Press Availability at the 4th Ministerial of the Friends of the Syrian People Meeting
The video below is available with closed captioning on YouTube
Today, the United States has taken an important step forward. We now recognize the Syrian Opposition Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. We have extended an invitation to Muaz al-Khatib and the coalition leadership to visit Washington at their earliest opportunity. We have been intensively engaged with Special Envoy Brahimi, our Russian counterparts, and other partners to assist him in his efforts to bring about a real political transition, as outlined in the Geneva communiqué, the core element of which is a transitional governing body formed on the basis of mutual consent which would exercise full executive authority.
Transition is coming one way or the other, and we continue to maintain that the only way forward is for Assad to step aside and give way to an effective transitional governing body and ultimately to an inclusive, democratic, post-Assad Syria. At the same time, we are also increasing international pressure on the Assad regime. We’re tightening sanctions and working to hold perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable for their crimes, and we have sent a stark warning regarding chemical weapons and joined NATO in defending our ally, Turkey, with Patriot missile batteries.
As the violence continues, Syrians are suffering and winter is coming. We’ve announced today an additional $14 million to get emergency care to those who need it most. This includes essential medicines, nutritional supplements for over 200,000 children, and blankets and boots for thousands of families.
Even as we deal with the immediate challenges, all of us have work to do to be ready for the transition ahead. The Syrian Opposition Coalition’s new leadership role comes with real responsibilities. We look to the coalition to continue creating more formal structures within the opposition and to accelerate planning for a democratic political transition that protects the rights, the dignity, and the aspirations of all Syrians and all communities. That means taking concrete steps to include women and minorities, engage with religious leaders and civil society, and discourage reprisals and intercommunal violence.
One of the most important tests for all of us will be to stand firm against extremists who would hijack the revolution for their own ends or sow division among Syria’s communities. Toward that end, the United States designated the extremist group al-Nusrah Front this week as a terrorist organization.
In recent weeks, we have seen Syrians take to the streets in places like Damascus, Aleppo, and Idlib, expressing strong support for the vision of the coalition. Now the task is to make that vision real, to offer a true alternative to the Assad regime, democratic and inclusive, rather than dictatorial and divisive. The road ahead will not be easy, but it holds enormous promise for a better future for all Syrians with the strong support of all of us in the international community.
Thank you very much. I’ll be glad to take your questions.
QUESTION: [After declaring al-Nusrah a Foreign Terrorist Organization, the head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition asked the United States to revisit the decision. What are the obstacles to arming those you do support?]
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: The United States took an important step last night when President Obama announced that we’re recognizing the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It’s important to stress what we’re affirming today, and that’s the vision of Syria’s future that the Syrian Opposition Coalition represents, a vision of a Syria that’s democratic, that’s pluralistic, that’s inclusive, that’s unified.
The earlier step that we took with regard to designation of the al-Nusrah Front raises an alarm about a very different kind of future for Syria, about the direction that an extremist group, in this case al-Nusrah, would try to take Syria to impose its will, and to try to threaten the social fabric of Syria. Al-Nusrah, as the President made clear, is little more than a front for al-Qaida in Iraq, and all of us have seen what al-Qaida in Iraq tried to do to threaten the social fabric of Iraq. And that’s not a future that the vast majority of Syrians want to see, and it’s certainly not a future that the international community supports.
The step that we took with regard to recognition today is important politically and it’s also important practically in terms of offering opportunities for increased assistance, working through the Assistance Coordination Unit that the coalition leadership has set up to try to ensure that increased American assistance and assistance from the international community gets to local councils, especially in areas of Syria that have been freed from regime control so that basic services can be restored. And in our view, both the political and practical significance of recognition is that it both helps to accelerate change in Syria, change which is coming, and to prepare for it.
QUESTION: [Syrians care more about weapons than food. By not arming the opposition, do you risk losing influence?]
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: … (Inaudible) at issue. Our position remains that we support the provision of nonlethal assistance, and we announced an increase in nonlethal assistance today for the opposition and for the Syrian people.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: It is very clear that the momentum on the ground is shifting significantly against the regime. The step we took today in terms of recognition, I think, provides an important political boost. It comes against the backdrop of a conference in which more than 110 countries from around the world have been represented and which have demonstrated their strong support for a real transition of leadership in Syria.
The net result of what we’re doing, including what the President announced last night, and what many other countries around the world are doing as they make their own choices about how best to support the Syrian people and the Syrian opposition, is clearly accelerating the moment when a real transition of leadership is going to occur.
QUESTION: …(Inaudible.) I have two questions, actually. Washington has already said that the use of chemical weapons by Assad regime is a redline. Does that mean that you have discussed already contingency planning in this regard? And are you going – is it going to be a systematic military intervention in this case?
My second question. As you know, sir, Morocco is a nonpermanent member at the Security Council. How do you view the cooperation between you and – you and Morocco concerning the Syrian issue? Thank you very much.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Thanks. On the first question, President Obama has been very clear about the depth of our concern regarding chemical weapons, either their use or a failure on the part of the Syrian regime to meet its obligation to secure those weapons. We hope very much that that message, which is not just an American message, which is shared by many other countries around the world, has gotten through to the Syrian regime. We do contingency planning for lots of different problems around the world, and you can be sure in this case we’re doing it as well. But I can’t go into it beyond that.
With regard to cooperation between the United States and Morocco, particularly on the Security Council, we obviously attach great value to the close cooperation on the Council, particularly with regard to Syria. We obviously highly value Morocco’s leadership in hosting the Friends of the Syrian People conference today, which has taken some important strides towards strengthening international support for the Syrian people and the Syrian opposition. And we also welcome the practical steps that the Moroccan leadership has taken, King Mohammed has taken, and his government, to provide medical assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan and to provide other forms of assistance.
So thank you all very much.