the last couple of years the number of border crossings authorized by the UN go down from four to the one that’s remaining today. So what we’re going to be working on with members of the Council is the need to not just renew the crossing that’s authorized now, but actually expand and add additional crossings. And we’ll be engaging across the board with members of the Security Council, with Russia, and with every member of the Security Council to make sure they understand what’s at stake and to make sure that those likeminded countries that understand and are rightfully concerned about this situation and how it will worsen without cross-border access are also pressing the case as well.

So we think there is overwhelming support for this in the Council and we’ll continue to work on that in the days and weeks to come.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you, sir. Our next question comes from the live queue and goes to Kareem Chehayeb from Al Jazeera. Operator, please open the line.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for your briefing, Mr. Prescott. My question to you is about whether the humanitarian assistance would also extend to the semi-autonomous region in the northeastern enclave of Syria. I think the consideration of some of the humanitarian issues they face there as well.

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, thank you. I think that’s a great question. We want to make sure – in fact, we are open to and concerned about making sure that every Syrian in need, wherever they are in the country, has access to the assistance that they need. And that’s precisely why we believe that there needs to be an expansion of the cross-border program to include additional border crossings. It’s just urgent to make sure that the UN, that NGOs and civil society organizations that are providing this assistance have access wherever it’s needed. And that includes, by the way, access cross-line from within Syria, and there are efforts, including in the northeast, to provide some of that needed assistance cross-line.

The reality is what we learned is that the needs in Syria are just getting more acute, that the COVID pandemic has made it more urgent as well, has made the needs even more urgent, and there’s a need for access to vaccines, for access to food, water, sanitary assistance across the board. And what Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield saw firsthand was how the UN operation working with a number of NGOs can deliver this assistance if they have the support of the cross-border program to do so. And so that’s why we’re looking to not only renew but also expand access to assistance for Syrians in need across the country.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. Our next question is also a question from the live queue and goes to Monalisa Freiha from the Annahar newspaper from Lebanon. Operator, please open the line.

QUESTION: Hello. I’m Monalisa Freiha from Annahar newspaper, Lebanon. Yesterday Ambassador Greenfield tweeted that she made clear to Turkish officials that any attack targeting civilians at Makhmour refugee camp would be a violation of international and humanitarian law. Today President Erdogan tweeted that Turkish forces neutralized the general responsible for the Makhmour camp. How do you comment on these actions?

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, I won’t really say much more than the Ambassador said yesterday in her tweet. She did raise our concerns about this issue. Of course, we are opposed to the targeting of civilians and the targeting of refugees, of course, in any situation. That would be a gross violation of international humanitarian law, and we will speak out against that at every opportunity. And the Ambassador had the chance to raise those concerns directly in her engagements with senior Turkish officials.

In terms of the events of the last 24 to 48 hours, we’re still trying to understand exactly what has happened, and I think we’ll have more to say once we understand more about the situation. But I think our position is very clear and was reflected in her comments yesterday.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. Our next question is also from the live queue and goes to Shawgi Mustafa from the Lusail newspaper from Qatar. Operator, please open the line.

QUESTION: Thank you for the opportunity, Ambassador – Deputy Prescott. I am Shawgi Mustafa from Lusail newspaper. My question is, how do you see the role of the state of Qatar to help Syrian people and what do you expect from Doha during the coming period [inaudible] the crisis? Is there any kind of cooperation between Qatar and United States in [inaudible]?

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, thank you for that. We’ve obviously looking to work with leaders across the region as this cross-border issue comes back before the UN Security Council in the coming days and weeks, but also more generally on meeting the urgent needs of the Syrian people for vital lifesaving assistance. And there’s a role for countries across the region, including Qatar, to play a significant role in not only providing assistance and support to the UN’s operation, but also to the NGOs that are supporting that operation and providing assistance.

So we’re going to continue to have – and I think as you know and you’ve seen, there has been a number of high-level engagements across the region in recent weeks on a variety of issues, including this one. The Ambassador has had her own engagements not only during this trip, but also with members of the UN in New York. You’ve seen the Secretary, officials in the White House, and others continue to keep a very active diplomatic engagement going with regional players, including Qatar. And I think we’ll continue that conversation as we move forward.

There’s no question that every country in the region has an opportunity and, indeed, a responsibility to try to make sure that we provide this vital assistance, and that over the longer term we’re actually working to depressurize the situation in the region, the conflict itself, and work to a more sustainable solution over the long term.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. Our next question is also from the live queue and goes to Pamela Falk from CBS News. Operator, please open the line.

QUESTION: Hi, Jeffrey, Deputy Prescott. It’s very helpful to us for this – for you to do this briefing, so thank you. It’s Pamela Falk from CBS News. The Ambassador talked about the Turkish officials, as a questioner earlier said, about targeting civilians at the Makhmour refugee camp. I assume that was just as she was leaving or after she left. Could you make that clear? And what do you make of the fact that this attack was so soon after the visit of the Ambassador, and will that be on the agenda for the president of Turkey and President Biden on June 14th? Thank you.

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, thank you. Thanks for the question. I’m not going to get into the precise agenda between the President and President Erdogan. Obviously, the President is going to be traveling to Europe for a series of meetings with our closest European allies, our NATO allies, including President Erdogan, and we’ll have an opportunity to align on a full variety of issues that we are facing and that we’re collectively facing, and obviously we’ll have more to say about that in the days to come.

I won’t really speculate about the timing on this particular issue. I think we made clear yesterday our position on it, and beyond the media reports that I’ve seen, I’m sure you’ve seen, I don’t really have anything more to say about the situation on the ground. Once we have more facts and we understand exactly what’s happening, I think we’ll be able to say more.

QUESTION: Can you just clarify, was she in Turkey when this occurred?

MR. PRESCOTT: I just may have to get back to you on that. I don’t believe so, but we can get back to you with the precise timing, if that makes sense.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. Our next question is another question from the live queue and goes to Nizar Abboud from Al-Mayadeen TV. Operator, please open the line.

QUESTION: Thank you. This is Nizar Abboud, Al-Mayadeen TV, UN correspondent. Thank you, Jeffrey, for this briefing. It’s very informative. Talking about humanitarian aid, the situation, of course, in eastern Euphrates is dramatic. First of all, people in Hasakah have been denied water for at least two to three times in recent months. Also, the harvest is being denied unless they go from the Kurdish-controlled area, which you are affiliated with – doesn’t go to a vast majority of the areas of Syria. So the – insude Syria, people are suffering from lack of nutrition material as well as a lot of harvests from that area is being exported to other countries, such as Iraq. Another thing, the blockade – you haven’t mentioned how the blockade or the unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States and from European countries, how is it affecting the Syrian people? Maybe lifting this blockade or lifting the sanctions could be much beneficial to the Syrian people than sending a few hundred million dollars of aid. Do you agree with that?

Also, about the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, with the financial crisis, what do you believe should be done about them? Because they are suffering as well. Thank you.

MR. PRESCOTT: Thank you. That’s a really good set of questions. I guess I would just say a couple of things in response. First, there’s no question that – where primary responsibility for the suffering of the Syrian people lies, and that’s with the Assad regime. I mean, I think it would be – a political settlement to this conflict would be the shortest and fastest way to provide assistance to people from across Syria and to begin to put Syria back on a footing for reintegration into the international community.

Now, we’re nowhere near that point, and so what we’re focused on right now is just providing urgent – urgently needed humanitarian assistance to those who have to – are displaced and for those who are suffering, for those who have suffered the horrific consequences of this conflict over the last decade. And we know that those needs are just growing more urgent. We also know that those needs are just – are not confined to Syria itself because, obviously, Syria’s neighbors, including Turkey, including Lebanon, including Jordan, including Iraq, are also hosting refugees or those who have been displaced from the conflict in Syria as well. And that’s why U.S. assistance, which, when you add it up in addition to the announcement that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield made of an additional $240 million this year, is well over half a billion dollars of pledged assistance, goes not only to support the cross-border operation that we’ve been talking about today, but also to support regional partners who are hosting Syrian refugees and providing support to them as they are displaced and seek to recover from the impact of this conflict in neighboring countries to Syria as well.

And so we’re just going to remain focused on ensuring that we can meet the needs, the urgent needs, of as many Syrians as possible, and that’s why we’re focused right now to – on maintaining and expanding cross-border access.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. We have time for one last question, and the last question goes to William Lowry from the UAE’s National. Operator, please open the line.

QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Prescott. Thank you so much for addressing us. Just on the topic of the cross – the border crossings, I was wondering if you had a number in mind of how many border crossings you’d like to see reopen, and which ones.

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, thanks – thanks for that. Obviously, during this trip Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield had a chance to see the Bab al-Hawa crossing firsthand and see how critical the thousand – the average of a thousand trucks or more that pass through that crossing each month can have on the urgent humanitarian needs in Syria, and particularly in northwest Syria, helping millions of those in need each month. What she heard during that visit is that the UN has calculated those needs have grown, as I said, by 20 percent over the past year and that millions of Syrians are dependent on that assistance, and there’s just a sole crossing that that assistance is going through. And of course, the COVID situation is making those needs even more acute.

It’s clear from our conversations with the UN operation, with the NGOs that are working on the ground, is that the situation has become more dire, if you can believe that. Even worse, over the course of the last year as the number of crossings restricted from three to one in the last – the last time that the Security Council took this up, and went from two to one – before that there were three – and I think what we’d like to see is as many – we’d like to see those crossing reopened. But I think we’d also like to see an opportunity for this UN operation to provide assistance wherever it’s needed. And I think what we’ve come away from on this trip is understanding that cross-border access is essential to providing the urgently needed humanitarian assistance to those in Syria, that it needs to be expanded, but the bottom line is if this crossing is closed, people will die. And that’s why we are going to remain focused in the coming weeks on high-level diplomacy at the Security Council and elsewhere in our engagements with Council members, with regional partners, to make sure that everyone understands the stakes and to make sure that we are all focused on the need to continue to provide support to the Syrian people.

MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Jeffrey Prescott, the Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can 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 and have a great day.

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