Background Briefing on Syria

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
September 19, 2016

MODERATOR: Thanks, folks, for joining. I appreciate it on a busy evening. I’m not going to talk for long. We’re going to pass it over to our two senior Administration officials, Senior Administration Official One and Senior Administration Official Two. As I said, this is a background call. They’ll have a couple of comments at the top, not very long, and then we’ll turn it over to Q&A. And we’re going to have to keep this a relatively short call tonight because both our officials have a busy agenda this evening.

So with that, I’m going to turn it over to Senior Administration Official One.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Thanks, everybody, for being here. I just want to say a few words at the start and then we’ll take your questions.

Look, this was a difficult and trying day in Syria that I think raises very serious questions about whether the Russians can deliver their end of the arrangement that we’ve been negotiating with them and trying to implement with them now over a period of several months.

We want to start by offering our condolences to the aid workers who lost their lives today in Syria trying to bring some relief to the Syrian people who have suffered so much throughout this conflict and whose lives very much are the focus of our efforts. Those people lost their lives in what can only be described as an outrageous attack on non-combatants trying to bring relief in a war zone. We have strong indications – not just from our own information, but from the United Nations, from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, from the white helmets, the first responders who so bravely serve the Syrian people – that this was an airstrike that led to these deaths. We know it wasn’t an airstrike by the coalition that we work with. That only leaves two possibilities for people – for nations that are operating in the air in Syria, and in any case Russia is responsible for its side of this equation and will need to speak to whatever information it has about how this came about.

The only other thing I think we should say at this point is that we are going to be consulting very closely and have already started the process of consulting very closely with our key partners in this endeavor, key members of the International Syria Support Group and of the UN Security Council, tonight and tomorrow morning. We’re also going to be meeting with the Russians at high levels to try to get a sense from them about where they think this can go from here.

I will say that our sense is that what happened today has dealt a serious blow to our efforts to bring peace to Syria and that it is up to the Russians to demonstrate seriousness of purpose – not just through words, but through actions that demonstrate that this process remains viable.

I’ll see if my colleague has anything else to add.


MODERATOR: Okay. We’re ready, Tony, for questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you very much. Again, ladies and gentlemen, as a reminder, to place yourselves in queue, you may press * followed by 1. Once again, for your questions, you may queue up by pressing *1.

First question will come from Michael Gordon with The New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Can you tell us whether it was a Syrian or a Russian aircraft that carried out the attack, whether it was a double-tap attack that included an attack on the first responders, as reports from the field suggest? And what specific action did Secretary Kerry take after learning about the attack to try to head off future such episodes? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I’ll take the first part of the question. I think, as my colleague just said, we know that it was a – from all indications, it was an airstrike, and it wasn’t one from the coalition. We don’t know at this point whether it was the Russians or the regime. In either case, the Russians have the responsibility certainly to restrain – refrain from taking such action themselves, but they also have the responsibility to keep the regime from doing it. Those are clearly from our understandings with them. So either way, the burden is on the Russians to demonstrate, as my colleague said, quickly and in a significant way, that they are committed to this process, which – without which obviously we’re not going to be able to move forward with them.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: And Michael, with regard to Secretary Kerry, I guess I would say that first and foremost we’re trying to gather as much information as we can about what actually transpired. As you well know, this fog of war in Syria is particularly thick. I’ve given you some sense of the strong indications we have about the information that we are comfortable passing on so far, but we think that details will continue to emerge and to come to us and to clarify over time, as often happens in these situations.

Secretary Kerry, as I said, is going to be consulting with key partners, both tonight and tomorrow morning, with Russian counterparts as well, and he’s also obviously been in close communication with the White House throughout this period.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Matthew Lee with the Associated Press. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks, guys. Listen, I got two things that are both very brief. One, why is it that you guys think that this can still be salvaged? Isn’t it gone? I mean, the statement earlier from Kirby and the Secretary’s comments about we’re prepared to extend this – well, I mean, a lot of people look at that and say, “Extend what?”

And then secondly, you talk about meeting with the Russians. Does that mean the Secretary’s trying to meet with Lavrov tonight before the ISSG meeting?

And then lastly, the French foreign minister again said today that you guys should make the details of the ceasefire agreement public. Are you prepared to do that, particularly now that it seems as though it’s a dead duck, as it were?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: (Inaudible) your point and I’ll turn to my colleague. First, we don’t know if it can be salvaged. What we can say – you say, what is it there to extend? Our desire, if it’s possible, any day where the Syrian people are not subjected to discriminate bombing is better for them. And so if we could have a cessation of hostilities that comes into effect, I think the Syrian people would welcome it. But at this point, the Russians have the burden of demonstrating very quickly their seriousness of purpose, because otherwise, as you say, there’ll be nothing to extend and nothing to salvage.

With regards to the documents, I think they’ve been shared with our partners today, and we – they deserve to know what it is. There was never any secret about it. They were just some operational details that made it a little bit awkward to share more publicly, but we’re working through that, and at this point, our partners are fully aware of what had been agreed with the Russians.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me? Just a technical question: If the Russians do demonstrate that they’re serious, would you set the clock back to day zero and you would need seven more days of calm to set up the JIC?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Look, I – it probably won’t surprise you we’ve not really been talking about – where we are in any particular timeline all along. What I think we can say is that what we saw today, the conditions that we saw in terms of the violence are sort of fundamentally inconsistent with what we know we need in order to take this to the next phase. So we’re much less focused, frankly, on where we are on the clock and much more focused on the sort of more fundamental question of the viability of this enterprise. And I think the Russians – it’s really incumbent upon them to demonstrate that this can still work if that’s what they believe and if that’s what they still want.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, two questions. Can you just give us what you know of actually what happened with this strike? Who was struck, how many people were hurt, where it was? And secondly, to go back to Matt’s question about whether the Secretary plans to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov tonight or have any separate meeting with him before the ISSG meeting in the morning.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. It is – we have every intention of having the Secretary speak with Foreign Minister Lavrov in the near term. Whether that’s tonight or tomorrow morning, I just don’t know for sure at this point. In terms of the details of what actually took place and numbers and locations and all that, we really would defer to the United Nations, which should be in the lead on providing that information.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Margaret Brennan with CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. The Secretary said earlier today there were eight aid deliveries or so that were supposed to be going through today. Do you have any indication as to why this one convoy in particular was struck? Did the others make it through? And doesn’t this go beyond a simple violation? I mean, this is in the category, some would argue, of a war crime to be targeting and killing UN workers delivering aid. Doesn’t this go beyond a simple violation? I mean, how can you be talking about salvaging it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So first off, I don’t think you heard either me or my colleague refer to this as a simple violation. I think what we said was this sort of fundamentally calls into question the viability of what we’re trying to achieve here. So that’s certainly not how we would characterize it.

In terms of these bigger conclusions that you just mentioned, I think it’s both premature and neither of us has enough information to draw conclusions like that. But of course, these are the kinds of questions that people are going to ask given the severity and outrageousness of what took place.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question then will come from John Hudson with Foreign Policy magazine. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. There was just some talk that there might be a UN resolution on Syria this week. Is there any chance you think that’s still going to happen?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think it’s too soon to know at this point, but that is not remotely the focus right now. Really, the focus is on what took place today and whether, again, our counterparts across the table in this process for many months, who spoke of how seriously they took it including publicly and of their intentions to make it work, can make actions on the ground match those words and those commitments. And that’s where we’re focused right now.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Andrea Mitchell with NBC News. Please go ahead. Andrea Mitchell, your line is open. Please check your mute key.

QUESTION: So sorry about that. Thank you very much. Thank you all. Because of how angry the exchanges were between Churkin and Power over the weekend, is there any implication that this was a deliberate attack in retaliation against what was an accidental U.S. strike?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So look, I don’t think we want to get into any questions of motive or anything of the kind. What I will say though is we have both expressed condolences for the loss of life that took place in that incident and communicated that we will be looking into it very carefully to try to determine what exactly happened. And that’s the Saturday strikes that you all have reported about.

What I will say about that though is even if it does turn out that this was the result of a U.S. action, that would be a highly aberrational occurrence and against both every intention that we have in operating in Syria and everywhere else in the world. What took place today, unfortunately, is fundamentally consistent with a pattern and a practice that we have seen going back for a number of months and even years in which the Syrian regime has taken strikes against not only on people and civilians but opposition groups that are protected by the cessation of hostilities, and made life miserable and extraordinarily difficult for aid workers trying to provide assistance to the Syrian population. So I don’t put these incidents in remotely the same category.

OPERATOR: Thank you very much. At this time, I’d like to turn the conference back over to [Moderator] for closing comments.

MODERATOR: Yeah, thanks, everybody. And I neglected at the top to identify our senior Administration officials, [Senior Administration Official One] and [Senior Administration Official Two]. Again, this was on background. Senior Administration officials is the attribution. And we thank you guys for joining us tonight. Appreciate it. Bye-bye.