Background Briefing on Previewing Secretary Kerry's Trip to Jeddah

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
September 10, 2014


MODERATOR: All right, [Senior State Department Official]. One of the reporters wants you to know they all have stuffed camels in their room here, so we don’t know the back story of that. So we have --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay.

MODERATOR: We have the full group here with us.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay.

MODERATOR: Just for the purposes of the transcript, this is a background call with attribution to a Senior State Department Official. We’ll, of course, have a transcript. So [Senior State Department Official] will just give a – just a quick overview of tomorrow, we’ll take some questions. And we have a hard stop at 10:00 if not before, so let’s get started.

QUESTION: Can you put this on the record?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, good evening. Let me give you an overview of what we expect tomorrow. Do you all hear an echo on this line?

MODERATOR: We’re okay, but is it okay for you? We can also try calling you with the cell phone, but that’s always a little --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, this is fine. Let me just go ahead.

MODERATOR: It’s fine? Yeah, we’re good.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: If you can hear it, it’s fine.

We’ve got the GCC members coming – Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey – all actual or potential victims of ISIL. And let me say up front that I don’t think this meeting for the coalition starts as a blank slate. Many of the countries are already taking action against ISIL. You know there are large bases in the region which are being used for military action. Substantial donations have already been made. The Saudis gave 500 million to the UN, for instance. Countries have already begun speaking out against extremism, in my view in an unprecedented way. There was a statement by King Abdullah in which he admonished religious scholars for perceived laziness and inaction on denouncing terrorist groups. And then I think UN Resolution 2170 gives us a very strong basis for international action.

But the trip by the Secretary is going to broaden the coalition and bring it into more focus and intensify the lines of effort. And I know you’ve already been briefed on the various lines of effort, but let me give you a little more description. It’s very important in my view that the Saudis are hosting this meeting because they’ll be a key element of the coalition both because of their size and economic importance but also because of their religious significance with Sunnis. And the creation of the new Iraqi Government has obviously been a key factor in bringing the Saudis around. It’s also been a key factor that they feel increasingly threatened by ISIL, and in the press here is the fact that in the past few weeks they have broken up a cell of somewhere between 80 and a hundred AQ and ISIL recruiters, as well as a thousand Saudis in Iraq and Syria who can come home with quite dangerous skills.

Let me say what the Secretary will be looking for tomorrow. On the military side we’ve had really good cooperation from these Gulf countries for years. We may need enhanced basing and overflights as well as some of the other coalition partners, and there’s going to be a meeting soon of defense ministers to work on these details.

The Secretary will also be asking for enhanced effort against financing by individual citizens. This is a lot less than it used to be and a lot of progress has been made with individual Gulf countries’ citizens sending money to extremist groups, but much more needs to be done, frankly, in Kuwait and Qatar, where enforcement has been spotty.

He’ll also talk about revenue from oil smuggling. We believe that oil smuggled out by trucks through the Jordanian and Turkish borders is a serious problem. Both those countries have pledged to do all they can to stop it, but we’ll be working with them more intently over the next few weeks on intelligence sharing and border control. And there’s a team of experts coming out here to the region very shortly.

He’s also going to ask them to use their nationally owned media, and in two particular cases, this is Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, and encourage their religious establishments to speak out against extremism. And this in my view is why the statement by King Abdullah to the clergy is so important. There are these major media groups that have a huge role in the region, but they need to get at the clerics because the clerics can get at the mosques and in the neighborhood, and they have to expose ISIL for what it is. This is also going to be an ask of the Egyptians, to have the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Dar al-Ifta, their major Islamic seats of learning, to speak out against ISIL, although they’ve already done some of that.

And then finally, we’re going to ask these countries to do more on the humanitarian side. The Saudis have given 500 million, as I mentioned, to the UN, and that was a good head start. It was one of the few times that I recall that the UN had enough money to get serious relief efforts underway. But financial demands will grow both for reconstruction and for devastated communities as they’re rescued, essentially, from ISIL. So Gulf countries will be in a good position to help with humanitarian donations.

And then finally, let me say a few words about Syria. This focus on ISIL does not mean that we’re any less committed to getting rid of Bashar al-Assad. We’re working, as many of you know, much more closely with these Gulf countries in programs we’re not supposed to discuss publicly than we have been in the past. And there’s a lot more coherence among Gulf countries and the United States, and Turkey and Jordan, for that matter, in confronting Bashar al-Assad.

The Secretary’s going to discuss in more detail tomorrow with the Saudis the train and equip program. That’s pending on the Hill. It’s a quite good program not only to support the moderate opposition but also because it can form some basis or be integrated in a post-Assad security force.

But then finally, it’s just a question of priorities with ISIL. And a few weeks ago ISIL was pressing against the Jordanian border as those border posts changed hands a few times. So this is essentially a very high priority for the region. And I think tomorrow’s meeting is going to focus these efforts and enhance them in a way we haven’t done so far.

So I can take any questions you want to pose.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, [Senior State Department Official]. Who’s first? Michael?

QUESTION: You mentioned the Secretary’s going to discuss the train and equip program with the hosts.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Discuss that a little further, what the nature of that discussion – is it going to be involved in practicalities of how this program’s going to work?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. He’s – we’re in a position, I think, to be pretty specific with the Saudis about what we’d like. And I must say I think we’re fairly confident they’ll be forward-leaning on this.

QUESTION: Are you telling us it’s going to be – they’re going to be trained in Saudi Arabia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I’m telling you that we’ll be approaching a number of countries, or several countries with a request to assist in the training. And again, we’ll probably have more for you on that tomorrow. I mean, first, Michael, we got to get congressional approval for this program. And the money, for that matter.

QUESTION: On defense ministers. When do you think that’ll take – that’ll happen? And where would it be?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: [Moderator], do you know?

MODERATOR: I don’t. We can check and see if that’s finalized yet. We’ll check, and I’ll follow up on that, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay.

MODERATOR: Lara.

QUESTION: You talked a little bit a minute ago about – you said “a question of priorities with ISIL,” and then you talked a little bit about Jordan. And I’m wondering if you could elaborate on that. What do you mean? Have you seen a shifting of some of these countries feeling that ISIL is more of a priority now than it was in even just the most immediate past?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think the rapid spread of ISIL was, frankly, frightening and an eye-opener both to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, because those border crossings with Jordan – that’s sort of a long way, changed hands several times three of four weeks ago. And both Saudi and the Jordanians reinforced their own borders, and I would have – three months ago, it would have been a very significant leap to think a group like ISIL could put any pressure on Jordan or Saudi Arabia. So I think, frankly, this was – the speed of ISIL’s reach and the threat it posed to this – those countries has been a major wakeup call. And as I said, the (inaudible) here is for the unraveling of this recruitment chain, this recruitment group, from both AQ and ISIL. And the recruiters, as it were, were found all over the country. So I think they realized it’s not just a threat to Iraq or – but it’s also a threat to the entire region.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Oh yeah, no, that was (inaudible).

I have another question.

MODERATOR: Go ahead.

QUESTION: No, no. That was just a clarification.

MODERATOR: Okay, Elise?

QUESTION: Can you talk about whether you think that you’re going to get a little – talk about how you make any kind of accommodations or common cause with the regime, maybe not necessarily Assad, thinking that maybe ISIL is a bigger priority now? And if they can get some kind of buy-in on pushing him aside, then maybe some tentacles of the regime remain while you’re able to go against Assad and ISIL at the same time, and how you think you’ll – the Saudis would react to that. I mean, clearly there’s going to need be some kind of --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, let me be clear that there’s been absolutely no discussion within the Administration about making any accommodation with Assad, even --

QUESTION: No, not Assad –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- of any sort, frankly. And this – I think where you’re going is sort of the military thing. ISIL is largely in the east, and so there may be a geographic distinction here. And obviously, I mean, the Gulf countries, with the Saudis in the lead, would react very poorly to that – any accommodation with Assad – and it would obviously endanger the coalition against ISIS because they see Bashar al-Assad as a major regional threat as well. So we’ve done everything we possibly can to reassure them on that point, and I think they are increasingly reassured about that.

I think, frankly, it has helped not – that the Iraqi Government transition looks like it’s been reasonably successful, and they may have a renewed relationship with Iraq that will restore some of at least their trust with Iraq, and generally make it easier for them in the region.

QUESTION: But [Senior State Department Official], I’m not – just a quick follow. I’m not talking about Assad now. I mean, I think that there have been Western intelligence agencies that are seeking to kind of – mediators for the regime. And I mean, it may not – obviously, Assad himself, there would not be an accommodation with him, but a lot of people are saying that perhaps there are some elements of the regime, not necessarily the kind of core, but that’s how you are able to kind of do this – the Syria military piece while hurting Assad at the same time.

Do you see any --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But nobody in the U.S. Government has done anything with those people, and again, I can assure you that there’s been no attempt to reach out and make a deal with Assad or anyone else in his government.

QUESTION: So you see no scenario in which Assad could go, but members of his regime could stay?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, no. I – that’s not – no. That’s not what I meant, and I certainly didn’t mean to imply that. There are many arrangements in which Assad could go and members of his regime at various levels could stay. And I think we’ve talked quite frankly about that in the past, that there are certainly scenarios we envision where Assad could go as part of a political settlement and significant portions of the regime would stay intact, because that would greatly enhance stability going forward. So there have been many scenarios about that floated over the past couple of years, but that’s sort of a different deal than we’re talking about here.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official] --

MODERATOR: Oh, go ahead. Anne.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], it’s Anne Gearan. I apologize, I missed the very top, so if you addressed this, it’s my bad. But I’m just curious about the extent to which you think Iran will be part of the conversation with these countries tomorrow and in the days after. Clearly, they are operating on the ground and are a force. What is that like for the Sunni-Arab countries? How worrisome is it to them? And to what extent does the U.S. sort of end up being in the middle?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, yeah, sure it’s worrisome because I mean they have – that’s obviously been a huge issue with the Iraqi Government, their perceived closeness to Iran for a long time. And of course, we know the Iranians are operating in Iraq now. But I think in terms of this meeting, it probably won’t be a – it’s sort of like the stock market. It’s sort of discounted. I don’t think that’ll be a very big deal in this meeting. And again, I think the Iraqi transition has alleviated some of their concerns on that – not all of them. I mean, it’ll obviously take a long time to restore trust between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But I think the transition has done a lot to alleviate their concerns in that respect.

From our standpoint, we are very aware of what Iran is doing in Iraq, but let me stress that we’ve had no coordination with them on the ground whatsoever.

QUESTION: But do you end up sort of being in the middle in any way in kind of explaining what they’re doing or running interference or anything?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, not at all. Most of these countries have – they know the situation in Iraq. I mean, they have their own intelligence operations that are very experienced. Most of them are fairly – pretty much aware of what Iran is doing in Iraq. And it’s not – they’re not trying to conceal it either.

QUESTION: Terry Atlas. To what degree do you think the Saudi – the Sunni-Arab countries – their actions and commitments are contingent on seeing actual real, quick, concrete movement in Iraq in terms of implementing some of the policies that have been talked about, and a more active outreach to the Sunni tribes? Or does there – sort of ISIL now trump that to some degree? So they’re looking out for their own interests, and what goes on in Baghdad is not quite as urgent as it might otherwise be?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear all that. [Moderator], could you --

QUESTION: I’m sorry, I’m standing too far away.

MODERATOR: Go ahead, Terry.

QUESTION: I guess, how much is what the Sunni-Arab nations are willing to do contingent on actually seeing quick movement by Baghdad within literally days and weeks – implementing new foreign policies favorable to the Iraqi Sunni population? How key is it to actually see not just talk but actual action from Baghdad?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think that’s important but not – I think that’s important, I mean, but I wouldn’t call it critical or – I wouldn’t call it critical to this coalition by any means, because – and they’ve made clear that they want to see the Iraqi Government move forward on reforms, particularly with better integration of the Sunni population. That’s absolutely no secret.

But again, I think the threat posed by ISIL has become so evident to the Sunni countries in all sorts of ways. I mean, frankly, I just got back from Tunis and they had 1,600 Tunisians in Iraq and Syria, too. So this is an issue across the whole Arab world. So I think the Saudis get that, and the other Sunni countries get that. And I think while they want to see the Sunni population in Iraq brought in as quickly as possible, they’re still going to be – participate very enthusiastically in this coalition.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Barbara.

QUESTION: And is it still an issue or any kind of an issue about them publicly taking on a Sunni Islamist group? I mean, in terms of their populations --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think that was an issue at first, one because they didn’t truly understand ISIL’s reach and its ability to control territory. I mean, that’s really the distinguishing factor here. It controls territory. So I don’t think they fully understood its reach, and I think they were obviously very concerned about the lack of inclusiveness by the Maliki government. So both those things have changed. Now they have a much deeper appreciation of what ISIL could mean to them, and the Iraq transition has moved ahead reasonably successfully. So I think their thinking has altered on that.

MODERATOR: Do we have some more? All right. [Senior State Department Official], thank you so much. We’ll all see you tomorrow.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. See you later. Thank you all. Bye-bye.