Background Briefing Previewing Secretary Kerry's Trip to Moscow

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Paris, France
December 15, 2015

MODERATOR: All right. Well, here to preview the last leg of this fairly long trip, we have a Senior State Department Official – and this is Secretary Kerry’s trip to Moscow tomorrow, and that Senior State Department Official, for your purpose – your reporting purposes – or not your reporting purposes, but for your information, is [Senior State Department Official], who will henceforth be known as Senior State Department Official.

And with that, we’ll hand it over to you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, [Moderator]. Welcome, travelers. Good to join you. We are, as you know, headed to Moscow this evening. Secretary Kerry has a number of meetings tomorrow, and then we head home tomorrow evening. We start mid-morning with a meeting between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov, to be followed by a lunch hosted by Foreign Minister Lavrov. We will then, in the afternoon, have – Secretary Kerry will sit down with a journalist from Rossiya 1 for a short interview – a chance to frame issues for the Russian people. Then in the late afternoon he will see President Putin, and following that meeting he’ll have a press conference with Foreign Minister Lavrov.

We anticipate that on our side, there will be two main baskets of issues: Syria and Ukraine.

On Syria, the Secretary will be working to frame the next International Support Group on Syria meeting, on Friday in New York, talking about what we can achieve at that meeting. He’ll also be endeavoring to go a little bit deeper on some of the component pieces that we are working on – things like the political transition, how a ceasefire can work, particularly in light of some of the meetings that have been going on since the last ISSG. He’ll also, as we have in the past, express concern that the Russian Federation needs to focus its military operation on ISIL, and that a lot of their strikes continue to go in the wrong direction.

On Ukraine, he will follow up on the President’s two conversations with President Putin in which President Obama made clear that with full implementation of Minsk, there will be sanctions relief, but otherwise, sanctions will stay in place – that we continue to believe that Minsk is the best way to bring peace and stability back to eastern Ukraine. We’ll be talking in some detail, we hope, about things that need to be done, like reinforcing the ceasefire, which has had some challenges in recent weeks; and about using the Minsk structures, particularly the political working group, to really start to negotiate now modalities for elections – free, fair, open elections in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas.

So with that, let’s go to what’s on your minds.

QUESTION: I have a couple of questions. First of all, regarding the meeting in New York on Friday: I saw a comment earlier from Lavrov saying that he did not believe that this meeting should take place until there was some kind of resolution of the Jordan-led process on who – designating the terrorist groups. So has there been movement on that issue, or is that going to be addressed between now and Friday? And I had a second question also.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the work is continuing in the Jordan process. It is our expectation that this meeting will go forward on Friday. Obviously, the Russians have been signaling that they want to talk about some of the details so that will be, as I said at the opening, among the issues that we will be discussing to get a little bit deeper on setting up the meeting on Friday for success.

QUESTION: And also, has there been any communications, perhaps with Russia, on whether the Assad regime is actually willing to launch political transition talks with the moderate opposition in January? There has been this progress on one side and – out of the Saudi-led talks to work on getting negotiators for this group, but what about on the Russian side? Is there any indication that Putin has reached out to Assad to find out if he would be willing to take part in this process?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the Russians have been in continuous discussion with the regime. I’ll let them characterize those talks. Part of this process is to have unity eventually, although we clearly don’t have it now, on how a transition will happen, the role of Assad in that transition. That’ll be among the subjects that we’re going a little bit deeper on with Russian leaders on this trip. I would note that Assad is still making the kinds of negative noises that Russia needs to discuss with him – like after the Riyadh conference, he put down some markers about who he would and wouldn’t negotiate with. So there’s a lot to talk about. Nobody is 100 percent satisfied at the moment, as you know, which is why we’re having these talks.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official] --


QUESTION: Go ahead.

QUESTION: So you said the role of Assad, you’re going to go deep on that issue. You’re going – you’re going to try to pin them down on whether they are ready to commit Assad to a transition or to get him to commit to a transition, or just can you elaborate on that? And number two, today there are reports from a – well, the – Russia’s top generals said it backs the opposition offensive, meaning that they support the Free Syria Army fighting alongside government troops. Has there been a change in – have you noticed any change in what the Russians are thinking about the Free Syrian Army? And does that mean they’re moving away from Assad in any way?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, as you know, in every meeting that the Secretary’s had with Foreign Minister Lavrov and every meeting that the President’s had with President Putin, the question of how to manage a transition away from Assad has come up. We don’t have a full meeting of the minds yet. We’ll continue to talk about some of these details of a transition, particularly in light of the good meeting that we had in Riyadh where an opposition group is beginning to take shape, in the hopes of narrowing the differences between us on that issue.

I saw the Russian statement with regard to the regime and the Free Syrian Army working side by side. As you know, the Free Syrian Army has been fighting both ISIL and the Assad regime, so we’ll be interested to hear what the Russians have in mind there given the Free Syrian Army’s concerns about how Assad has been treating his own people.

QUESTION: On the Riyadh meeting, Lavrov made some comments about it – not particularly positive comments about it. And I’m just wondering if it’s your understanding that the Russians are prepared to accept whatever comes out of that process as the interlocutor for whoever the regime has in mind to – for these talks. Or is that still a work in progress to get them – to get the Russians on board with being okay with the Saudi process?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: As we have said, we think that the opposition did make good progress in Riyadh. As the Secretary has also made clear, that Riyadh conversation feeds into the de Mistura process where it is his mandate to get both a regime delegation and an opposition delegation together, ideally by January, to start talking directly to each other. So we will obviously – I believe the Secretary will spend some time with both Lavrov and Putin, giving them a sense of what we think came out of Riyadh and how we can build on that and encourage them to be – to look at the details of that conference and also to address any concerns they have to de Mistura as he takes this to the next step.

QUESTION: But the Secretary himself spoke of kinks in the Riyadh agreement.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think – you’ll obviously talk to the Secretary yourself, but I think there – as I said at the beginning, nobody in this ISSG process is 100 percent satisfied with all elements. That’s why we’re having another meeting on Friday, is to continue to try to narrow the differences. That’s why the Secretary is going to Moscow to talk about, among other things, how we think one can build on the Riyadh meeting to get closer and to narrow the gaps. But the work is not finished, obviously.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], have you – this is a very simple question: Have you actually confirmed the meeting between the Secretary and Putin? Because his own spokesman is sort of balking at saying for sure it’s going to happen. And if indeed it does happen, are – is the Secretary – what are you – what’s he going to say if Putin says, in essence, how can you expect us to cooperate with you on Syria when you’ve got all these sanctions against us, and if he tries to use it to trade a place at the table?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It is our expectation that the Secretary will have an opportunity to see President Putin tomorrow. Obviously, he has a chance to meet with Lavrov all over the world. President Putin is the decision-maker in Russia. It’s important to have a chance to talk to him directly. We have made absolutely clear, Carol, all the way through this at every level from the President on down, that we are not playing let’s make a deal here, trading Ukraine for Syria; that these are distinct issues with distinct paths forward; that the path forward to resolution in eastern Ukraine is Minsk; that sanctions stay on unless and until Minsk is fulfilled and Crimea sanctions will remain; that with regard to Syria that we see progress on the path to a political transition as the way to heal Syria; that we want to close the gaps with Russia on that; we want to see Russia targeting ISIL, not the moderate opposition, not others; and that this needs to be done with the imprimatur of not only the ISSG countries but also the UN Security Council.

QUESTION: The two things that keep cropping up – the timetable. There’s a timing of the transition away from Assad. These Syria – the Riyadh meeting was very clear. The opposition said our position is he needs to go at the start, something the Russians are completely opposed to. And then on the other – the other area, which Lavrov has spoken to, about defining the terrorists. Some of the groups at Riyadh are amongst those that Russia defines as terrorists, like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish Islam. So on those two issues in particular, where does – what – how is the Secretary going to be approaching those things, and what does he hope to achieve?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, I think I was – answered that question about three times. We have gaps on both of these issues. We need to continue to talk in order to try to narrow those gaps so the Moscow visit is a way station also to the next ISSG meeting in New York at the end of the week. We’ll see. That’s the Secretary’s goal: to try to narrow the gaps heading forward.

QUESTION: Is there any concern that the opposition’s strong statement about Assad having to leave at the beginning of the process might mean Russia will completely balk at where things are?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t think there – the opposition’s position has particularly changed, nor has Russia’s position. Again --

QUESTION: No, but now it’s sort of been codified, so I mean, that sort of came out of the Riyadh meeting (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, one of the goals of being in Moscow at this time is to have a chance to talk about the outcomes from the Riyadh meeting and go forward from there.

QUESTION: If you’re not able to narrow the division sufficiently, then the New York meeting doesn’t go ahead, or it goes ahead without Russia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It is our expectation that the New York meeting will go ahead. It’s important. In every one of these meetings, it has not been particularly clear how much consensus there would be on the front end, but the process of talking has narrowed the space. They’ve gotten closer on a timetable, on a layout. Now we need to continue to meet to narrow these remaining gaps.

QUESTION: But the idea is to narrow the gaps in order to enable the meeting to go ahead, so there’s a chance it doesn’t.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s all a process of winnowing, right? All right, I think we’ve done it, guys. Thanks.

QUESTION: Thank you.