Remarks at Press Availability

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Istanbul, Turkey
April 1, 2012

SECRETARY CLINTON: Good afternoon, everyone. Today, the international community sent a clear and unified message that we will increase pressure on the Assad regime in Syria and assistance to the opposition. Nearly a week has gone by since the regime pledged to implement Kofi Annan’s plan. But rather than pulling back, Assad’s troops have launched new assaults. Rather than allowing access for humanitarian aid, they have tightened their siege. And rather than beginning a political transition, the regime has crushed dozens of peaceful protests. We can only conclude that Assad has decided to add to his long list of broken promises.

So today, we called for an immediate end to the killing in Syria, and we urged the Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan to set a timetable for next steps. The world will not waiver. Assad must go. And the Syrian people must be free to choose their own path forward.

Today, I also detailed measures that the United States is taking, along with international partners, to ratchet up the pressure on the regime. We will be providing greater humanitarian relief to people in need, and we will support the opposition as it works toward an inclusive democratic transition that preserves the integrity and institutions of the Syrian state. What does that include? It includes additional sanctions on senior regime officials, a new accountability clearinghouse to train Syrian citizens to document atrocities and abuses and to identify perpetrators, and more than $12 million in new humanitarian aid, bringing our total to nearly 25 million.

But the United States is also going beyond humanitarian aid and providing support to the civilian opposition, including (inaudible) and connect to the outside world. And we are discussing with other nations how best to expand this support.

We heard today from the Syrian National Congress about their efforts to unite a wide range of opposition groups around a common vision for a free, democratic, and pluralist Syria that protects the rights and dignity of all citizens. This is a homegrown Syrian vision, and it reflects the values and priorities of the Syrian people. It is a roadmap for saving the state and its institutions from Assad’s death spiral. And it is worthy of support from the international community and from Syrians of every background.

Now, turning this vision into reality will not be easy. We know that. But despite the dangers, the next step has to be to translate it into a political action plan that will win support among all of Syria’s communities, that will help lead a national conversation about how to achieve the future that Syrians want and deserve. That’s how the opposition will build momentum, strip away Assad’s remaining support, and expose the regime’s hypocrisy. Today, the international community reaffirmed our commitment to hasten the day that peace and freedom can come to Syria. It cannot come fast enough, and we grieve for every lost life.

Kofi Annan has given us a plan to begin resolving this crisis. Bashar al-Assad has, so far, refused to honor his pledge. There is no more time for excuses or delays. This is a moment of truth. And the United States is committed to this effort. We think the communique coming out of the meeting today is a very important document, and we commend it to all of you. It represents a considerable advance forward by the international community as represented by the more than 80 nations that attended here today.

The United States is confident that the people of Syria will take control of their own destiny. That’s where we stand. There will be more to say from Kofi Annan in New York tomorrow, but I want to thank Prime Minister Erdogan and the foreign minister, my friend, and the people of Turkey, not only for hosting us, but for being such strong stalwarts in the fight on behalf of the Syrian people.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet both with the prime minister and the foreign minister. We not only discussed Syria; we discussed the full range of our other shared interests. And I commended Turkey’s leadership throughout this crisis and its generosity to the Syrians who have fled across the border seeking refuge from the violence. We also discussed Iran and the threat it poses to regional and global security, and I was encouraged to hear Turkey’s announcement that it will significantly reduce crude oil imports from Iran.

Before I take your questions, I’d like to say a few words about Burma. I’ve been following today’s parliamentary bi-elections with great interest. While the results have not yet been announced, the United States congratulates the people who participated, many for the first time, in the campaign and election process. We are committed to supporting these reform efforts. Going forward, it will be critical for authorities to continue working toward an electoral system that meets international standards, that includes transparency, and expeditiously addresses concerns about intimidation and irregularities.

It is too early to know what the progress of recent months means and whether it will be sustained. There are no guarantees about what lies ahead for the people of Burma. But after a day spent responding to a brutal dictator in Syria who would rather destroy his own country than let it move toward freedom, it is heartening to be reminded that even the most repressive regimes can reform and even the most closed societies can open. Our hope for the people of Burma is the same as our hope for the people of Syria and for all people – peace, freedom, justice, and the opportunity to live up to their God-given potential.

And with that, let me thank you and open the floor for questions.

MS. NULAND: (Inaudible) Andrea Mitchell of NBC.

QUESTION: Madam Secretary, you said that there is no more time, that this is a moment of truth. How much time are you prepared to give Kofi Annan, given the fact that there seems to be a widespread belief here in Istanbul, among you and the other leaders, that Assad is playing this for time, ignoring this diplomacy, and making a mockery of it by continuing the brutality?

And what more does the Syrian National Council have to do to persuade you that they should actually be a recognized opposition group rather than just a group that is trying to reach out to others and be more inclusive?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Andrea, first, it’s been nearly a week since Assad made his promise to Kofi Annan. We will hear firsthand from former Secretary General Annan tomorrow. I don’t want to prejudge it. I want to hear for myself. He’s not only been to Damascus but also to Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, other places, and has reached out and heard from a number of voices. But it is important – and he understands this, he’s an experienced negotiator – that there cannot be process for the sake of process. There has to be a timeline. And if Assad continues, as he has, to fail to end the violence, to institute a ceasefire, to withdraw his troops from the areas that he has been battering, to begin a political transition, to allow humanitarian aid in at least for two hours a day, then it’s unlikely he is going to ever agree, because it is a clear signal that he wants to wait to see whether he has totally suppressed the opposition.

I think he would be mistaken to believe that. My reading is that the opposition is gaining intensity, not losing it. So the timeline is not only for Kofi Annan’s negotiations, but it’s also for Assad, that eventually he has to recognize that he has lost legitimacy and he will not be able to avoid the kind of continuing efforts by the opposition to strike a blow for freedom. And he can either permit his country to descend into civil war, which would be dreadful for everyone, not only inside Syria but in the region, or he can make a different set of decisions. So we want to watch this. But with the announcements of the various actions taken today, I don’t see how those around Assad believe that they are moving away from pressure, because the pressure is actually intensifying.

MS. NULAND: Next –

SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh, quickly on the SNC, I’ve been meeting with them for several months, starting in Geneva, in Tunis, again today in Istanbul. My high-level officials have been in daily contact, meeting with the SNC. I think that they are – as we heard today in their presentation – not only becoming better focused and better organized, but more broadly based, more inclusive.

I met with a young woman who had just escaped from Homs who was bearing witness to the horrible experience that she and others had endured in the siege of Homs, and you could not listen to her without being upset by the story that she had to tell. But the fact that she is part of the Syrian National Congress speaks volumes, because clearly those who could organize it at first were those free to do so, who were on the outside. Now as more people are leaving Syria, escaping to freedom, they are joining the SNC. So the variety and the base of the SNC is broadening, which gives it added legitimacy.

And of course, as you heard today, we are going to be supporting the SNC with direct assistance in areas such as communications. Others are going to be supporting fighters associated with the SNC. So countries are making their own decisions, but the net result is that the SNC is being treated as the umbrella organization representing the opposition, and we think that demonstrates a lot of hard work, not only by the Syrians themselves but by many of us who have been working with them over the last several months.

MS. NULAND: Next question, Hurriyet, (Inaudible).

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, we know that you had bilateral meetings with your Turkish counterpart Davutoglu and Prime Minister Erdogan today here in Istanbul. And we understand you also exchanged information on their recent visit to Tehran. Davutoglu – Foreign Minister Davutoglu in a public statement said that they take Khamenei’s statements as not developing nuclear weapons as a guarantee, this should be taken as a guarantee in Shia tradition. How do you perceive these kind of statements, and are you by any means close to taking them seriously and find them – finding them satisfactory? Thank you.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I was very interested in what both the foreign minister and the prime minister told me about their visit. They had lengthy discussions with the supreme leader, the president, and other Iranian officials. They were told, as you just repeated, that the supreme leader viewed weapons of mass destruction as religiously prohibited, against Islam, and that he asked the Turkish leaders to really take that into account, take it seriously.

We, of course, would welcome that. Yet, I think it’s important that it be operationalized. That’s what the P-5+1 talks are about. We will be meeting with the Iranians to discuss how you translate what is a stated belief into a plan of action. And if the Iranians are truly committed to that statement of belief as conveyed to the prime minister and the foreign minister, then they should be open to reassuring the international community that it’s not an abstract belief but it is a government policy. And that government policy can be demonstrated in a number of ways, by ending the enrichment of highly enriched uranium to 20 percent, by shipping out such highly enriched uranium out of the country, by opening up to constant inspections and verifications.

So we are certainly open to believing that this is the position, but of course the international community now wants to see actions associated with that statement of belief. And we would welcome that.

But I think the Iranians also have to know that this is not an open-ended discussion. This has to be a very serious action-oriented negotiation, where both sides are highly engaged on a sustainable basis to reach a decision that can be translated into policy that is verified as soon as possible. So if the statement by the supreme leader to the prime minister and the foreign minister provides the context in which the discussions occur, that would be a good starting point.

MS. NULAND: Last question, Wall Street Journal, Jay Solomon.

QUESTION: Madam Secretary, just on Iran again, did Prime Minister Erdogan provide any sort of concrete or did the Iranians through him pass on any concrete kind of agenda as for what the talks would be? And is there any thought of the talks broadening a bit to discuss – I know your concerns that the Iranians are helping the Assad regime crack down on the protestors inside Syria.

And just additionally, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood now says it is going to seek the presidency in the upcoming elections. Is this something you welcome? Is it a concern? Because it’s something that initially they said they were not going to seek. Thank you.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Jay, I was having a little bit of trouble hearing you, but I think your first question concerned Turkey’s actions regarding crude oil products from Iran. And we welcomed the announcement that one of the very large private refiners would be cutting their imports 20 percent. We will be consulting between Turkish and American experts as to how that can be operationalized, because it’s a complicated matter. The oil markets are complicated. Having a refinery make that change requires other supplies, and different refineries have different kinds of equipment that has to be taken into account. But we will be consulting with the – with Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, and then we will send a team of experts to follow up. But we certainly welcome that announcement.

With respect to the role that Iran is playing inside Syria, it’s deeply troubling. And I think it’s important to underscore that when I travel in the region – I was in Riyadh yesterday meeting with the Gulf countries, but it goes beyond that into a much broader regional, even global, context – there are three concerns that countries have about Iran.

The first, we’ve discussed, the pursuit of nuclear weapons, which would be incredibly destabilizing and it would intimidate and cause reactions of many kinds by countries that would feel threatened. Secondly, the interference by Iran in the internal affairs of its neighbors, and certainly the role that Iran seems to be playing inside Syria is an example of that. Sometimes it is done directly by Iran, sometimes by proxies for Iran. And thirdly, the export of terrorism. I mean, just think, in the last six, eight months we’ve had Iranian plots disrupted from Thailand to India to Georgia to Mexico and many places in between. This is a country, not a terrorist group. It’s a country, a great civilization. It’s an ancient culture. The people deserve better than to be living under a regime that exports terrorism.

So we are very conscious of the role they’re playing inside Iran; we’re conscious of the role they’re playing in other countries. And this will certainly be a matter for discussion, but our first priority is the nuclear program, because people ask me all the time what keeps me up at night. It’s nuclear weapons, it’s weapons of mass destruction that fall into the hands of irresponsible state actors or terrorist groups. So we have to deal with that, but it’s not only that which concerns the neighbors and others.

And finally, we’re going to watch what the political actors in Egypt do. We’re going to watch their commitment to the rights and the dignity of every Egyptian. We want to see Egypt move forward in a democratic transition. And what that means is that you do not and cannot discriminate against religious minorities, women, political opponents. There has to be a process, starting in an election, that lies down certain principles that will be followed by whoever wins the election. And that is what we hope for the Egyptian people. They’ve sacrificed a lot for their freedom and their democracy, so we will watch what all of the political actors do and hold them accountable for their actions. And we really hope the Egyptian people get what they demonstrated for in Tahrir Square, which is the kind of open, inclusive, pluralistic democracy that really respects the rights and dignity of every single Egyptian.

Thank you.

MS. NULAND: Thank you very much.

PRN: 2012/T61-06