Yemen Intervention Shifts Focus: Amb Jubeir Press Conference (Transcript)

Published: April 23, 2015

Editor’s Note:

Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir provided remarks and answered questions about the change of focus in the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen at a press conference on Wednesday, April 22, 2015 at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C. Here is our transcript of his remarks and the questions and answers with the press. Much more is available in the SUSRIS Special Section “Turmoil in Yemen – 2015.” [Watch the Video: “Saudi Ambassador Remarks on Shift in Yemen Campaign – SUSRIS]

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Yemen Intervention Shifts Focus: Amb Jubeir Press Conference (Transcript)

[Amb Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir] Welcome everybody once again to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C. It’s a pleasure to be with you here today and to discuss with you the latest in terms of Operation “Renewal of Hope.”

As you are aware the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced yesterday the end of Operation “Decisive Storm” and the beginning of Operation “Renewal of Hope.” Operation of Decisive Storm was designed to eliminate the threats that were facing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the form of ballistic missiles, heavy weapons, aircraft that the Houthi militias and forces loyal to their ally Ali Abdullah Saleh came in possession of.

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Our air force and the air forces of our coalition partners were able to pretty much eliminate that threat, and so having done that we are able to – in the process we were also able to protect the legitimate government of Yemen, protect the people of Yemen from a takeover by a hostile group that is allied with Iran and Hezbollah. And we hope in the process opened up the door for a political settlement to the Yemen conflict.

We have always said that there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen, that the solution has to be a political one based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, the GCC initiative, and the outcomes of the national dialogue in Yemen. And we had always expressed our hope that the Houthis will see the wisdom of participating in the political process rather than trying to take the country by force. And we have made it very clear that we will not allow them to take Yemen by force.

We still stand by this.

As a consequence of the elimination of virtually all of the dangers to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from the weapons that the Houthis possessed or took control of from the regular forces of Yemen we now have shifted, ended Operation “Decisive Storm” and shifted towards what we call Operation “Renewal of Hope.”

The objective is to focus on the political process, on the humanitarian process, while at the same time seeking to protect the Yemeni population from Houthi aggression, and to counter any aggressive moves that the Houthis are conducting or may plan to conduct in Yemen.

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So in a sense – and we have done this today, in fact, in the Ta’iz area. The Houthis had bombarded the positions of the 35th Division of the regular Yemeni army from mountaintops, and we intervened militarily to put an end to that.

We are seeing movement by the Houthis that is very disturbing in the city of Aden where we see skirmishes and we see movement of Houthi troops into Aden from three different directions, from [abd dalla – phonetic], from [al baida – phonetic], and from [al hij – phonetic]. And we expect that they will be entering Aden within hours if not sooner.

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We are determined to respond to the request of the legitimate government of Yemen to provide assistance to them in order to prevent this from happening. The Houthis should be under no illusion that we will continue to use force in order to stop them from taking Yemen over by aggressive action. So that will not change.

We hope that they will participate in the political process. There have been statements by Houthi leaders about their acceptance of a political process and willingness to participate in the political process. But then hours later we see movement of their troops and we see them using their weaponry against the forces of the legitimate Yemeni government.

So this is not the position or the behavior of a group that seeks to resolve its differences with other Yemenis through dialogue and through peace.

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Just as we were determined to degrade and destroy the capabilities that were a threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during Operation “Decisive Storm,” we are determined to protect the Yemeni people and counter any aggressive moves that the Houthis may undertake during Operation “Renewal of Hope.”

And so having said this I want to stop here and see if I can take some answers, but I also want to add one more thing. The objectives of Operation “Renewal of Hope” as you know were to protect the civilians in Yemen against takeover by the Houthis by force, to counter any military moves or aggressive moves by the Houthis in Yemen, to facilitate and intensify the flow of humanitarian assistance to Yemen, and to ease the work of international humanitarian organizations in Yemen.

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud contributed $274 million to the United Nations organizations to meet their appeal for humanitarian assistance in Yemen.

They were seeking to raise $274 million and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia pledged the full amount. We’re hoping that other countries will do the same.

We would like to be able to move also towards economic reconstruction in Yemen so that Yemen can move out, move towards a better place as we have said time and time again.

We have no ambitions in Yemen – territorial or otherwise. Our ambition in Yemen is the welfare of the Yemeni people and peace, stability, and security in Yemen which has a positive impact on us in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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We will continue in the second phase of the Operation “Renewal of Hope,” we will continue to enforce the prevention of the flow of weapons to Yemen by air and by sea and we look forward to working with our international partners in forming an international cooperation to prevent the flow of weapons to the Houthis and to their ally Ali Abdullah Saleh per United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216.

We believe that the Bab el-Mandeb, the straits are vitally important to international commerce and trade, and so we attach a great importance to maritime security, and to insuring freedom of navigation, and to insuring that the world’s commerce continues through those straits unimpeded by the Houthis or by anyone else. And the key area of the patrols would be to insure that we have an enhanced monitoring and inspections regime so that weapons do not reach the Houthis or their ally Ali Abdullah Saleh.

And with that I’ll stop here and see if you have any questions.

[QUESTION] Sir, you just declared an end to Operation “Decisive Storm” and on the other hand you’ve made clear that airstrikes have continued and may indeed be carried out in firm in the future response to Houthi actions.

Can you just clarify please what the Saudi policy is on future airstrikes? Are you saying that you will only carry them out in response to specific action on the Houthi side and that absent that there will be a ceasefire in place for Yemen?

[Al-Jubeir] I believe that, yes, this is what we’ve said. We’ve said that under Operation “Decisive Storm” the objective was to eliminate the threat that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia faced in the form of ballistic missiles, heavy weapons, and an air force that were controlled by a militia that is radical, that is allied to Iran and Hezbollah. That was the objective.

So we destroyed their air force. We destroyed their ballistic missiles as far as we know. We destroyed their command and control. We destroyed much if not most of their heavy equipment. And we made it very difficult for them to move from a strategic perspective.

So we’ve degraded their capabilities substantially, and thereby eliminated the threat that they posed to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and in the process insured the safety of our borders, our territory, and our citizens.

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That was the objective of Operation “Decisive Storm,” in addition of course to the protection of the legitimate government of Yemen. Those objectives have been achieved.

So now we enter a new phase where the objective of this new phase is to continue to protect the civilians in Yemen from takeover by the Houthis, to counter any aggressive moves by the Houthis in Yemen, and to work on enhancing the flow of humanitarian assistance to Yemen, and ease the work of international humanitarian organizations in Yemen. And so when the Houthis or their allies make aggressive moves there will be a response. The decision to calm matters now rests entirely with them.

[QUESTION] Thank you, Ambassador. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about how you see the political process going on. I understand that Saudi, American, and British Ambassadors to Yemen are meeting with members of former President Saleh’s party.

How do you see – do you see a kind of Friends of Yemen group getting together? Will this translate into some of the meetings on the sidelines of the meetings of the UN next week on other forums? And what about the U.S. role, particularly with Iran – do you see the Iranians as playing a role in this larger political process or are you hoping that perhaps the U.S. can play some kind of mediation role?

[Al-Jubeir] Well, the discussions with regards to Yemen have been ongoing. The UN facilitated talks have been ongoing for a long time, and it was the Houthis who reneged on every promise or commitment that they made, and it was the Houthis that proceeded to use force to try to occupy increasingly more territory in Yemen until they were able to capture the capital and then move south, capture Ta’iz and then capture Aden. It was the Houthis who threatened the political leaders of Yemen and so it is the Houthis who know what needs to be done in order to arrive at a political settlement.

So the outlines of a settlement in Yemen are very clear. We have the GCC initiative. We have the outcomes of the national dialogue in Yemen. We have the various United Nations Security Council resolutions, the most recent being 2216. And it is our hope that all Yemeni parties will be able to work together in order to implement what everybody knows is the settlement to Yemen’s problem. And we hope that they will be able to put in place a constitution that works for everyone. We hope that they will be able to have an election that is fair, that leads to free and transparent elections, and that Yemen then can move on in terms of the political process towards a much better future.

So it is our hope that the political talks will resume as quickly as possible and conclude as quickly as possible. With regards to Iran. We don’t believe Iran has any role to play in Yemen. Iran is not a neighboring country of Yemen. We see Iran as part of the problem in Yemen, not part of the solution.

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The support that they have provided to the Houthis in terms of financial support, logistical support, personnel, and military equipment has been very, very dangerous and destabilizing to Yemen, and we do not believe that the Houthis would have been able to do what they did had it not been for the support that they received from the Iranians.

[QUESTION] A quick follow up, just press you a little bit more on that. I understand that you don’t feel Iran has a role to play, and obviously you don’t feel that former President Saleh – the whole GCC initiative was to have a political transition in Yemen, but these parties that are not necessarily on the ground in Yemen but certainly playing a destabilizing role, how do you incentivize them to cooperate with the political process if they’re not a part of it?

[Al-Jubeir] With regards to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, he was designated by the United Nations. He is sanctioned by the international community, and so – and he has played a very destructive role in the process. He led Yemen to devastation over 32 years, and he has been playing a very negative role over the past – since the transition in Yemen took place. And so his role has been very negative, but that does not mean that his party does not have a genuine constituency in Yemen, and it also does not mean that his party should not or cannot play a role in Yemen.

Ali Abdullah Saleh

Former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh

So this is really up to the Yemenis, but I doubt that somebody who has been as destructive as former President Saleh will have a role in the future of Yemen.

[QUESTION] Can you provide what evidence you have that Iran is supplying these weapons? And you said you would do what it takes to stop the flow of weapons. Does that mean you’re prepared to board Iranian cargo ships? And do you expect the U.S. will do the same?

[Al-Jubeir] We – the evidence of Iranian support for the Houthis is very clear and I’m surprised when people keep asking this question.

There are operatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Yemen. They were captured in Yemen, they were imprisoned in Yemen, along with operatives from Hezbollah.

They were freed by the Houthis when they captured Sana’a, and I don’t believe they were in Yemen as tourists. And I don’t believe they were in Yemen to check out Yemeni antiquities.

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“You planted the seeds of hatred in this region and you will see the response sooner or later.” Hassan Rouhani

We have arms shipments that were intercepted that were sent from the Iranians to the Houthis in Yemen including shoulder-launched surface to air missiles that were captured in a boat that was seized several months ago.

There are weapons factories or assembly machines that the Iranians have provided to the Houthis in the past. So the evidence is there and I don’t know why people would question it.

Oh, sorry, with regards to – we have, we are – there is a United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216 that places an arms embargo on the Houthis and on former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, units loyal to him.

There is a request by the legitimate government of Yemen to help enforce that Resolution and we are ready in order to make sure that this happens. And so you inspect ships that are in Yemeni territorial waters. You inspect ships that enter Yemen’s ports and exits Yemen’s ports to make sure that they do not carry weapons and that they do not smuggle people out.

You have – we have inspections of commercial airliners flying into Yemen before they land in Sana’a, and we make sure that we inspect them when they leave Yemen for the same purpose. And so this is what we intend to do, and we hope that the Iranians will be wise and will not add to the problems in Yemen by staying out of it.

[QUESTION] Do you expect the U.S. to do the same?

[Al-Jubeir] I think you should ask the United States this, not me.

[QUESTION] There were six international medical corps workers injured yesterday in Yemen in an airstrike, and four or five media workers were also killed, and that’s on top of almost 1,000 civilians killed in Yemen in the airstrikes. By your own account the Houthis continue to advance. What’s going to stop them, and is Saudi Arabia considering ground troops to end this conflict?

[Al-Jubeir] I have to get back to you on the casualties you mentioned with regards to yesterday, but when it comes to the 1,000 casualties committed by airstrikes I don’t know how correct that is. I think people are maybe confusing the casualties that are a consequence of the skirmishes or the bombardment by the Houthis against civilian positions with the attacks against the military infrastructure by the coalition air forces.

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So I would be very careful about the numbers and the accuracy of those numbers.

Your second question was with regards to ground forces. We have said that we don’t take any options off the table, and so we will assess everything when the time comes.

[QUESTION] [In Arabic]

[Al-Jubeir] [In Arabic]

[QUESTION] [In Arabic]

[Al-Jubeir] [In Arabic]

[QUESTION] You seem to indicate that so far this operation has been successful, whether it’s Operation “Decisive Storm” or the upcoming operation, and I wonder how this translates in the mind of policymakers in Riyadh to other arenas where Saudi Arabia is pushing back against Iranian influence, whether it’s Iraq or Lebanon or potentially Syria.

I’ve just come back from Riyadh where I heard everybody tell me once they discussed the operation that they hope that Saudi Arabia would move on to do something to help the Syrian rebels next.

[Al-Jubeir] Let’s deal with one crisis at a time I think. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here.

But we have a number of challenges in our region and Syria is one of them. And Syria has been a bleeding wound for now four years. We have seen the President of Syria murder more than 250,000 of his people. He has rendered almost twelve million people homeless as refugees – four million of them are children.

These children are living in abject conditions. They are undermedicated, they are undereducated, and they are undernourished. And they represent an incredible recruitment pool for violent extremists going forward. And if a small number of them turn toward violent extremism in the future we will be facing hundreds of thousands of potentially violent extremists. And this is a huge challenge to the world.

There is a moral obligation, we have said, to intervene in Syria and put an end to this. We have urged the international community to act, and we have acted ourselves in trying to support the moderates here in opposition, and we will continue to do so, and we will continue to urge the international community to take more robust action to hasten in the demise of Bashar al-Assad and to put in place a new government in Syria that can take care of its people.

And so this objective of ours has not changed, but in terms of specifics or tactics it’s too early for me to get into this.

[QUESTION] You’ve spoken repeated about the need to protect and restore the legitimate government of Yemen. From the Saudi point of view does that mean President Hadi personally or are there a couple [unintelligible] personalities that [unintelligible].

[Al-Jubeir] It’s very clear President Hadi is the legitimate President of Yemen. He’s presiding over the transition period in Yemen. He has a vice president and a prime minister and a cabinet. And under the GCC initiative and the outcomes of the national dialogue in Yemen the government of President Hadi will shepherd Yemen through this transition until the next elections, and then whoever wins those elections gets to form the government.

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President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi

So as of now yes, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi is the legitimate President of Yemen, and this is not – it’s not us who see it this way, the rest of the world sees it this ways. It’s enshrined in a number of United Nations Security Council Resolutions, and so this is what we go by, and he is the President of Yemen and he will remain the President of Yemen until the Yemenis go through the political process and choose to renew his mandate or not to renew his mandate. That is an entirely Yemeni issue.

[QUESTION] [In Arabic]

[Al-Jubeir] [In Arabic]

[QUESTION] [In Arabic]

[Al-Jubeir] [In Arabic]

[QUESTION] In terms of timing can you be a little more specific on what evidence you have to declare it a success as the Houthis are still making gains and Hadi remains out of the country? And then any comments on American pressure to end the campaign [unintelligible].

[Al-Jubeir] I think – Ronald Reagan used to say facts are stubborn things. The Houthis had dozens if not scores of ballistic missiles. Now they don’t. The Houthis had dozens of military aircraft that they controlled from the Yemen Air Force. Now they don’t have them. The Houthis had heavy weapons and tanks. Much if not most of it is gone. The Houthis took over the command and control system and the air defense system of Yemen. Now it’s inoperable.

Those are facts. And so the ability of them to inflict danger on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or its territory, or its people has now substantially diminished if not eliminated.

They still continue to make aggressive moves inside Yemen, and we are determined when they do so to respond to the request of the legitimate government of Yemen to stop them from doing so. And so I believe that the gains that the Houthis are making are not really substantial gains, and I think you will begin to see a turning of the tide.

We hope that the Houthis will enter the political process and negotiate a settlement that will serve all of Yemen’s factions, including the Houthis themselves, and as I said earlier the Yemeni people will have no better friend than Saudi Arabia. They will have no stronger supporter than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They will have no country that is more committed and determined to help Yemen overcome its many, many challenges than Saudi Arabia.

But they need to work on resolving their problems politically. They cannot resolve them by force. We cannot have a small group take over a country by arms and impose its will on it. That’s not acceptable. Nor can we have a situation where a militia exists outside of government institutions and possesses heavy weapons. That’s also unacceptable. So we’re hoping that the Houthi leaders will see the wisdom in joining the political process and becoming part of the political process in Yemen rather than being spoilers of it, and so we hope this happens sooner rather than later.

[QUESTION] [unintelligible] Americans were [unintelligible] concerned about the nebulous aims of the campaign or the mounting civilian casualties?

[Al-Jubeir] Everybody’s concerned about any civilian casualties in any campaign. It would be inhuman not to. The objective is to go after the military targets and the strategic targets, to minimize any collateral damage that you can, and to try to execute as flawlessly as you can. And this is what our operation has been trying to do.

We are working with our coalition partners and we are working with the United States on intelligence and information and so forth in order to make sure that everything – that we minimize any collateral damage.

With regard to any pressures by the U.S. or by anyone, I don’t think that that’s the case. I think we all, and Saudi Arabia foremost are under our own pressure to try to minimize any collateral damage and to try to bring any military operations to a quick halt, and to push as quickly and as firmly as we can towards a political process. But as I said earlier this matter is really now in the hands of the Houthis. It’s their decision whether the political process moves forward or whether they want to continue and try to impose their will on Yemen by force.

[QUESTION] I was wondering if you could tell us first if Saudi Arabia would be willing to consider peace talks taking place outside the region in Europe, which I [unintelligible] and second if you could tell us when you anticipate President Hadi’s return to Yemen.

[Al-Jubeir] Let me start with the second one first. I believe President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi can make his own decisions in terms of when he believes the right time is for him to go back to Yemen. I believe that this is linked to the security situation in Yemen, and so I will leave that decision to His Excellency, the President.

With regards to any talks between the Yemenis or the launching of the political process between the Yemenis and the geographic location of it, that is really up to the Yemenis to decide, and we’ve said this on more than one occasion. We had invited Yemen’s factions to come to Riyadh in response to a request from President Hadi to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, where he asked King Salman to host a meeting in Riyadh of Yemeni factions under the umbrella of the GCC based on a set of principles which I reiterated to you in a previous press conference, accepting certain principles, and then coming to this conference to try to work out the details. That is separate from the UN-facilitated peace talks that were taking place, and so if the Yemenis want to have a meeting in the region, outside the region, that is really entirely up to them. We are ready to provide whatever support we can to those talks because we want them to succeed.

[QUESTION] Ambassador, thank you again. So since the Kingdom is leading the military operations in Yemen, based on your assessment and based on the conclusion of the first phase of this military operation do you think it is safe for President Hadi to go back to Yemen now?

[Al-Jubeir] Like I said earlier I will leave that decision up to His Excellency. He has to make that decision, and he has to make the decision based on how his reading reading of the security situation and based on his discussions within his own government.

[QUESTION] But if you were to advise him on this?

[Al-Jubeir] I would never advise a president on what he or she should do, and certainly not a president of a sovereign country.

[QUESTION] Given that the Houthis still control the capital why was the mission changed before any fundamental shift in terms of the power center of the country?

[Al-Jubeir] The objective of “Decisive Storm” as I mentioned was to destroy the capabilities that the Houthis possessed or took over from the Yemeni military that could represent a threat to Saudi Arabia – ballistic missiles, aircraft, and heavy weapons. That objective has been met.

The strategic objective of “Decisive Storm” is to protect the legitimate government of Yemen and to degrade the capabilities of the military units that were loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. That has also been achieved.

Now we want to move towards a political process where the Yemenis can work out their differences peacefully and restore things to the way they were in the fall of 2013 and move Yemen towards a better place. There are popular committees that have sprung up that are pushing back against the Houthis in a number of places, including in Sana’a.

I believe that their efforts will intensify as time goes forward if the Houthis do not join the political process. I believe that… I don’t believe, I know that an increasingly large number of units are breaking from the forces or units loyal to former President Saleh and joining the forces of the legitimate government of Yemen, and I expect that this trend will continue to accelerate. So I think the momentum is certainly against the Houthis, not in favor of the Houthis, and so we let this play out and see how it goes.

[QUESTION] Are you providing direct military support for these popular committees that you say are springing up and will be intensifying?

[Al-Jubeir] Yes, and we’ve said that.

[QUESTION] What type of military support?

[Al-Jubeir] I’m not going to get into the details, but we’ve said it. The spokesperson for the coalition in his briefings in Riyadh showed pictures. We are dropping weapons and supplies to these committees. We started in the south and we’re doing it in other places. I can’t tell you if it’s ongoing as we speak, but we are supporting these groups.

[QUESTION] Are you vetting these individuals who you are providing weapons and supplies?

[Al-Jubeir] As much as we can, yes.

[QUESTION] I believe you said that the Houthis were advancing from three directions [unintelligible] next few hours, and that you will take moves to prevent it. What specifically could you do to prevent it? Is this the kind of thing that would require additional airstrikes, and are you concerned about the possibility of the airstrikes once they hit [unintelligible] in terms of collateral damage? How can you [unintelligible]?

[Al-Jubeir] Yeah, well we’re always concerned about collateral damage and we try to avoid civilian areas as much as we can. How you stop them or how you make it more difficult for them to enter Yemen is really a military question that I’m not equipped to answer.

But we will respond or continue to respond to the requests of the legitimate government of Yemen to provide assistance in any way, shape, or form that we can in response to any aggressive moves that the Houthis may commit, and moving forces towards Aden from three different locations is certainly an aggressive move, and so we will look at what options we have and we will make decisions based on what we believe is the most effective means.

[QUESTION] Would you – if they do succeed in taking the city would that undercut in your view any point in pursuing political efforts? Would it indicate to you that they really are not interested in pursuing a political solution?

[Al-Jubeir] They have made and reneged on more than 60 agreements since the Yemeni crisis began. So I’m not a betting man, but I hope that they will make one agreement that they keep. And the opportunity now lies before them to achieve through the political process what they will not be able to achieve by force. So the decision is theirs.

The opportunity lies before them to suspend or stop the military operations should they not commit attacks against civilians or move their military forces in a threatening way. So it’s really their choice.

Does it undercut the political process? I think any time you commit aggression you are undercutting your argument that you are seeking a political solution. As I mentioned earlier in this press conference, some time ago, after the announcement of the suspension of Operation “Decisive Storm” and the commencement of Operation “Renewal of Hope,” there were Houthi spokesmen who said they will accept political process and they want to go into the political process. But then we see their attacks against government military units in Ta’iz, and we see their skirmishes in Aden, and we see them moving forces from three different locations towards Aden.

These are not the actions of a party that wants peace. I hope we’re wrong in our assessment. I hope that they’re just engaging in an excursion in the south and that they’ll after they do their picnic they go back to their barracks. But we can’t base our policy in Yemen on hope. We have to deal with the realities on the ground.

Last question.

[QUESTION] Thank you very much. Can you talk – did Secretary Kerry tell your foreign minister to call off the bombings?

[Al-Jubeir] I wouldn’t put it this way.

I think our objective has always been limited with regards to Decisive Storm. Our objective has been to destroy the capabilities that represent a threat to us and we proceeded to do so.

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The U.S. was very supportive in terms of political support, intelligence support, logistical support. We couldn’t have asked for more, and so we’re very appreciative of this – of America’s support for our efforts.

So that’s how I would frame it.

Now, we have always said that our objectives are limited and that we do not want this fighting to continue more than a day longer than it should.

Thank you very much, everybody. I appreciate you coming.

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Transcription by SUSRIS.com.
Copyright 2015
Permission is granted to reprint with attribution to SUSRIS.com

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