Read Out of Secretary Kerry's Bilateral Meeting With Syrian Opposition Coalition Chairman Ahmed Assi al-Jarba

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
New York City
September 24, 2013

MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone, for joining us again this evening. This is a background briefing, a readout of the Secretary’s meeting with SOC President Jarba. We have with us another Senior State Department Official who will give you a brief overview, and then we’ll take some questions.


MODERATOR: That’s your cue. Long week already.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, it has been. It’s only Tuesday. The Secretary met with Ahmed al-Jarba, whom he met here in New York about two months ago. Jarba had with him this time a larger delegation from the political committee of the Opposition Coalition. There were with him one, two, three, four members of the 14-member political committee with him. So they discussed the work underway here at the United Nations to develop a Security Council resolution to address the Syrian chemical weapons problem and the control and ultimate destruction of those weapons. The Secretary highlighted how destruction of those weapons would be very much in the interest of the Syrian people in general, and Syrian opposition elements in particular. And they also discussed the Geneva peace process; discussed a bit on perspectives of what a transition governing body might look like, not that there’s a – this obviously is something to be negotiated, and the Secretary emphasized that point.

So the Syrian Opposition Coalition will be here in the United States, in New York for several more days. They’re doing their own meetings. And they’re here; I would encourage you to go talk to them themselves. I think I’ll stop there.


QUESTION: A couple of things. First of all, they still don’t know what a – they don’t have an idea what – could you – how far along are they on kind of what a transitioning governing body should look like? And then also, the kind of narrative that they’re coming – that the Syrian opposition has been using in the last couple of weeks


QUESTION: -- since the President’s decision to – first he was talking about – everyone was thinking about the imminent use of force; then he pulled back and said he wanted to go to Congress; now that seems to be off the table for the foreseeable future while the chemical weapons issue is being addressed. They feel, A, left out, that they were kind of left high and dry; B, that they feel like there’s no retribution, that a hundred other thousand people that have died is not being addressed; and they feel as if this is – they’re being sold out and they’re not really happy with the trajectory of the way things have gone in the last several weeks.


QUESTION: Can – did they discuss that with the Secretary?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They certainly did express disappointment that there hadn’t been a military strike. That’s absolutely true. The Secretary underlined a couple of points. First, as the President himself said today in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, we do not see how Bashar al-Assad, in a transition – in a government – in a transitional governing body, could play a role. And so in terms of being sold out, the Secretary highlighted that our vision of a transition governing body does not the presence of Bashar al-Assad. And so there isn’t anyone being sold out. Although, this ultimately is about a negotiation between Syrians --

QUESTION: Well, they’re feeling --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- regime, and opposition.

QUESTION: This gives him job security now.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, what we have said --

QUESTION: And also they weren’t consulted.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me finish. Don’t interrupt me.

QUESTION: Okay. Okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In the negotiation, we have underlined that the opposition has a veto. The Secretary underlined that again tonight. And the Syrian opposition understands that, which is, frankly, one of the reasons why they’ve publicly said they would go to Geneva. So the Secretary underlined the point, however, that the President made in his speech, that from our point of view, Bashar al-Assad would have no place in a transition governing body.

So you would characterize them as feeling sold out; I would characterize it more as they wanted a reaffirmation of our stance. I don’t think they’re worried about being sold out, per se.

QUESTION: A reaffirmation of, I’m sorry, what?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: A reaffirmation of our stance concerning Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy or lack thereof. So – which the Secretary gave them, both barrels blazing.

QUESTION: Both barrels blazing? (Laughter.)


QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: He couldn’t do it before without congressional approval, and now --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sorry, I’m talking proverbially, Matt.

MODERATOR: Diplomacy is always the preferred option, Matt.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m talking proverbially, Matt. The Secretary was very direct about it.

QUESTION: Can you be more specific then about what he --


QUESTION: Did he say, “This guy has got to go”?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Secretary said that after Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons on his own people, after he has killed tens of thousands, it is impossible for us to imagine that he would play any role in a subsequent transition government.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Is that explicit enough for you?

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.


QUESTION: And then he also reminded them that they have a veto over --


QUESTION: And – but at the same time --


QUESTION: Exactly.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And we discussed that, too.

QUESTION: Isn’t that the problem? Look at where veto power has gotten us on the Security Council.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, Matt, nobody today said – nobody today said that Geneva was going to be a fast process. And nobody today said that it was going to be an easy process. And that’s something we talked to them about. So when – again, going back to your point about feeling sold out, nobody has said to them that they have to stop fighting if they go to the Geneva peace conference. It is understood that even as they negotiate, it’s going to be very hard on the ground.

QUESTION: Was there any discussion about any hope of holding Geneva 2 any time soon?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There was no discussion in the meeting today about setting dates or when that would be. I – frankly, from my perspective right now, the United States and Russia, who would be the initiators of the conference with United Nations mediation, the initiators are focused very much on resolving the chemical weapons issue and getting a process stood up. So Geneva 2, or Geneva peace conference, would – that’ll come next. But right now, we’ve got to get the details nailed down on the chemical weapons.

QUESTION: So the Geneva peace conference has been shelved, then?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I didn’t say that. Did I say that?

QUESTION: No, you didn’t, but you said --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, then don’t put words in my mouth. Really, seriously, don’t --

QUESTION: Well, I apologize if that’s what I’m doing --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, but that is what you’re doing. But what is your question?

QUESTION: You said – the question is that – you said that it will come after the discussions on the chemical weapons, so --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. Well, we might get an agreement on chemical weapons this week. Who knows? They’re negotiating right now.

QUESTION: It didn’t sound very likely from --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, then now – well, then you’re making an assumption, aren’t you? So what I said was the United States and Russia are focused first on standing up a process to resolve the Syrian chemical weapons issue. That means control, that means destruction, get the process stood up. Then they will turn to figuring out the timing of the Geneva peace conference.

QUESTION: But with respect, the peace conference was first (inaudible) in May.


QUESTION: With – and in May, at the press conference in Moscow, Secretary Kerry said that there’s hope that it’d be held by the end of that month. We’re now almost into October and it sounds like we now are into a second process of tough negotiations on chemical weapons, and which the peace process has been accorded maybe a second place.

MODERATOR: But there’s quite a bit that’s happened since then, right?


MODERATOR: We’ve been very open about the fact that the regime benefitted from the influx of Iran and Hezbollah, right. That changed the onus on the ground, the situation on the ground. And obviously, the use of chemical weapons on August 21st also changed the situation. It made it – it motivated the regime, it motivated the Russians to be more willing to come to the table. It’s also consistent with what the Secretary said and actually what he said in the meeting with Lavrov, about if we can come to an agreement on this then we can move closer and move forward on a political process.


QUESTION: Of course, you could make – easily make the opposite argument. I mean, you’re looking at it as --


QUESTION: -- not like (inaudible) --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me say this. In contrast to May --

QUESTION: -- but they might have – (inaudible) might have happened, the use of chemical weapons and 4,000 people or 1,400 people or however many was dying, Hezbollah coming in and (inaudible) because – all that happened because you were unable to get a Geneva 2 process. I mean, I think the argument goes both ways.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I think the reason they came in, Matt, is because the balance of power was shifting against Assad on the ground and therefore they came in. It has nothing to do with whether or not there was a Geneva peace conference. It’s about power on the ground.

QUESTION: Did – can I --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But I want to address this point. Since May, the Syrian opposition has now – the coalition has now publicly stated that it will attend the conference. That did not exist in May. Since May, the Syrian opposition coalition has brought in representatives of the armed groups and Kurdish nationalists who would participate in a peace process. Since May, the Russians have pushed on the Syrian regime, and it too has said it will go to a conference. We have not set a date. But none of those things existed.

Now, could you have gone to a conference while the regime is using mass gas attacks? That I strongly doubt. And so it is not illogical for both the Russians and the Americans to say, wait, before we can get to the peace conference, we have to make sure that we do not have more of these large-scale gas attacks.

QUESTION: You still expect a Geneva 2 to be the primary subject, or one of the – at least one of the primary focuses of the Friday meeting with Brahimi and Lavrov, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m sure it will be, especially with Brahimi there. That’s his function.

QUESTION: Well, exactly. I mean, isn’t that the whole point of the conference?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right, right. Of the meeting.



QUESTION: Yeah, of the Friday’s meeting.


QUESTION: And the opposition now – sorry, Matt – the opposition now has a team in place waiting for that Geneva 2 peace conference?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The opposition – I – first of all, I’d encourage you to talk to them, don’t just listen to me.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So – but the opposition does have a team working on it.

QUESTION: And I just have one more question.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, have a team working on it, or a team that --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Working on preparations for Geneva.

QUESTION: But a team agreed that would go to Geneva or a team working on preparations?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, a team – preparing to go to Geneva, the – kind of the planning for it.

QUESTION: Planning for it.


QUESTION: That’s different than an agreed delegation --

QUESTION: That doesn’t mean that they would go to it.

QUESTION: -- that would go there.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Delegation, I don't have names yet.


QUESTION: May I ask one thing about the balance of power?


QUESTION: You said that the opposition has expressed their disappointment that a military strike had not occurred.


QUESTION: Did they also express disappointment about not receiving additional arms flows and not receiving perhaps more direct American military assistance as Mr. Rhodes had talked about some months before now?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, actually they didn’t. What they did ask – but again, I don't want to be here as the spokesman for the opposition coalition. You guys can go talk to them. They’re here in New York. I mean, we’ll get you phone numbers for them. You talk to them yourselves.

But what they did say is they asked for constant American support, and in particular they, for example, mentioned that they want to extend the reach of civilian police forces. We have a program now to work with civilian police forces in northern Syria. They asked that that be extended into additional areas. They mentioned that they’re trying to stand up a ministry of defense that would work with Salim Idris and the Supreme Military Command. They said that is an important function that has to be helped.

So it wasn’t so much that they were demanding more particular kinds of weapons, this, that, or the other. But they said that as they go towards Geneva they need to make sure that they have firm backing from friends like the United States.

QUESTION: Can I just follow on? The French – in Paris, I guess a week ago Monday, the French had announced that there was going to be some sort of international meeting to boost the moderate opposition. Fabius said this.


QUESTION: My impression was it was supposed to not just be a French initiative, but an American-French-British initiative. Is that, in fact, happening? Is there anything tangible happening to boost – in the margins of this UNGA to boost the moderate opposition?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The French are organizing on Thursday a kind of a meeting/reception for ministers from the Friends of Syria, at which Jarba will speak. Kerry will go and he’ll speak too.

QUESTION: And that’s what it – that’s what it is?

MODERATOR: But it’s a larger meeting, right.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s a large meeting. It’s going to have over 100 people, 100 ministers.

QUESTION: And it’s a reception?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, it’s a meeting/reception. I mean, it’s a – I don't know, like --

QUESTION: Okay. So it’s not exactly --

QUESTION: Is this their event at ECOSOC?


QUESTION: I understand. But that’s not exactly what Fabius --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And I expect they’re going to have refreshments in addition to, like, discussion.

QUESTION: So they’ll have cocktails and --

QUESTION: Is this the thing in the ECOSOC or is that something different? Like they’re holding --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, the ECOSOC is, I think, on humanitarian.

QUESTION: And just --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think. And it’s Wednesday, right?

QUESTION: Maybe it’s Wednesday.


QUESTION: I just heard that they were holding some kind of meeting.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- there’s both the – there’s a lot of focus on Syria. There are several meetings dealing with humanitarian issues and the humanitarian crisis. ECOSOC – now, I remember what it is. That’s about cultural – preserving Syria’s cultural heritage. That’s – do you know when that is, Lisa? Is that Thursday or Wednesday?

PARTICIPANT: I don’t have the dates --

QUESTION: The cultural --

QUESTION: That’s tomorrow.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s tomorrow, yeah. Because Anne Richards will be at that too. So – and then there’s also a separate thing on the Lebanese situation and the Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

QUESTION: On the way forward --


QUESTION: -- regarding the resolution, was there an agreement? I don’t know if [Senior State Department Official] or [Moderator], can you answer the question --

MODERATOR: On the UN resolution?

QUESTION: Was there an agreement between – yeah, between Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov?

MODERATOR: I mean, I think we just did a briefing on it, which we can – were you here for – you were here for the last briefing, right?

QUESTION: No, I wasn’t here.

QUESTION: We just had almost an hour-long --

MODERATOR: Why don’t we get you the notes and the transcript from that?

QUESTION: We didn’t get the transcript of --

MODERATOR: Well, we can get you some about that. A lot of these folks had sat through a lengthy discussion on that.

QUESTION: I didn’t receive anything about this. Sorry about that.

MODERATOR: No, no. Don’t worry. Don’t worry. It’s okay. We’ll get you all the notes.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], could you talk to us a little bit about your efforts to make the opposition more organized, more unified, more effective politically? How’s that going?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There is real progress. I mentioned that the opposition coalition has now brought in the Kurdish National Congress, which is itself a group of eight different Kurdish parties. One of the vice presidents of the opposition coalition will be a Kurd. There – So there will be a total of four vice presidents; one will be a Kurd. They’ll also bring in additional Kurdish members into the opposition coalition’s – what they call general assembly. I think of it as a proto-parliament.

They have brought in 15 members from local councils in the liberated areas of northern and eastern Syria. That was done in July, Lisa ?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: June. Man, it seems like a long time ago. The Kurdish decision was a week ago. And they’ve brought in three representatives from each of the Supreme Military Command’s five fronts – a total of 15, three times five – into the general assembly as well. They have created two committees. One is to work on the exact negotiations of Geneva itself, sort of the planning for that. They have not named a delegation yet. And then a second one is working on transition issues now, which is separate from Geneva in terms of how are they going to work sector by sector.

They have also established what they call an interim government. That was announced two weeks ago, two weeks ago with a guy named Ahmad Tumeh to be the head of it. They call him the prime minister. We do not recognize that government, and we have told them that.

QUESTION: Why is that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Because under international law, Michael, normally it needs to be able to meet its international obligations. And this interim government, for example, couldn’t enforce International Civil Aviation Organization regulations – overflight of Syria – or maritime treaty obligations, things like that.

QUESTION: But how was – in Libya were they able to do that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can’t answer that because I didn’t work on Libya. But I can tell you what we have discussed with the lawyers.

QUESTION: They want you to recognize it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think in a perfect world, they would like that. But we warned them even before they ever named it that we would not be able to, for the reason I mentioned.

QUESTION: All right.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So all of these things are aimed at extending the reach of the opposition coalition into Syria. However, I will be the first person to say that there are credibility issues still. They are located in Istanbul and Gaziantep; they’re not located inside Syria. And so they are at a disadvantage that way, and it’s a problem. Some of their officials, including the president of the coalition, have made trips into Syria, both northern and southern, but he doesn’t live there. And that is – politically, that’s a problem. It just is. So they’re going to have to do more to build their own credibility in the country, and we talked about that today too. But they told us they understand that.

Now the last thing I want to talk about on this, because I think this is important – right now there’s a real firefight going on up along the border, Turkey and Syria, between al-Qaida extremists and forces loyal to Salim Idris. And so that is a battle that is ongoing right now, and it’s very confusing. It stretches from Deir Ez Zor down on the southeast part of the country, near the Iraq border, all the way up to the Turkish border north of Aleppo. And it’s – I mean, it’s the hardest fighting we’ve ever seen between Salim Idris’s elements of the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

MODERATOR: All right.


MODERATOR: Thank you, Senior --

QUESTION: How are they – how are the rebels doing in that firefight?

QUESTION: The good rebels.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The people that we support under Salim Idris --

QUESTION: Yeah, right. Yes, yes. Our rebels.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- are bringing in reinforcements, and it’s a slog right now.

QUESTION: Do they have any reaction to the Islamist alliance, the rebel alliance that was announced today that rejected the coalition?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I haven’t seen those news reports. I don’t – what Islamist alliance is this?

QUESTION: It was – the statement’s still in Arabic, but it’s a – it was just a group of most of the major Islamist factions saying, instead of the SOC, we’re going to do our own alliance.


QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They didn’t refer to it in the meeting and I – have you seen anything on that? No, I haven’t either. Can you email that to me? [Email address redacted]

QUESTION: Hey, [Senior State Department Official], is there anything the U.S. side is doing to help the moderate opposition in their battle against these al-Qaida elements, the intelligence share, or anything, since you flagged it as such an important episode?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we have long been concerned about the rise of these extremists, the growth of them. Last December we flagged it first internationally with the designation.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And that is the very group that has really taken up arms, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. So, Michael, what I can say is the State Department’s part of this, which is what I can talk about – we have been providing all kinds of nonlethal supplies and equipment to help Idris organize. And so we understand that he needs that help to undermine recruiting among the extremists.

QUESTION: No, but are there any additional, concrete steps? For example, have you worked on --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Not that I’m able to discuss here.

QUESTION: -- on the State Department side, to step up its support because of this conflict? They’re in this hard battle with al-Qaida, so are you doing more? Have you adjusted? Are you helping them more?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me put it to you this way: We’re looking at --

QUESTION: Is it just normal stuff?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The State Department, we’re looking at more that we can do in the days ahead. Let me put it that way.

QUESTION: Sorry. Really, really quickly. So I just am trying to understand. Are you saying, then, that the moderate opposition is really fighting a battle on two fronts --


QUESTION: They’re fighting both the extremists and they’re fighting the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. I would even go so far as to say that the extremists are actually doing the government’s work now, which was a point that the opposition made in the meeting with the Secretary.

MODERATOR: All right. Thanks, everyone.

QUESTION: Yeah, but the President announced a couple hundred new million dollars more in --



QUESTION: Have they ever said thank you for that?


QUESTION: Or did they just say, “Yeah, but we want more of this, we want this”?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Jarba expressed appreciation today for the American assistance.

QUESTION: They did? All right.

MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone.

QUESTION: Thank you.

PRN: 2013/1178