Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Trip to Geneva
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So glad to have you onboard as we head to Geneva. So we are headed to Geneva for a meeting with a Russian delegation led by Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Obviously, our delegation is led by the Secretary of State John Kerry. And you may wonder why we are going to Geneva and why we are doing this right now. On and off, actually, for the past year there have been discussions with the Russians about the CW issue, as we have had discussions with other governments about the CW issue, because everyone understood that if we could get to a political solution, if we could get to the end of the civil war in Syria, we would need to deal with the chemical weapons stockpiles, productions, precursor chemicals, et cetera, in Syria. So we have had discussions.
However, as you all well know, as the President of the United States, as he discussed in his statement last night, in his speech last night, as we have had on the table a credible threat of strikes against Syria for the horrific events of August 21st when more than a thousand Syrians were gassed by the Assad regime and including hundreds of children, that we not only wanted to hold Assad accountable but we wanted to uphold the international norm and make sure that other countries didn’t get an idea that they could use chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction without being held accountable in some way.
We believe strongly that that credible threat of military strikes is a great deal of the reason why the Russians and Putin, (inaudible) to the New York Times here, but in the New York Times today has now written an op-ed that they are, in fact, coming forward with this proposal to have an international solution the chemical weapons issue.
So we are heading to Geneva with a large delegation across our government, as are the Russians, to, in fact, talk about the CW issue in Syria and see if, in fact, we can test whether there is a credible and authentic way forward here, that the Russians mean what they say, as importantly, probably more importantly, that Assad means what he says, and that, in fact, we can move forward with a program that is verifiable, that can happen expeditiously, so that Assad cannot have access to and continue to use chemical weapons against his own people.
We are not going to negotiate a UN resolution. That is happening in New York. There are consultations both with the P-3 as we normally do and with the P-5. But undoubtedly, the discussions we have will inform an ultimate UN Security Council resolution.
There are very, very complicated and difficult substantive issues. [Senior State Department Official Two], who is here with me, can detail some of the other places where the world has cleaned up chemical weapons. But it is doable but difficult and complicated.
So we will talk with the Russians about the scope of the problem. We will talk with the Russians about the different modalities for the destruction of chemical weapons, production facilities, precursor chemicals. We will talk with the Russians about how you monitor and verify what one has done. And we will talk with the Russians about the security that is needed to accomplish this, because of course, if we accomplish this – the international community – we are doing so in a non-permissive environment, which makes it even tougher than it already is. And I’m sure we will talk about how expeditiously this can be done, what the timelines are, how to monitor, verify, enforce, et cetera.
A lot of content to go over, a lot of ways and places to see where we agree, where we disagree, have our experts share their understandings, and see if by the end of this time that we are together, which will at least be tomorrow evening and Friday and quite likely into Saturday, we will have a sense of perhaps an outline of what a way forward might look like, where more homework needs to be done because of the complexity of this undertaking. And we will take this information back into our colleagues with the French, with the British, of course ultimately with the Chinese, with other members of the Security Council and the international community to see whether, in fact, quite quickly we can find out whether we, in fact, have a way forward here to deal with Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
MODERATOR: Great. We have time for a few questions. James.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for doing this briefing. Two questions that are really separate from each other, if I may. James Rosen with Fox News.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hi.
QUESTION: The first is that if you read President Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, you see that he is still maintaining the position that it might have been the rebels that unleashed chemical weapons on August 21. So I wonder if the maintenance of that position doesn’t complicate your discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov in the sense that you don’t even have – correct me if I’m wrong – in hand a formal acknowledgement from the Russians that it was, in fact, the Syrian regime that used chemical weapons on the 21st. So that’s the first part of this.
The second part is I wonder if it doesn’t require you to delve too deeply into technical arcana to give us a working sense of the benchmarks that you’ll need to see these conversations hit early on in order to know whether this is credible and a verifiable plan is being put forward. What are the kinds of things you’re going to be looking to hear your interlocutors talk about that will convince you that they are serious or not?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So on the first one, we have had preliminary conversations by phone and exchanging some ideas with the Russians, and there is no question that the basis of those discussions are the stockpiles of the Assad regime. And in fact, the Assad regime itself has said, as it has never said before, that it has a stockpile of chemical weapons. So that is part and parcel the center of this discussion, and that has been acknowledged and been acknowledged by the Assad regime themselves. So I don’t think there’s any doubt that the subject matter in the first instance is the stockpile of chemical weapons that the Assad regime controls.
To your second question about what the benchmarks are, this is technical, this is arcane. It will be whether, in fact, the Russians have come with ideas, with substance, with the same technical expertise. We get down to really very nitty-gritty discussion.
QUESTION: Give me an example, some kind of example.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Do you want to try to give an example, [Senior State Department Official Two]?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Part of the example that maybe doesn’t sound so nitty-gritty is rapid agreement on principles, that what we are seeking as an important part of the overall solution in Syria is the rapid removal of the repeated use of chemical weapons by the regime. And that means a rapid beginning to international control and it means a degree of credibility to a verification, control, and destruction regime. And --
QUESTION: Well, what will signal that to you? What will signal that to you that you’re getting that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think it really depends upon the content of the discussion. There are many ways we can set up benchmarks, and we will. But it’s hard to tell you in advance what those are going to be.
QUESTION: You can’t give me one example of what conveys credibility?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There are many ways to get there.
QUESTION: Hi, Warren Strobel with Reuters. Two unrelated questions. First of all, without betraying anything on the intelligence front, does the United States or Russia for that matter have an exact knowledge of the extent of Syria’s chemical weapons program?
And secondly, you said you’re not going to be negotiating a UN Security Council resolution, but the French draft up in New York has a Chapter 7 trigger, at least an indirect trigger. Is it the U.S. Government’s policy that there should be some sort of Chapter 7 trigger hanging over this process?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The first – I’m sorry, I lost already the first part of your question.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. or Russia or anybody actually know --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, yeah. We do have an assessment. We will be able to share with the Russians our assessment. We expect they will share with us their assessment, because we have to talk about the scope of this program. So we have, in fact, created some releasable information and we will have a colleague from the intelligence community with us.
QUESTION: And on Chapter 7?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: On Chapter 7, I don’t want to get into negotiating the resolution here either. All I will say is that we will talk about monitoring, verification, and enforcement.
QUESTION: You also – sorry. Are you also going to be discussing delivery systems as well as stockpiles? Is that part of the conversation and will that be part of what needs to be controlled and destroyed? And how, in a war zone, can UN teams who were shot at even when they were going to the site of August 21st, how can they be escorted safely so that these are not seized by some of the al-Nusrah Front or other al-Qaida related groups?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Andrea, to your question I’m going to say something general and ask [Senior State Department Official Two] to add anything he wants.
What we will be looking at is the chemical weapons stockpiles, the production facilities, precursor chemicals, and to the extent that there are munitions that are used to spread those chemical weapons in whatever manner, that obviously is part of dismantling and destroying the chemical weapons that Assad has.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: He’s taught me well. And your second part?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Security. Thanks. Having a synapse lapse tonight.
On security, it is very hard, but it is one of the topics we have come ready prepared to discuss. We’ve suggested to the Russians they come prepared to discuss it as well. It is certainly not a permissive environment. Obviously, if some of the facilities are located in regime-controlled territory, that’s easier. And so discussing what we know of the program, the scope, where it’s located is critical to those security dimensions.
QUESTION: Do you contemplate Americans being part of the team --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We haven’t gotten that far.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I wanted to go back to the question of assessment of the stockpiles. You’re bringing your assessment, which unless I’m wrong, Secretary Kerry said in front of Congress it was about 1,000 metric tons of various different chemical agents. And you’re expecting the Russians to share their assessment. I wonder if you could, first, place that 1,000 metric tons in comparison to other previous stockpiles that may have been destroyed or still exist, and also if you have been told by the Russians they’re not just bringing their assessment, they’re actually bringing what Syria has told them they’ve got.
And secondly, you mentioned about the rapidity of getting people onto the ground. Do you have a sort of timeframe – one week, two weeks, a month?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’m going to let [Senior State Department Official Three] talk about other situations and what the stockpiles have been and what we have helped or the international community has done.
In terms of timelines, that’s part of the discussion we’re going to have, and it depends on what choices you make of the many ways to proceed here.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: The world has significant experience with destruction of chemical weapons. Russia and the United States, which have had the largest stocks in the past, have got advanced technology that they have used and are using to destroy those stocks. So we’ll have a good technical discussion on what are the options for destruction of chemical weapons.
We also have experience in doing destruction of chemical weapons in the face of a resistant environment. That is Iraq in the 1990s. And we have recent and ongoing experience, successful experience, in the case of a cooperative government. That is Libya, which we expect within the next few months will complete the destruction of its stockpiles left over from the previous regime.
In the case of Syria, 1,000 tons is a serious quantity. It’s much larger than what Libya had. It is much smaller than what the United States and the Russian Federation once had. It presents serious challenges because not just of the composition of the stocks but because of the related equipment, as [Senior State Department Official One] already mentioned, production equipment, mixing equipment, and delivery equipment.
QUESTION: We have a combo question here. If the inspection team is all Russian and all Syrian, is that going to be acceptable to the United States?
And my larger question is: This all sounds very technical and very advanced and sort of like an arms control negotiation a year in or something. I mean, you don’t really even know if this is real yet, right? I mean, is all of the infrastructure that you’re bringing here part of how you’re going to test whether it’s real?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: She wanted to know whether all the infrastructure we’re bringing is part of the way to test that it’s real, because indeed, this feels like an arms control negotiation because it’s so technical. But unless we bring our technical experts and get down to the nitty-gritty to discuss the scope, to discuss the different modalities for destruction, we won’t know whether they’re serious because there are a lot of things you have to put in place to make those things happen.
To your initial question whether it’s just Russians and Syrians, I think one of the things my colleagues say that we have to keep in mind is yes, we are talking with the Russians but we are all focused on an international response to what the Syrian regime has done, and we don’t want to lose focus on that. So this is something that the entire international community wants to be engaged in. We expect there to be a UN Security Council resolution that is supported by the international community to move forward in this regard. So who does what, there will be plenty of jobs to do to be able to get this done.
QUESTION: Does that involve U.S. boots on the ground to dismantle (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We are not the only experts. There are lots of experts in the world.
QUESTION: Are you ruling out U.S. --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’re not ruling anything in or anything out. We’re now just trying to scope the problem, the best ways forward. And once we know that, we’ll know what person power is necessary and who has the skill sets to do it. But there are also international organizations that are part of this process as well.
QUESTION: If the Russians come to you and say, “All right, we’ll do all the inspections, we’ll do all this stuff,” is that acceptable to you? No, right? I mean, it can’t just be the Russians and Assad’s brother-in-law running around doing this; is that correct?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: What is correct is that we have to be able to monitor and verify that, in fact, what is happening is happening. So you can take it from there.
Do you want to add anything to that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Our interest is that the international community have a stake in what is done here, and we believe that they do.
MODERATOR: Okay, this is the last one.
QUESTION: Can I just ask – he will combine our two questions so he gets a chance.
QUESTION: Okay, just two ones. I’ll ask one, he’ll ask one, so no one gets (inaudible). It’s a shared question.
Since you’ve got this information in releasable form to the Russian Federation about the extent of the facilities, the number of the facilities, where they’re located, can you please share this information? You can share it with Putin. Can you share it with us, please? I’m serious.
And two, where would you like – when this thing ends Saturday, Sunday, whenever that is, what would you like to have accomplished at that point?
QUESTION: And he can ask his question.
QUESTION: Very gracious of you. You’re talking to the Russians. The success of this deal is tied to Assad, a leader who the policy of our government which is to remove him from power. You can talk with the Russians all you want; they can hope to bring the Syrians onboard. How do you get over that essential hurdle?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So let me go – not to dis’ you, Michael, but let me go to Jim’s first.
There is no doubt that what is ever – what gets decided, not just here but through the UN process, we’ll have to set up benchmarks and timelines to see if, in fact, the Assad regime is going to take action in an expeditious fashion to make that credible and authentic. Because you’re quite right; we all can decide, the Russians can even say they know Assad will follow though, but then he has to follow through. There are some specific things that we can ask for and get – see if they get delivered very quickly that will give us an early sense of whether there is reality here or not. I know you want to know what those things are. I know.
QUESTION: Just one. An example, a category.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, I think the category that you all know most easily is to declare all of their stockpile quickly, quickly.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Michael, sorry.
QUESTION: The question is: If you’re going to tell – if you’re going to release this information, can you give it to us? And where do you want to be when this round ends, or Saturday/Sunday? What do you want to have accomplished by then?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I knew as soon as I told you that we were going to share information with the Russians you would ask me, someone would ask me, whether we could share it with you. We’ll see what we can do.
In terms of what we hope to have by the end of this, we hope to have, if at all possible, an outline of a way forward.
QUESTION: What does that mean?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That means that we will have an understanding with each other of what the scope of the problem is, what might be the best way to destroy these weapons, how we might monitor and verify what has occurred, and do it in a secure and safe manner. We will feed that back to the Security Council colleagues as they contemplate how to move forward with a Security Council resolution.
MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official Three], one quick question about contacts with opposition, whether they’re – how are you bringing them along into this and making sure that they’re ready to help in any way to --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: That’s a very – I mean, they’re upset. They don’t trust this at all. And so part of this will be explaining to them what we’re actually able to achieve if we’re able to achieve anything. So we’re asking them not to prejudge. I mean, what matters to Syrians inside Syria is for chemical weapons not to be used again and for them to feel safe through the destruction of the chemical weapons there. So that’s really what this is about. So let’s – we’ve told them we don’t know what we’re able to get to.