Background Briefing: Previewing Secretary Kerry's Visit to Geneva

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
En Route Geneva
September 8, 2016


MODERATOR: Okay, folks. As we said – as we said, this is on background to senior Administration officials. One official will just offer a quick just sort of set of expectations. This is as we said, embargoed until we land. We’ll keep this to about 10 minutes so everybody can get to sleep.

Go ahead, [Senior Administration Official One].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So I guess I’ll say a few things and then --

QUESTION: We can’t hear.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: -- see if my colleague want to say anything, and then we can take a few questions. So we’re headed back to Geneva --

QUESTION: We can’t hear.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Can you speak a bit louder, please?

MODERATOR: Guys, it’s going to be hard because this is a lot of people, so --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So I can’t speak in every direction at once, but I think I’ve got to stay to one side. All right.

So there’s obviously been a lot of diplomatic activity on this issue over the past weeks and months, but it’s been particularly intense in the recent period. Many of you were with us in Geneva, probably less than two weeks ago. We then continued that conversation in Hangzhou, China. The Secretary met twice with Foreign Minister Lavrov. The presidents met – President Putin and President Obama – on a range of topics but including this one.

I think steadily throughout this time we have been making progress. We have been taking issues off the table because we’ve reached an understanding on them, and continue to have some issues that remain outstanding and that we’ve been unable to close. That’s still where we are right now. Judging by the size of the press contingency that’s here with us, there seems to be some anticipation that we’re reaching a culminating period. All I can say is we can’t guarantee in any way at this point that we are on the cusp of finishing. This is an iterative process. It is highly technical. There are – it’s highly complicated. And there are a number of areas that we’re going to continue to have to discuss with the Russians tomorrow and potentially beyond tomorrow.

That said, I think if we didn’t think that this was continuing, that it remained a possibility of getting this done, we wouldn’t be going back to Geneva. The Secretary, as you know, came back from Asia late Monday night, and since then we’ve been going back and forth a bit with the Russians by phone, exchanging ideas, including some on paper, with an attempt to sort of reach a point where we thought it would be useful to get together again and have a discussion. Literally today, we just – I mean, we got to the point where we thought it would be useful for them to sit down again, so we decided to get on a plane and go to Geneva.

We’re investing a lot of time and energy on this process – not because there’s not a lot of other things going on in the world, but we think this is both incredibly urgent and important – the crisis of Syria. And we look around at the range of possible solutions and of possible efforts to try to get this resolved; and is – this remains, we think, the most promising way that we see in front of us to try to get this horrible situation to a better place. So that’s the theory of the case. That’s what we’re here trying to do.

And let’s see if my colleague has anything he’d like to add.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Just two things to add. First, I think you’ve heard it (inaudible). The press corps that’s traveling with the President heard this just the other day: We’re going to try, but our patience is not infinite. We’re not going to just keep going when it’s – if we don’t reach a conclusion relatively soon. That doesn’t mean today. It doesn’t mean tomorrow. But if we don’t reach a --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) perhaps?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not going to give you a date, but we’ll judge when we deem that there’s no purpose to keep trying. But I also say one of the reasons we keep trying is we talk to the opposition all the time. We talk to our partners all the time. And they tell us they want us to succeed. The opposition tells us they want us to reach a deal with the Russians if, in fact, it would stop some of the worst act – forms of violence against the Syrian people. So they want us to continue. They want us to try. If we can succeed, if it changes the minds of the Syrians to some extent, they want us to do that. So that’s why we’re trying. And if we reach a deal, then that’s great; and if we don’t, we’re not going to go on forever for the sake of pursuing a deal.

QUESTION: When you say that there are technical issues, it’s a little bit hard to understand what is that, how far back from the road somebody moves, what weapons move, what the sequencing of events are. Is that what you mean by technical issues? Because otherwise it’s just stop shooting and feed people, right?

QUESTION: Or checkpoints? How you man the checkpoints in the demilitarized zones?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think all of the issues that you’ve mentioned are issues have to be worked out. So it’s not simply stop shooting.

QUESTION: Right.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: As you know, there’s an active war going on. There are some actors who are not interested in stopping the war. Nusrah is one, others on the regime side. So you’ve got to make clear – it’s not – if it was just saying to people stop shooting then that would have been done a while back, but there’s a lot of details that have to be ironed out.

QUESTION: [Senior Administration Official Two], back a few months ago, if you think back to the spring, you guys would lay out some big strategic objectives for this, which were a ceasefire followed by a period of transition followed by Assad leaving the scene and a new – somebody new coming in. There was a deadline of getting that done by this summer, as you may recall, which obviously has sort of flown past. Are those the same strategic objectives now?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: They are. What’s happened is that the opposition, for very understandable reasons, has said they don’t want to return to the talks, they don’t want to negotiate until and unless the violence ceases, a cessation of hostilities is adhered to. So we’ve had to focus on that. And you’re right that it’s delayed what we wanted to achieve, but that’s to a large extent because of certain people, and the voice of the opposition has told us their priority right now is to get the bombs to stop falling on them.

QUESTION: I’m sorry. To get what?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: To get the bombs to stop falling on them. And then once they restore a certain level – it won’t be complete calm, but once we see the kind of cessation of hostilities that we saw in February and March, then all the rest can continue. But there’s no point to calling for negotiations on Assad’s fate if the opposition is not going to show up.

QUESTION: But back at that time, the Secretary was repeatedly saying look, if this doesn’t work the President may have to move to a Plan B, which he was vague about what that would be. He said we should never underestimate the President’s willingness to take other or perhaps military action. I don’t really understand where the leverage is now.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, look, at this point, the day before we’re heading into talks again with the Russians, I don’t think is the time to speculate on what happens if this all doesn’t come to fruition. I do want to say in elaboration on what [Senior Administration Official] just – what my colleague just mentioned to you all. We think there’s huge value in reducing the violence and increasing the humanitarian assistance in its own right, okay, separate and apart from what other – ever other strategic objectives exist.

That said, that’s never been the limit of our ambitions for this process. This has always been about both doing those things for their own sake but also creating the space that we think is necessary in order to have a viable and constructive conversation about transition, as opposed to bringing people back into a room where they are diametrically opposed and unlikely to get to a result.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Can I ask about Aleppo?

MODERATOR: Two more.

QUESTION: Can I ask about Aleppo?

MODERATOR: Hold on. Just two more.

QUESTION: Can I ask about Aleppo? The longer this goes on, the more Assad can, in theory, tighten the noose around Aleppo. Is he going to have to relinquish all of the gains he’s making in these recent days, or will he be able to pocket that in whatever deal you clench?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So I guess I’d say a couple things. One of them is that the situation around Aleppo and inside Aleppo has been highly fluid for a number of years now in this conflict, and it’s been a real focal point for a number of obvious reasons: both the strategic value of the city, the symbolic value of the city; the sheer sort of size and importance of the city to Syria, to its economy, to its cultural life.

So when we were in Moscow when we first announced with Foreign Minister Lavrov that we had reached an understanding on kind of the overarching objectives and contours of this plan, we were also quite clear at that time that arrangements around Aleppo would have to be resolved before we move forward with – in implementing the technical arrangements that have been under discussion since then. So that is still very much the focal point of the conversations that we’re having and will be very much at issue tomorrow (inaudible).

QUESTION: Can you – [Senior Administration Official Two], can you talk about – when you say that the patience is not infinite and at some point we’ll need to kind of reassess, I mean, what do you need to see? Obviously, these are technical negotiations and all, but what is going to tell you from the Russians that it’s time to – even if you don’t want to talk about what comes next, how do you know when you’ve met the water’s edge? What do you need to see a positive, or what’s going to tell you that this is not going to work?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: We need to get moving close, very close to a deal, and then at some point we need to reach that deal. But I mean, to the point that was just made about Aleppo, we need to see a situation where it’s clear from whatever is being agreed with the Russians that there will not be a siege of Aleppo. So it’s elements like that. And if we conclude that we can get there, we’ll keep going. If we conclude that it’s just a waste of time and that – and it’s being dragged on for no other purpose than to gain time, then there’ll be no purpose for us to (inaudible).

QUESTION: Do you think that’s what they’re doing? Playing for time?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: The fact that we’re here means that we still think that there may be a chance for a deal.

MODERATOR: Okay, guys, that’s it. We’ve got to go.

QUESTION: I couldn’t hear the very end of that. Can you explain – is that – I’m wondering what’s in it for the Russians. How do you persuade them?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: That’s not what we’re (inaudible).

QUESTION: I know, but you said something about how they’re --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: -- they’re playing – who’s playing for time, that that’s not happening.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: What my colleague said was –

QUESTION: If Russia is playing for time, what’s in it for them to get to this deal?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: What my colleague said was if we thought that they were just here to play for time, then we wouldn’t have come back to talk. And if we get to a point where we think they’re just playing for time, that’s probably when you’ll see us go in a different direction.

MODERATOR: Okay, guys. Thanks. We got to go.