Background Briefing by Senior State Department Official on Syria

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Conrad Hotel
Istanbul, Turkey
June 7, 2012

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So we are in Istanbul. I am Senior State Department Official on background discussing the ad hoc meeting with colleagues on Syria that the Secretary attended tonight on the margins of the counterterrorism forum tomorrow.

The Secretary’s message to the group included three key elements along the lines of what she’s been saying throughout the week. Her first message was that the international community has got to be united in our understanding of the key elements of the post-Assad political transition strategy. We can’t break faith with the Syrian people who want real change.

So tonight, the Secretary laid out a set of essential elements and principles which we believe should guide that post-Assad transition strategy, including Assad’s full transfer of power, the establishment of a fully representative and inclusive interim government which leads to free and fair elections, a ceasefire to be agreed to and observed by all, and equality for all Syrians under the law. So that was the first element of her message, talking about unity and the elements of a political transition strategy post-Assad.

Second, given the continuing, horrific violence including today in Latakia and in Hama, the group obviously talked about continuing to increase the pressure on the Assad regime and on those who still support it. They endorsed, all of them, the work in Washington today by the sanctions working group of the Friends of the Syrian People Group, which looked at how to tighten existing sanctions and how we can add more in coming days and weeks. The Secretary obviously underscored how essential this aspect of the strategy is, particularly with regard to our effort to peel support away from Assad, both by the military who continue to obey his orders and by the business community that continues to support him. A number of countries around the table discussed the Arab League call for a Chapter 7 resolution in the UN Security Council. The Secretary made clear that Chapter 7 remains on the table at an appropriate time.

The third element that was discussed was the necessity of improving coordination among those countries who are providing direct assistance to the political opposition in Syria, and the group instructed their experts to meet mid-month in Istanbul, so middle of June in Istanbul, to discuss this along with representatives of the Syrian political opposition. The Turks will again be hosting.

So those were the three aspects that were discussed tonight. In addition, the French announced that they will host a full meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People on July 6th in Paris. Our expectation is that the Secretary will attend. And --

QUESTION: When you say France, you’re in Paris?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In Paris, in Paris, in Paris. You’re thinking Provence, maybe? You were hoping? (Laughter.)

So this was obviously the set of points and issues that were discussed by all the ministers, and certainly the three key elements of the Secretary’s message today. We will be talking about these issues as well when the Security Council meets tomorrow to hear Kofi Annan’s report in New York. And then, as you know, the Secretary will have a chance to see Joint Special Envoy Annan in Washington on Friday.

The final point is, as some of you have reported, the Secretary’s asked her Special Representative on Syria, Fred Hof, to visit Moscow. He’ll be there with the consultations tomorrow, and he’ll be talking about all these same ideas as well.

QUESTION: He’ll be in Moscow tomorrow?


QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], do you see any sign of genuine shift by the Russians? I mean, the people – the Russians (inaudible) support, but is there anything substantive that makes the Russians – makes people believe the Russians may be moving?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, as you know, the Secretary talked to Foreign Minister Lavrov – let’s see, it was the day – almost a week ago now. She made clear that we want to work with Russia, as she’s been saying, but that we’ve got to have a common vision of what this post-Assad political strategy would look like. He committed to working on this together, and it’s in that context that Fred Hof will be going to Moscow to get a sense of how close we are. And she’ll obviously look forward to talking to Lavrov further after that.

QUESTION: Can I just ask – I’m just looking, and it looks like international unity, increasing the pressure, possible Chapter 7, coordinated assistance, and Assad must go. What is new in this set of principles that hasn’t been articulated before?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You’re talking about of her elements and principles for the transition?

QUESTION: Of the whole discussion tonight.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, again, the primary thing – point that the Secretary’s been making this week in particular is that we have all been hoping, expecting, pressuring Assad to live up to his commitment to meet Kofi Annan’s six points. In the absence of any significant movement by Assad on any of the tracks, and in fact increased violence, it’s time for the international community, working with the Syrian people, to start fleshing out the alternatives to Assad and how this is going to go. So that was the main focus, as she said. And tonight, she actually put down these elements and principles so that we can have unity around it, so that the Syrian people can begin to see this post-Assad path, and so that the inevitability of that will start to become a reality.

Now with regard to the sanctions, you remember that when we had the last full-blown Friends of the Syrian People meeting, we created this working group. The working group met today. We believe that these sanctions are biting, and we believe that the work that we are doing together to close the loopholes, to work together on new aspects of vulnerability and pressure, is paying, that having the sanctions experts from all of these governments together on a regular basis is an essential part of the strategy.

And then on the third element, with regard to the political opposition, the last time that this group got together, they compared notes on the different steps that different governments were taking to support the opposition. We’re now talking about formalizing the coordination we have among us and working with the opposition in a more coordinated way to help them be more united.

QUESTION: But none of – but, I mean, just to pick up on Brad’s point – but none of this kind of addresses really what the Secretary has been saying – is, like, some of your main concerns about why you can’t take more robust action. I mean, these – you – these elements to oppose Assad traditionally have always been a full – the full transfer of power, a fully representative – she’s been talking about these things for months.

And some of your concerns such as the opposition isn’t organized, it doesn’t – the opposition itself doesn’t have a common vision, we’re worried about a civil war, all of these things, the Russians are the problem, we need to get the Russians on board – I mean, none of this, in my view or, I’m sure, anyone else’s, kind of changes the psychological – or balance of power on the ground that’s going to make him think that things have changed. And it doesn’t sound like you think that the Russians have even agreed that he needs to go, and whether he should – whether that should be spelled out in any concrete way.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Is there a question here, Elise? Is there a question?

QUESTION: What do you think of all that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We put forward the Kofi plan. He agreed to the Kofi plan. He hasn’t implemented the Kofi plan. So obviously, we’ve got to both increase the pressure on him, which is what we’ve been doing steadily, but the effort now is becoming increasingly organized, increasingly effective, increasingly strong, and that’s what the Sanctions Working Group was about. That’s what this group is focused on, on the sanctions track.

With regard to the political transition, we’ve been saying, in general terms, there needs to be a political transition. We are now starting the conversation in extremely concrete terms about how that must look if we are going to get – if we’re going to keep faith with the Syrian people and we’re going to manage a positive democratic transition that is inclusive, that is tolerant, that creates a place for all Syrians, and that gives Syrians confidence and gives all members of the international community confidence that Syria is going to be a better place without Assad. So that is the main enhanced line of work, if you will, that was a stated aspiration before and is now becoming concrete work to articulate this transition plan.

So she’s put forward her ideas. We’re talking about it. Other countries have different understandings of what it’s going to take, but our view is without all of these essential elements that I’ve articulated, that she’ll talk about in more detail tomorrow, that we’ll talk about in New York, and everybody agreeing to those – Syrian and international alike – some of those people who’ve been on the fence in Syria don’t know what to expect, and some in the international community who’ve had different expectations or a different appreciation of how this could go, we hope will join this conversation about a principled, clear, orderly transition.

With regard to the opposition, as we said, the last time we met, we compared notes on what everybody was doing. Now we’re setting up a concrete, coordinating mechanism to make this more effective.

QUESTION: Will – this whole effort seems to be predicated on, as you said, working with the opposition in a more organized way. But does that mean that you will be formally recognizing a group? Or have you seen marked progress in Fred Hof’s efforts to get them to work together in a more coordinated way?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think in terms of the groups that we’re working with, this is part of it, that there are many different groups. Some of them are working together. Others are working loosely together. And others are trying to decide. Different countries have worked more closely with some groups than with others. So again, this speaks to the importance of having a stronger coordinating mechanism so we can help all of the Syrians talk to each other, and we can ensure that all of the contacts that we are having across the spectrum are also well coordinated, as are our support efforts.

QUESTION: Did all the countries in the room essentially agree that now was the start of a transition plan, a planning phase or something?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, I’m briefing based on a brief to me, but my understanding was that there was a strong sense in the room that we’ve got to have unity on the elements of this transition strategy, and that this has to be a common message from this group about what it’s going to take.

QUESTION: But that hasn’t been reached yet before --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This was a conversation. This wasn’t – we weren’t negotiating treaty text here. We were preparing to have this conversation with more countries to broaden the group that sees it this way, that kind of thing.

Okay, guys.

# # #

PRN: 2012/T64-14