Background Briefing With Senior State Department Officials

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
En Route to Istanbul, Turkey
March 31, 2012

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: All right. We are en route from Riyadh to Istanbul with the Secretary of State for the Friends – the second meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People. This will be on background, embargoed until the Friends meeting begins tomorrow. I am Senior State Department Official Number One. Your [Senior State Department Official Two] is Senior State Department Official Number Two.

Just before we get to [Senior State Department Official Two], in addition to the Friends of the Syrian People meeting, tomorrow, the Secretary will also meet with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. She will have a meeting with Foreign Minister Davutoglu. She’ll meet with Arab League President al-Araby separately.

Take it away, [Senior State Department Official Two]. We wanted to give you the flavor of some of the things that you will be hearing about tomorrow on the four pillars of the Friends meeting that the Secretary talked about on the record today.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. You heard the Secretary talk about, sort of, the four areas, three of which are quite familiar – the pressure track, sanctions; the humanitarian assistance being the second pillar; the third being support for the opposition; and now the fourth being a move toward greater efforts toward accountability. So those are sort of the four pillars that we’re talking about.

On the sanctions, the – on the sanctions, we’ve had a number of preliminary meetings that will lead to the Friends tomorrow being able to announce the formation of a sanctions working group. The sanctions working group will be made up of key members of the Friends of the Syrian People in order to better coordinate our sanctions, to share information, to focus the pressure track. Basically, if we have information about an individual or an entity that we believe needs to be sanctioned, or perhaps we have sanction, we’ll be able to share this information with a wider audience in the sanctions working group to try to have a multiplicity of efforts – the same with the Europeans, with some of the key Arab countries, and others.

So we’re going to focus in the sanctions working group on the type of clearing house of information on who is shipping arms, money to Assad to assist him in his killing, who is evading sanctions. This will be a force multiplier. The other thing that we’re talking about is how to use publicity, media to basically name and shame those entities, individuals, countries, who are evading the sanctions. And these are the sorts of things that the sanctions working group will talk about.

On the humanitarian front, you heard us talk a lot about that and listen, tomorrow, the Secretary will announce an additional $9 million contribution to bring our total humanitarian assistance up to 25 million.

Now, the accountability pillar that we’re talking about, we’ve been comparing notes with key members of the Friends group in a – about a variety of ways to make sure that there’s proper documentation, that there’s accounting of witness records about what is happening in Syria now, so that the Syrian people, when Assad is gone, will be able to use this information in deciding how best to bring about accountability for what’s happening now.

And one of the ideas that I would listen for tomorrow is what we believe will be the announcement about an accountability initiative. The accountability initiative – that would be a clearing house for information, that would be able to store information, receive information, preserve information that can be used to bring about accountability to those that are committing the atrocities in Syria today. There’s been a lot of interest in the international community about how best to preserve the records that would be needed, whether the Syrian people eventually decide to refer these to international courts or use local methods of accountability. But the important thing is to preserve the evidence, the accounts now. And the accountability initiative should be able to do that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: One more tiny piece on that: We also envision that there’ll be a training component for Syrians in how to document these things and how to store it and evidence to prepare cases.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The final thing I want to talk about that – is the support for the opposition, because the opposition this week has taken two important steps: one, they’ve adopted a – what they’re calling, a national pact. And the idea here is to unite the Syrian opposition around a concept and a vision going forward. Even if not all the organizations merge into one, they’re talking about uniting behind an idea. The leading group, the leading engine behind this has been the Syrian National Council, but it’s not only the Syrian National Council. It’s other parts as well that came together and have kind of put together a national pact that I believe that the opposition will be talking about more tomorrow, both to the media as well as in the Friends group.

The second part of that is the SNC itself has formed a restructuring committee to bring about greater transparency to the organization. They’re doing this in response to their conversations with other parts of the opposition about what would be needed in order to bring other groups into the Syrian National Council. The Secretary herself will be talking about this in a meeting with the Syrian opposition. She’ll be meeting with five members of the Syrian opposition – she’ll be meeting together. Syrian National Council President Burhan Ghalioun, who of course she’s met twice before, once in December in Switzerland and then in February in Tunisia. She’ll be meeting with Basma Kadmani as well, who is on the executive board of the SNC. She’s been in the previous two meetings I’ve cited. She’ll also be – the meeting will also include George Sabra. George Sabra is an orthodox Christian who more recently left Syria via Jordan. He’s from the Golan area. I’ve never met him, but I hear he’s quite charismatic. And Syrians talk about him as being sort of an up-and-coming star in the Syrian opposition.

QUESTION: He’s not with SNC?


QUESTION: He’s not with the SNC?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: He’s in discussion with the SNC, but he’s part of this sort of broader Syrian opposition. He’s talked about sharing the SNC’s vision going forward.

She’s also – also in the meeting will be a professor, former professor from Damascus Univerity named Imad Din Al Rasheed. Imad Din Al Rasheed is a moderate Islamist. He was a professor of Islamic jurisprudence. He’s not with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, but he reflects a more Islamist trend of politics.

And finally, there will be a woman joining the meeting named Medea Dagastani. Medea Dagastani recently left Homs. She was a member of the local council in Homs, an activist in Homs, and she’ll be able to provide a good update on the situation on the ground in Homs.

So those, again, are the four pillars that I would listen for tomorrow in terms of the sanctions working group that the Friends are setting up, in terms of additional humanitarian contributions from us as well as from others, move – the announcement of an accountability initiative for preservation of evidence in accounts and training of Syrians of how to do that, and finally opposition – additional support for the opposition in light of their announcement of national pact, their restructuring committee, and with the Secretary meeting some additional members of the Syrian opposition.

QUESTION: What do you mean by additional support for the opposition? There was some report from the humanitarian (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The – you heard the Secretary in the press conference in Riyadh talk about the fact that we are providing assistance to the opposition, this – and to the Syrian people. And we are expanding our nonlethal assistance. There’ll be more discussions about this. Others as well are expanding their assistance to the opposition. Much of the discussion today, in fact, in Riyadh on Syria was about what some of the Gulf states are doing and plan to do regarding support for the opposition.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the statement was weakened because the original version that we saw mentioned the regime by name or – the regime – and in this, it just says, given the urgency, blah blah blah, they urge the joint envoy to determine a timeline for next steps if the killing continues. So the next – it sounds like --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: What earlier version did you see?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, this was – Jill that – don’t overread it. It was a drafting problem. At the top of that paragraph, it calls for the regime to halt immediately, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Halt (inaudible) immediately.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So the change that was made was just to clarify that the next steps we’re expecting are out of the special envoy if, in fact, we don’t have a meeting of the commitments that Assad has made. It was a drafting clarification.

QUESTION: The restructuring committee to the opposition, is it – was it a U.S. suggestion? And is it in any way a reflection of your concern about the defections that they’ve seen recently?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: A number of us have been working with the Syrian opposition – Syrian National Council primarily, but not exclusively. But the motivation came primarily from the conversations the Syrian National Council itself was having with other parts of the Syrian opposition about what would be needed to bring more people under the umbrella of the SNC. And one of the statements was, frankly, you need to have some more transparency in there. And so – and for example, one of the people the Secretary will see tomorrow – the professor I mentioned, Imad Din Al Rasheed – is not a member of the SNC, but he is on the restructuring committee. So it’s a way for others to participate who aren’t yet in the SNC, who may want to join the SNC depending on how the restructuring committee goes.

QUESTION: But you have a real problem with him, don’t you? I mean, the Secretary is calling for the exact same thing from them that she was a month ago. And in that time, you’ve seen them lose significant members. I mean, there’s been an erosion in there, and not any sort of building up of it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think you saw two important things this week. As I mentioned, one was this adoption of a national pact, which I hope they’ll talk about tomorrow, which is a vision statement. And the second is this restructuring committee.

The important thing, in my view, is that a vision be projected that the Syrians can unite around whether they are inside Syria or outside Syria. I don’t think it’s as important you have one organization if you have people all working for the same goal. We all know they’re working for the same goal of removing Bashar al-Assad and stopping the killing. That goal’s fairly easy. But what they’ve tried to do is to articulate a vision that’s more detailed than that, that’s practical, that can attract people in broader numbers for very specific goals.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: If I could add to this, remember that you heard the Secretary say (inaudible) her first meeting with them in December that among the things she felt that they needed to do was to make clear that this was going to be an inclusive movement, an inclusive organization where there was a place for Sunni, Alawi, Druze, Christians, women, minorities to set out in writing how the Syria that they want to see in the future would protect all those rights. So the hope and expectation is, as they put down in writing what they stand for, it can serve as something that everybody can join up to.

QUESTION: But to go back to the question, a month ago, you guys were praising them for doing exactly that in Tunis.

QUESTION: They did put out a statement.

QUESTION: They had this big (inaudible), and they talked about it, and here we are a month later saying, “Oh, boy, restructuring, they’re laying out their vision.” I mean, either we’ve gone two steps back or we’ve gone nowhere.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I simply disagree with that, Steve. They had a big conference in Istanbul this week. There are a lot of differences among people for personality reasons, for ideological reasons, for historical reasons. You’ve got people from the left, people from the right, people from the secular group, and people from the Islamic groups, people who believe that the Kurdish part should be – should have some sort of federated status, other people who don’t.

But what they do agree on is that Syria needs to have a future that’s different from the one now, that the Syrian people need to be able to elect their leaders. They need to have their leaders accountable to them. And if you have an organization that says we have – our goal is – our very specific parochial goal is this, so we don’t want to join the SNC because they don’t accept whatever this little particular goal is, but boy, we like this plan because we’ll be able, in the – in democratic Syria to be able to assert our views through the ballot box, through normal political demonstrations, political activities, we can’t do now because Bashar al-Assad’s killing us, I don’t think that’s a bad outcome. And that’s what they were doing in Istanbul this week, was coming up with a vision that is building on what the SNC’s done before.

If you remember what Burhan Ghalioun talked about in Tunisia, what he did was he appealed to people. You remember there was a very moving part of his speech where he talked about the Christians, that if a Christian leaves Syria, a part of Syria dies. That’s – that was an appeal. What they’ve done now is they’ve gone before – beyond that to talk about the principles that will govern the next state beyond simply that it will be multiethnic and all that. They’re talking about elections, constitutional drafting. They’re talking about the practical steps that you need to take to bring about a type of Syria that the Syrians are saying that they want.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It’s going to look a lot more like the transition plan that we saw at a certain stage in Libya.

QUESTION: The plan’s called the accountability initiative. Is that supposed to --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)


QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: In Libya, is the accountability initiative supposed to document – is that at all rooted in a concern that there are going to be or there have been abuses on the part of the rebels as well? Is that at all rooted in concerns about abuses on the part of the rebels as well? Will this also document on that side? And you’ve mentioned that this could be used in local or international courts maybe at some point. Is this moving towards charting out a process for Bashar al-Assad or members of his regime to be tried, like at The Hague or something like that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, let me say something on the policy first. It’s clearly the policy of the – of Bashar al-Assad to kill, murder, maim, torture, jail his people. That’s the policy of the Assad government as reflected in the actions on the ground every day. There have been abuses on the opposition side too that have been denounced by – firmly by opposition leaders from across the opposition spectrum. They have reiterated their opposition to this. It is not a policy of the opposition, and they take action when reports of abuses come up. So I think there’s a really big difference between what the policy that the – that Bashar al-Assad has adopted and individual incidents of abuse, all of which we abhor, but there’s a whole difference there.

And what the accountability initiative should be doing, is going – is intended to do is, as State Department Official Number One said – (laughter) --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: -- train people. How do you document stuff that can be used later. How do you record it? How do you preserve it? What information can you collect from others that we might have, that other countries may have, that neighbors may have, so that you can do it later, so that you can use it later? Ultimately, the question of accountability is going to rest with the Syrian people. They are going to decide what is the best way to use this information to bring about accountability. Accountability is an important concept. We’re all on record of supporting this. But we must be doing this in consultation with the Syrian people themselves.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think, just to add one point to that, the additional value of standing up an initiative on accountability where it is the international community supporting the Syrians is to put everybody inside Syria – primarily regime forces, but also if there’re abuses committed on the other side – on notice that there are eyes on them and that they will not be able to do this with impunity. This is further to the point the Secretary has also been making to the Assad generals and foot soldiers, that they should stop obeying orders to shoot, because it will be known and they will be held to account.

QUESTION: And I understand accountability, humanitarian – the vision forward. These things are all premised on the notion that some sort of ceasefire or political path is going to come – become evident. In the event – and in the likelihood, I would even argue – that Assad continues just killing people, what is going to be done to enhance the defensive capacity of these rebels, who, outside the politicians in the SNC, they’re the frontline now of defending this kind of post-Assad idea?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I would make two points now. One is that all these things we’re talking about are important whether there’s a ceasefire tomorrow or not. One hopes that Kofi Annan’s going to be able to bring this out. I don’t think he will tomorrow. But these things are all important, whatever happens on the ground.

But second, I don’t think any of us can – I think all of us understand the Syrian people’s attempts for self-defense. I mean, if you’re facing this kind of brutality day after day after day, I don’t think any of us is particularly surprised by self-defense. None of us can object to the idea of self-defense. There was a lot of discussion today between the Secretary and her Gulf counterparts about what is the right mix of tools in order to protect the Syrian people and get to an end of the bloodletting that Bashar is inflicting every day. But I really don’t have much more right now on this.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think we’re going to continue to have this conversation over the next days. Let’s take --

QUESTION: At any point, does it become – is there a moral imperative at any point to somehow actively support a defensive – if armed, but still defensive effort to preserve life in the community?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t think we have anything further on this one to what the Secretary said on the record today. Let’s do two more.

QUESTION: The – two things. The – one, when Saud Al Faisal said and the Secretary also said that each country has different tasks, can you talk a bit about what that means in terms of the explicit – the Saudis saying explicitly, yes, they need weapons to defend themselves? And secondly, when you talk about a timeline for the Annan plan, a timeline for what? Does that mean a deadline? What – a timeline after which what?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Let me take the second question first. I think Kofi Annan would be the – I don’t want to put words in his mouth – I think he would be the first to admit – okay, start over. Without wanting to put words in Kofi Annan’s mouth, I think he would see the same problem that all of us would see, is that nobody wants to let Bashar al-Assad use any kind of diplomatic initiative to basically run the clock out and let him continue to butcher his own people.

Assad has said he accepts Kofi Annan’s six-point plan. The opposition has said they accept Kofi Annan’s six-point plan. We have the Security Council on record, through a presidential statement, supporting Annan’s six-point plan. It’s time for Bashar to implement that six plan – six-point plan now because the burden on initiating the implementation rests on Bashar. So the reference in the GCC-U.S. statement today was the sort of “Well, what if” hypothetical that we always don’t – we don’t usually answer, but the hypothetical “What if Bashar doesn’t start implementing what he said he would do immediately?”

And of course, why are we asking that and why are we talking about that? It’s because Bashar has proven time and time again that he makes promises he doesn’t implement. And the point – the reference of that timeline was a suggestion that, at some point, we’re going to have to talk about the other steps if he doesn’t do what he says he’s going to do.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think that wraps up what we have on background.

PRN: 2012/T61-04