Background Briefing: U.S. Officials on Syria

Special Briefing
Geneva, Switzerland
November 5, 2013

MODERATOR: I’d like to thank you all for coming this evening. As we’ve discussed and we laid out in our email, it’s going to be – this is going to be a background briefing attributable to a Senior U.S. Official. So I know [Senior U.S. Official] is going to make a brief opening statement and then we’ll take questions afterwards.

QUESTION: My apologies if I have to leave early. I’ve got to be on air at eight o’clock, so --

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Oh my gosh. Okay. I’ll talk fast.

QUESTION: I might have to – (laughter). No – if I – if you see me run out, that’s not --

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Don’t worry.

QUESTION: My apologies.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: As you all, I think, heard from Lakhdar Brahimi, we had a long day of meetings today, but very substantive and very helpful meetings. I think we all held these meetings today in the context of the new figures out recently that there are now nine million people inside of Syria in need of assistance. Fourty-two percent of the population, nearly half of Syria’s population, is in deep distress. And on top of that, there are 2.2 million refugees. This is a man-made crisis. This not a humanitarian disaster created by a natural disaster. And so we all bear responsibility to help the parties get to a political solution as soon as we possibly can, as well as to immediately address this humanitarian crisis.

I want to sort of give you all a little context. The last time I was here in Geneva regarding Syria, it was working with Secretary Kerry and with Minister Lavrov and my colleague, Sergei Ryabkov, and a host of experts to come to an agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons. And I think today we all understood how critical it was to see if we could address the necessary agreement for a political solution, in some of the same ways that the CW was one kind of disaster that befell the people of Syria when the regime used chemical weapons against its own people. And people starving to death, children not being able to grow up as children, people dying on a daily basis, is another kind of threat that the international community should address, and the Geneva conference for a new Syria is all about, indeed, trying to find that political solution based on Geneva 1, which immediately calls for a transitional governing body with full executive authority by mutual consent, which is the point of the Geneva 2 conference. And I think as Brahimi said in his remarks, this is indeed bringing the Syrian people together, the regime and a broadly representative Syrian Opposition Coalition, to decide for themselves what that transitional governing body looks like so the people of Syria can determine their own destiny.

We have had some things that have happened that have created momentum, not only the horrible reason for that momentum, and that is this humanitarian disaster, the latest being the ten cases of polio that have been identified, which probably translates into maybe 2,000 cases, since each case of polio probably represents another 200 infected people. But the London 11 met and issued a communique in strong support of Geneva 2 and of the Syrian Opposition Coalition going to Geneva 2. The Arab League just yesterday – I’ve lost all track of days – just --

PARTICIPANT: The day before. Sunday.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: -- the day before yesterday strongly supporting, actually, two resolutions – one strongly supporting the Syrian Opposition Coalition going to Geneva 2 and calling for a transitional governing body by mutual consent with full executive powers, but also a resolution on the humanitarian crisis. Secretary Kerry has been in the region, obviously, working the relationships that are necessary to turn G2 into the implementation of Geneva 1, and then today.

We are very hopeful that this conference will take place before the end of the year. It takes a lot of preparation to do these things. You want the conference to happen at a point at which you have the maximum likelihood of a successful outcome, so you want to get – use momentum to get you there, but you want to make sure that you don’t get there prematurely and therefore undermine what you’re trying to achieve. The opposition is meeting in Istanbul. Ambassador Ford is about to go there and join in support of their efforts. They have brought the Kurds into the Opposition Coalition and will take a vote on that to affirm it on – at their general assembly meeting on November 9th. We hope that the Syrian Opposition Coalition indeed reaches an affirmative decision on November 9th. They are – begun training sessions to get ready for a negotiation, which is quite critical. These are people who have not necessarily been in the political sphere before, haven’t been negotiators at conferences time and time again, so they have a lot of work they need to do, but they’re clearly getting themselves ready.

And I think it’s important for us to remember, coming back to the human dimension of this, that General Idris, who heads up the military command – his brother-in-law was tortured to death just a few short weeks ago by the regime. Jarba, who heads up the Syrian Opposition Coalition, has lost family members. This is not some distant event that is occurring. This is something that is impacting people’s day-to-day lives to the point of death, torture, and devastation. And it is incumbent upon the world community to move in that direction.

Finally, the day ended where it began, which was an acknowledgement that we have to move, because every day lives are lost and children have no future. And indeed, we had raised, the United States, putting – making sure that the humanitarian agenda was a part of the entire day. And the Russian Government, indeed, had suggested that, at the P5 plus neighbors meeting this afternoon, we actually bring in all of the UN organizations for them to brief the P5 plus all of the neighbors, which we thought was a terrific idea, and we did.

It was an excellent briefing – quite a devastating briefing. I’m not ashamed to say it brought tears to my eyes, but it brings tears and wails to people every single day in Syria. So we are all very seized with moving this as quickly as we can.


SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Yes, of course.

QUESTION: -- hit this question? I’m sorry.


QUESTION: Can you elaborate? We understand there are still differences on the guest list, and if you could elaborate, what’s the situation concerning the Iranian delegation?

And secondly, with reference to the broadly representative Syrian opposition, you mentioned the Kurds have been in – are now in, which was a sticking point – which other groups you would like to see who are not in at the moment? Thank you.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: So first, let me say that the United States’ position is that every country that wants to come to a Geneva conference for, in my view, a new Syria, needs to come having publicly supported the Geneva communique, and all that that means – in the first instance, committed to creating a transitional governing body with full executive authority by mutual consent. Some countries have not yet made that commitment, and we feel in order to receive an invitation, that every country must do so. So some of those countries who have not yet made that commitment are still under discussion, and we will see what they do.

In terms of the opposition, if I may, let me ask my colleague to speak to that.

U.S. OFFICIAL: We think that the Opposition Coalition needs to be the center of a delegation, but the Syrian opposition itself, like the Syrian people, is very diverse. And so we have been encouraging the coalition to reach out, and in particular, to reach out to people inside the country, both in armed groups – obviously not terrorist groups, but other armed groups – to reach out to other opposition formations – for example, the National Coordination Committee and others – and try to work out a delegation that, while centered around the Opposition Coalition, includes a lot of other elements. And we’re happy to see the Kurds included. We know that the coalition is starting those contacts, and so we take that as a good sign. The next sign post will be what they say at the General Assembly meeting on November 9 about Geneva – Geneva conference.

Can I just add one more thing?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Yeah, please.

U.S. OFFICIAL: I think that there is no doubt that there is disappointment in the Syrian Opposition that the United States didn’t undertake military strikes in September, but I think now there is a greater realization on the behalf the Syrian Opposition that there really is no alternative to bringing this conflict to a rapid close, except a political negotiation. And so there is more serious now – seriousness now – among them than we had seen, say, four or five months ago.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: And I would say everyone who attended this meeting today, the P5 and neighbors, everyone believes the only answer here is a political solution.

QUESTION: You had said, I think you used the words, “very --

MODERATOR: I’m sorry. I just would like you to all introduce yourself as well as your outlet, please.

QUESTION: Okay. Sorry. John Heilprin, Associated Press. I think you used the word, “very hopeful” that there could still be a conference this year. What makes you still very hopeful if today there was no date set, and how much of a disappointment was that there was no date set, or did you actually expect to --

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I’m not at all disappointed. This is a process. This is not about one event. This is not about the day we hold the meeting. This is about building the future of Syria. That is a long, difficult, complicated process. And so if it takes the Opposition Coalition a few more weeks to prepare themselves in the way they feel they need to, to be full partners, full delegation, at a conference, then we want to support them to do that.

Likewise, we would hope that the regime would use this time to see what is being wrought in Syria, to begin to take changes, as they’ve done, to acknowledge their CW, what they’re doing on the humanitarian side, and make changes. Dealing with the humanitarian disaster cannot await a conference. So all of these are steps in a process. The day the conference happens is one part of that process – a very important part, because a negotiation will begin – but all of the things that are happening in advance of that are what we call in negotiating parlance pre-negotiation steps; they are quite critical to having a successful outcome.

QUESTION: Nick Cumming-Bruce from The New York Times. At the time of Geneva 1, the U.S. position was very clear that --


PARTICIPANT: Bye, (inaudible).

QUESTION: -- that President Assad himself should not be part of the process going forward. To what extent has his agreement to go along with the destruction of chemical weapons increased or made more defensible the position that he could be part of the transition?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Secretary Kerry repeated again today in Poland – I was looking for the exact quote – that – let’s see if I can find it quickly – I don’t know – quote, “I don’t know how anybody believes the opposition is going to give mutual consent to Assad to continue. And the Syrian Government has accepted to come to Geneva, so I’m hoping the Syrian Government, the Russians, the Iranians, and others who support the Syrian regime will make certain the Syrian regime will live up to its obligation to come to Geneva to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria.” That is what the U.S. believes and continues to believe, that if you’re going to set up a transitional governing body with full executive authority by mutual consent, we cannot imagine that the opposition is going to consent to Assad being part of it.

Assad cooperating on chemical weapons after he, in fact, inflicted a chemical weapons attack on his own people to the scale that he did, to the devastation that he did – in our view, he has undermined his credibility with his people, not only with the CW attack, but with the over 100,000 deaths that have occurred, the 9 million people inside the country who are devastated, and the 2.2 million refugees.

We were told today that 6,000 people leave Syria --



SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: -- daily. Daily. Daily. How could he possibly have credibility as a leader?

QUESTION: But he says – or at least his information – said we are not going to Geneva to hand over power, no.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Geneva is a negotiation to create a transitional governing body with full executive powers by mutual consent, and I certainly stand by Secretary Kerry’s comments today in Poland.

QUESTION: Reuters, Stephanie Nebehay. Mr. Brahimi said tonight that everybody agreed that there should not be any preconditions coming to Geneva. Do you – is that an --

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: For us, the only thing that people should be coming to Geneva to do is to implement Geneva 1. That is the purpose of Geneva, this – the Geneva conference.

QUESTION: Nina Larson AFP. So do you think after the comments from the regime in Syria that there is a chance that they would then not come to the – and that would jeopardize the entire conference, wouldn’t it?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I would expect that the Syrian regime will come to the Geneva conference when it is scheduled. If they chose not to, they would only reveal to the world their desire to inflict further harm on their own people.

MODERATOR: One or two last questions, and then we --

QUESTION: Well, I have two questions, actually – (laughter) – of course. One is, just technically speaking in the communique, the question that my editors always debate is does it technically require Assad to step down? It’s not completely spelled out. I mean, the call for a transitional government in which he could play a part – it seems to imply that he would have to step down in order to – for that transitional government to be formed, and then he could have a role, but if the – and the second question actually is: Is there a linkage between these talks and your – when you – two days from now when you change hats, is there actually --

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I wear them all, all of the time. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I mean, is there that kind of level where, because obviously there’s lots of different interests here with regard to Iran and Syria that some horse trading could go on in terms of their participation here or this or that.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: So as I said, it’s a transitional governing body with full executive power by mutual consent, and I cannot imagine that the opposition, which has been devastated by the regime, would in fact agree for Assad to continue to rule in Syria. The – does say in the Geneva communique that it is critical to acknowledge the sovereignty, the territorial integrity of Syria. It’s important to restore the institutions of Syria. I think that if there are people in the Syrian Government, Syrian institutions who do not directly have blood on their hands, this is not a situation where anyone is looking for something like occurred in Iraq with the de-Baathification.

In fact, we want to make sure that institutions that are functioning, that are providing services for people can continue. That’s quite critical that we have a government that can govern, but govern with credibility. And governments govern with the consent of the people. In one fashion or another, they govern with the consent of the people. When that consent is no longer there, as it is not in Syria, then that government loses credibility, at least the leadership of that government. And in this case, when it has afflicted the harm on its own people, it loses that credibility in spades.

Now as to horse trading, this is not about horse trading. These are two very separate situations. The negotiation later this week is about Iran’s nuclear program and these other issues are not in that discussion. So it is very focused on the nuclear issue. If progress is made on the nuclear issue, does that have any effect on broader issues? We’ll see. I don't know.

QUESTION: But there was no direct or even remotely indirect linkage today between the two issues?


QUESTION: Okay. In any way in terms of --


QUESTION: -- well, maybe we can help get --

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: There was not by us. We believe each of these are sui generis in themselves. The Syrian situation is horrific not only for the people inside Syria, but for the neighborhood and for the Middle East and the Levant. We had representatives from the four neighbors who are hosting literally millions of Syrians. It has also had an effect on others in the region to try to – some have used the Syria situation to try to stoke sectarianism in the region. Some have used Syria to bring in foreign fighters and foreign interests. And it is quite critical that we allow Syria to have a Syrian future for the Syrian people, and that we deal with the presence of other powers in the area on their own terms.

QUESTION: Is Iran’s participation in this – is that one of the sticking points that made it impossible today to reach a date? Because Russia came out and said they wanted them at the table.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: We know Russia wants them at the table. There are many people who want Iran at the table. And Iran clearly plays a role in the region. Whether you think it’s a good one or not a good one depends on who’s looking. Obviously, we have some great concerns about Iran’s participation in the conflict and Iran’s financing of Lebanese Hezbollah. At the same time, Iran is going to continue to play some role, and we want to make sure that they do not play a negative role going into the future. But I want to reiterate what I said, which is the United States believes everybody who comes to the Geneva conference should subscribe to the Geneva communique, have made that commitment before they come. Iran has not chosen to do that.

QUESTION: If it did, would you support its participation?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: We’ll see when they say it. Happy if they do.


QUESTION: One question not on Syria?

MODERATOR: One. And I think this’ll be --


MODERATOR: -- our last question and then we’ll wrap it up.

QUESTION: Have the discussions that have been taking place since you last met on the EU3+3 or 5+1, have those discussions created what you consider an already strong platform for going into another round of talks?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Now you’re having me do the backgrounder I’m going to do --

MODERATOR: Tomorrow night.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: -- tomorrow night. (Laughter.) So --


MODERATOR: We can save that for tomorrow.

PRN: 2013/1350