Background Briefing on the Secretary's Bilateral Meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and on the Ministerial Meeting on Libya

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
New York City
September 21, 2014

MODERATOR: Good evening, everybody.

QUESTION: Good afternoon.

MODERATOR: Right, afternoon. Okay, so we don’t have too much time, so my apologies in advance. But thank you, everyone, for coming. We have a background briefing, no embargo but no names or titles; please attribute it to a Senior State Department Official. But of course, just so everybody understands, I have here with me [Senior State Department Official]. So without any further ado, we’re going to talk about the Secretary’s bilateral meeting with the Saudi foreign minister and also the Libya-related meeting this afternoon.

So please, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me start with the Libya meeting. Secretary Kerry convoked this meeting basically to bring some coherence to the response of the international community to the situation in Libya. And what we’d seen over the past few weeks was a proliferation of encounters and agendas and discussions with the Libyans and among the international community. So he, I think successfully in this meeting, brought about a consensus on two lines of effort very specifically, and I would draw your attention to this communique which was negotiated yesterday and endorsed by the ministers and has some, I think, very important elements.

But the first line of effort is through the UN Special Representative Bernadino Leon, who’s a very experienced and savvy Spanish diplomat. And he’s going to try and bring together the members of the Libyan parliament, House of Representatives it’s called.

And then the second is a meeting hosted by Algeria – Algeria has been undertaking initiatives among Libya’s neighbors – a week or so after that to discuss with some of the warring factions to try and negotiate a ceasefire. Everyone in the meeting knew that this process was going to be very difficult. There was certainly a recognition by everybody present that the international community should have done more in Libya after Qadhafi fell, so it’s our shared responsibility to try and do everything possible we can to bring about peace there.

So that’s where we are. I draw your attention to this communique. It calls for endorsement of the resolution, which you might want to read, 2174, and also is a very clear statement of the need for a political settlement and no foreign intervention.

MODERATOR: Do you want to move on to the Saudi?


MODERATOR: Well, I thought – or do you want to do the whole thing and then we can take a few questions?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. On the – Secretary Kerry met with Prince Saud al-Faisal and, predictably, the discussion was mostly about ISIL and a follow-on to the discussions that the Secretary had in Jeddah, in Paris, about Saudi contributions. Let me stress that Prince Saud said what the king had told Secretary Kerry before in Jeddah; that they would do anything they possibly could to support the coalition effort there. And then there was also some discussion of planning for this Libya meeting. But it was a very constructive and amiable meeting.

MODERATOR: Okay, all right. So we’ve got time for just a couple questions. Why don’t we start off with you, Michael.

QUESTION: A question on ISIL, about ISIL. In the news today, in recent days the militants from ISIS have attacked Kurds near the – in northern Syria near the Turkish border and near a town that the Arabs call Ayn al-Arab and the Kurds call Kobani; more than 130,000 refugees have fled. And the Syrian Opposition Coalition that the United States is supporting has called for American airstrikes to stop these attacks, and Representative Eliot Engel has also called for that. Is the Obama Administration considering airstrikes to stop the ISIL attacks on this town? And if not, how do you differentiate between this instance and the case of the Yezidis, who you did help at Mount Sinjar?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Michael, I can’t get into that and I can’t basically signal where we’re going to take airstrikes and where we’re not going to take airstrikes. But let’s just leave it at that.

MODERATOR: Okay. Margaret.

QUESTION: Thank you. Margaret Brennan from CBS. Thank you for doing this. Can you share with us from the meeting with the Saudi minister whether there was any change in tone, given – a change in possibility, given the meetings that have now happened at a higher level between Iran and Saudi ministers that have been reported in the Iranian press? Does that add up to anything?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, the Secretary asked Prince Saud about that, and Prince Saud said that he’d had a good meeting with Zarif and that he would have a follow-on meeting in Riyadh. A time was not specified. And the Secretary and – go talk to Prince Saud about the details in the meeting. I mean, it was his meeting after all. But the Secretary was pleased that they were talking directly.

QUESTION: And does it affect in any way what we expect on the ground in Iraq or in Syria or any of the places (inaudible) take on ISIS?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I don’t think so. And let me stress that it has no effect on the P5 discussions either.

MODERATOR: Okay. Laura Rozen.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up to ask: Was the U.S. aware in advance that that’s how the Iran foreign minister meeting was going to happen, or was it just a happy surprise?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we were aware in advance. The problem --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we were, Laura, but not more than a few days. I mean, I think it was sort of – yes, I’m pretty sure we were aware of it, yeah. It’s been discussed, I think, for actually quite a while.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up to that is: Does this open up the possibility for having a wider coalition, regional coalition fighting ISIL?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think it would be premature to speculate on that, Laura, but of course, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran haven’t always been so bad. I mean, if you go back even not that long ago, 20 years or so, they had if not a warm and fuzzy relationship, certainly more productive than they are now.

MODERATOR: Paul, Paul Richter.

QUESTION: On Libya, some Libyan officials earlier in the year were talking about a possible need for a foreign military force, a stabilization force. What’s happened to that conversation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There was, in fact, a discussion of that in this meeting. And certainly various Libyans have approached members of the international community about some kind of stabilization force, but it’s never been quite clear what they intended – whether they intended a regional stabilization force or a UN PKO force. So where the meeting more or less left that today is that the international community needs to help facilitate a political settlement and then discuss some kind of stabilization force and, in fact – if, in fact, the Libyans request it. And again, it wasn’t entirely clear whether that would be under UN auspices or some kind of regional force, or even some kind of force that was put together by members of the international community, but it was discussed.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But sequentially, after a political settlement.

QUESTION: Was there a sense of how broadly that desire is shared among the Libyans? Is it only a couple of people, or are there – does it have some --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, certainly in our discussions with Libyans, they’ve – members of the government and many others have raised it with us. But when you try and pin them down – well, what do you – how do you envision that or what does that mean – it becomes pretty uncertain.

MODERATOR: Ali Weinberg.

QUESTION: Ali Weinberg, ABC News. To what extent, if any, was the idea of – in the Libya meeting – the external countries that have reportedly been interfering: UAE, Qatar, Egypt? Was that discussed at all either in a specific sense, calling out specific countries for their interference, or in a general sense about the need for countries to stay out of the situation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s in the communique that there should be no foreign intervention, a very specific statement. This communique was negotiated over a multi-hour period yesterday at, I think, essentially the deputy minister level. So yes, it’s – and every country around that table recognized and reaffirmed the need for a political settlement.

QUESTION: But in terms of naming specific countries, there’s no specific names?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, there was no naming of specific countries.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that? I mean, and this is a question I posed earlier, but when – was there any pushback on that from the UAE, Egypt, and the others who have been? I mean, it just strikes me as odd that the United States could sort of cobble together something like this, calling and saying no foreign intervention after it was one of the primary foreign interveners --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, but the situation is --

QUESTION: -- with the NATO airstrikes. So I’m just wondering if --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The situation has very dramatically changed, you know --

QUESTION: No, I understand that, but --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- both under international law and under the practicalities of it.

QUESTION: I understand that. But was there any pushback with the Egyptians and the UAE on making this pledge along those lines? Like, “You guys did it; why shouldn’t we?”

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, there was – there are a variety of opinions as they negotiate the communique, and there were certainly areas of dispute. But this is what they all agreed to and all signed onto. And again, what I saw today in the meeting, there was a great reaffirmation of the need for a political process.

QUESTION: Right. But does that mean – so should we take this as a pledge from those countries who have most recently intervened that they will not --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You should take this as they’ve signed on an international document witnessed by a wide variety of countries that there’ll be no foreign military intervention in --

QUESTION: How do you square the idea that unless you disarm the militias, the political process won’t work because one would have an unfair advantage, which I think is one of their beefs, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, yeah. And there was discussion, of course, that – a lot of that’s been dealt with in the resolution, that you have to block the import of arms. And of course, that goes to the sanctions committee here. They approve shipments of arms. It’s sort of a distinction without a difference in many respects because Libya’s awash in arms, so you will have to begin to disarm the militias at some point. But that would be part of this political settlement that Bernadino and the Algerians are working on.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll take one or two more and then we’re going to wrap up.


QUESTION: Yeah. I’m just coming back to the Iran-Saudi meeting and the U.S.’s feeling about this. Was there any kind of discussion on whether the Saudis could in any way cooperate with the Iranians on ISIS or anything like that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There was no discussion of that whatsoever. It was basically the Secretary – Prince Saud made a brief readout of the meeting to the Secretary. He said he would hold another meeting, and that was pretty much it.

QUESTION: And you don’t know what the aim of that meeting would be or whether you would – could kind of work through it in any way?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, the Saudis and the Iranians have a rather long list, I would suspect, of issues that they would want to discuss all over the region on both sides. So I don’t think it would be hard to come up with a list, but Prince Saud did not go into any of that.

QUESTION: I just want to clarify, just coming back to the Saudis again. Is there any – something developing at the moment in which the Saudis or a country from – an Arab country would take the lead on this coalition? Is there any discussion --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, but I must say from the Secretary’s trip over the past couple of weeks and from his engagement here it’s quite clear at least in my view that we have very broad support in the Arab World for this coalition, and not just the obvious ones but, Saudi Arabia and the others like that, but as far away as certainly Algeria and others that we’ve met with have really been very supportive of coalition efforts.


QUESTION: Can you expand – this is Philip Sherwell from the Telegraph – can you expand at all on this offer from the Saudis that they could do – that they would do everything they could to support the coalition and --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Can I explain what that means? We’re working through that sort of thing. And I don’t want to sort of preempt their own announcements about what that might mean.


QUESTION: Any indication of announcements from him?


QUESTION: Any timespan on possible announcements from him or --


QUESTION: Any progress with the Sunni tribes on their behalf?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think many of you know that they’ve been reaching out to the Sunni tribes for weeks, months, maybe. And that was part of their effort, of course, to promote political reconciliation in Iraq. And they didn’t talk about that today, but that’s been an ongoing process. And one of the things that the Secretary and the King discussed when the Secretary was in Saudi Arabia was certainly the, shall we say, normalization or improvement in relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. And the King told him he was going to send an assessment team back to consider work on opening the embassy.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So that was an important step.

MODERATOR: One last question. Elise.

QUESTION: I know you said it’s premature to discuss, like, who’s doing what in the coalition, but by the end of this week do you think you’re going to have a clearer sense – like, are you going to have a kind of flowchart of – that you’re starting to fill in the blanks of who’s doing what? I mean, at what point – you do have a lot of leaders together, the President will be --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we have a pretty good feel right now, Elise. And I don’t – I guess the question is: At what point will it be publicly released? And I don’t really know the answer to that because it’s not up to – I mean, it’s these countries sort of have to decide for themselves what they want in the public domain and what they would --

QUESTION: But I mean, they’ve said – a lot of these countries have volunteered, we’re going to give you planes, we’re going to give you this. But when the call comes --


QUESTION: -- are you confident that --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- and I hope – I mean, I hope that we can give you more of this information, because, of course, we are accumulating it this week. And frankly, the previous few weeks on that, too, but I can’t say when it’s going to be publicly released.


QUESTION: Just one thing really quickly? Thanks.

Just on this coalition that you’re discussing with all of these countries, has there also been a broader sort of strategic discussion with them about not just fighting --


QUESTION: -- ISIL, but fighting terror – like extreme jihadi --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. And that was a very big – Michael and some of the others on it – that was a very big deal in Jeddah and – Jeddah in particular but also in Paris, but it wasn’t – but the goal here is – the clear and present danger is ISIL.

But yes, there is – many of these lines of effort that will be undertaken by this coalition like countering violent extremism and eliminating and reducing funding to extremist groups will also have an impact on other terrorist groups, beneficial impact on other terrorist groups.

MODERATOR: Okay, thank you [Senior State Department Official].


MODERATOR: If you want to stick around, I can give you an update about some things we’ll be doing tomorrow in advance of the planning note, but please your --

STAFF: And here are copies of the communique. Just so you all know, there could be --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There’s an addition line –

STAFF: -- a process add --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- process on the follow-up meetings. There’s going to be add (inaudible).

MODERATOR: Thank you very much.