Interview With Michele Kelemen of NPR
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Thank you for joining us here. Kofi Annan called it a serious agreement, this push for a new transitional government, but it seems quite vague. He said that it can include current government officials and opposition figures, as long as there’s mutual consent. But aren’t you worried that this just is a new recipe for more conflict? I mean, how do warring parties come to an agreement on who’s in the government?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, the transition plan that we have adopted in this document makes very clear that the Special Envoy will be working to determine who can be in a transitional governing body based on mutual consent, which means people with blood on their hands or jihadi extremists are not going to be at the table.
And I think it’s important to just pause and say – I am familiar, intimately, with a few peace processes, and you do not sit down in the beginning with people that you even want to talk to or see. It was so remarkable this week that Martin McGuinness shook Queen Elizabeth’s hand. He was a commander in the IRA. And so you don’t know how this is going to all play out unless you get started. And my point is: Let’s get started. And we couldn’t get started until we had an agreement of the most interested parties, which of course included Russia and China. We now have such an agreement, and we’re fully behind Kofi Annan’s effort.
QUESTION: You spent a lot of time talking to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov when we were in St. Petersburg. Do you get the sense that the Russians are really ready to lean on Bashar al-Assad? And do you think the Russians have influence with him?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I think the answer to the first question is yes, I believe they are ready to lean. They have told me that. They have made clear they have no continuing strategic interest in Assad remaining in power. So I have every reason to believe – both on what I was told by Minister Lavrov yesterday and what he said in our meeting all day today – that they will make the case that there needs to be this transition.
Whether he has influence and leverage to the extent that we would want to see won’t be known until it is tested. But at least now we’re in a position where we can together be pushing the Assad regime and the opposition.
Michele, there are so many terrible things about this violence that has gone on for so long: the fact of the violence, the loss of life, the destruction, the government abusing and killing its own people. But I think today it became very clear that everyone, including Russia and China, is worried about it spreading. So the motivation and the focus today was very clear to me. Now we just have to work to see what we can do with it.
QUESTION: And the fact that Turkey was there, and just had this incident with the Turkish plane being downed, did that influence that aspect of the conversation?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I think it did. Because in my remarks, for example, at the plenary this morning, I was able to point at Iraq sitting there, I was able to point at Turkey sitting there, mentioned Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the countries in the region that are already dealing with the repercussions of the violence and instability in Syria. And everyone around that table knew that we could – if we didn’t act today and get behind this transition plan – be sitting in six months with a literal war in the region on our hands that was destabilizing country after country. And Turkey was very clear about its worries that that was one of the outcomes if we failed.
QUESTION: But Kofi Annan had very strong words – that history is a somber judge; it will judge us harshly if we prove incapable of taking the right path. How is this crisis weighing on you?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I not only think about it and worry about it, I work on it a lot. I mean, in the last 24 hours, between St. Petersburg and Geneva, it has been the principle focus of all of my efforts. And it’s because I care deeply about the kind of abuses that no people should suffer in the 21st century. That is absolutely one of my highest priorities, is to work as hard as I can to end these kinds of terrible conflicts.
But it’s also because I am very worried that, in the absence of the leading nations that were gathered here today and the others we can bring on board doing everything we can to send a message to both the government and the opposition that they’ve got to begin negotiating about a transition, we will see some really serious and dangerous consequences for the region, for U.S. interests, and in fact, as one of my colleagues said, for the whole world.
QUESTION: Just one quick thing. I mean none of his plan has worked so far, so what makes you think --
SECRETARY CLINTON: I want to be caught trying. I can’t, sitting here today, tell you whether Assad is ready to stop killing his own people. Usually you don’t get to a peace table, negotiate transition, until something happens and those with the guns, on whatever side they are, finally decide that there’s got to be a better way. I mean, we negotiated for more than a year in Yemen. We had former President Ali Abdullah Saleh up to the signing desk three or four times, and he would back off every time. So there’s nobody anywhere that is more aware of all of the problems we have going forward.
But I am 100 percent convinced that we have to begin changing the reality in the minds and on the ground. And having Russia and China sign up to this lengthy list of guidelines and principles will, I believe, give us the opening to do just that.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for your time today.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you, Michele.