Background Briefing on the Syria Ministerial Meeting

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
New York City, DC
September 24, 2014


MODERATOR: All right, everyone ready? Okay.

Thanks for coming. Somewhat late hour, but appreciate your coming. We’re also glad to have with us here two State Department officials. We’re going to do a background discussion on the Syria ministerial meeting that just concluded and on Syria generally. So we will – we have with us here two senior State Department officials. Please refer to them that way, but just so you understand who we have, we have [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two]. So senior State Department officials one and two, we’ll start there if you wanted to make some introductory remarks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. Well, thanks for coming, everybody. I know it is a little bit late, so I appreciate your perseverance.

Let me just start by mentioning that at the ministerial meeting which just met, which was the Friends of the Syrian People meeting – that’s not just the core group or the so-called London 11, but that’s the larger group of the Friends of the Syrian People – there was not only very impressive attendance at the ministerial level, but more importantly, there was very, very broad consensus of basically rejecting the false choice which is out there in some quarters that it’s either ISIL or the Assad regime and that there are no other alternatives. And in fact, there was – Secretary Kerry and many, many other ministers present spoke about, in fact, there is a third way, and that is the moderate Syrian opposition. That is the party, that is the group, that is the movement that the international community needs to further strengthen and needs to continue to invest in. And that, I think, was a very, very clear indication of support for the opposition, which was represented by the president of the SOC, Dr. Hadi Bahra.

And in terms of investments, many countries made concrete pledges of further assistance. And as you will see when the Secretary’s remarks come out, the United States took this opportunity this evening to announce that we would be contributing an additional $40 million of nonlethal assistance to the armed moderate Syrian opposition. This takes our nonlethal assistance from about 290 million to about $330 million, and this new contribution of $40 million – that will cover things like communications gear for the armed Syrian opposition, other logistical needs, as well as food. And this is just a part of the general pattern of the United States ramping up assistance, as the President has said several times recently. And that ramping up is across the spectrum – everything from humanitarian assistance, where the United States is now – is the largest single donor and has contributed about $3 billion, to nonlethal assistance and other forms of assistance to the armed Syrian opposition, including military assistance.

So this evening was a – just a very clear, concrete indication of continued support for the moderate Syrian opposition and a rejection both of ISIL and of the Assad regime, and again, a highlighting of the fact that it is the Assad regime’s continuing practices and, in fact, its failure to address the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people which lies at the root of the problems in Syria, and the need for the international community to help Syrians reach a political solution, given that we don’t believe that there is a military solution to the conflict.

So maybe I’ll stop there in terms of an opening statement. I’m not sure if --

MODERATOR: Okay. Do you want to add anything? Okay. Then we’ll take some questions. Again, name and outlet, please. And anyone who would like to lead off? Margaret?

QUESTION: Sure. Thank you for doing this.

A lot of what you just outlined with nonlethal aid going to armed opposition doesn’t seem to have changed with the new policy of overtly saying that we are arming and training – or will soon be – the opposition, who have here in New York very openly called for more steps to be taken – antiaircraft, not a new request; no-fly zone, not a new request – other things there. So is this policy going to change more immediately? Can you give us a timeline on when some of these announcements might be different in form than some of the same old gear?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Absolutely. Well, in that regard, let me turn to my colleague, who maybe will just give an update in terms of the current plan that was recently approved by the Congress to train and equip openly the armed Syrian opposition.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, so I know DOD has talked about trying to get this up within – get things going within a relatively short period of time, but it could take several months. As the process moves forward, we have cooperation from Saudi Arabia and others to do the train and equip. We haven’t gotten into the specifics of equipment. We – the training and equipping will take place – literally start as soon as possible, and it will be as quick as it can be, but it does take a certain amount of time. First you have to get facilities and then move forward with the actual training, the training program. And it is to enhance the capabilities of moderate, vetted opposition members, which we will vet, and we look also to our regional partners to help us with that.

I can’t talk about – there isn’t another announcement in particular. You said about further announcements on this. There aren’t really further announcements at this point beyond getting the program up and going.

QUESTION: But respectfully, some of your partners have said that the facilities are ready to go and the Syrian opposition is calling for the training program to start now, to speed it up. They’re saying the timeline they’re being given just isn’t fast enough. Is that something that --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I think we’re trying to --

QUESTION: When you say as soon as possible, are you agreeing that it needs to --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, no. I – and I don’t know. You said that they – that somebody said that facilities are already going --

QUESTION: The gentleman you refer to, the president of the SOC, Hadi al-Bahra said that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t know. I didn’t hear exactly what he said, so I can’t comment on what he said. We’re trying to get the thing going as quickly as possible. But I – without having seen Hadi al-Bahra’s comments, it’s kind of hard for me to --

QUESTION: You didn’t ask for that in the meeting today?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. I think what I would say in that regard is you can rest assured that there is, I would say, fairly intensive work going on right now between the U.S. and several of our allies in the region to look at the whole host of issues, whether in terms of facilities or other aspects of what is needed for a very serious Department of Defense-led train/equip program.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Right. And when he learned of – when he first saw the approval of the program, president al-Bahra came out and said we’re fully on board with this and we want to be trained and equipped. But I didn’t – I hadn’t heard this particular remark about facilities being ready to go now.

MODERATOR: Okay. Ali Weinberg, ABC. And then Michael, you’re next.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask about some of the statements that were made in the opening remarks of the ministerial. There seemed to be a focus on – among the members of the international community that are a part of this coalition to not forget that Bashar al-Assad is the root cause of what is going on in Syria right now. However, it seems that the coalition has stressed the need to focus on the immediate threat of ISIS to allow for more space so that a political resolution can occur with regard to Assad. But it just seemed today like some of the partners were saying we have to confront both of these entities at the same time. One quote from French Foreign Minister Fabius was, “The barbarism of ISIL should not lead us to forget the violence and barbarism of Bashar al-Assad, which, in fact, preceded that of ISIL.”

So I’m just curious, how do you see that? How do you square what it seemed all the partners were saying today – we have to focus on both of these things simultaneously – with the – what appears to be the U.S. stated goal of first diminishing the threat of ISIS and then focusing on Assad?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. I think there might be a false contradiction out there perhaps in your question. I do think that clearly, at the same time that there is this focus in the first phase in terms of military operations by the United States – and I’m reluctant to speak or parse the words or the intent of other countries on ISIL; at the same time – and this is very clear in the President’s remarks on the 10th of September, that in order for those military operations to have sustained, positive effect, we need local partners on the ground. And in Iraq, he identified those partners – the Iraqi Government, our Kurdish allies as well. And in Syria, the President was very clear in identifying who the partner was, and that was the moderate Syrian opposition. And very clear words, I think, from the President in terms of our intent to move out smartly in this regard, to further assist those in the moderate Syrian opposition, so that they can, in fact, continue to do what they’ve been doing actually for some time now, and that is to fight against ISIL, to defend themselves against the regime, and of course, protect or provide security for the communities in which they’re located.

So I don’t think there is that inherent contradiction present. I think that there is pretty broad consensus among the Friends of Syria that we need to pay attention to both of those things. And also the President – our President – was very clear that he – we will not hesitate to meet the threat or counter the threats of ISIL wherever they are, whether in Iraq or Syria or – and at the same time, that we need to create the conditions for a political solution because we don’t think there’s a military solution to the underlying problems in Syria. And that takes us back to the need to strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition.

MODERATOR: Michael Gordon.

QUESTION: I have a two-part question, one a clarification. I mean, General Dempsey said two weeks ago that it would take eight to 12 months to --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: That’s the figure he used right now.

QUESTION: -- to train the first 5,400 Syrian fighters, and the goal would be to train 5,000 a year, so it’s a rather lengthy process. Were you suggesting that the Administration now has a way to do that in less time?

And a second point, to pick up on Margaret’s question. Hadi al-Bahra said – one argument he’s made is that it doesn’t – from his perspective it doesn’t make any sense to train these fighters at a great expense and over a great period of time and introduce them in the battlefield if they’re going to be immediately attrited by Syrian air force. So you’re putting 5,000 guys out there, many of whom become targets right away. And so he says you need either air defense weapons or some sort of air-exclusion zone or a no-fly zone to protect the fighters that you’ve trained.

What’s your answer to that point that he makes? What’s your response to that argument?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: On the first point, no. I mean, what General Dempsey said is the timetable that is, so I’m not – I was not implying that there’s any other different timetable. The fact is that we want to get started and get going with this, and start training and complete training of these people. It doesn’t – it’s the same timetable that he’s talking about.

With respect to – the idea is to train and equip these people so that they are effective in what they’re trained to do. I can’t get into the weapon systems here that would be used or would be given to them in conjunction with the train and equip program. Obviously, I mean, you want to train them and equip them as best as you can, but I don’t have a particular comment beyond that on what al-Bahra said.

QUESTION: But if this is an overt program, why can’t you get into what they’re actually going to get?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, DOD can get into more of it as it goes along, but I don’t think they’ve gotten into specifics of exactly what it is that’s going to be the provision --

QUESTION: Has is it been decided, actually? I mean, could they – if they were so inclined, could they --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t know. You’d have to ask them, Matt. I don’t know. You’d have to ask them.

QUESTION: And a follow-up. They’ve been asking for MANPADs and sophisticated arms to protect themselves from the Syrian regime. Are you planning to train them and equip them with this kind of arms?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t have any comment on that one.

QUESTION: But it’s difficult for them. You don’t know --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I think it’s a little premature, actually, to at this point lay out, either for us or for our colleagues at the DOD, exactly what would be the precise components of training and particular equipment. I mean, these are things that need to be worked out, and I think we have to kind of cross that bridge when we come to it.

QUESTION: Can you at least say if you’re considering the request?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, I don’t – I can’t say that.

MODERTOR: Okay. We’ve got time for just a couple more, so Tolga.

QUESTION: Yeah. I had a quick question – couple of questions on the role of Turkey in this coalition. The President Erdogan raised – he said yesterday that Turkey is ready to supply a military contribution to these efforts against ISIL. Is there any update that you can share with us given that Secretary Kerry said that you need to see actions rather than words, but is there any action that the Turks showed in these efforts?

And secondly, there will be a critical meeting between President Obama, President Erdogan, and Vice President Biden tomorrow. And it seems that the Turks will put on the table the idea of creating safe zones within Syria in exchange of use of Incirlik. What is the position of U.S. Government on this issue?

And the third one, Kobani. You didn’t brief so far Kobani in terms of the attacks conducted in Syria. What is the concern of U.S. Administration not taking any action in Kobani compared with the situation in Sinjar? What’s the difference?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Let me just address the last one, and maybe you take the first two. It’s very clear that there is a very significant humanitarian situation that gives us great concern in the Kobani/Ayn al-Arab area. And it’s not the only such example where we have been very, very worried about the impact on innocent civilians of what’s happening in this case because of ISIL’s activities in that area. So that is something we watch very closely. And while there may not have been military action in that area specifically, what I would just say is we are looking very broadly at what happens in Syria, whether it’s in terms of the humanitarian situation or the threats that ISIL poses to us or our allies in that region.

I’m not sure if you want to add --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Just on the Turkish part of this, and I can’t preview the President and Vice President speaking with President Erdogan, but obviously Turkey is a close ally. We’re in the midst of discussions with them, including on the issue of train and equip, but I can’t say anything more about how those discussions will come out. I’ve seen all of these ideas mooted about what they may or may not want to discuss about buffer zones or – but it’s – we’ll have to see how the discussions go. We’re in the midst of discussions about what Turkey may or may not want to do to contribute.

MODERATOR: Gentlemen – Lesley, sorry, but we’ve got to get going.

QUESTION: Lesley Wroughton from Reuters. I’m just trying to get something straight in my mind. A year ago the U.S. was targeting – said they were going to target Assad. Now you’re telling everybody, including the Iranians, you’re not going to – he’s – you’re not going to touch his assets right now while you’re targeting the Islamic State. What changed? I mean, why shouldn’t he go now? What makes you think that he won’t go a year from now or two years from now once the Islamic State has been defeated?

Number two, did you get any commitments from the Arab partners that are participating in the strikes that they would help with this political transition in Syria?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: On the last part of your question, there are very, very important allies in – among our Arab friends who are part of the core group of the London 11, not just the broader group of the Friends of Syria. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, they are key and important members of the core group of the London 11. And like the rest of the group, they strongly believe in what the whole group believes, and that is the principles in the Geneva communique and the need for a meaningful political transition in that country in order to address the grievances of the Syrian people so we can get to a stable situation. So I would not presume that there has been any flagging of commitment on the part of those key Arab allies and friends of the United States regarding the need to get to a political solution.

Looking backward – I’m not sure if you have anything to add – I don’t think it’s particularly useful to look backward. I think it’s more important for us to look at what’s happening today and in the future. And what I heard today, what the international community heard today from Secretary Kerry and from others there, was a very, very resolute, unified voice of the need to combat this cancer called ISIL that is plaguing Iraq and Syria, and at the same time to redouble our efforts to help the only true partner for a better future in Syria, and that is the moderate opposition. And that’s where the focus is right now.

QUESTION: So I just want to be clear. Was there any discussion on the plan once IS – the Islamic State has been defeated or you weaken them substantially to then move forward with that political process? Or is it just an open-ended, well, we will find – we will (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I think the search – I think the efforts at a search for potential political solutions in Syria is an iterative process. It’s not something that starts and stops. There are people, whether they’re in the Syrian opposition, whether they’re in the international community – we now have a new UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura. That is what people do all the time. In the case of the United States, it’s to try to help the moderate Syrian opposition increase pressure on the Assad regime, change that balance, and try to improve the chances for meaningful political transition in that country.

MODERATOR: Jo Biddle.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I wondered if you were in a position to be able to talk a little bit about the strikes today against the oil refineries that are being held by ISIL in Syria. This is obviously an attempt to try and get at some of the financing that they’ve managed to amass. Is this something we should expect more of? Do you think you’ll be actually doing strikes like this against any oil refineries they may have in Iraq?

Beyond that, is there a fear that should you take out the oil refineries this will – actually could hurt the Syrian people who – for whom resources are obviously very stretched?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I have not seen the specific reports because I’ve been in various meetings so I haven’t had time to catch up. What I will say is I think there is a very clear focus – and I think you’ve heard it from elsewhere in the Administration – on various lines of effort in this fight against ISIL. And one of those very important lines of effort is to weaken them economically and hit them where it hurts, in the pocket book. And I would assume that those strikes that you’re referring to are a key part of that.

MODERATOR: Michel.

QUESTION: Yeah. To what extent are you confident that the moderate opposition, Syrian opposition, will fight the Syrian regime although they consider Assad is not the Syrian regime? To what extent they will fight ISIL first and then the Syrian regime, meanwhile they consider the Syrian regime and Bashar al-Assad their first enemy? This is first. And second, what’s your position if the Assad regime forces regain territory that’s controlled now by al-Nusrah Front or ISIL other than the moderate opposition?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think it’s not so much the intention. I focus on track record. And in fact, I think the moderate armed Syrian opposition actually has a track record regarding the very – the question you ask. And we have seen earlier this year and beforehand elements of the armed opposition, in fact, fighting the regime and fighting ISIL, and at times also fighting Jabhat al-Nusrah. So there already is an established track record in different parts of Syria at different times where moderates in the armed Syrian opposition have, in fact, sacrificed and conducted combat against both the regime and ISIL.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So can I just --

QUESTION: I mean, there’s one thing of having a track record of doing it. There’s --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, no. I understand, but no. But one thing, first of all, again, when the opposition heard more about the Administration position on ISIL, they said, “We will do this; of course, we’re still going to fight the regime.” The other point is, I mean, Matt, obviously, sometimes it’s been successful, sometimes it hasn’t been successful. That’s clear.

QUESTION: Right.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The other point, though, I would want to make is we talk about the opposition like it’s one unit of an opposition. Of course, there are many, many different groups. And one of the interesting things is you’ve had groups that are separate, okay? I don’t know if it’s so much ideology or personality or just being led by certain people, but when you look at battles in northwest Syria, for example, if you look at the battles in the suburbs of Damascus, you have seen a kind of a coalition of its own, a de facto coalition or a coalition for that occasion to stop – whether it’s Nusrah, to stop the regime, to stop ISIL, for example to stop ISIL from moving north of Aleppo towards the border crossing with Turkey. So they’ve come together even if they’re not permanently together; they may go off and do their separate things. And obviously, it’s – they’ve made gains and then it’s fallen back, obviously. So --

QUESTION: Now you’re telling them to stop fighting the regime --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, no --

QUESTION: -- and fight ISIL first.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. Well, obviously, we think that there is an immediate threat. The President has spoken to that threat. We think we need local partners to meet that threat, and we very much see the moderate Syrian opposition as our partner in that effort in Syria. And at the same time, we recognize they have to continue to survive and defend themselves against the aggression of the Assad regime, and that is one of the reasons why we need to increase their capacity. Going back to your question about their capacity, clearly, ISIL in September of 2014 is not ISIL pre-Mosul in January of 2014 when the opposition, in fact, was able to expel ISIL from certain parts of the northernmost part of the country between Aleppo and Turkey. So it is for those very reasons that we need, along with our friends in the Friends of Syria, to increase our assistance.

MODERATOR: Thanks, everybody.

QUESTION: The second part of the question regarding the territories: If the Assad regime regains territories from ISIL or from moderate opposition?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. Well, right now we need to assist the opposition to do several things: to enable it to be a more effective partner in fighting ISIL and halting that spread; to enable them to survive and improve the chances for a genuine political process. And obviously, we are interested in strengthening their capacity and strengthening their position for a future political negotiation or transition. We’re not interested in seeing them have to pull back.

MODERATOR: Okay. So I want to thank our two officials this evening, and thank you all for coming.