Geneva II Process and the Overall Situation in Syria

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Via teleconference
Washington, DC
January 31, 2014

MODERATOR: Good evening, everybody – or good afternoon, I guess, depending on where you are. We’ve just completed the first week of talks here in Geneva between the Syrian and opposition delegations. We have [Senior U.S. Official] here with us, who henceforth will be Senior U.S. Official. [Senior U.S. Official] is going to give you all an assessment of this past week and a sense of where we’re going in the days and weeks to follow.

With that – again, this is on background, U.S. Senior Official, and I’ll turn it over now to our U.S. Senior Official.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Hi, everybody. I – just right at the start, I’d just say that as we look at this first round of talks here at the Geneva II conference, the most important thing is that finally there is a process launched. It is, I think, significant that throughout the week, the two sides agreed to stay in the room and working with Lakhdar Brahimi to talk to each other. That is not a small thing given that this conflict is now almost three years old. It’s really going to be three years old next month.

That said, I can’t say that they got a lot accomplished, but then I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect quick results from a very bitter conflict where 130,000 people have been killed. And I don’t think that round two is going to produce gigantic breakthroughs either. I think this is just going to be a step-by-step process.

And so looking forward, we hope that in the next round, there will be more substantive discussions on some of the key issues involved in fully implementing the Geneva I communique, such as issues relating to release of prisoners, humanitarian access, and especially – and especially the work that needs to be done to start setting up a transition governing body by mutual consent that will have full executive authority.

And so with that, I’m going to start taking questions, I think.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the pound key. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you do have a question, press *1 at this time.

And our first question goes to the line of Michael Gordon from New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: [Senior U.S. Official], one area in which Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov expressed hope prior to the opening round of these talks that they – in which they thought progress might be made was the opening of the humanitarian aid corridors. But the London 11 statement indicates that this didn’t happen and also (inaudible) that the regime was generally responsible for the lack of progress.

In your assessment, do you agree that it was the Assad government that is generally responsible for the lack of progress at these talks, including the fact that the aid corridors were not open? And what additional steps does the United States plan to take at this point in time – economic, diplomatic, or military – to ensure that the aid can be delivered to these besieged communities and encourage progress in the talks? What additional leverage does the United States intend to put on the Assad government to encourage progress? Thank you.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Michael, thanks for that question. We certainly do believe that it is the regime primarily which has blocked humanitarian access, and in particular to places such as the towns of the Eastern Ghouta to the east of Damascus, to the old city of Homs, to Yarmouk, although they did allow a delivery yesterday. But don’t just take our word for it. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent today issued a statement denouncing the Syrian Government, a very brave statement considering that the people are there on the ground in Syria and risk arrest. The United Nations has made statements to this effect and I would refer you, for example, to the statement made by Navi Pillay on January 17th where she specifically cited the government and its associated militias for blocking aid.

It is very clear that although there are two towns in northern Syria – Zahraa and Nubl, and near them a third place called Fua, where we would say that the opposition is blocking food convoys for about 45,000 people, there are approximately 200 to 240,000 people in the different areas I mentioned – Eastern Ghouta, the areas of Homs, Muadhamiya, and a few others where it is the regime that is blocking aid. And people are literally dying of malnutrition in places like Yarmouk and Homs.

It is very clear, as I’ve got the Geneva Communique in front of me – it says that it is the government’s responsibility in paragraph five – “The government must allow immediate and full humanitarian access to humanitarian organizations”. And so we again call on the Syrian Government to implement fully the Geneva communique, not to mention to respect the norms set by the Geneva conventions, for example.

You asked about next steps, Michael. The next thing that we’re looking forward to is a meeting in Rome chaired by the United Nations Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos. She will chair a meeting in Rome next Monday, February 3rd, to talk about the implementation of the November presidential statement out of the United Nations Security Council.

Our point of view is that the presidential statement, various stipulations regarding humanitarian access and treatment of civilian populations, has not been met. And so we look forward to hearing what Valerie Amos has to say, and then we’ll need to think about next steps.

I note that some countries, members of the Security Council, both representing the Arab League and some other countries, are again talking about a Security Council resolution. So let us see first what comes out of the Monday meeting.


MODERATOR: Next question.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I never know how to say I’m finished.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question goes from the line of Maria Habib from Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. Most people massacre my last name. It’s Abi-Habib. But thanks for having this (inaudible), [Senior U.S. Official].

I’m just curious: Minister Muallim had said that he has to go back to Damascus and consult with Assad and get an idea of whether or not they can actually come back on the 10th. I’m wondering, first of all, whether or not you think this is just posturing, and secondly, whether or not the Russians would allow for the Syrians to not come back, if that was their choice. Do you think that the Russians would put enough pressure on them and have the will to put the pressure on them to make sure that they do resume talks on the 10th? Thanks.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Well, thank you, Maria. First, let me say that during this week in Geneva, we have had regular meetings with Russian counterparts here in Geneva, and Secretary Kerry is meeting Foreign Minister Lavrov tonight in a bilateral meeting as well as a meeting which will involve Kerry, Lavrov, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Both meetings, I’m sure, are going to have a heavy focus on the Geneva talks. So we will continue to work closely with the Russians on this process. We’ve all put a lot of effort – United States, Russian Federation, and the United Nations have put a lot of effort into getting this political process started. And I have no doubt of the commitment of the Russian Federation and the United Nations to try to convince the Syrian delegation to come. It will obviously be a sovereign decision of the Syrian Government, and I – but I would just say I find Minister Muallim’s reluctance to make a commitment telling, and probably is an indication of their understanding that they have a very hard case to defend.


MODERATOR: Next question?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: You guys are laughing at me like I’m some military dude or something. (Laughter.)

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’ll go to the line of Liz Sly from The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: To follow up on the Russians, have you seen any examples this week of where they’ve actually intervened to put any pressure on the government delegation during the past few days? And also, what do you think the significance of Jarba’s visit to Moscow (inaudible)? (Inaudible) he had time to go before the conference and it couldn’t happen. But do you think – do you see any sign that they’re going – that there’s going to be sort of a warming of ties between the Russians and the opposition? And have the Russians changed their mind at all about the opposition as a result of how they acquitted themselves this week in the talks?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Well, these won’t be the first meetings – when Jarba goes to Moscow, this won’t be the first time that the Russian Federation’s representatives have sat with representatives from the Syrian Opposition Forces Coalition, there have been meetings in the past, but it will be the first time that Jarba himself goes to Moscow, and I do think that’s interesting. And I think it’s interesting for two reasons. Number one, Russia is obviously a country of great importance on the Syrian issue. Everyone understands that. Everyone agrees on that. They have their interests, and they have their influence. And I think it’s important that Jarba is going to Moscow in order to hear what the Russians have to say. But at the same time, it gets very interesting that the Russians will receive Jarba. They had received Foreign Minister Muallim two weeks ago. Now they’re seeing Jarba, and that, to me, indicates that the Russian side also recognizes that the Opposition Forces Coalition also has a role to play in resolving the Syrian conflict.

I don’t know that it signals a huge change in the Russian position. But I do think it’s positive that the Russians hear clearly what are the concerns from the Opposition Forces Coalition, an organization which the United States and approximately 90 other countries have recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

You asked about what the Russians are doing with the Syrian Government during the week in pressure. I’m not the spokesman for the Russian Federation, but I would like to say that we understand that the Russian ambassador has been trying very hard, working with the United Nations officials on the ground and with Syrian authorities to facilitate humanitarian access. And I am sure that is a difficult job that the Russian ambassador is doing, and that we appreciate his efforts.


MODERATOR: Next question.

OPERATOR: And next we’ll go to the line of Ann Gearan from The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, and thanks for doing this. [Senior U.S. Official], could you just step back for a moment and describe for us a bit what your interactions have been like with the Syrian Government? I mean, you don’t get to see and talk to them as – so often anymore. What was it like? How did they receive you? Were there any particular anecdotes you want to share about what – sort of what it was like just kind of dealing with them directly over the last couple of weeks? Thank you.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: We had no meetings at all with the Syrian delegation, and we were not in any meetings where they were present except for the conference at Montreux. And some people on our delegation knew one or two of them and said hello, but we had absolutely no substantive conversation of any kind with them.

QUESTION: Was that by your choice, or just by the way it was structured? And would you have preferred to have done it differently?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I don’t. I would just have to say I think both our government and theirs are satisfied with the level of interaction right now. I must say that some of the things which the Syrian delegation has accused us of doing are rather ridiculous, but frankly, don’t even rise to the level where they merit a response.


MODERATOR: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And --

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Sorry. I’m supposed to say next question, okay.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’ll go to the line of Nadia Bilbassy from the Al Arabiya Television. Please go ahead.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Thank you. It’s with Al Arabiya Television. Thank you, [Senior U.S. Official]. Hopefully we’ll do the next one in Arabic.

You --


QUESTION: You – (in Arabic.) (Laughter.) Walid Muallim just said that the opposition are not a real partner. He said they are immature. Do you dismiss that as rhetoric, or is this an indication, actually, that the next round is not going to go anywhere?

And second, Mr. Feltman just said now in a conference in Washington that not one single Syrian life has been saved while the talks was going on in Geneva. Why doesn’t the United States lead the effort to go to the UN Security Council and introduce a resolution to force the Syrian regime to allow humanitarian access to the besieged areas, especially Yarmouk and Homs?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: First, with respect to what Minister Muallim said, I would simply say that name-calling and insulting the delegation that represented the Syrian people, the Syrian Opposition Forces Coalition at Montreux, calling them names, calling some of their individual members names, both behind closed doors as well as in public, that, to me, is the mark of genuine immaturity. And only one of the two sides stooped – fell to that level. And I have nothing else to say about it.

With respect to our actions with the Security Council, I would just say two things. Number one, we have repeatedly – we, the United States – have repeatedly said that there needs to be access given for the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the International Red Cross, and other aid delivery organizations to urgently reach populations in need. We are the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance, and I think our commitment to that is very visible. Whether or not going to the Security Council is the best way forward, I think I don’t want to prejudge that. I mentioned the meetings in Rome next Monday which is the next step, but it is important that the Syrian Government reverse its policy, a policy which, I think you would know from Al Arabiya, is called (in Arabic), either submit or starve. That policy contravenes the Government Convention and also the Geneva I Communique. And so it is incumbent on the government to reverse that policy or the international community must decide what is the best way forward.

MODERATOR: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’ll go to the line of Hisham Melham from Al Arabiya Television. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, [Senior U.S. Official], Al Arabiya loves you very much, I guess. You have two. Could you please --

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Hold on a minute (inaudible) Hisham.

QUESTION: (In Arabic.) Thank you. Sir, could you please address these reports – and recently The New York Times published one of them – about contacts and collaboration, in fact, between the Syrian regime and the state – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, so called ISIS, or in Arabic, Jaish, selling oil – they are sending oil to the Syrian regime. Could you talk a little bit about the machinations or the contacts between the Syrian regime and groups like that, since everybody’s pointing out to the simple fact that the Syrian regime never attack the very well-known positions of ISIS?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I would just say a couple of things. We have seen what appear to be credible reports in newspapers such as the British Guardian about deals between the regime and al-Qaida linked terrorist groups in Syria concerning the sale of petroleum products. It is a known fact that the regime has declined to hit the headquarters of the al-Qaida linked Islamic State group, Jaish in Raqqah, but they’ve hit plenty of other targets belonging to other armed groups in Raqqah. And there are other examples. I think you know them as well as I do, Hisham. I do not want to go beyond saying that there is a curious selection process, apparently, in the way that the Syrian air forces and military forces are choosing their priority targets.


SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Over. Next question. (Laughter.)

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’ll go to the line of Nick Schifrin form Al Jazeera, America. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior U.S. Official]. It’s Nick Schifrin. Thanks for doing this and thanks for talking to us again. Two questions, one about Homs and I – forgive me, I was a few minutes late. You might have already answered a little bit about this. But we talked about this a few times this week – this aid is just a few hundred feet from the people inside the Old City. You are meeting with the Russians every day, you are pushing publicly and privately, and yet still there has been no movement. I mean, what leverage do you really have? What leverage does anyone really have to get that aid in?

And secondly, you’ve been very clear that you hoped this week that the opposition would be seen as more legitimate, that one of the goals of this week was that in Syria and the international community, the opposition would be seen on a kind of more level playing field or seen as ready for prime time, so to speak. Do you have any evidence that that has actually happened, especially inside of Syria?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: With respect to Homs, Nick, it is a very frustrating situation that there are literally hundreds of food parcels ready to be delivered to people who are in desperate need, and that the regime continues to block that access. I do want to add a point here, and I think this is significant. There have been negotiations about whether or not some civilians in Homs should be allowed to leave Homs. I want to be clear about the American perspective on this. Number one, civilians who want to leave a fighting zone obviously must be allowed to leave, and neither opposition nor government should block that departure of civilians who want to leave. But in addition, it is not appropriate [break in audio] --


SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: -- behind, and we have a problem on both levels there. And so we, the United States, will keep working with the United Nations, keep working with the Russians, and we will keep pushing for both of those issues to be addressed.

With respect to your question on the opposition, it’s not really for the Americans to decide whether or not they are legitimate. I just would notice that they’ve gotten a lot of press coverage in the international media. But what I think is more significant – you’ve probably seen a lot of it too – there have been a lot of messages from Syrians inside Syria as well as Syrians outside saying that the delegations, and particular, the speech that Jarba gave at Montreux, got extremely good reviews. There’s been at least a surge – I don’t know if it will last, but there’s been a surge of hope among Syrians – we see this reflected for example in social media networks – that perhaps there is a way out of this conflict.

And I have to say I was very impressed with Jarba’s speech where he specifically reached out to some communities who have what I think are genuine fears about the future, and Jarba laid out a vision for them. And I think it’s extremely important that Jarba notes that mothers who lose their children fighting on behalf of the uprising, and mothers who lose their children fighting on behalf of the regime, all of those mothers and all of those children are Syrians. And that is a message which I have not heard from the government, and I was very glad to hear it from Jarba.


MODERATOR: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And now we’ll go to the line of Lesley Wroughton from Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon. [Senior U.S. Official], I was wondering whether the issue of the Syria chemical weapons had come up in the talks at any stage, whether you think that this does kind of darken the clouds a little bit for the talks when promises made by the Assad government to move those – the chemical weapons out has not happened. Less than 4 percent or that they said 5 percent has actually moved. Do you know what kind of pressure is being put on the government? What could happen if they don’t move this? Is there kind of a timeline? I know there’s some deadlines, but the fact that they’ve hardly moved anything, how does this influence the talks at all?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I am not aware – remember that the Americans were not in the negotiations room, and so our information comes from talking to people who were in the room.

QUESTION: Correct.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: But I wasn’t in the room so I have never heard that the chemical weapons issues came up in any serious way during this week of talks here in Geneva. But I can tell you that it was the subject of discussions between Under Secretary Sherman and Russian officials in Moscow on Wednesday. The Secretary today emphasized our points of view which include: (a) that there is a UN Security Council and an implementation – a Security Council resolution and an implementation plan; and we expect the Syrian regime to abide by it. And therefore, I don’t know that the chemical weapons issue darkened the talks here, but there is a credibility issue for the Syrian Government, whether it be with respect to chemical weapons, and whether or not it would implement any deal that was ever reached here in Geneva, if we do get to a deal.

And so it is time for the Syrian Government to show its seriousness of purpose and begin to move the materials from the 12 sites the Secretary mentioned, so that they can be transported out of Syria and destroyed. They are already behind – the Syrians are already behind, seriously behind, on their timetable.

QUESTION: Do you think – can you hear me on this one?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay, sorry. How quickly do you think – I mean, do you think that the threat of a Chapter 7 could come up, the longer they delay this? And number two, is this also a credibility issue for the Russians who – and to pressure Assad on this?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I’m not going to speculate on Chapter 7 now, because right now we’re trying to see if the Syrian Government will actually lock on and, through serious messages from the international community, begin to move the material. But of course, there is a Security Council resolution and there are references in that resolution to what would happen were the Syrian Government not to comply with the Security Council resolutions requirements. So that resolution is in place. And ultimately if we have to go down that route, we’ll go down that route.


MODERATOR: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next we’ll go to the line of Mina Al-Oraibi from Asharq Al-Awsat. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello, [Senior U.S. Official], it’s Mina Al-Oraibi from Asharq Al-Awsat.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you regarding delegations from the opposition, are you expecting it will be changed or expanded in the second round if it does go ahead with the Syrian Government’s approval and specifically whether armed groups would be included?

Also, related to that, the UK Government today – the foreign secretary was saying that they’re keen to have women’s groups as part of this negotiations, not just on the sidelines as happened in the first round. Is that something you support?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Let me work backwards on those questions, Mina. First with respect to the participation of women, the Geneva Communique itself has a sentence which calls for the full participation of women in this Geneva Communique process, and we strongly support that. During our discussions with the opposition in the run-up to this conference, we urged them both to consult with different Syrian women’s groups and organizations and also to be sure that they had a strong presence of women delegates in their delegation. One of the vice presidents of the coalition is a woman, Noura al-Ameer. I think she was the subject of an article in the Washington Post a couple of days ago. She’s in the delegation. Suheir al-Atassi, a lawyer and very brave human rights activist, in the delegation, as is Rima Fleihan from the Druze region of Suwayda in southern Syria.

So I have not seen the British Government’s remarks and so I don’t want to comment on those, except to say that I myself in Geneva a couple of times have met with a couple of women’s groups. They are here monitoring the talks and lobbying their issues. One of the groups that is particularly interesting because it includes both supporters of the current Syrian Government as well as supporters of the opposition, that’s a pretty rare thing in such a bitter conflict, and I applaud those women for having that kind of an inclusive group that can cross boundaries. That’s really useful. And I think groups like that have a real role to play in trying to help the delegations find a way forward.

(Inaudible) question?

QUESTION: And the armed groups?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Sorry. Armed groups. Oh, I mean, our position on the armed groups has long been that they are a major factor in this conflict, a huge factor, and there needs to be a way for them to be included in the process. They will make their own decisions about whether they want to do that, but we would be supportive.

MODERATOR: We have time for maybe one or two more questions before the [Senior U.S. Official] has to go to another meeting.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next we’ll go to the line of Michel Ghandour from al-Hurra TV. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior U.S. Official]. If after one week of negotiations with all the international pressure the two parties were not able to agree on any humanitarian access or a ceasefire, how long do you expect them to agree on the transitional body? And secondly, with this military balance on the ground, do you expect an agreement at the end of the day in Geneva?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: First with respect to your first question, how long will it take, I think it’s going to take a long time. I don’t want to give you a number because I don’t know myself. But I told my team here, and I’ve said to people in Washington even before we got here, this will be a long, hard negotiation. It’s a very bitter, very nasty conflict on the ground in Syria, 130,000 dead, and you don’t expect to solve a conflict like that in a week or two. I wish it were otherwise. I wish that the Syrian Government had engaged in a more substantive way to the ideas put forward by the opposition forces coalition this week on how a transition governing body might be established, but they didn’t. And so we hope for a more substantive discussion in round two. But how long that’s going to take I don’t know. I would not want to leave anyone the sense that we’re optimistic that there will be a breakthrough in the next round or the round thereafter. This will be a long process that requires a lot of persistence on the part of the parties and the international community.

QUESTION: And what about the military balance?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Sorry. Remind me about the military balance? What’s your question?

QUESTION: With this military balance on the ground, do you expect any agreement?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I don’t know if we’ll have an agreement out of Geneva II or not. I really do not know. What I also think, though, is two things. Number one, this is a nasty war of attrition on the ground in Syria. There are heavy casualties on all sides. But in a war of attrition, the side that depends on the smaller communities and depends heavily on foreign assistance is probably at a disadvantage. And second, I think more and more Syrians inside Syria – again, if you look at the social media and you see the reactions of people, more and more Syrians want a political process to end this conflict and to set the path for a transition to a new Syria that respects the dignity of all Syrian citizens, all communities, and that enables Syria to rebuild. Syria desperately needs to rebuild.

MODERATOR: Last question.

OPERATOR: Thank you, and your last question will go the line of Rosiland Jordan from Al-Jazeera English TV. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior U.S. Official]. It’s Al-Jazeera English. Two quick questions. One, was there any substantive discussion from what you were able to see this week about allowing Iran to come in absent its acceptance of all the terms of Geneva I? And then the other question: Is the reticence that you seem to be expressing about possibly taking this situation to the Security Council because of any lingering questions on whether Moscow might want to exercise a veto?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Well, I think in any situation where we’re talking about the United Nations Security Council, you always have to count the votes. You need to understand that going in.

With respect to your question about the Iranians, there was no discussion about them that I am aware of. Again, we weren’t in the room, but I have not heard that Iran came up except, interestingly, during the discussion about security and terrorism where the opposition people told us that they said, “Yes, we think there’s terrorist organizations in Syria, and one of them includes Hezbollah.” So – but I’m not aware that they had much of a discussion about Iran beyond that.

May I just say on – with respect to the Security Council, we’re not taking anything off the table, but we’re moving deliberately. And I think that’s what needs to be understood.

QUESTION: Great, thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone.