Briefing on Previewing the London 11 Meeting
MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. Beautiful day in Paris. So we have, at your request on the phone [Senior State Department Official], who from here forward will be a Senior State Department Official. He will be able to give us a brief preview of the London 11 tomorrow and take a couple questions. We have a limited amount of time here, so I’m going to turn it quickly over to him.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hi. Good afternoon, everybody. Just a couple of things about the meetings here. First, there is building consensus among the international community that the London – sorry, that the Geneva 2 conference should be held within the coming weeks, coming months. And so the London 11 countries are meeting again to talk in a bit more detail about what kind of outcomes they’d like to see out of a Geneva 2 meeting and also talk about how else the Syrian opposition can be supported as the Syrian opposition looks at and prepares to attend the Geneva 2 conference.
So I expect the discussion today will be – today at the expert level and then tomorrow at the ministerial level – will be a bit more granular, both in terms of the kinds of assistance they need, as well as how to think about the negotiations themselves in terms of agendas, confidence-building measures, things like that; whereas in the past, it’s been, for example, in Istanbul and in Amman and in Doha, was very much – the focus was on figuring out who the moderates were and how to boost support to them.
So with that, I’ll take some questions. I’ve got about 20 minutes.
OPERATOR: And if you wish to ask a question, please press star and then 1 at this time. And we’ll go to Michael Gordon of the New York Times. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi [Senior State Department Official], can you hear me okay?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. How you doing, Michael?
QUESTION: So my question is: Who is going to represent the Syrian opposition at the meeting tomorrow? Why isn’t Jarba going? At what level will the Syrian opposition be represented? And if their most senior people are not willing to go to this meeting, in what way does it lend support to the opposition, and how does it reflect their – their willingness to attend Geneva 2?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Michael, my understanding, as of 3:30 London time on Monday, is that Jarba is coming. I’m a little surprised that your information is that he’s not, since we’ve heard he is coming and he’s bringing a large delegation that includes the vice president of the coalition and, I think very importantly, bringing Mustafa Sabbagh, who’s the leader of one of the big factions within the Syrian Opposition Coalition. But Mustafa is not within the – not represented in the presidency. So I think he is coming --
MODERATOR: And that may be, [Senior State Department Official], because our information was a little behind, so that’s a good update for everybody.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. And he’s bringing a large delegation, which is good.
OPERATOR: We’ll go to line of Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Two things. Can you give us your quick update on where things stand on the ground, particularly with regard to the opposition forces having to fight on two fronts, both against the government forces and against the more militant groups?
And secondly, can you shed greater light on the kind of assistance you are talking about giving the opposition ahead of a Geneva – a potential Geneva 2 meeting in the next month or so?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Are you talking, in this case, about sort of helping them to figure out what kinds of positions they should adopt or how they might best kind of negotiate, or are you still talking about humanitarian or other kinds of assistance to help them try to govern in those portions of the country that they have some control in?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, let me address both of those questions. First, the situation on the ground. It is certainly much more difficult for Salim Idris in the far north of the country, because he’s now – his forces are having to fight both the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant on the one hand, especially in places like Azaz, which is a major border crossing area, and then the regime at the same time. One of the things that’s done is that’s slowed down the advance of his forces (inaudible) around Homs and south of Aleppo.
You’ll see that if you look at the movement of people, it’s clear that they’ve had to withdraw some forces back up to the north to deal with the Islamic State. In the Damascus area, there’s still fighting going back and forth. The regime has advanced in some of the southern neighborhoods – southern suburbs, but this is almost World War I-style advances, where they’re moving a couple hundred meters. But at the same time, the armed opposition has made advances in the south around Daraa and along the border. So it’s just kind of a seesaw that goes back and forth. It’s an ongoing war of attrition.
With respect to the assistance that we’re thinking of, we, earlier in – well, actually it was at the end of September, notified the Congress of our intent to provide roughly $100 million in additional assistance to moderates in the Syrian opposition, both the Supreme Military Council that Salim Idris commands, as well as the political opposition. That includes direct assistance to Ahmed Jarba’s opposition coalition.
But a far larger portion, probably 85 percent, maybe 90, of the assistance is destined to go to local councils and provincial councils and civil society groups operating in northern, central, and eastern Syria. In some cases, they’re managing municipalities, and just to help them do that, either with cash grants or with material assistance, things like bulldozers to clear rubble, trash trucks, water bladders, hospital equipment, medical supplies, in some cases food supplies.
Outside of that envelope of 100 million, there is additional humanitarian assistance going in, but that comes out of different accounts in the U.S. State Department budget, so I don’t count that against the 100 million. But we are trying to get that in as well.
I have to be honest. The Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant is blocking the deliveries of some of this assistance, especially some of the cross-border assistance, and that is a major problem. And then the regime, of course, is blocking United Nations convoys and the International Committee of the Red Cross convoys that are desperately trying to get in to Moadamiyeh, and where we have, of course, people dying of malnutrition.
MODERATOR: I think we’re ready for the next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll go to Lara Jakes with Associated Press. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hey, [Senior State Department Official], thanks for doing the call. Two things: One, could you help us set some expectations here? What do – what would you all see as a success coming out of tomorrow’s meeting? What are you looking for in terms of them – everyone making progress tomorrow?
And two, as you talk about ISI in the Levant, can you discuss a little bit about how – I don’t know if growth is the right word, but certainly it’s strengthening has made the Geneva 2 process a little more difficult or harder to make this all start going forward.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In terms of things we’re looking for tomorrow, I do not expect that the Opposition Coalition is going to make a big announcement one way or the other tomorrow. They’re waiting themselves for a meeting of the Coalition’s general assembly, which is its – for want of a better expression, its proto-parliament. And that is – that group is supposed to meet around October 30th, 31st, November 1st, somewhere in that timeframe.
And in addition, I think they themselves will need to consult not only with that general assembly of the Coalition, but also with General Idris and members of the Supreme Military Council and some of the senior commanders of different fighting brigades within the Supreme Military Council, all of whom, as you can well imagine, are keenly interested in what is Geneva and what does it mean.
So to me, the first and the most important benchmark is that the Coalition figures here tomorrow, from the ministers, take away the sense that Geneva 2 is an alternative to grinding out the war of attrition on the ground and then Geneva 2 perhaps – it remains to be seen if the negotiations can achieve anything, but at least Geneva 2 is an idea worth trying even as the war of attrition goes on. And if they can take away for those people inside Syria and in the general assembly this perspective of how Geneva 2 might unfold, I think that will be useful. A second thing which I think will be useful is if the different countries that are talking about providing assistance to the Coalition and its delegation can coordinate a little better.
I didn’t fully answer the previous question, but let me do that now. The kinds of assistance that the Americans are prepared to offer include things such as hiring lawyers for the delegation. A lot of these discussions are going to involve transition governing body, and therefore necessarily are going to involve the law and legal changes, either immediate or planned. They’ll probably need material support, just in terms of putting a team together and supporting that team with everything from office space to computers to telephones. So we could provide that if asked for.
But there are other countries that may be providing these kinds of things too, as well as other kinds of technical assistance. At least one other country in the London 11 has already started providing assistance to the Coalition with an idea of eventually going to Geneva and drawing up some sorts initial papers. We’re not doing that, but another country is. So there’s no reason for us to kind of bump into each other, and there needs to be a better coordination. So we need to talk to the opposition about what that coordination mechanism is and who makes up that coordination mechanism. How does that work?
OPERATOR: And as a reminder, if you have a question, please press star then 1 at this time. And we have a follow-up question from Lara Jakes with Associated Press. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. I was hoping you could address my second question about how the strengthening (inaudible) the ISI in the Levant has made the Geneva 2 process a little more difficult, if that’s the case.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. It has. I’m sorry, I forgot. To me, the biggest single problem is that the regime probably feels more confident now because of the Islamic State of Iraq in Levant’s actions on the ground. In many ways, the Islamic state – I don’t know that they’re doing it explicitly on purpose, but they are in fact doing the regime’s work of limiting the advance of the moderate opposition and forcing it to divert attention and resources from the battle lines elsewhere. That has to give the regime comfort and confidence, and it will make the task of extracting concessions from the regime at the negotiating table more difficult.
In addition, I think the regime is happy because the Islamic state itself is trying to become the face of the opposition, and it’s a very ugly face. I don’t think it’s representative at all, but it’s trying to portray itself as such, and again that gives the regime confidence and will make it harder to get the concessions that we’re going to need from the regime to stand up a new transition governing body by mutual consent.
OPERATOR: And we’ll go to the line of Michael Gordon with New York Times. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], just a quick follow up, please. The – you had mentioned the $100 million that was – Congress was notified in September. Could you please clarify whether this is new money above and beyond what previously had been projected for the opposition, or is this part of I think what (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, it’s – I’m sorry, Michael. Yeah, it’s part of the 250 that we’d already announced.
QUESTION: The 250.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s – we’re now ready to actually obligate it, and so we need to notify the Congress.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And it breaks down, Michael, roughly --
QUESTION: Right, and then --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- into about 53 million for Idris, Supreme Military Command – Council, sorry, Supreme Military Council. There’s one notification of 38 million, and a different one of 15. And then there’s another roughly 40 million, a little more, in assistance to civilian organizations. And primarily these provincial and local councils and civil society groups – the Aleppo Jurists Association which is trying to hold together the court system in Aleppo right now, even as al-Qaida people are trying to set up a new extrajudicial Sharia court.
MODERATOR: There is time for one more --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: (Inaudible) --
QUESTION: Can I just – just on that one point, [Senior State Department Official], you’d also mentioned that the radical elements, the Islamic ISIS, was blocking assistance. How significant a problem is it? Are they blocking 10 percent of assistance, 50 percent of the assistance? And where is this blockage most pronounced?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s most pronounced in cross-border operation where literally border crosses are closed now because we can’t bring stuff over the border – not only us, but other organizations in other countries. So I can’t – Michael, it’s a great question, what’s the percentage. I can’t say except that I would say it’s been very disruptive to our cross-border efforts, very disruptive.
MODERATOR: We have time for one more question.
OPERATOR: As a reminder, if you have a question, please press star then 1.
And at this time, there are no questions in queue.
MODERATOR: Great, perfectly timed.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay.
MODERATOR: Thank you, [Senior State Department Official], for the time.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks, [Moderator]. Thanks, everybody.