Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on Syria

Special Briefing
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
June 17, 2011

OPERATOR: Thank you for holding. Parties will be on a listen-only mode until the question-and-answer session of today’s conference. At that time, you can press *1 to ask a question. This conference is being recorded. I’d like to introduce your first speaker, Mr. Mark Toner.

MR. TONER: Good afternoon and welcome, and thanks to all of you for joining us on a Friday afternoon. We obviously recognize that Syria has been a major issue over the past weeks and months, and so we thought it would be worthwhile to bring in two people to talk to you a bit more about our efforts there as well as the situation on the ground.

We’re joined today by [Senior Administration Official One] as well as [Senior Administration Official Two]. And just a quick – before I hand it over to [Senior Administration Official One] to say a few words at the top, I just do want to remind about the ground rules. Here to forth, they will be known as Senior Administration Official Number One – that’s [Senior Administration Official One] – and Senior Official – Senior Administration Official Number Two; that would be [Senior Administration Official Two].

Go ahead, [Senior Administration Official One].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us. Let me start off by just talking about what we’ve seen today. I mean, first of all, we’ve seen a repetition of what we’ve seen for the last several weeks, which is basically appalling repression. Now, there were some protests that were allowed to move today peacefully. There were about 20,000, we estimate, in Hama today, and there were some locales where there were peaceful protests in the Damascus suburbs.

But elsewhere across the country, there were still assaults, there were shootings. Right now, we’re hearing something like 19 dead, but those numbers tend to rise or at least become more authoritative as the day goes on. And it’s scattered around the country, from Homs to Duma to Deir al-Zour, even in Aleppo today. One of the interesting phenomenons that we’ve noticed is that where the security services are present is where the violence happens. If you look at someplace like Hama, where the security services have pulled out, the demonstrations were peaceful. So while we don’t discount the fact that there have been sometimes demonstrators that shoot on the security services, what starts this momentum is when the security services themselves seem to initiate the violence, based on what we’ve seen on the ground today.

At the same time, the Syrian Government seems to be trying to reach out to some real opposition types, but others still fear arrest, others are still in hiding, and you cannot do sort of dialogue negotiation while you try to reach out on the one hand but you still are injecting fear – fear of arrest, fear of violence – on the other hand.

What we basically see is the Syrians are demanding their legitimate rights, rights that have been denied for 30 years. The government’s trying to play this as a sectarian issue, in fact, the – when, in fact, the government is exacerbating the sectarian tensions on the ground by the very actions that they are taking. The causes of the uprising are (inaudible) broad-based – corruption, repression, just basically disgust, fear of the secret police. It’s not about outside terrorism agitation, it’s not about sectarian motivations. So what we’ve seen develop is that the regime itself and its repression are the sources of the instability. If you look at the fact that there now seems to be something like 8,000 refugees that are in Turkey, that’s not because of outside forces trying to destabilize Syria. It’s because of the actions that the Syrian regime itself has taken.

We – President Obama has said that President Asad needs to lead or needs to get out of the way, and we are operating in a number of ways in order to increase the pressure on President Asad. We can get into that later in more detail, but we’re not really seeing any genuine effort in response. The international community sees this as well, including countries like Turkey. Look at the statements that the Turkish prime minister has made about Syria. Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, a couple of days ago made a very strong statement. And what this indicates is that by the actions he’s taking, Asad is putting his country clearly on the path to becoming a pariah state.

Now, we know that there’s going to be a speech on Sunday, that Asad’s planning to give a speech on Sunday. And okay, he can say whatever words he wants. He has called for reform, he’s talked about cancelling the emergency law, he’s said lots of things over the past couple of months. But I think the Syrian people are going to be focusing a lot less on words and a lot more on what is the action, what are the changes that are on the ground.

It seems that the Syrian people, by their very actions, the fact that they continue to go out and do these protests every week, are losing patience with the sorts of mixed messages from the Syrian Government, actions that show that the Syrian Government does not have a good intent. I probably will talk a bit about some of the other things that are happening on the ground, but I would make reference to the announcement yesterday by Rami Makhlouf, that he’s devoting his life now to charity. That’s just almost ludicrous at this point. It’s not close for enough – in fact, one of the things that we saw today were that marchers had signs outside Damascus, Idlib, and Hama that were actually mocking Rami Makhlouf’s actions. So a few positive steps, but not nearly enough, and it’s far, far, far too slow, combined with the growth of marches, to suggest that the Syrian public’s patience is running out.

And I’ll just say a couple things about what we are doing and then we’ll open it up. We’re working unilaterally, regionally, and internationally in order to try to build a broad-based approach to how to respond to the need to increase pressure on the regime. Bilaterally, of course, we have – the President has signed in two new Executive Orders. He’s designated President Asad under this authority, other regime officials. We’re looking at how we can use these – how we can broaden these sanctions to increase the pressure.

Also it’s worth noting that included in the sanctions we’ve put on it are some designations of Iranian entities. And this is a important point because Bashar is turning to his only real friend in the region, which is Iran, and this has become a political liability for him at home. There’s an anti-Iranian, anti-Hezbollah flavor to these demonstrations. It’s not the predominant cause of the demonstrations, but it’s become part of the atmosphere, and our designations have helped highlight this in a way that increases the pressure.

Regionally, I mentioned the Arab League and Secretary Moussa’s statement. We’re in touch with the Arab – with Arab League officials, with bilateral partners in the region, as well as with the Turks in order, again, to build on the pressure for Bashar to lead or basically get out of the way at this point. And I have to say that the revulsion is universal. And then on the international forum, of course, there have been two statements from the Human Rights Council in Geneva that we played a leading role in bringing about these Human Rights Council statements. Also, Syria’s been kicked off the Human Rights Council, which is basically unprecedented. And we’re also, of course, working with France and Britain to get a good Security Council resolution passed.

I mean, all – I think all of this suggests that the international community agrees with the Syrian people that time is running out for Asad. What we are trying to do is use a broad-based international approach to support what the Syrian people themselves are demanding. The Syrian people are in the lead here and we’re trying to use our unilateral pressure, our regional contacts, our multilateral and international efforts, in order to back that – those Syrian people’s demands.

I’m going to ask if Official Two has anything to add before we go to questions and answers.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I think [Senior Administration Official One] covered pretty much everything. The only thing I’d add is that we continue to track what goes on very closely and we are considering a number of other things that can be done to increase the pressure. [Senior Administration Official One] mentioned a number of things that we’ve done already – the bilateral steps, the Europeans have followed, the designations, and they made their own designations. But other things that we’re looking into, for example, are whether there are grounds here for charges related to war crimes and whether referrals on that are appropriate. And we’re also looking at additional economic steps, and one in particular has to do with the oil and gas sector in Syria.

But I think I’ll just leave it at that and we’ll take your questions.

MR. TONER: Great. Thanks to both of you. And Operator, we’re ready to take questions now. Just a reminder, again, this is on background with Senior Administration Official Number One and Number Two.

Go ahead.

OPERATOR: If you’d like to ask a question from the phones, press *1. Please un-mute your phone and record your name. To withdraw your question, press *2. Once again, it’s *1 to ask a question, and you do need to record your name. Please stand by for the first question.

The first question is from Ilhan Tanir.

QUESTION: Hello, hi. This is Ilhan Tanir from Turkish press, Vatan Daily and Hurriyet Daily News. First of all, thank you for your time. My question is on Turkey. Could you please describe the level of relationship with Turkey right now? For instance, there are 8,000, 9,000 refugees. How – so far, the U.S. Administration has been talking what kind of – help – so far have been offered?

And the second, again, related to this question, when we look at Turkey today, Turkey, as you describe in your presentation, has been very much forthcoming when we think about the Libya operation. What is it that – it is only the proximity that the Turkish administration feels so much pressure, or it’s kind of a changing mind to the whole Arab Spring? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. And thanks for the question. We’re watching the situation very, very closely in Turkey in terms of the refugee flow. The Secretary met with the – with Foreign Minister Davutoglu last week in Abu Dhabi, and there are Turkish and American contacts, bilateral contacts, going on an ongoing basis to talk about Syria, how Turkey would like the international community to help respond to the refugee situation.

The Turkish Government, of course, is very active in taking care. I was watching, in fact, Al Jazeera today and saw that your foreign minister had, in fact, visited some of the refugees. And so what I can say is that we’re in close contact and we’re prepared to be responsive to the – to any requests that the Turkish Government may make of us or to ask our help with the international community to respond. We know that Turkey is taking on a burden by hosting these Syrian refguees, and we, of course, recognize that this is not the first time that Turkey’s hospitality has been used for refugees in that part of the world. And I think we’re all mindful of the fact that when Turkey – that when and if Turkey would ask for assistance, that we need to be responsive.

More generally, of course, the Turkish-Syrian relationship is extremely important bilaterally. And I think that one of Bashar al-Asad’s probably self-professed foreign policy successes would be the rapprochement that he built with Turkey over the years, starting with the Adana process and cross-border counterterrorism efforts. But if you look now at the Turkish public statements such as Prime Minister Erdogan’s very articulate description of how revolting the violence is, I think you can see that Bashar’s very actions are having an impact on his foreign relations, even on countries which he believed he had built strong alliances with. But I think Prime Minister Erdogan spoke for all of us when he talked about just the revulsion for the violence it’s experiencing in Syria.

QUESTION: And very quickly, on the United Security Council resolution, which countries are – that have been slowing down the process to send the first (inaudible) – meaningful and serious warning to Syria and the regime? Could you please tell the world public? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think you know very well the politics in New York, that to – that one wants to be able to make sure you have all of the five permanent members of the Security Council onboard for a resolution, and you want to make sure that you have at least the largest number of yes votes that you can. And so there’s just ongoing consultations in New York to make sure that we can have the broadest-based support of the Security Council for the type of resolution that would send a strong message to President Asad.

MR. TONER: Great. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Said Sarkate.

QUESTION: That’s Said Arakat, that is. My name is Said Arakat from Al Quds daily newspaper, and my question is to Official Number One. Sir, do you still feel that Mr. Asad still has time to redeem himself and perhaps introduce real reforms that can get him back into the community of nations?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: If you’re asking U.S. Official Number One, I would say time is running out for Asad. But the important people to ask that question is the Syrian people, and I think they are making their views clear that every week at night and on Fridays, the Syrian people go out to express their views, to demand their basic rights despite the fact that they know that there’s an incredible risk to what they are doing. And the question – the people that need to answer the question you asked are the Syrian people themselves. And in increasing numbers, they are making their views very, very clear.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up, sir, if I may: I mean, at one point it becomes a point of no return in your view, sir? Because you keep saying this is what the Syrian people – but I’m saying internationally, at what point does Mr. Asad become – does not – will no longer become an interlocutor at any international level?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: This is Official Number Two. I’ll take this one. I mean, I think my colleague expressed it earlier that the direction that Syria is on right now is clearly not on a path that we would like to see. In fact, they are headed in the wrong direction. They’re headed towards making Syria a pariah state around the world. And I think – that’s, I think, the best answer to that question.

MR. TONER: Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question is from Kim Ghattas.

QUESTION: Yes. Hi, both of you. Thank you very much for this. Two questions: In your contacts with the Syrian opposition, do you get a sense that there is somebody or a group of people that could present an alternative to the Asad regime? And second, how concerned are you that if the international community pushes Syria too hard, the reaction will come from Iran and will make the situation in the region even more complicated?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: In terms of the first, of course, our Embassy, it has broad contacts with the opposition, then our Ambassador, other officials are meeting with the opposition all the time to ask some of the very same questions you have about what is – what are their plans moving forward.

There’s – it’s our impression that there’s quite a lot of coordination that’s now underway on some of these nighttime demonstrations that are taking place, but that most of the demonstrations remain to be sort of grassroots events that are people basically expressing their demands, their disgust with sort of secret police practices and corruption. But there is an – there is increased organization going on, increased coordination is the impression that we have from our contacts with the opposition through our Embassy and elsewhere. Of course, you’ve seen some opposition meetings outside of Syria. But I think the important thing is to focus on what’s happening inside Syria with the – with coordination.

In terms of the second question that you asked, Kim, the people in the driver’s seat right now are the Syrians themselves. The Syrian people themselves are the ones that are driving the agenda, that are making the demands, that are expressing their views, that are reacting to the repression, and the international community is simply trying to support the Syrian people achieve the – achieve their demands in terms of universal rights, in terms of a beginning of a transition away from a closed, one-party structure.

And I don’t think that the people – it’s our impression that the people inside are not simply going to be looking and saying, “Well, what does Iran think.” In fact, their views of the Iranian relationship with Bashar that has propped up the Syrian Government, those views are becoming increasingly clear in these demonstrations as they take on, as I mentioned earlier, this anti-Hezbollah, anti-Iranian flavor. We – none of us underestimate the ability of Iran or the intent of Iran to try to exploit problems in the region, to try to create problems in the region, to try to expand problems in the region. So I don’t think any of us should be complacent here when it comes to Iran. We’ve seen Iran make problems throughout the region whenever it can. But Iran is not going to be able to turn back the developments that are happening in Syria right now.

QUESTION: And just a quick follow-up, if I may: I mean, how long do you think that the people who are, as you say, in the driver’s seat, can sustain this constant – these constant demonstrations on the street? I mean, at some point, somebody is going to win, either the people or the regime.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: This is Official Number Two. I mean, I think that’s a good question, but what we’ve seen – I mean, this is going on now for going on three months, and I think that people seem intent on making their demands, they continue to go into the streets at great risk. We saw today, as we heard earlier from my colleague, that you have growing numbers of people in the streets, we’ve got 20,000 in Hama today. I think our – the indications are that when the security forces pull back, you have more people out in the streets. So I think the intention of the people to keep coming out is there, and it seems that their will is strong, and this is not going away. I mean, we’ve – all the steps that have been taken up till now by the government have been rhetoric, that have – they have not seen – the people have not seen serious steps on the part of the regime to transform the system, to begin on a path to democracy. So in the absence of that, I think the people will just continue to keep coming out, as we’ve seen over the last three months.

MR. TONER: (Inaudible) question.

OPERATOR: The next question is from Margaret Talev.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing the call. So an earlier answer I think sort of alluded to the answer, but in talking about the other additional steps that you’re looking it, it doesn’t sound like one of them is to recall the ambassador or bring him back for a consultation. I just want to make sure that’s still the case and if you can articulate why, and also any additional details you have on what you think Iran is doing.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I don't want to give a definite answer on the ambassador because the – it could change based on the circumstances. But let me just point out right now we strongly support having Robert Ford there in Damascus. He is meeting every day with opposition figures. He is – he and his team are able to provide information back here that, unfortunately, because you all are not allowed to go to Damascus, that is less available through media sources.

He is able to basically refute some of the regime propaganda that the regime tries to put out into the international sphere, that Robert is able to put this in context for Washington policy makers who are having to grapple with decisions. So the meeting with the opposition figures is extremely important for us politically and substantively, that Robert is seen as somebody who is meeting with these people all the time. He is our eyes and ears on the ground, particularly in the absence of all of you. So he’s providing information and he’s providing real-time analysis of what the regime is saying and doing and where the differences are between those two.

In terms of Iran, you’ve – as I’ve said, Iran is – seems at this point to be Syria’s last friend, and what a friend to have. They continue to provide advice and equipment in order to Bashar al-Asad to repress his own people. That’s basically what I can say.

MR. TONER: Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question is from Mina Aloraibi.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. The first is the fact that the ambassador in Damascus continues to meet with opposition figures, have you found that any of them have been questioned by the Syrians for that, getting in trouble? I mean, at this particular time in Syria for the Syrians to allow these meetings to happen, could you give some background to that?

And also, in terms of the opposition, do you have any clarity in terms of – I know what you said earlier about the coordination of some of the demos, but if there’s any clarity, if there’s a clear leadership of the opposition appearing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: On the first one, I think one thing to keep in mind is that clearly the threshold of fear has been crossed in Syria, that people are no longer afraid of the very oppressive security apparatus that Bashar al-Asad has, that his father had before him. And so I don’t know of specific cases of oppositions being questioned and picked up after meeting with our people, but what I know is they continue to meet with us, they want to meet with us, they want to be able to share views with us. And I think that that’s just – it’s characteristic of a broader phenomenon that we’ve seen throughout the region, but particularly in Syria, which is they’re just not going to take it anymore and they are – the fear factor no longer is enough to keep people home.

Mina, I forgot your second question.

QUESTION: In terms of the opposition, if there’s any clear sort of leadership that is emerging domestically, I mean, from the meetings you’re having, if there’s any sort of theme. Is it just a matter of being angry about corruption and the heavy handedness of the security forces, or is it regime change?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: There’s both, I think, in this, because people are asking for a transition away from the system that’s there. Now, what we would like to see, if we could believe what Bashar has said before, is we’d like to see people able to meet on a regular basis to discuss the issues that Syria faces, to discuss organization. But for all the talk of national dialogue, for all the talk of reform, for all the talk of lifting emergency laws, it’s all been rather superficial in terms of actual implementation on the ground. And so if there suddenly were a change in which the opposition were able to meet openly, publicly, without any repression or reprisal, I think that you’ve got the foundations already in place that they could build on because there’s enough coordination and communication going on now that people are – that people would be able to build on that. But the problem, of course, is that the words on reform and opening far exceed the actions on the ground.

MR. TONER: Great. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question is from Jill Dougherty.

QUESTION: Yes. Hi, there. Thank you. For Official Number One, you mentioned that – something that I haven’t heard exactly this way before – the government is trying to reach out to the opposition. Can you give us some details of that? Is that actually a good sign? Is it something new?

And then also, well, I’d like to ask you the question we’ve been asking now for days, if not weeks, which is to the outside at least it appears that things are going extremely slowly in dealing with a very difficult situation in which people are dying. How do you defend what appears to be a slow reaction to help save lives? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Jill, on the first, the short answer is it’s rather superficial, the outreach from the government to opposition figures. You’ve heard now for several weeks, a couple of months, talk about a national dialogue, about contact with opposition, that the – that Bashar Al-Asad, his spokeswoman, Bouthaina Shaaban, others have talked about the fact that they need to have a national dialogue in which they would reach out. I mean, these are people who are usually specializing in diatribes, not dialogues. And so they say the words about dialogues, but they haven’t really been able to show that they mean it by actions. So right now, you do have some efforts that we’re picking up of parts of the regime trying to reach out to people who may have been Damascus declaration signers, who may have been part of the local coordinating committees of the current demonstrations, but it doesn’t strike us yet as being anything close to sufficient or real, and it certainly doesn’t seem to strike the Syrian people as being anything close to sufficient or real where you start to see a change on the ground. And it is simply not happening. The change on the ground is not happening.

In terms of your second question, I mean, let me just repeat what we said at the top of this. We’re appalled by the violence, we’re revolted, and we’re extremely disturbed by the number of deaths of Syrian civilians at the hands of their own government. And I agree that in a perfect world we should be moving faster, that this is going slowly. But what we’re doing is, again, we’re actively building a broad-based approach with our partners bilaterally, multilaterally, regionally, internationally in order to make sure that we’re all moving ahead in a sensible way that backs the Syrian people themselves.

There wasn’t – there hasn’t been a galvanizing effect, such as Qadhafi’s threat to Benghazi, to basically raze Benghazi to the ground. But there, nevertheless, is an appalling, appalling amount of violence and death that you see us – the international community are responding to and we – we’re trying – we’re working with our partners to make sure that the response is as effective as possible.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Great. The next question – I think we have time for a few more questions.

OPERATOR: The next question is from Mahmoud Hamalawy.

QUESTION: Yes. Thank you very much. You guys talked about building a broad-based bilateral, yet also multilateral support, to move on the Syrian regime. Is this going to be outside the realm of the Security Council? Obviously, we heard the statement coming from both China and Moscow that their view was not to move on Syria. That was a statement said yesterday. What confidence do you have that the support of either Beijing or Moscow, or what messages are you trying to send to them to move forward on the Syrian track?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, as we said – I mean, this effort is brought – and it involves a number of different things. There are the bilateral steps that the United States is taking alone. We’re working with our partners, particularly in Europe, where they are, in effect, duplicating what we’ve done in terms of our Executive Orders, but also multilaterally. It’s not simply the Security Council. We are pushing the Security Council, but there have been a number of actions already in the UN Human Rights Council, we’re working to see if it’s appropriate in other fora in the international system to deal with some of the questions that have come up. There are refugee issues as well and humanitarian concerns and we’re looking to deal with it as well.

The Security Council, of course, is important and we’re continuing to work there and we’re supporting the resolution that’s been introduced by our European partners. We are in touch with all the members of the Security Council, including the other permanent members, and we’re continuing to try to find whether there is a way for the international community, through the Security Council, to speak clearly about what’s happening.

As we’ve said, there is this building international consensus that – in response to what’s happening, the repression that’s going on and the deaths that are continuing. We are looking for ways to support the Syrian people and the Security Council is an important of that, and we’re going to continue working on that.

MR. TONER: Thank you. Great. I think we have time for just one more question.

OPERATOR: The next question is from Jennifer Rubin.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call. For Senior Official Number One, I’m hearing two different things, and I wonder if you can explain why they are not at contradiction. On one hand, you said that Ambassador Ford is meeting every day with dissidents or opposition figures. And on the other, you said, I think, quite understandably, that it’s impossible to have dialogue with the regime because there are people who are in hiding and they might be imperiled if they came forward to speak opening, so how is it that Ambassador Ford is able to have such contacts?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think that the problem with the dialogue is that the regime is still taking a superficial approach, and there are some people who probably – who not come in to see us either because of fear – there’s still fear of arrests, difficulties in travel during this period and things like that. But I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the contradiction between the two phenomenons you point out, because people do seek us out, people do respond to our requests for meetings. And the fact that we are able to see as many people as our Embassy is able to see, suggests to us anyway, that the Syrian Government would be able to put together some pretty serious dialogue options itself if it wanted to.

I mean, the main thing now is for the Syrians to allow the opposition to meet openly, publicly, without fear of crackdowns and without always the specter of violence hanging over demonstrations.

Go back to what I said in the opening, that it’s extremely interesting that places like Hama and some of the Damascus suburbs today, where there were no security forces present, there were a large number of demonstrators out on the street and there was no violence; that the violence took place where there was security services present. And that is going to have an impact on how seriously any of these opposition figures are going to take dialogue with the government right now. I mean, the killing needs to stop.

QUESTION: If I could just briefly follow up. Does Ambassador Ford have freedom of movement? Can he leave the Embassy without endangering his personal safety to go to these spots, to see the damage that’s been racked by the government?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. He – the Embassy, the ambassador, they continue to make rounds and see people. They continue to do the job that diplomats do worldwide.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Great. Thank you. And thanks to both of our senior Administration officials for doing this, and thanks to the many journalists who took time out of their Friday afternoon to join us. This concludes this background briefing and hope that all of you have a good Friday afternoon.

Thank you, all.

OPERATOR: That concludes today’s conference. You may disconnect at this time.

PRN: 2011/993