Senior State Department Official Previewing the Friends of Syrian People Conference in Tunis

Special Briefing
Senior Department Official
London, United Kingdom
February 23, 2012

MODERATOR: Good morning, everybody. Hope you all had a good sleep. The following is going to be embargoed until GMT noon here for reasons that you will understand, because it reflects a variety of meetings that the Secretary has had on the margins of the Somalia conference with her counterparts.

QUESTION: When is this embargoed to?

MODERATOR: Okay. Just to repeat, this will be embargoed until noon today, London time, GMT, because it will be -- what you are about to hear reflects a variety of meetings that the Secretary is having with counterparts who are headed to Tunis tomorrow on the margins of today's events here in London on Somalia.

We have with us [State Department Official] to lead you out on those conversations, hereafter known as "Senior State Department Official." And he will be previewing for you, based on her conversations, what we expect to have happen in Tunis tomorrow.

Take it away, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Good morning, everybody. Since her arrival, the Secretary has had a number of conversations and meetings with European and Arab counterparts. Obviously, she is in London for the Somalia conference that I can leave others to talk about. But she has taken the opportunity in order to make sure that we all are properly prepared for the Friends of the Syrian People conference tomorrow in Tunis. So I will talk about – a bit about the conversations and meetings she has had with Arab and European interlocutors, focused on the meeting in Tunis and the situation in Syria.

The Secretary has been working with her counterparts on the three pillars that we have discussed before that we would like to see as outcomes from the Tunis conference tomorrow. There is a lot of – she has had a lot of discussions, for example, on the humanitarian aspect. How can we work together as an international community in a concrete and tangible way to address the very real needs of the Syrian people? There is a lot of concern, of course, about what’s happening in places like Homs, the horrific conditions in which people (inaudible), and how do we get the right type of humanitarian and medical assistance (inaudible) that people need.

And (inaudible) general agreement that while the -- while we have all -- all of us have been working with various humanitarian well-known organizations, UN organizations on the ground, that the real challenge is the access issue. And it is going to be up to the Syrian Government to be – the Syrian authorities, the Syrian regime – to respond to international community’s real commitment to provide the type of assistance.

I think one of the things you are going to see coming out of the meeting tomorrow are concrete proposals on how we, the international community, plan to support humanitarian organizations on the ground within days, meaning that the challenge is on the Syrian regime to respond to this.

The second area of focus, naturally, is about the transition, the backing of the Arab League initiative, the political horizon. The Syrian National Council will be at the conference in Tunis tomorrow. The Syrian National Council has been in touch with many of us in the United States, other interlocutors, about its own transition plan that they will be discussing with the international community tomorrow.

The Syrian National Council has also been working to reach out to people inside Syria to make sure that what they say tomorrow does reflect realities on the ground inside Syria and a pragmatic way about how you move forward in implementing a transition plan. Everybody is backing the Arab League transition plan who’s at the conference tomorrow, but it’s incumbent upon the Syrian National Council to talk about how they would translate that transition plan into action on the ground and for them to articulate it in a compelling way that’s comprehensible, understandable to Syrians inside and out.

The group meeting tomorrow will, of course, show that we support these efforts, not only the Arab League transition plan but the Syrian National Council’s efforts to implement the Arab transition plan.

The third area that the Secretary has been talking about with her counterparts is basically the pressure and isolation track. And this has to do a lot with the sanctions. We have implemented sanctions on Syria and continue to look at the ways that we can increase the pressure. The Europeans have. The Arabs have as well, such as Saudi Arabia announcing the suspension of commercial. So the Secretary has been working with her counterparts to see how we can make sure that the pressure track that we’re all engaged in is, first, focused, but second, coordinated enough that the impact is greater than just individual (inaudible) on the Syrian authorities, on the Syrian regime, to show the international resolve to address these real concerns.

There’s a lot of – there’s a large number of people that have been – a large number of countries and organizations have been invited tomorrow. I think you’ll see a strong chair statement coming out of the Tunisian host tomorrow that reflects these three pillars that I just talked about.

MODERATOR: Good. Thank you very much. Unfortunately, [Senior State Department Official] only has a little while, so (inaudible) three or four, and then if we need to get back with him later in the day, we will do that.

Who wants to (inaudible) the first question?

QUESTION: I would love to ask a question, but I keep getting bumped off this call and so I have no idea what points one and two were.

MODERATOR: Okay. Well, we will obviously transcribe this as quickly as we can and get it back out to you as well. But points – point one was humanitarian, point two was supporting the transition.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], if I may, it’s Steve here. Can you talk a little bit more about this issue of the humanitarian aid? You said the real challenge is up – on the Syrians to allow access. But they haven’t, so why would we think they would now?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, one thing is that all of us have been working individually, we’ve been supporting UN agencies and other organizations that have a track record around the world of working in a crisis environment. In some cases, this has gotten in but in small quantities or gotten in quietly through other means.

What we want to have come out tomorrow is a strong international, unified position on this that sends a strong message to the Syrian regime that they are the ones that have a responsibility to allow this access in. But we, the international community, are prepared to support those agencies that can respond. We have the resources and the will to do so. (Inaudible) that we send a collective message to the Syrian regime that it is incumbent upon them to respond to a unified plan that’s coming out of the international community. In a way, it’s not only a humanitarian access but it’s also related to the pressure track that I described as the third pillar of the meeting tomorrow.

QUESTION: Hey [Senior State Department Official], it’s Elise. Can you talk a little bit about – the Secretary had said in advance that maybe you would be (inaudible) ways to strengthen the opposition. I know you’re going to hear from them what you (inaudible), but can you talk about any aid, any type of capacity building that you’ll be discussing with the opposition about how you can help them unify and increase their strength inside and outside the country?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Part of what we’re going to do tomorrow is we’ll be able to hear their needs, because they’re going to present to us not only their plan but their needs – how they – what they need from us in terms of support in order to respond to the situation on the ground in Syria and to promote the Arab League transition plan. So part of this is them telling us what they need, us being able to collectively decide how to respond to that, who has the best capacity for this or that or the other to meet their needs, match our capabilities with their needs.

But we have had an ongoing discussion with them. We’ve had ongoing meetings with them, and not just the United States, others from the Arab world and from Europe. And I think that all of us have been favorably impressed with how they have increased their outreach to a wide variety of Syrians. It’s a very complicated political situation that they face that the Syrian opposition members, whether they’re inside or outside, have a hard time communicating with each other given the restrictions that are put on to the – onto the internet, onto movement, given the horrific conditions under which people are living and operating inside Syria.

And in fact, the opposition has done a fairly good job of reaching out, being able to synthesize views from across Syria. And I think that all of us are favorably impressed with the direction in which they’re moving. But we’ll hear from them tomorrow in terms of specific needs.

MODERATOR: Two more. Kim, go.

QUESTION: Yeah. And then if you can just expand a little bit more on the humanitarian plans - is it a very concrete proposal on exactly how you’re going to deliver that will then require permission from – access from the Syrians? Or it is just a general “we want to deliver aid”?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, Kim, let me say that, as I said earlier, the Secretary has really focused today with her interlocutors, and the interlocutors have focused with her, on the three pillars that we talked about: humanitarian, transition plan, and the sanctions pressure track. And that’s really been the focus of her conversations with her interlocutors today in preparation for that meeting tomorrow.

And on the – again, on the humanitarian side, there are resources available from all of us. There are organizations that have the capability of working in environments such as this. And what, as I said earlier, what you’ll see from us tomorrow is a unified plan of how we would work together to move forward on delivering the type of medical and humanitarian, shelter assistance, that people need, but with a clear message to the Syrian regime that the burden is on them to respond to provide the type of access needed in order for the international community to help the citizens of Syria.

MODERATOR: Let’s have one more, and then we’ve got to let [Senior State Department Official] go.

QUESTION: I have a question. This is Karen. I just wondered if --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Hey, can I just ask a question, please?

QUESTION: Go ahead.

QUESTION: First, is there any dollar sign associated with the humanitarian proposal that you’re going to put forward tomorrow? Second – or is there no dollar sign? Second, (inaudible) on-the-record briefing the other day raised the possibility or helped open the door to the possibility of the United States supporting the arming of the opposition. Has the United States Government made any progress toward such a decision, and do you expect there to be any explicit discussion in the meeting tomorrow about the possibility of arming the opposition? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the first question, there are – I think the Tunisians invited 73 organizations and countries to go, and most of those have individual assistance budgets, and we’ll see what is said about a dollar amount. But I don’t think resources is the problem. It is the access, the facilities that are needed, the conditions that are needed in order to allow that to be delivered. So we’ll see what’s said tomorrow, but I would look again at what kind of message it is that we are sending to the Syrian regime rather than a dollar amount, because the constraint has not been on dollars.

The – on the second question, the focus really is, as I said, tomorrow that – on what are the elements needed to respond to the tangible needs of the Syrians on the ground – that has to do with humanitarian access; and what is needed to promote a political transition – and that is a unified message of pressure (inaudible) that its current behavior is unacceptable, and second, to work with the opposition on implementing a pragmatic, practical transition plan that disproves Bashar al-Assad’s theory that the only alternative to him is chaos and civil war.

MODERATOR: Okay. Let’s do one last one from Karen since we have (inaudible).

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. That actually was what I was going to ask. I mean, I think that a number of countries coming to this conference have expressed their individual desires to start arming the opposition. And the question is to what extent is that going to be put on the table. Or are you guys going to talk about it with the door closed and just not tell anybody?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What unifies this group tomorrow, what has brought together so many countries and organizations in sending a unified message to Bashar al-Assad about that he’s on the wrong path, is this desire for a political solution and to respond to the immediate (inaudible) of the Syrian people. That’s what brought everyone together tomorrow, and I think that’s the unified message that you’re going to see coming out of tomorrow.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you so much.

PRN: 2012/T60-03