Background Briefing on the Secretary's Trip to Amman
MODERATOR: Thank you. So this is a conference call to preview the Secretary’s trip to Amman, Jordan tomorrow for his meeting with the London 11. We have on the phone [Senior State Department Official], who will be known here forward as a Senior State Department Official, who’ll give a quick overview and then take some questions. And we’ll try to go around the room since I’m here anyway.
So [Senior State Department Official], whenever you’re ready.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. I just have a couple of things to say at the start. The Secretary’s meetings here tomorrow are part of a broader American effort that’s been ongoing especially since the Secretary took office to work with partners on Syria. So he’s again meeting the same group of countries, the same foreign ministers with whom he met in Istanbul on April 20th.
And it’s basically to review where we are on Syria, and obviously there’s going to be a discussion both about the situation on the ground in the country; I’m sure there will be a discussion of the refugee situation since the Turkish and Jordanian foreign ministers will be there. There will certainly be a discussion about Geneva, and there’ll be a discussion about what things our countries need to be doing in the days and weeks ahead. So it is part of an ongoing set of discussions. It is not by itself a particularly – it’s not a place where we’re coming to make big decisions because we’re in touch with these countries regularly anyway. So I would urge that people understand it’s part of a consultation and consensus-building effort rather than a make-or-break summit or some such thing.
Why don’t I stop there, [Moderator].
MODERATOR: Okay, great. Well, why don’t we go around. Michael, why don’t you start. Michael Gordon.
QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. Michael Gordon. At the Istanbul meeting a month ago, Secretary Kerry announced that the United States would be sending nonlethal assistance to the armed Syrian opposition that went beyond the food rations and the medical kits that are being provided. What equipment, what additional nonlethal assistance is going to be sent to the armed opposition, and when do you plan to send it since it has yet to be delivered? And who in the Syrian opposition is going to this meeting in Geneva?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: With respect to the assistance, the nonlethal assistance to the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army, we have not yet delivered the next tranche of assistance. We are continuing right now with the deliveries of food supplies and medical supplies. And in fact, today there was another delivery and there was one last week as well.
Michael, we first need to inform the Congress of what we intend to send in the next tranche, the additional assistance that Kerry announced in Istanbul. And so rather than have the Congress read about it in the New York Times, I’d like us to get our notification up to the Hill. But we will certainly be looking at doing things that will help build the Supreme Military Command’s logistical capabilities, and basically we are working with them from sort of a set of things that they have asked us to help them with. So we’ll get that notification up to Congress shortly, I hope.
With respect to Geneva and the opposition’s attendance, I don’t think any of the different opposition elements have yet announced definitively whether or not they will attend. And of course, the opposition, the political opposition, is in the middle of meetings right now in Istanbul to pick a new leadership. So we will work intensely with that new leadership in the run-up to Geneva.
QUESTION: Yes, [Senior State Department Official], Brad Klapper from AP. Can I just ask you about the situation on the ground? And I won’t try to pronounce the name of the town, but there’s been heavy fighting in – well, I’ll try – al-Qusayr. Are you worried that as time goes on planning this Geneva conference that Assad’s forces are trying to change the situation on the ground as much as possible in their benefit ahead of any future peace talks and that this will complicate chances for peace going forward?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, first let me say a couple of things about the fighting in Qusayr, which is up near Homs. It’s southwest of the city of Homs. It is the most visible effort we have seen of Hezbollah to engage directly in the fighting in Syria as a foreign force. We understand there are also Iranians up there. That is what the Free Syrian Army commanders are telling us. I think this is an important thing to note, the direct implication of foreigners fighting on Syrian soil now for the regime.
There are real concerns, Brad. We have heard from the Syrian opposition that when the regime forces go into Qusayr, if they do capture it, that there will be retaliation against the civilian population, and there are still thousands of civilians in the city. They’re especially nervous about this after the massacres committed by regime militias in Banias, which is just down the road maybe 30 minutes and where several hundreds were killed. And so it is important that the regime know that the world is watching this and we’re watching this, and we will know if they commit massacres, and we will know who it was that committed it, and they will be held accountable. And I want to make that very clear. The way the Syrians are shelling the city with civilians in it is just part of a -- (phone ringing) --
QUESTION: Keep going. Sorry.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- is reprehensible. With respect to the Syrian regime’s strategy leading up to Geneva, I would just say that we have long said – and the Secretary has said – that it is important to change Bashar al-Assad’s calculations in order to get to a political settlement and that the balance on the ground – the military balance on the ground is a huge factor in those calculations, and we understand that. And so one of the things we’ll be talking about here in Amman tomorrow is what else needs to be done with respect to the military balance on the ground.
QUESTION: It’s Arshad Mohammed of Reuters. Two things. One, Special Envoy Brahimi has said that both the opposition and the government are preparing to take part in a Geneva 2 meeting. Is that your understanding? Do you have any reason to believe that any decisions have yet been taken on either side to actually commit to coming? And secondly, can you elaborate on the reports that – you said that you understand that there are Iranians up in Qusayr. Do you have any sense of how many? Are they fighting on the ground? What are they actually doing? And how confident are you in these reports that you have?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’ll talk about the Iranians first. The source of our information about the Iranians is coming from Free Syrian Army commanders that are involved in the fighting and with whom we are in touch as well as the Hezbollah. So it is – that’s who’s claiming that there are Iranians on the ground.
With respect to the Syrian Government’s participation in the opposition, participation in Geneva, the Syrian Government has – there have been press reports, in fact, I think maybe from Reuters that the Syrian Government has named a delegation led by Prime Minister Halqi and which includes a deputy prime minister and several other ministers. For us, the important thing is to – for them to understand that the purpose of this new meeting in Geneva is to discuss how to implement fully – and I want to emphasize those words – how to implement fully the Geneva communiqué, which stipulates that there will be a transition governing body established with full executive authority, including over the military and the security apparatus and that will be established by mutual consent. I have not heard yet from the opposition definitively that they will attend. But as I said, that is – as they come out of their leadership meetings, that is something we will certainly be talking to them about.
QUESTION: Just for the record, I think our story was citing Western diplomats as saying that the Syrian Government had put forward a series of names, including the ones that you cited, the Prime Minister and so on, as a possible delegation. But I don’t think it constituted the Syrian Government themselves committing that those people would actually show up.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, so we need to wait then for Damascus to make a final announcement.
MODERATOR: All right.
QUESTION: This is David Rohde from the Atlantic and Reuters. I’m just (inaudible) following up on Arshad’s question. Can you say anything more about the Iranians, the number of Iranians?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. I can’t. I’m just relaying what I have heard from multiple commanders up in the Homs battlefield area. We’ve talked to several.
QUESTION: And you’d never heard these types of reports before? And are they fighting? Are advising, supplying anything?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I just can’t answer that question, I’m sorry. I don’t – to be very frank, I don’t have any estimates of numbers and I don’t know that they are directly involved in the fighting, but I don’t think the people that I’m talking to know that themselves. So – but they say that there is both Hezbollah on the ground as well as Iranians on the ground.
QUESTION: And just in terms of the opposition, there’s the separate meetings in Madrid that are happening. Some of the jihadist groups in the opposition are already rejecting peace talks. Are you concerned about who will go to Geneva from the opposition side and if they’ll actually represent the people fighting on the ground from the opposition?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, again, I don’t think anyone, including the people in Madrid, made a final determination about whether or not they would go to Geneva. Most of them said they will postpone any decision for a couple of weeks. This goes back to what I was saying before about leadership issues being resolved in Istanbul for the opposition coalition. And many of the groups that were in Madrid are not in the opposition coalition. They’re smaller opposition groups or conglomerations. So the delegation that would represent the opposition has not been assembled, who would participate in that delegation has not been determined, and so there’s still a great deal in play on the opposition side.
But the first thing to do is for the opposition coalition, which we and the Friends of Syria all have recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. We need that opposition coalition to resolve its leadership questions and then turn to address its stance on Geneva. First things first.
QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official], this Indira Lakshmanan from Bloomberg News. Thanks for doing this.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hi, Indira.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask – hi – I wanted to ask: So you don’t know the number of the IRGC troops on the ground and if they’re in battle or just advisory. Do you know the number of the Hezbollah troops on the ground, and again if they’re in battle or just advisory. And connected to that, can you tell us the status of the sort of “milk run” resupplies coming from Iran, what’s coming in and how often? And then just in terms of today with the Saudi Crown Prince in Turkey, are we going to be seeing aid to the rebels increase? And after the Turkish meeting with --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: With respect to the Hezbollah, I don’t have estimates of numbers. But we have reports from several of the commanders that Hezbollah fighters are directly engaged in fighting literally on the streets. They say that their men from some of these battalions of the Supreme Military Command are directly fighting Hezbollah fighters. They say, for example, that they have Lebanese accents. So they know that they’re not Syrians. But again, I don’t have any estimates of numbers.
With respect to Iranian supplies going in, we have long expressed our concern about that; it’s not something new, but it is something that we continue to press the Iraqis to inspect those planes to make sure that there are not lethal materials going in. And it’s something we will continue to watch.
Your – I’m sorry, Indira, what was your third question?
QUESTION: Yeah, I was asking about the Saudi Crown Prince in Turkey today --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, yeah.
QUESTION: -- and whether – that’s following up, obviously, on Erdogan and Obama meeting last week, and are we going to see an increase in aid to the rebels because of the Saudi visit to Turkey. Is that in the works?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What I would say is all of this happens as – within a group of countries, the Friends of Syria. And then this meeting tomorrow in Amman is to bring all of the key players in the region as well as the key partners in Europe and the United States together to talk about strategy. And so what I would suggest to you is that for sure the Saudis and the Turks have a lot of concerns about what’s going on in Syria. I don’t know if arms are directly on their agenda, but I think all of the countries that are meeting tomorrow, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have already expressed their support for a political solution. They did that in Istanbul in their joint declaration. They also expressed their strong support for helping the Supreme Military Command and General Idris as one of the things necessary to help make a political solution possible by more effectively changing the balance on the ground.
QUESTION: What about Iran coming to Geneva 2?
MODERATOR: Did you hear that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’ll be –
MODERATOR: Did you hear that, [Senior State Department Official]?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. We have long, long viewed Iran’s role in Syria as a very pernicious one, even before the Syrian revolution started. That is not a secret. Iran’s actions since the revolution has started we have also criticized steadfastly; I remember doing it when I was still at the American Embassy in Damascus. So our views about Iran and what it’s doing in Syria are well known.
The final invite list for the Geneva conference is still being worked on. We are talking to – it’ll be an issue tomorrow, I am sure, on the agenda of the 11 foreign ministers meeting here in Jordan. But also we have to talk to countries that are not here. We’ll certainly have to talk to the Russians more, and we’ll have to talk also to the United Nations because they very well will have a big role. And so that final attendance list is still under discussion and I’m not quite sure where it’s going to come out yet.
QUESTION: Anne Gearan, Washington Post. Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. Following on that, two things: How could you possibly have a conference about the meaningful future of Syria without including one of the major instrumental combatants? And secondly, are we now, based on your earlier comments about Iranian fighters being involved, looking at a proxy war? I mean, you’re talking about arming the rebels on one side and the Iranians are clearly arming the others and fighting on behalf of the others on the other side. Are we now basically in a war with Iran?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The revolution in Syria started with Syrians and Syrians are carrying the heavy burden of the fighting and the casualties – not Iran, not Hezbollah, and not a small group of foreign fighters fighting on the opposition’s side. And so I think in the end Syrians – because they’re the ones carrying all the burden and carrying the vast majority of the fighting – Syrians are going to be the ones that make the peace. And my understanding is that the Syrian Government is welcoming Iranian help and Hezbollah help. And so that Syrian Government that agrees to negotiate and implement fully the Geneva communiqué and the transition governing body’s establishment can also be the one that asks the Iranians to leave. So I do not view Iranian participation at the next Geneva session as vital.
Remind me, Anne, your second question. Oh, the proxy war? I go back to what I said. Certainly there are – foreigners are playing a role. Iran’s role and Hezbollah’s role has grown substantially over the last couple of months, very pernicious. But Syrians are shouldering the vast majority of the casualties, the vast majority of the fighting, and in the end, they’re Syrian towns or Syrian people that are getting harmed. So --
MODERATOR: Jo, are you on the phone? Oh, operator, can you see if there’s a – if you can get Jo Biddle, who’s on the phone, who may either hit the button or maybe you could just log her in here?
OPERATOR: Jo’s line is open.
MODERATOR: Hi, Jo.
QUESTION: Hello, hello. Hi, thanks very much indeed. Sorry, I decided to stay up in the room. I wanted to ask [Senior State Department Official], if I may: How confident are you that in fact this Geneva conference will go ahead? Because there seems to be still a lot of uncertainties and unknowns, and as you say, the invite list is still being worked on. And I wondered also if you could say what was the reasoning behind not inviting the Syrian opposition to tomorrow’s meeting in Amman. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: First, let me answer the second question first. The Syrian opposition has been invited to Amman, both General Idris or a representative from him for the Supreme Military Command as well as the political opposition, the opposition forces coalition. So they’ve both been invited. I’m not sure exactly yet who is attending.
With respect to how confident we are about Geneva 2, this is the most serious effort in the last two years to get the Syrian Government to sit down and negotiate with the Syrian opposition. In my experience, we haven’t seen a push that has such clear support from the Russians, from the United Nations, and from states in the region. I am not saying that it’s easy. There are lots of pitfalls and you all know them as well as I do. But I also think we have made some progress and we have identified issues that have to be resolved in order to have the conference, and we have time to work on those. So I don’t – I’m not particularly worried about where we are.
As I said, in terms of getting the opposition to the table, the first thing is for the opposition coalition to resolve its leadership questions so that then the new leaders can figure out how to use Geneva to their advantage in terms of standing up a transitional government that does not include Bashar al-Assad.
MODERATOR: Last but not least.
QUESTION: Hi, it’s Sejla with the TV pool here. Can you just briefly update us on where the Russians are in this picture given the developments of last week, with the ships in the Mediterranean and the missiles?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the Russians on the one hand strongly support, they say, holding this conference in Geneva. But on the other hand, they are continuing to deliver weapons – very modern weapons, very dangerous weapons – to the Syrian regime, and we don’t find that helpful, as you know. We have spoken publicly about that, as well as in private. So I would – I’m going to let the Russians characterize their own policy for you, but I would just say while we welcome their help in the full implementation of the Geneva communiqué and the establishment of a transitioned governing body with full executive authorities, formed by mutual consent, if they’re willing to help us on that, that’s terrific. But providing weapons to the regime at the same time doesn’t seem likely, to us, to induce a positive negotiating stance from the Syrian regime.
QUESTION: If I could just follow up, would maybe pulling those ships from the Mediterranean be a point that would move the talks forward and bring the Russians a little bit closer to the United States and the Friends of Syria?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not at all sure about that. I think what is of greater concern to the people that will be meeting here in Amman tomorrow are both Russian arms deliveries and then the Russian political support for the regime, including its support in the United Nations Security Council.
MODERATOR: All right, Indira. Only because Brad says, you get one more.
QUESTION: Oh, Brad is the --
QUESTION: Brad, you’re overruled. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: All right, so just quickly, [Senior State Department Official]: So who is supplying – how is Assad getting his hard cash right now? And on these Russian weapons supplies, is it your understanding that they’re just finishing out existing contracts or are there new contracts that are being fulfilled?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Certainly there are contracts that predate the outbreak of the Syrian revolution that the Russians are delivering equipment under. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t suspend deliveries given the extraordinary circumstances in which Syria now finds itself, but legalistically, they are correct; these are old contracts. There are many reports that we get from Syrian opposition sources of additional Russian arms deliveries. And certainly the regime is consuming prodigious amounts of military supplies right now, lots of bombs being dropped and ammunition being fired.
So where do they get their cash? Frankly, if I had a better idea, we could target it better. We have expressed our concerns to the Russians in the past about Russian banks’ interactions with the regime. I’m not saying that the Russians are bankrolling the Assad regime; I don’t think they are, but I think they do in some cases facilitate the Syrian banking sector’s access to the broader international banking sector. And so that is something we are talking to them about.
But I also think the regime is slowly running out of cash. The exchange rate in Damascus on the Syrian pound has dropped steadily. My understanding now is that it’s under 100 to the American dollar, and that suggests to us that little by little the regime’s reserves are dwindling.
MODERATOR: Okay, really the last one. Arshad, wrap it up.
QUESTION: Sorry to bother you with this one, but I still don’t understand what you think the Iranians that you are told are on the ground in Qusayr are actually doing. I mean, it just seems odd that one has no sense of whether they’re advising or fighting or arming or whether they’re just sort of bystanders.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t think they’re arming because I’ve not heard that, but I think they could be doing a little of both advising and fighting. The reports that we’re getting, Arshad, are not consistent. So what is consistent is they’re all saying that there are Iranians up there, so that is consistent. Then what they’re doing in particular, I get different reports.
What I would say is this, though: that we know that Iran and Hezbollah cooperate in a number of countries, not just in Syria. And so it is not a surprise that Iran would be there with Hezbollah on the ground. We do have consistent reports of Hezbollah fighters on the ground.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, [Senior State Department Official], for taking the time, and we’ll all see you tomorrow.