Background Briefing: Preview of Secretary of State John Kerry's Travel to Paris and Rome

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Washington, DC
March 4, 2014

MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. Thanks for jumping on. I know today’s a crazy busy day, and I know we’re all rushing to get ready for the trip. So I appreciate it. So on this call we’ll talk a little about the Paris and Rome stops. We’ll do – we’ll background on the Kyiv stop on the plane, so just for your all planning purposes that’s what we’re looking at right now. We have two senior State Department officials with us today. The first is [Senior State Department Official One]. He’ll be talking about the piece we’re going to be doing in Paris on Lebanon. And then our [Senior State Department Official Two] who will walk us through a little bit of what we’ll be doing in Rome on Libya. And then we are, of course, happy to take questions. So with that I’ll turn it over to [Senior State Department Official One] to say a few words and then [Senior State Department Official Two], and then we’ll do questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, thanks [Moderator]. This meeting in Paris of the international support group is now the next installment in something that began in, you’ll remember, in September at the – at last year’s UN General Assembly that the Secretary attended. It was a group put together originally with the P5 and the EU and a representative of the EU, a representative of the Arab League, and others. And it’s since expanded somewhat. To demonstrate support for Lebanon and its state institutions – I’ll get into that more in a minute and in the wake – or as it confronts the spillover form the Syrian conflict, which includes the refugee problem, but is by no means limited to the refugee issue, or the flow of refugees.

So at that event in September, Lebanese President Suleiman was there. A strong vote of support – voice of support rather from the international community to support Lebanon’s sovereignty, its security, and its stability, and to help it out on the humanitarian side in coping with the burden of the refugee population, which is at least 20 percent of the overall population – if you add them into the little of 4 million Lebanese that are there, you get about 20 percent of the population in 1,600 different communities. So it’s an enormous – it is an enormous burden to deal with.

We – those in the international support group thought it was important to keep the group going and to focus it on – not only on the humanitarian part of this – and some of you were there in Kuwait when the Secretary did the last Kuwait donors conference and we gave our last pledge of $76 million to the – to Lebanon. And that brings to a total of U.S. money to Lebanon since the start of this conflict strictly for the refugees to be $340 million.

It’s also meant to show support – and you can go back and read the statement from September of the international support group for the – when I say these state institutions, I mean particularly the Lebanese armed forces. So we’ve long been an assister and a supporter of the Lebanese armed forces as a truly national institution in a country that doesn’t really have many other national institutions. And it’s important that given the current security environment that we’ve always felt that we need to – even before the Syrian conflict but certainly with the Syrian conflict and the spillover – to build up the Lebanese armed forces capabilities. We’ve done that over the years for the last nine years or so to the tune of between $900 million and a billion dollars. And we will continue our assistance.

You will – that will probably be – part of the international support group will be on the assistance to support to the LAF as well as dealing with the refugee situation. And then the last piece of this is also to show support for Lebanon’s political institutions. We just had the formation of a government in their system. The government is now trying to gain internal agreement on what they call a ministerial statement, which it needs in order to get a vote of confidence. It has 30 days from – mid-February was when they named the – announced the cabinet, which is this – what’s called the 888 formula. We can get into it in questions, if you’d like.

And beyond the formation of the government and beyond the getting of – hopefully getting of confidence – parliamentary confidence of the government, the cabinet, is we have the prospect of presidential elections. That process begins March 25th and has to produce a president by May 25th. It’s a two-month process. It’s a parliamentary election of the president. And that is so as to prevent a vacuum – or a vacancy rather – at the presidency. And then we’re looking forward to further down the road parliamentary elections. So this is all meant to be a boost – a strong boost of support for responsible voices in Lebanon to help it get through all of the current challenges that it will be facing.

I mean in terms of the structure of the event, you may know there’ll be statements by President Hollande as the host and President Suleiman, and then it will be a lunch with the international support group and a meeting. There is also an economic – broader economic component to this, which is being worked out with the – either will be the representative of the World Bank – the vice president of the Middle East for the World Bank for a trust fund, and there will be a presentation by the UN high commissioner for refugees, and I believe a presentation by the UN development program.

I will lastly say that one of the things that Secretary Kerry did when he was at the September event is to announce a $30 million bilateral contribution in addition to all the money that we’ve given for Lebanon through the UNHCR. And he’ll talk – we will be talking about the implementation of that money at this upcoming meeting, which is focused – it’s important to focus not just on money to deal with the refugee burden but also to help out those host communities. Because unlike in some other countries, Lebanon basically does not have real refugee camps. These – the Syrians are living in communities. I’ll leave it there.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. [Senior State Department Official Two], if you want to say a few words about what we’ll be doing in Rome, and then we can do some questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. The Rome ministerial comes 13 months after the last ministerial on Libya, which was in Paris. The one a year ago focused on security in particular; the one this year is going to add a governance theme to the security theme. And there’ll be a governance compact to supplement last year’s security compact, and that in turn will be updated. In essence, there are three strands of the work that Libya is seeking support and receiving support from the international participants in this conference. The first is further support for their political work as they move from a transitional government to a hopefully more permanent one next year. They’ve had some achievements even in the last month in that regard.

They’ve moved ahead with elections for a constitutional drafting assembly on February 20th, which is critical to getting a constitution in place. And that’s a pretty big deal. And they’ve got a national dialogue going, which is an effort to try and get concurrence on what the elements will be for the constitutional structure going forward. There’s some very tricky issues – how secular, how sharia, how much revenue sharing, and how is that going to work. East and west, tribes – tribes and center, Berbers and black Africans and Arabs, and they’re going to have to work all that through for this national dialogue. The purpose of the ministerial is to provide further support for them if they go through this with a structured consensus approach on what a roadmap needs to be for the remainder of 2014 to get into 2015, as well as more specific support for things like public financial administration and other governance reforms they need to put into place in order to make the revenues that Libya has more available to provide goods and services, and well-being for the people of Libya.

And there are a lot of countries participating in this. In addition to the P3+3, you have much of Western Europe. You’ve got the neighbors, you’ve got the Gulf states, and that’s the core of it.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks so much. If folks have questions for either of our senior State Department officials, we can go ahead and take them now.

OPERATOR: Thank you, and ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating that you’ve been placed into queue, and you may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. Once again, if you have a question or a comment, please press *1.

MODERATOR: We answered all of your questions.

OPERATOR: There are no questions in queue.

MODERATOR: Oh, okay. Let’s give it a few minutes. And thanks, guys. I know we’re focused on other stuff as well, but obviously, these are very important parts of our trip, so we wanted to make sure you had the background before we all got caught up in the busy-ness of the next 24 hours.

OPERATOR: And again, if you do have a question or a comment, please press *1.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks, guys. It looks like --

OPERATOR: We do have some in queue.

MODERATOR: We do? Oh, good. Okay. I spoke too soon. Go ahead.

OPERATOR: We have a question from Michel Ghandour from MBN. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Thanks for doing this. I would like to ask about the states or the countries that will attend the conference in Paris.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes. I think to a certain extent it’s a little bit in flux, to be perfectly honest with you. And the French are the hosts. So we’re hearing of some countries that are seeking – that were not part of the September meeting, that are seeking to. In the meantime, since September, I mentioned that the group has expanded. And one of those I know that was added since September into the group is Italy, and I think Spain as well, and other – there were some individual – but as I said, September it was just the EU as the representative of Europe, so now there are some individual countries. I believe the Saudis may be there as well, but it is literally still in flux as we speak as to the final of it. And I don’t know if the French could give you a final list right now, but they – it’s technically a UN body, set up by the UN, but given that the host is France, they’ve been working together to receive and then decide on additional requests that they’ve gotten.

QUESTION: And will there be any U.S. pledge in this conference to Lebanon?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, there will – we pledged additional money last time, and as you know, we just made another pledge through the UNHCR, through the Kuwait donors’ conference. And we will, of course, as we have been in all the other cases, be responding to future UNHCR appeals.

This is not meant as really a pledging conference, per se, but there are some smaller countries, I think, that may be giving some money, and a few others who may not have given money before and who may not have active ongoing bilateral programs like, in our case, the United States has active ongoing programs. I mentioned the $30 million that we did in September. But we have also other economic development programs that are meant to benefit these local communities that I told you that are hosting the refugees.

QUESTION: And finally, question for me: Regarding the upcoming presidential elections, what can the group do for Lebanon?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think the group wants to send a message. The group is not involved, of course, in talking about individual candidates. It wants to see – we all want to see that the presidential elections are held on time and according to the constitution. So it’s to give the support for, I think, the Lebanese people, who want to see that as well. So it’s this expression of support and that call, and I think you will see that as – on calls on the part of several of those who speak added, as well as the ISG itself, for the elections to be held on time and according to the constitution.

QUESTION: Thank you.


OPERATOR: Thank you. And we also have a question from Margaret Brennan from CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: I also had a question about (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Could somebody else hear that better than I could? (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: Yeah, Margaret, I think something’s wrong with your phone. Can you try again?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: We still can’t hear you. I’m sorry. Can anyone else hear? [Senior State Department Official One]?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I couldn’t hear her. It’s all the clicking, and I --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Sorry. I think – I thought I heard what is it beyond a statement of support, but I’m not really sure.

Now it’s worse.

MODERATOR: Yeah, now we can’t hear anything. Margaret, maybe try calling in from a different phone.

OPERATOR: We’ll move to the line of Anne Gearan from Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Yes. I think I sort of had a similar question. In – particularly in light of all that’s going on in Ukraine and the separate U.S.-Russian cooperation and sort of mutual finger pointing about Syria, how concerned are you that the purely Lebanon governance part of this meeting will get overshadowed by both U.S.-Russia on Syria and Ukraine?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. I can’t speak, obviously, for the Ukraine part. I don’t know if [Moderator] wants to say something about that. I would say that we consider this an extremely important meeting for Lebanon per se, apart from Syria. We need – we all need to look at Lebanon as a very important actor in the region, one that is under – facing really great challenges, not only because of the Syrian conflict, but obviously, primarily right now because of the Syrian conflict. But we need to look at Lebanon as itself and need to – and we need to help support the institutions of Lebanon that can then defend Lebanon’s sovereignty, security, and preserve its stability, and even move ahead with its economic challenges. So, look, there’s a lot of inherent importance in showing that support, which is why we wanted this ISG not to be a one-off conference in September, to be a very much a living body that could weigh in from time to time and mobilize support.

So for us, the focus is – of this is really on Lebanon.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And again, if you do have a question or a comment, please press *1. And speakers, there are no further questions in queue.

MODERATOR: Okay, great. Well, if folks have follow-ups, obviously, feel free to shoot them to me. I know we’re all scrambling today, but thanks for helping on the call. And again, this was all senior State Department officials on background. And we will see everyone on the plane and we’ll talk about Ukraine then.

So thanks, guys. See you soon.