Daily Press Briefing - July 18, 2012

Index for Today's Briefing:

    • Reports of Regime Officials Killed in Attacks in Damascus
    • UN Security Council Vote
    • Defections to Turkey
    • U.S. Citizens in Syria
    • Iran Oil Sanctions
    • Libyan Election Results
    • Turkish Jets in Iraq Airspace
Patrick Ventrell
Director, Press Office
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
July 18, 2012


Today's briefing was held off-camera, so no video is available.

1:03 p.m. EDT

MR. VENTRELL: Good afternoon, and welcome to the State Department. Before we get started, I just wanted to go ahead and say at the top that we note reports that the Syrian defense minister and other regime officials were killed in an attack today in Damascus. The United States does not welcome further bloodshed in Syria. We note, however, that these men were key architects of the Assad regime’s assault on the Syrian people.

We also recognize that, even as the media is focused on the deaths of these senior officials, dozens more civilians were killed today throughout Syria. As we’ve been predicting for some time, the Assad regime’s desperate attempts to cling to power will only lead to further chaos and suffering, underscoring the urgency of a political transition. It is past time for the UN Security Council to stand up and put the full weight of its support behind the Annan plan to facilitate that transition and an immediate end to violence.

And with that, I will turn it over to you for questions.

QUESTION: Well, this wasn’t a good thing? Is that what you’re saying?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, Matt, we’ve been clear throughout that what we’re focused on is a political transition. We don’t want further bloodshed.

QUESTION: So this is a bad thing?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, having said that, these are individuals who had perpetrated and were key architects of the extreme violence against the Syrian people.

QUESTION: So it’s a good thing?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, we’re still getting more information about what happened. This happened just today. We’ve seen some of the initial reports. We’re getting reports from some of our contacts and others on the ground, but at this point – we’re still looking for information at this point.

QUESTION: Well, yeah. But I want to know whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing.

MR. VENTRELL: The United States does not want to see further violence in Syria. What we want to see is a transition.

QUESTION: So that would suggest that it’s a bad thing, but then you say – come back and say that these people are responsible for the deaths of lots of innocent civilians, so that would suggest that you think it’s a good thing.

MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m – you’re trying to put words in my mouth. I’ve characterized it --

QUESTION: No. I’m just trying figure out what the Administration thinks that the death of people – or the killings of people in positions like this is a good thing or a bad thing for Syria.

MR. VENTRELL: We want a peaceful solution, Matt. We’re focused on ending the bloodshed. It is the Assad regime, however, that, in slaughtering its own people, has created these chaotic conditions. They are losing control of Syria. It’s clear that the situation is spiraling out of control. And what we’ve been trying to avoid all along is further chaos that spills over the borders that makes the situation worse.

So we’ve been pretty clear that we want a peaceful, orderly transition. And that’s why the diplomacy up in New York today is so important, because we want to see the Security Council not only take the Joint Special Envoy’s plan, but also give it the kind of consequences for noncompliance that he’s been asking for. So we’re focused on the diplomacy up in New York.

QUESTION: I’ll drop it after this. You just give me a yes or no answer. So you’re telling me is that the United States – the Administration is not prepared to say that this is either a good thing or a bad thing. Is that correct, yes or no?

MR. VENTRELL: We’re still looking – Matt, we’re still looking and seeking further information about exactly what happened. We’ve seen the initial reports. It just happened a few hours ago. We don’t want to see further bloodshed. We want to see a peaceful solution. And we’re working with our partners up in New York on the diplomatic angle of this today.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you have any doubts about what happened and any doubts about the reports that these officials are dead?

MR. VENTRELL: We don’t have any reason to believe that the incident didn’t occur. We do believe there was an incident. We do believe that senior officials were killed, but we’re seeking further information.

QUESTION: And do you have any assessment of what that could mean for the situation on the ground?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, this – our wider assessment is, as we’ve been saying for a number of days throughout, is that the regime is starting to lose control of Syria. And so our wider assessment is that the violence is getting worse, that the opposition is gaining strength. And what we’re trying to avoid is the situation where – we believe there’s still a window for this political transition to work, but that window narrows every day. And that’s why the diplomacy up in New York is so important today.


QUESTION: And speaking of that, wasn’t that vote put off until tomorrow?

MR. VENTRELL: I did discuss – I did have a chance to touch base with my colleagues in New York a few moments ago, and my understanding is that the vote will be tomorrow. But again, the ongoing intensive diplomacy continues in New York.

QUESTION: Does that disturb you though? Because the vote was supposed to be today.

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t think we’re going to read into it one way or another too much. I think the negotiations are ongoing.

QUESTION: But Kofi Annan himself asked for the delay. What do you – how do you interpret that? Does he – do you think that there’s some movement, potential movement on the Russians, but it just hasn’t happened yet?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, I think the Joint Special Envoy has been very clear, first of all, that he wants to see a resolution that has the consequences for noncompliance. You know he was just in Moscow and, both publicly and privately, has been saying that he needs those consequences for noncompliance. And so to the extent that more hours are needed in diplomacy to get to the right place, then that’s a good thing. But again, I wouldn’t read too much into a few hours of negotiation one way or another.

QUESTION: Did he brief the Secretary on his meetings with the Russian President?

MR. VENTRELL: He did. Yesterday afternoon, the Secretary was able to talk to the Joint Special Envoy, and he was able to relay some of his impressions of his meetings in Moscow.

QUESTION: Patrick --

MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Guy.

QUESTION: Yeah. Just regarding the security situation in Damascus and following up on Matt’s question a little bit, are there concerns within this building that the security apparatus around Assad himself might be faltering? And is there anybody here working on a plan of action for what, ultimately, to do when he is assassinated?

MR. VENTRELL: We’re watching the situation very closely, Guy. We are – obviously have a number of experts in the building and others in the U.S. Government who are watching this very closely. And we’ve been very clear that the transition plan and what comes next is very important, because, as the Secretary has said repeatedly, this regime is not going to survive, and whether it’s today or tomorrow or when that happens, that’s why it’s important that we have the right framework in place for a political transition that’s going to bring about what we all want, which is a democracy for Syria that respects the rights of all citizens, of all different ethnicities and sects – different sects and religious backgrounds and can enshrine their rights in a new Syria where there’s democracy and freedom, and that’s what we’re looking for.

QUESTION: So yes, there are concerns here that the security apparatus around Assad himself might be faltering at this point?

MR. VENTRELL: We think the regime is losing control of the situation in Syria. They’re losing control of – their control of the territory of Syria. But beyond saying that we’re watching it closely, I don’t have any further characterization for you.


QUESTION: Did the Secretary get any feedback or – from Kofi Annan about his meetings in Moscow?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I don’t want to characterize what was a private discussion, but he’s been pretty clear that he wants consequences for noncompliance in his resolution, and that’s been consistent with what he said publicly and privately to us for a number of days.

QUESTION: But did he indicate that there was any progress?

MR. VENTRELL: I’m not going to get into characterizing exactly what – how his conversation with the Secretary went, but he was able to give an assessment of his meetings and his impression of where we are on the diplomacy.

QUESTION: Do you have concerns about the regime apparently losing control of the country extend to losing control of the chemical weapon stockpiles? And what sorts of plans do you and your allies have in the eventuality that there is evidence that those weapons might be drifting away?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, Andy, we’ve repeatedly made it clear that the Syrian Government has a responsibility to safeguard its stockpiles of chemical weapons and that the international community will hold accountable any Syrian official who fails to meet that obligation.

QUESTION: But you, yourself, are saying that the Syrian Government is rapidly losing control of the situation in the country. I mean, if they’re losing control of the situation, they can’t control the chemical weapons, right? What’s the Plan B there?

MR. VENTRELL: We’re closely monitoring their proliferation-sensitive materials. We don’t have any indication that those specific munitions are not under Syrian Government control at this time, but we’re monitoring it very closely.

QUESTION: Sorry. What did you say? Any Syrian official who allows --

MR. VENTRELL: Who fails – the international community will hold accountable any Syrian official who fails to meet that obligation.

QUESTION: Right. Even if the guy gets blown up in his office? I mean, this --

MR. VENTRELL: We’re talking about people – anybody who would --

QUESTION: The defense minister was killed today, right?

MR. VENTRELL: Matt, what we’re talking about is --

QUESTION: According to what you know?

MR. VENTRELL: -- any Syrian government official has responsibility for the safekeeping of those materials. If they don’t continue to safeguard them, they will be held accountable.

QUESTION: Right. Even if they're dead.

QUESTION: Turkish foreign ministry today stated that --

MR. VENTRELL: The which foreign ministry?

QUESTION: Turkish.


QUESTION: What's happening in Damascus needs international action to stop killing. Do you agree with the statement?

MR. VENTRELL: Needs international action?

QUESTION: Action, yes.

MR. VENTRELL: Well, we're at the Security Council. Clearly, the intensive diplomacy continues today, and we're working with all our international partners to have the same plan forward. And we think we've got a good plan. We think that the western – draft resolution that we have up in New York does the right things, and we're continuing to work to get more support behind our plan.


QUESTION: Patrick, as this spins out of control, you say that the opposition is strengthening, and that appears to be the case. But is this happening too fast for you? Is there concern here in this building that the path toward change is happening in a very chaotic way? What's the level of concern?

MR. VENTRELL: We still think that there's time for a political transition. What we want is that kind of orderly political transition that is the best path to get the democratic and free Syria that we all look for. But, obviously, every day that goes by that the Assad regime doesn't stop their violence against the people is another day that we are not closer to that political transition. So there's still time, but obviously the window is closing.

Go ahead, Kim.

QUESTION: If the regime ends -- if the Government in Syria falls tomorrow, are you ready for the day after?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I don’t want to get into hypotheticals, but we've been --

QUESTION: I mean, it's not a hypothetical. It could happen. Do you have a plan in place?

MR. VENTRELL: We – part of our planning and part of our focus throughout this has been on the political transition, and so that's why we thought it was so important to work with the Russians, the Chinese, and our other P-5 counterparts through a process that focused on a political transition. And so that is in place.

QUESTION: Political transition means that the Assad Government decides that they want the political transition. I’m talking about a scenario where they collapse, the regime collapses, and you're left with a chaotic situation in Damascus where it's a free-for-all. Are you ready?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals, but the U.S. Government is watching this situation very closely. We have a large team of experts -- of Syria experts here in the building in the State Department and other agencies of the government. We're watching it very closely.

QUESTION: So without hypotheticals, are you ready for all scenarios?

MR. VENTRELL: We're watching this very closely.

QUESTION: Patrick, what are your information from the ground in Damascus today? There are lot of clashes and defections?

MR. VENTRELL: We do have information of clashes overnight. We also have the information about continuing defections, two generals overnight that joined more than 600 Syrians who crossed the border from Syria into Turkey and sporadic fighting in many parts of the country. So the violence has continued in many parts of the country. And as I said in my opening statement, obviously there was this large incident that has gotten a lot of media coverage, but many other Syrians were violently killed today as well.

QUESTION: I'm just wondering if -- I realize that you say you're gathering information about what happened with this specific attack, but I'm wondering if there's any concern in the building that there might be an al-Qaida involvement here. I mean, it certainly bears the hallmarks of past al-Qaida attacks in other situations. Do you think that that's a potential scenario here?

MR. VENTRELL: At this point, Andy, we just don’t know. This happened a few hours ago. We're working to find out more information, but at this time we don’t know for sure how this transpired. What we do know is that the individuals were key architects of the regime violence.

QUESTION: Do you have any readout or – from the meetings in Moscow today between Prime Minister Erdogan and President Putin?

MR. VENTRELL: I would refer you to the Governments of Turkey and Russia.

Other topic?

QUESTION: Patrick, are you expecting the regime now to resort to the chemical stockpiles? I mean, exactly -- precisely to use it as a retaliation against the opposition right now?

MR. VENTRELL: As I said in my earlier statement, we're very clear that anyone in the regime who doesn't safeguard these weapons will be held to account.

QUESTION: So you know that Treasury today designated a huge -- well, not huge -- but a very large number of what I believe is the entire remaining members of the cabinet who hadn't been sanctioned already, put them down. What does that mean for your transition or the mutual consent? One of the people that was named is reportedly the Assad regime's choice for – to be the interlocutor with the Joint Special Envoy, as you like to call him. So how -- does this mean that the idea of political transition is just dead? Because some of these people, like the Minister of Water Resources and the Minister of Agriculture may not be directly involved in – and have blood on their hands, and yet that's the kind of technocratic expertise that one would expect would be needed in a transition government of the kind that Kofi Annan has been talking about. So where are the regime people going to come from if there's going to be this transition, or have you just given up hope on it?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, Matt, I obviously refer you to the Department of Treasury for the list of their -- who they've sanctioned and the individuals.

QUESTION: I don’t need the list. I already have it.

MR. VENTRELL: Well, I refer you for -- to the Department of Treasury for more information about --

QUESTION: They're going to tell me?

MR. VENTRELL: -- who and why they designated. Suffice it to say, we've said that those who are around Assad, who are his cronies and his supporters, will be the subject of our unilateral sanctions. And we've worked with others through the Friends of the Syrian People, and indeed we're working up at the UN on the kinds of packages that can increase the pressure on them so that they change course. Having said that, there are going to be members at a technocratic level who can potentially be a part of the regime -- or of the transition to a new government.

QUESTION: So you're okay with some of these people being part of a transitional government that Kofi Annan wants?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, I'm not going to parse them individual by individual. That's something that the opposition has to --

QUESTION: I'm not asking you for individual by individual. I want to know -- I mean, does this -- this doesn't disqualify them. Just simply the fact that you identified them, designated them for sanctions because they are linked to the Assad regime, doesn't automatically disqualify them in your eyes from being part of the transition, which the government has to be a part of.

MR. VENTRELL: It's up to the opposition who they're able to work with. Our sanctions --

QUESTION: I understand that, but in your eyes --

MR. VENTRELL: Our sanctions are meant to pinch those around Assad so that the regime changes course. That's what our sanctions are meant to do.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Patrick, do you think that Assad is still in Damascus today?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information about his whereabouts.

QUESTION: Do you know if – has Fred Hof or anybody else been in direct contact with the Syrian National Council or other opposition elements since this attack? Have you traded notes with them specifically?

MR. VENTRELL: Our communication with the opposition is ongoing and intensive and daily.

QUESTION: So can we – is that a yes?


QUESTION: Okay. So there has – and has that been Fred Hof?

MR. VENTRELL: We have Ambassador Ford, we have Fred Hof, we have a number of individuals who, as part of our Syria team, reach out to a wide range of the Syrian – of Syrian society.

QUESTION: And they have done that since this attack?

MR. VENTRELL: They’re actively doing that.


QUESTION: Patrick, some observers believe that this is a turning point, that there has been more violence – the opposition are now in Damascus, with these killings, et cetera. Where does the State Department believe we are right now? Is this a major turning point in this conflict?

MR. VENTRELL: We think the opposition is obviously gaining ground. I hesitate to use one particular phrase or another to describe how they’re gaining ground or – that’s your phrase, but clearly there is a change in momentum.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Again, chemical weapons – you stated that whoever uses or wants to use it will be held accountable for doing that. My question is – according to unconfirmed reports that the Syrian military is now distributing gas masks. These are the unconfirmed reports from Syria. My question is: Is there anything that you are doing currently to stop such action, or if anything happens you have a right after, Plan B? As far as we see Assad has not listened to your demands so far.

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything further to say than what I said before, that we’re closely monitoring all of Syria’s proliferation-sensitive materials and facilities.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: How many American citizens do you know are still in Syria? Is there any diplomatic personnel whatsoever? And if so, has the State Department ramped up any efforts to get them out?

MR. VENTRELL: As you know, many months ago we evacuated our personnel. Currently the Government of Poland is our protecting power in Damascus, so they’re our channel of communication with the current regime. In terms of American citizens inside of Syria, we long ago recommended that all American citizens depart. So I don’t have any update in terms of some folks who may be dual nationals or others who may have chosen stay, but we made clear long ago our opinion that it was time for all American citizens to leave Syria.



QUESTION: What, if anything – and I don’t expect much here – do you know about the incident in Bulgaria with this busload of Israelis?

MR. VENTRELL: Matt, we’ve seen the initial news reports but don’t have anything further for you at this point. We’ve just seen the initial reporting.

QUESTION: Then you don’t have anything at all, not anything further.

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything for you at this time, Matt.

Go ahead, Andy.

QUESTION: I just wanted to – I ran by you yesterday – I’m just wondering if the State Department has any reaction to the fact that China, since getting its exemption from the sanctions, the Iran sanctions, has actually stepped up its Iranian oil purchases by a significant margin.

MR. VENTRELL: First of all, I think this is a particular report that was actually a Reuters article citing statistics that China is buying a greater percentage of Iranian oil, but we think that’s a bit misleading because as countries around the world reduce and/or completely cut their use of Iranian oil, obviously the few remaining people who – the few remaining countries that still purchase that oil will have a larger share. So we think our policy is working. The Iranian regime is losing about $8 billion a quarter. Their day-to-day output is – of export is down from 2.5 to 1.5 million barrels a day. And so we think our strategy is working and that the Chinese have, as we look at between 2002 – the first half of 2012 versus the first half of 2011 – significant decrease in crude oil imports. So even as China’s economy has continued to expand and its overall crude oil imports grew by 10-to-11 percent, indeed they’ve decreased their reliance on Iranian oil.


MR. VENTRELL: And I just close by saying, though, that on this issue, that China is an important partner in the P-5+1. They’re committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, through the dual-track approach. And so we’ll continue to work closely with China and collaborate with them on the strategy.

QUESTION: Okay. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to come back to you so we can compare numbers.


QUESTION: Just so I can make sure (inaudible).

MR. VENTRELL: I’d be happy to.


QUESTION: The Administration having a reaction to the victory of the National Forces Alliance in Libya – I don’t know if you made a comment on this yesterday --


QUESTION: -- but the Libyan election commission has said they’ve won 39 of the seats. And is this something that the Administration sees as a move in the right direction?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, yesterday, July 17th, the Libyan High National Elections Commission announced preliminary results of the July 7th elections for 200 – the 200-seat General National Congress. The U.S. – we again congratulate the Libyan people on their first successful national democratic elections in more than 40 years, and we look forward to working with the democratically-elected government in Libya.

MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yesterday, Prime Minister of Iraq stated that – warned Turkey for its repeated actions in Northern Iraq with Turkish jets, fighter jets, and he said that he’s going to take this matter to the UN. Do you have any reaction to this kind of a tense situation between the two?

MR. VENTRELL: Can you repeat the first part of your question? I didn’t hear.

QUESTION: The Prime Minister of Iraq, Maliki, yesterday warned Turkish for its Turkish jets that is breaching its airspace, and he stated that Iraq closed down its airspace against Turkey and is going to take the matter to the UN. Do you have any reaction to this tense situation?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, as you know, Turkey and Iraq are both important partners of the U.S. Government. They’re countries that we work with very closely. I obviously, on this situation, refer you to the two governments, but they are both partners and we encourage them to have good relations.

QUESTION: Patrick, can we go back to Syria? Some news stories are saying that Maher al-Assad the – President Assad’s brother – has severely injured in that attack in the morning, and Russian doctors trying to save his life. Do you have any confirmation or any information on this?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, I think, Michel, that just reinforces that a lot of these developments – we’re still getting more information continually and we will throughout the day. So we’ll continue to watch it very closely.

Anything else?

QUESTION: No? All right. Well, I was going to bring this up, but since Senator McCain took to the floor of the Senate this morning --


QUESTION: -- and delivered a rather stirring defense of the Secretary’s Deputy Chief of Staff, I’m wondering if you, speaking on behalf of her employer, would like to add your two cents to that.

MR. VENTRELL: Can you repeat your question? Sorry, I didn’t hear the --

QUESTION: Do you have anything to say about the allegations that are being made against Huma Abedin?

MR. VENTRELL: We think that – again, if you’re referring to the very specific thing that was about a member of Congress writing to the OIG --

QUESTION: Five members of Congress, yes. And Senator McCain --

MR. VENTRELL: -- I’ll have to look into it for more information on that. But, obviously, the Secretary very much values her wise counsel and support, and we think that these allegations are preposterous.

QUESTION: Okay. Do you know if the Inspector General, to whom Representative Bachmann and the others have sent the letter to asking for him to open an investigation, do you know if there is going to be an investigation being opened, or is it just so preposterous, in your words, that it doesn’t even warrant that?

MR. VENTRELL: I’ll have to check in with the Office of the Inspector General. I don’t have any information, but I’ll check in.

QUESTION: Thank you.


(The briefing was concluded at 1:28 p.m.)

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