Background Briefing On Syria

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
April 29, 2016


MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Brad. And thanks to everyone for joining us for this background call. We felt given some of the news reports out of Syria this morning that it was important and helpful for all of you in terms of coverage to walk through some of what is going on on the ground in Syria today and in the future days, or in the coming days rather. And to that end we’re very fortunate to have [Senior State Department Official] and who will henceforth be known as a senior State Department official to walk us through a little bit of that and also to answer, more importantly, your questions about what’s going on.

So without further ado, I’ll go ahead and hand the mike over to [Senior State Department Official], who I think will just make a couple of brief remarks, and then we’ll open it up to your questions. So go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, [Moderator], and thanks to all of you for participating. I’ll be extremely brief and then we can go to the questions. I just want to emphasize that we’ve been involved in trying to de-escalate fighting even before the cessation of hostilities came about on February 27th, and then since February 27th obviously we’ve been trying to build a foundation of the cessation of hostilities and to deal with outbreaks of violence. And we have done that, so in that sense this is not something new but really a constant effort on our part particularly with the Russians.

So obviously the fighting has increased of late, and now you see what we’re working on in a couple of areas. But let me impress upon you that we’re really working on all areas where we think there are significant threats to the cease – to the cessation of hostilities. There are still quiet areas, but there are several, as you know, areas that are real problems, and it’s quite – the fighting is intense and obviously the casualties are, particularly the civilian casualties that we’ve seen.

So we are talking about a couple of discrete areas in the immediate sets of this, but we are actually working on all of the areas. So it’s not just about Latakia and Damascus, Eastern Ghouta east of Damascus, but also about Aleppo and other areas where we see problems or potential problems that we’re trying to get back – get and then get this cessation of hostilities back on track.

And the only other point I would make at the outset is that we’re also very, very intensively involved on the issue of humanitarian access where the regime is obstructing that access, in some areas wholly to some areas preventing it; in other areas, as you know, taking medical supplies out of convoys; in yet other areas not allowing – not permitting or not giving permits for all of the medical professionals that seek to get into an area, and even questioning the number of people who the UN believes and has assessed are in need, so that the regime says it’s a much lower number. In our view, of course, it’s the UN that should decide this. And in any event, as part of the cessation of hostilities, both sides committed to full, unimpeded, sustained access throughout the country, wherever people are in need.

So with that, over to your questions.

MODERATOR: Great. We’re ready to take some questions. Go ahead, Brad.

OPERATOR: And if there are any questions from the phone lines at this time, once again, please press * followed by the 1 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue. And our first question today day comes from the line of John Hudson with Foreign Policy magazine. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I just wanted to ask: Is the reason – is it true that Aleppo is not included in this silent regime that was reported in Russian media? And is that more because the rebels want to continue fighting or because the regime wants to continue fighting or both?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. First of all, the premise isn’t correct. It’s not that there’s a place that’s excluded from this at all. We are working on Aleppo. We’re talking to the Russians about Aleppo, so we are working on that. It – this is the first part of that that we’re – that we want to have this – these particular two places get started now, but we are – nothing at all – there’s no reasoning and there’s no effort to exclude any place, never mind Aleppo, because the fighting is quite intense in Aleppo. Aleppo is a very important place. And then you’ve seen the horrific civilian casualties there. So we are working on Aleppo just as we are working on the other places. For the moment, this is what we have to go forward with, but we are working constantly on Aleppo and other areas.

OPERATOR: And we do have a question from the line of Margaret Brennan with CBS News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you just talk us through what is concrete about this, the beginning and duration of time, does this just roll over day by day, who’s monitoring it, and whether this is in any way linked to a resumption of talks? I mean, this has been described by other diplomats as a – an offer by the Russians of a real halt to fighting for a fake peace. What’s reality at the table? Are the Syrians actually negotiating anything?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. Okay, Margaret, thanks. So what this is about in this initial phase of Latakia and – what we hope would be an initial phase to Latakia and Eastern Ghouta – get – will be implemented, hopefully starting tonight – tomorrow – first thing tomorrow morning there, and that the fighting should in fact cease right after midnight. And it’s a kind of a recommitment to or reaffirmation of cessation – of the cessation of hostilities.

And as to how far, how long it would last, we obviously want it to continue and last. Let’s see how this goes. This is all something of a test, obviously, that we want to work, and we’re working hard to make sure that it works. So hopefully in the end it will be open-ended. So that’s the first part of it.

The second part of it, this – there isn’t specifically a linkage to the political negotiations. We’ve just finished this round, but you have to have the environment. As you know, we’ve never set preconditions for going into this round of negotiations or that round, but we have always said that you need the right environment. And the right environment is a successful cessation of hostilities and successful delivery of humanitarian relief supplies – both of those issues, not as absolute preconditions for negotiations but as the things that can improve the environment for this.

As for the larger question of the political talks, we just have to wait still to see. Staffan de Mistura came up with his ideas of where he thinks there’s commonality and differences. We still very much believe we can push the negotiations forward. It’s true that we didn’t – there is – there was no mention of a particular time, because I think, again, we have to improve the environment for the next set of these negotiations, and that’s about the cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access.

And as to your question about – I don’t know if you were asking about bona fides. This too is a test about how much the regime is – how far the regime is going to go. What was different about this round than the past is that there’s an acknowledgement of transition. If you remember, there wasn’t previously an acknowledgement of a need for a transition. But of course, what is the definition of that transition and then also ideas about constitution, those are still out there.

MODERATOR: Great. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: We do have a question from the line of Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, thank you so much for doing this. A few questions. Going back to Aleppo and why it was or wasn’t – or why it wasn’t included at this point, was it something that kind of – didn’t – you guys couldn't pull it together, I guess, in time for this first agreement? Like, anything more on why you would agree to something without Aleppo?

And then can you shed any light on when you think you might – if you think that you can get there – somewhere on that front in the next few days or when that might happen?

And then also, Staffan de Mistura earlier this week called on Russia and the U.S. to engage at the highest levels to repair the ceasefire. So can you talk about some of the contacts or maybe, like, specific contacts between the two governments since he made that call and if we will expect more contact between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov or President Obama and President Putin as you’re trying to flesh this out?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank, Felicia. So to get quickly with the last question first, at least from the State Department perspective, I can’t say anything about, at this point, about any further communications between President Obama and President Putin, but I can say that the Secretary has just spoken or is speaking with Minister Lavrov, and this is a regular occurrence.

So when you’re talking about Staffan de Mistura called for this, he was doing that publicly but we talk all the time, and the Secretary and Minister Lavrov talk frequently about this. So it was not – you shouldn’t take what Staffan said as an indication of something that was not going on. He was out there in public, of course, and he’s just trying to – totally understandably – urge maximum action given that there were real threats or are real threats to the cessation. So I wouldn’t read more into it than that. He knows – he’s very well aware of the intensive discussions that we have, not just the Secretary and Lavrov but at various levels where we’re talking to the Russians, including in Geneva. Remember we have a whole setup in Geneva. We have the cessation task force – the ceasefire task force, rather, and we have the humanitarian task force. And those are – with respect to the ceasefire task force, we and the Russians are the co-chairs and the UN chairs the humanitarian one, but obviously a lot of it is us and the Russians. So that’s really an ongoing process.

With respect to Aleppo, as I said, I really want to get away from any impression that Aleppo is left out of this or there was an intention. No, none whatsoever. It is complicated, as you can just see on the ground, and we are working hard to bring – to try to get reaffirmation of the cessation in – throughout Aleppo province, I should say. We’re not – we’re talking about Aleppo province. And so the sooner we can deal with that in the same way, to de-escalate, diffuse tensions, obviously the better. And we’re working very hard at it. I just want – it was not – there’s no – shouldn’t be any thinking that anything was set aside. These are not easy issues, obviously, and so we have been able to move forward on what we were – we have moved forward on what we were able to move forward with right now, because it’s very important to get this going to turn around – turn the momentum to prevent further cycles of violence. Because everybody watches everywhere – all Syrians, regardless, you’re watching the entire country. You’re not satisfied with your town if another place, there’s lots of fighting or there are violations of the cessation. So it really is looking at it as a whole and I hope that we can make progress on Aleppo as well as quickly as possible.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Next question please.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. I was wondering, what do you put as the reason behind this new – what the UN is calling a monstrous violence in Syria? And are there any plans for Kerry to travel to Geneva and to discuss these – the ceasefire? Can you also – who’s agreed to what exactly? It’s – from what our understanding is, is that the government has not agreed to Aleppo. So can you be very clear on who has agreed to what and what the Russians’ role is and what the U.S. role is?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. So I can’t tell you anything – first of all, Lesley, I can’t say anything about the Secretary’s travel. I just don’t have any information at this point. With respect to the UN, are you – Lesley, were you thinking about the UN – is it commissioner? I can’t remember what the exact title is, the special representative on human rights?

QUESTION: Yeah, he called this “monstrous violence.”

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, no, I heard what you said, I just didn’t know if that’s what you were referring to. Yeah, no, I saw that. You’d have to ask him. I mean, we all think that what’s been going on is horrific. I’m assuming – I have to assume, but you really have to ask him – that he was particularly focused on and took the occasion because of the terrible civilian casualties and the striking of hospitals in the last few days.

So that would not – again, not be any surprise to me that he would be focusing and wanting to focus publicly on that, but again, we all know – we know when the event happens how horrible it is. We see the pictures and we know, and that’s why we’re trying to get to try to prevent this from happening. And I do want to remind everybody that even before UN Security Council Resolution 2254, going back further to the International Syria Support Group meetings and those statements, there are not supposed to be attacks on civilians, period. And there is supposed to be full humanitarian – access for humanitarian relief supplies. So that’s not just considered not – violations or not compliance with the – with what the resolution has called for. It goes back even further. But whatever other motivations he might have had, I think you’d really have to ask him.

And as for what this initial arrangement, let’s say, to have the fighting stop one minute after midnight – meaning tomorrow, in Damascus time – it’s really our call, the United States and Russia, in the areas to abide by this recommitment. So we’ll have to see what they do, but it is really to stop the fighting and to stop moving – to kind of stop offensive actions that we may have been seeing. And I would say if you – you look back at what the groups pledged when they signed on to agree to be a participant in the cessation of hostilities, and I take you back to the February 22nd joint letter between the United States and Russia as the guide, the annex to that is the real guide, which is that there would be no acquisition of territory from another member that is participating in the cessation of hostilities, or attempts to acquire territory from those groups. And again, another one of those commitments was to approve – allow full humanitarian access.

So that’s really the baseline that we’re using in this case. And obviously, we hope that the parties will indeed recommit and then comply with that recommitment.

MODERATOR: Great. Time for just a few more questions, I think. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: And we do have a question from the line of Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you hear me?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure, Karen. Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: In your discussion of de Mistura, you seem to say that he didn’t really mean it when he said he wanted Russia-U.S. resolution of this thing. I mean, I think he acknowledged in his press conference the other night that the task force was meeting and that phone calls were going back and forth, but he specifically called for involvement at what he said was the highest level. And he said only that was going to resolve it. He specifically mentioned President Obama and President Putin, and he specifically called for a meeting of the ISSG.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right.

QUESTION: Do you feel like he just was exaggerating the situation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, Karen --

QUESTION: And secondly – wait, I have a second question.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: I wonder if you could give us your assessment of what’s really going on in Aleppo. There have been charges and counter-charges. Lavrov the other day accused the United States of appeasing its regional allies by allowing al-Nusrah and Islamist groups to fight together. Can you give us your assessment of what the problem is there, and are the Russians – do they have a point at all?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. So --

QUESTION: Not on appeasement, but on the groups together.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, no, right, right. So on the first question, no, I wasn’t implying that at all, and please don’t infer that from anything that I said. Staffan de Mistura is absolutely seriously about this, and he was making an entirely legitimate point. My only point was that we have already been discussing this. And in fact, as you know, President Obama has spoken to President Putin about this. The Secretary is talking regularly with Secretary Lavrov about it. And Staffan is trying to call attention to a very bad problem, and we agree entirely for calling that attention. All I’m saying is that we are working on it. That was my only point.

So please don’t read in – anything else into what I said. And he is – like I said, he has a responsibility to bring these groups together and to actually get a political settlement. But we all know that he really can’t do – it’s very hard for him to do his job and we don’t want to complicate his job by having problems in a cessation of hostilities. We need a functioning – a well-functioning cessation of hostilities where the parties are abiding by their commitments, and we need humanitarian access as a means of really helping create part of the foundation for what he is trying to do.

So we understand, we commend the job that he’s been doing. And in fact, we’re trying to help him, obviously, make progress in the political discussions.

And with respect to the ISSG, we support having an ISSG ministerial. We’ll work on the timing of it, but we agree that for all of these issues – not just the political issues, but for the cessation of hostilities and for the humanitarian relief, for example – these are all subjects which the ISSG has already handled, but which needs to handle them anew now. And I can’t say when that would be, but we absolutely agree 100 percent that there – we need to bring the ministers of the ISSG back together, because the ISSG in effect created – it allowed the cessation of hostilities. It did get what we have gotten so far on humanitarian relief, although that is far from satisfactory. But it was the ISSG push and then as part of that – remember, the ISSG met just before the Security Council met to pass 2254, and that’s where it was really – that was the beginning of the resolution.

In terms of Aleppo, I mean, we do have, obviously, clashes going back and forth. There is a Nusrah presence in Aleppo; nobody’s saying that there isn’t. And we do – you know that our view is that there are two designated terrorist groups in this conflict, and that’s Daesh and Nusrah. Our point has always been – so Nusrah – neither Nusrah nor Daesh, of course, can avail themselves of any of the protections that exist under the cessation. But we have always said from the outset and continue to say – to go back to another portion of those commitments, which is to prevent attacks on any of the groups participating in the cessation for – so for as long as – for the groups that are participating in the cessation of hostilities, we’ve tried to prevent any attacks on them both to sustain the – sustain the cessation itself but to sustain the kind of buy-in that we would have from these opposition groups. So it is complicated, very complicated fighting in Aleppo, and you have to address that fighting where it is flaring up most and try to separate people – one side from the other – and to get that kind – de-escalation and a diffusing of tensions, and it’s a very sensitive area.

But the problem is another part of – or an additional problem is these attacks on civilians and – which, yes, they – the last couple have been particularly horrific. But striking civilians is not something new for the regime. It has been going on for a long time, and we’ve tried to stop it for a long time and to get the Russians to help stop it over a long period of time, and really it has to stop right now. Besides, there’s the obvious benefit, because you have to stop – you cannot – there is no justification ever for the killing of civilians in such a situation.

But the other part is – you asked about the kind of genesis of fighting. If civilian areas are struck, then that benefits groups like Nusrah and Daesh. It doesn’t – they can point and say, “This is exactly why we’re doing what we doing vis-a-vis the regime and exactly why we are not a participant in the cessation of hostilities.” And that’s what’s – apart from just the humanity – the issue of humanity to it, it’s also undermining – it undermines the fight against the extremists and the terrorists.

MODERATOR: Great. I think that’s – I think we have one – time for one more question. Thank you.

OPERATOR: And our last question comes from the line of Elise Labott with CNN. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I mean, I’d like to go back to the very beginning about what really has been negotiated here and why you don’t think that Russia has – do you think it’s that Russia hasn’t used the influence that it has on the Syrian regime to not make these violations? I mean, what do you see this as a reaffirmation of – the Russian commitment to put pressure on the regime to get them to stop, a commitment on the part of the regime to stop? And what makes you think that this new cessation of hostilities is just not another stopgap that will need to be renegotiated in a few weeks? I mean, it – this cessation of hostilities isn’t very long – hasn’t gone on very long, I feel, for a need to kind of reaffirm. So I just want to – if you could be a little bit more clear about what was negotiated, who’s agreeing to it, and how you are confident that it’s going to stick. And what is a regime of silence, I mean, this particular regime of silence that the Russians are talking about?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think, on the last point, Elise, what we’re really just talking about is a stoppage of the fighting. But look, I guess I would disagree – you said, well, why bother, it hasn’t been going on that long; why do you need to reaffirm it? I see – I think we see value in this because of what’s been going on, the stakes involved. People are – people in the areas where the fighting is going on are saying – let me put it this way: There was – there is, and developed very quickly, a constituency for the cessation of hostilities. People liked the idea that things were quieter, obviously. People liked the idea of being able to go out to a marketplace that they couldn’t go to before or some other aspect. And we have to fight for those people and broaden that constituency, but Syrians will support it and want to support it, but they also need to see that it’s working.

So I see value in the reaffirmation. Whether it’s a reaffirmation from us, which it is – the United States and Russia – we’ve been working to secure a general recommitment to the cessation by all the parties in Latakia and in Eastern Ghouta, again, at least as a first step hopefully to be – and hopefully to do this elsewhere, including Aleppo. We’re talking to Russia urgently about in terms of de-escalation and reducing or diffusing tensions there. So it’s both our commitment and what we hope to see at the end of today, beginning of tomorrow in Syria – the commitment of the parties in these two areas and then we go forward.

So what we’re trying to do in some cases is to prove to the Syrian people that this is delivering benefits. If you look at Latakia, I don’t think they’ve really seen the benefits of the cessation of hostilities, whereas other places, whether in southern Syria and some other places – and even Aleppo and Homs and Hama, at least initially, people saw the benefits of it and it made a difference to their material lives beyond the fact that the number of casualties was significantly reduced and we need to get back to that. They – we created the – we all created an expectation and we have to try to meet that.

So that’s the standard. The standard is quiet. I don’t really – the name really doesn’t matter. It’s about stopping the fighting and getting – and re-establishing some quiet and – so you can – people can try to go about their lives a little bit more and they can contribute, also very importantly – obviously contribute to the environment for the political negotiations. So that’s what we’re expecting, and we want it to go – to last and we want it to be extended further to the areas – to any, really, areas of – where fighting has increased. And that, I think, given the number of casualties, particularly in the civilian casualties, and given the level of fighting in these few places – these are significant places – it was very much time to get that reaffirmation, that recommitment, and to show that we could in fact get the parties to do that. And now we’ll have to see. We will certainly do our best and we expect the Russians to do their best.

MODERATOR: Great. Well, we’ll have to end it there. Thanks to our senior State Department official for walking us through some of these issues. I very much appreciate [Senior State Department Official] time and appreciate all of you joining us. Again, just to repeat the ground rules here, this was on background with a senior State Department official. Again, everybody have a great afternoon and hopefully a calm weekend and see you soon.