Background Briefing on Syria

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Official
The Conrad Hotel
Istanbul, Turkey
April 21, 2013

MODERATOR: All right. Well, we’ll just kick this off with just a quick overview of yesterday. I know that’s of interest to you guys and just a quick overview of what we announced, then open it up to questions, and I think we have a somewhat limited amount of time, but we’ll get to as many as we can.

That’s you. You’re the speaker.

QUESTION: You’re the overview.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, I’m going to give an overview. I guess the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet. Well, a couple of things I would say on this. We understand that the situation in Syria is really bad. The civilian casualties are climbing steadily, and it’s exceptionally – it’s just exceptionally concerning. Estimates now of dead are going over 80,000. The regime continues to use SCUD missiles. There are allegations of chemical weapons use, refugee flows, growth of extremists. So the Turks suggested having this meeting. We readily agreed, and we – there was both a part of the meeting where the Secretary talked to his counterparts about working together, coordinating strategies, coordinating tactics, and then also an extended session last night with the ministers.

QUESTION: Over-extended session.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Hyper-extended session. But it was – in context – I’ll be very frank in a sec – a detailed session with the Syrian opposition and also for the first time with General Idris and the Syrian military command. He gave a very detailed briefing to the ministers about the military situation province by province. Very – and then he talked about what they need, what are their problems. In contrast to the other meetings that we have held of this nature, this one was by far the most frank, by far the most substantive in terms of the discussion back and forth. I think it was very useful, extremely useful. Let’s see how it plays out on the ground.

We’ve also then gone forward with notifying Congress of our intent to provide additional assistance to both the political opposition coalition as well as General Idris and the Supreme Military Command. So if the Congress agrees, we’ll move forward on those programs.

Maybe I’ll just add one last thing. Part of the discussion late last night was with the opposition coalition and Ghassan Hitto, whom they’ve named as their Prime Minister and is working on getting assistance into areas where the government is no longer in control, liberated areas. And so we had a discussion there about the assistance that we are providing and that we hope to provide if the Congress approves and how to make sure that we’re all working in the same direction on that. So can I stop there?


QUESTION: Was Hitto in the original meeting, the session with the SOC during the day?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Not all of them were with the Secretary in the first meeting we had, so we carried the meeting over into the session late last night. I think of it is as, like, one big, long meeting.

QUESTION: But I mean does that speak to the whole idea that Hitto and Khatib and just despite your best efforts, these guys, while making progress, absolutely just still are not unified and that speaks to the larger issues that you were addressing in the session about Qatar supporting one candidate and just the fact that these guys are still not presenting a unified front that would be in the –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think – I understand your question, and there is no question that has been a problem. I don’t think it’s been as crippling a problem as you might suggest with your question, but it has been a problem. It’s a problem because there are questions about other countries’ commitments to help the coalition and to help General Idris, and I think we got firm reaffirmations of all of these countries in the joint declaration. You’ll see strong support for both the opposition coalition, the goals of the opposition coalition, reaffirmation of its role, and then also reaffirmation of the role of the Supreme Military Council with General Idris and his officers. In the evening meeting, Khatib was present with Ghassan Hitto. In fact, all of their senior leadership was there, the entire presidency council plus Hitto, and that’s where we had a very substantive discussion on the assistance programs as well as both our next steps in terms of our assistance and some of the diplomatic work that we’re going to do, and then they talked about things that they’re going to do in terms of leadership. The Secretary encouraged them to take advantage of an upcoming meeting they have of their general assembly to work on resolving leadership disputes.

QUESTION: Just one quick follow-up –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Do you know about the general assembly meeting?



SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Do you know what the general assembly of the opposition coalition is?





MODERATOR: Matt, behave. It’s been –

QUESTION: Meeting of Libyans and Tunisians. (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Do you have a second guess? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Just one quick follow-up on this meeting. Was that with just the – your delegation, or that was with all the –


QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The general assembly is sort of – I think it of it as like a parliament. But it’s obviously not electing (inaudible). But it’s a –

MODERATOR: But on the meeting – oh, sorry to interrupt – but you told me earlier, which may be helpful to them, that it was a continuation, because they – yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. We just didn’t finish the first meeting. We ran out of time.

QUESTION: This was the late, late, late, late meeting –


QUESTION: -- just with Kerry.

QUESTION: But General Idris was not at the late meeting, because General Idris does not like to –


QUESTION: -- sit with Hitto, right?


QUESTION: Would that be a fair statement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But we weren’t talking about military strategies in the meetings between the – the coalition does political and assistance issues. General Idris is very much focused on the military side. Secretary Kerry was addressing the political and assistance sides of the issue.

MODERATOR: And General – and he was not in the earlier meeting that this was a continuation of.

QUESTION: So what’s the general assembly, and when is it meeting?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The general assembly is like their proto-parliament, if you will. And it is the one that makes bid decisions on things like naming of a prime minister. They are the ones that vote to confirm it. They are the ones who would, when the term of a president of the coalition concludes the six-month term, they are the ones that elect a new president. Khatib’s term is ending in about three weeks, so they’re going to have to decide on a successor to Khatib. They need to resolve that. It shouldn’t hang out there. The Secretary urged them to resolve these kinds of issues. There’s also a discussion of whether or not to expand the size of that body from 61 to about 75. I want to be clear we, the Americans, have not taken a position, good idea, bad idea, but we have said: Resolve the issue. Don’t keep arguing about it.

QUESTION: And when is – when, where is the meeting?


QUESTION: When and where is –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, I don’t know the place. In the past, they’ve usually done the meetings here in Istanbul. They told us the end of April.


QUESTION: One quick thing, some of the opposition figures in the past – at least in the G-8 context had talked about setting up an interim government in the liberated areas of Syria. Is that something the U.S. thinks is an advisable idea, and did they discuss that at this session, or have they put that aside?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, they – that is very much the intent of Ghassan Hitto. He has not yet named ministers, and this general assembly I was talking about has to approve the ministers if I understand their bylaws correctly. And he has said that they would work on managing with the local councils in these towns that have been liberated civil administration, whether that be health, education, repairing infrastructure, food supplies, et cetera. I’m going to leave to you – you can ask Ghassan Hitto himself where they hope to set up, but I would say that they are setting up now numerous offices in Gaziantep in Turkey, which is right off – well, you’ve been –

QUESTION: So the U.S. thinks that’s a good idea?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we think it is important. I don’t want to get into what you call this. We have not recognized it as the Syrian Government. We have recognized the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and we will work with Prime Minister Hitto. Our assistance will be channeled in large part through him and his team into these towns in liberated parts of Syria. I want to mention one other thing. I don’t know how much detail you guys want, but do you know what the assistance coordination unit of the coalition is?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. That’s Suheir Atassi, and she was in these meetings, and so we also talked to her about what they’re doing. She will continue, but outside of Ghassan Hitto’s interim government, and they’re still working out the final details, but what we understand is that she will act as a coordinating body for receiving assistance and sort of getting a sense of both what kinds of finances are available from the international community, what part is going to humanitarian assistance, and what part goes into Ghassan Hitto’s different ministries.

QUESTION: In terms of the SOC’s –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Can I just add one thing on this? But – I don’t know how many of you have been covering Syria forever. We asked back in November five months – six months ago – we asked the opposition coalition to start organizing as an organization, not just a group of guys. I can remember some of these leaders when we talked to them about building an organization would respond to us about how they were going to create Facebook pages. Six months have gone by. They have now developed a much more sophisticated organization. They have hundreds of people now working for them in places like Gaziantep and Istanbul. They’re now setting up offices in other countries – Cairo, Jordan. They’re helping move eight in. We are working directly with them. For example, those 50 bakeries that we supply flour to in Aleppo, they helped us find them and get the stuff to them. Six months have gone by. This is a much more – it’s a much larger, and it’s a much more developed organization than it was back in November. It’s not perfect. It’s got a long, long way to go, but when I compare now with what it looked like in November when I had to keep saying to them, “This is not about Facebook pages; this is about hiring people and setting up structures,” they’ve come quite a distance.

QUESTION: In terms of the opposition statement that came out last night, the one – the post-meeting statement, would it be incorrect to assume that there was a Western, U.S., or European hand in the language about rejecting extremism and pledges of pluralism and inclusivity? And also was the bit about we promise to use any weapons we get in the way that they were intended to be used and they’ll all be returned, was that intended to assuage certain European countries that are not really onboard yet with easing the embargo? And if it was, do you think it worked?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s language that the Syrians developed. We didn’t throw that out there and say, “Put this in.”

QUESTION: You didn’t suggest that when you go request –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This – no, actually we did not.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We did not. I have to tell you we did not.

QUESTION: So the word use of very –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it, frankly, and it shows me that they understand concerns in the West about extremism as do – (phone ringing) – sorry. Let me just shut my phone off. Sorry. It’s my French colleague. Everybody’s flying out today, so we’re all saying good-bye. They are very sensitive to the concerns. So there is the paragraph in their statement about rejecting extremism and rejecting radicalism and terrorism. There’s the part there – they obviously want the arms embargo in Europe lifted. I mean, that’s not a secret. I do not want to speculate about whether or not the Europeans are going to lift the arms embargo, but I certainly know it’s a subject of debate right now within European diplomatic discussions.

QUESTION: Well, that’s good, because you are the (inaudible) Syria. And if everyone else knows it, then you should know it as well. But you get the (inaudible) from Hague over what (inaudible) or anyone that they think that this language is going to be enough to – we’re on background, so I assume that you don’t have a problem giving us an impression of what other people were thinking. Did you get any impression –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think some countries are more forward-leaning than others, and not all of the countries that have hesitations were in the meeting last night. And so you’re asking me to speculate on the reactions of some countries that weren’t even in the meeting, and I’m not going to do it.

QUESTION: Well, let’s talk about the Germans. They were there.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Again, the Germans, expressed concerns about the growth of extremism in Syria and in the ministerial meetings – all of us did. It was not just the Germans. We did, too. The Syrians were sensitive to it. Idris specifically talked about that during his briefing of the situation on the ground. Idris emphasized that they do not work with Nusra, his command. He also emphasized that in his opinion, many of the recruits who joined Nusra and other extremist groups, the young Syrians who joined are not themselves committed Islamists, but they do it because they can get food and supplies from them for their fight against the regime. And he said, “We are the alternative.” I’m not going to go beyond that in terms of what the German reaction is. Ask the Germans.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official].


QUESTION: I understand there were some disagreements within the coalition about a number of things, including Nusra, and without asking you to tell tales out of school, could you just tell us a little bit about where the differences lie and what you’re doing to resolve them?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Differences within the Syrian Opposition Coalition?

QUESTION: Within the Friends.


QUESTION: Friends, the 11.

QUESTION: Friends.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All of the countries agree that terrorist groups and al-Qaida are a threat to their own security and to regional security. There is no question about that, and I really want to underline that. All of the 11 countries, not just this meeting, but in other discussions we’ve had bilaterally, everyone agrees on that. The question then becomes two things. First, I won’t hide, there was some disagreement among some countries about the wisdom of the Americans publicly putting Nusra on our terrorism list in December. Some of the countries have said tactically that was a mistake. They don’t disagree with the substance of the decision, but they think that the public announcement was a mistake because they say it helped increase Nusra’s ability to recruit.

QUESTION: So they would have elected to do it in secret?


QUESTION: (Inaudible) work that way.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s what we have said, and we have also said it’s important to highlight to people what Nusra is. It’s not an accident that the guy in Baghdad came out and said, “We are merging,” and it’s not an accident that Julani then said, “We are loyal to Ayman Zawahiri.” This is all connected. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is all of the countries are committed – and you see that in the joint communiqué – to a political solution and a transition government where Bashar al-Assad will have no rule – Bashar al-Assad and his clique of people. There are disagreements about whether or not these groups – these extremist radical groups, terrorist groups like Nusra, inside Syria are a useful tool in terms of bringing down Assad. We think and we firmly believe that extremism within the ranks of those trying to bring down Assad, that extremism is very unhelpful in terms of finding a sustainable political solution in Syria, which is why we put them on our terrorism list, and it’s why we argue now that the opposition coalition needs to clearly reject and demarcate itself from extremists in the Syrian opposition.

MODERATOR: We have time for one or two more here.

QUESTION: Could you talk about two things in that respect? Give us a little flavor of the discussion that obviously, just within the core group that obviously went on for somewhat longer than it was anticipated. And secondly, it’s clear that a lot of the resources that come to al-Nusra and other groups come not from governments but as always happens from individuals and others who believe it serves their interests. What do you think the real effectiveness on the ground would be? If you have a country in particular, and Secretary Kerry in his testimony last week made a reference to the one exception to the great agreement –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Can – do I have time to give them a bit of a story?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I met a very senior Free Syrian Army commander from one of the provinces with the heaviest fighting. I don’t want to give his name, but I met him here in Istanbul a couple of days ago. And so we were talking about our nonlethal assistance that’s about to start flowing in. And exactly your question, what will the impact be? And he told me a story where he’s fighting and he’s got thousands of people under his command. He’s one of the provincial military commanders. He said Salim Idris has not had as many resources day to day and week to week as some – I’ve got to put it this way. This is what he said. He said, “Some of my men through their own connections, family and friends, know people in the Gulf, business people who can literally get them millions of dollars in cash within a few days.” And he said, “Salim Idris, it takes much longer.” And he said, “Your help to Salim Idris isn’t going fast enough.” He said, “Do I wait for the Salim Idris? How do I tell my guys, ‘Wait for the stuff from Salim Idris. Don’t take that money from that business guy who is backed by an Islamist network’?” So this is what I meant when I was talking in –

QUESTION: So what was your answer?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, let me just finish. When I say that there’s been – there’s a competition between moderates and extremists in the Syrian opposition, this is part of it. It’s not the only part, but this is a big part of it. And so we have to help the moderates, people like Salim Idris, who very clearly in the meeting last night said: We accept the importance of finding a political solution. We accept the importance of providing safety to all the minorities that are afraid of what would happen post-Assad. We accept that we must be held to the standards of universal human rights. It’s in their declaration, international human rights all. We accept that we must not be blocking aid shipments. There are armed opposition groups who have delayed delivery of humanitarian supplies. Idris said: We understand that’s not acceptable, and we have to stop that. And in the cases where we have brought it to SMC commanders’ attention, they have physically gone to the place where the blockage is and told the young men, “Let this convoy through.”


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But they themselves need to have more influence, but they get the influence by being able to deliver supplies.

QUESTION: But just to follow up on that, giving more to Idris doesn’t necessarily mean giving less to the radicals.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we have – that’s a separate problem that we have to work on.

QUESTION: And going back to the first part of my question, can you characterize it all, this lengthy discussion that went on yesterday evening that led to the declaration that said all of us will only give our aid through the SMC?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, some countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar – this is think tanks in Washington have put out reports on this. Go look at Joe Holliday on Institute for Study of War – some countries have been providing assistance directly to groups – fighting groups in Syria. And these – I’m talking about governments here, not private businessmen like that provincial military command I was talking about the other day – to groups outside of the chain of command of Salim Idris and the SMC. In the case of Qatar, they’ve – Joe’s assessment and I agree with it – is they have actually provided assistance to groups that are not in the Syrian military command structure. So we wanted to everybody to reconfirm that the SMC is the vehicle by which military assistance will be delivered into Syria.

MODERATOR: Can I tell you one unrelated thing? And there’s one more – we’ll take one more question. We changed the schedule a little bit today, so things – the press avail will be delayed – I think it’s, what, by an hour? By an hour. The back story on this –

QUESTION: Until when?

MODERATOR: Till four o’clock. Four o’clock. Let me check.

QUESTION: So the idea is to get into Brussels as late as possible so we can’t have –

MODERATOR: Let me tell you – (laughter ) – you can have a late dinner, Matt. I know you’re a night owl.

QUESTION: A dinner (inaudible) Brussels.

MODERATOR: The back story on this is that at the last meeting last night, the late night meeting, Davutoglu asked the Secretary to – because they have a meeting this afternoon as you all know, to come out on a vote with him. So they’re going on a (inaudible).

QUESTION: So we’re all going?

MODERATOR: No. But they will be. So it just takes a little longer, so that’s the reason. So just so you all know.


PRN: 2013/T04-03