Interview With Margaret Brennan of CBS
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, thank you for making time at the end of a very long trip. Rebuilding the relationship with Russia has been a prime focus of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. Russia continues to oppose sanctions on Iran, intervention in Syria, and they’ve armed Bashar al-Assad’s regime. What has this relationship achieved?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, a New START Treaty to reduce nuclear weapons and make the world safer; getting Russia into WTO, which provides an opportunity for Russia’s economy to function in accordance with a rules-based system, which is good for American business, good for American jobs; cooperating on Afghanistan, Russia opening its territory, both ground and air, to our troops and our supplies going in and out of Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network; working together on the Iran sanctions, which was not easy to do, but which they have been very supportive of; and working with us in the P-5+1.
So, I mean, I could go on and on. But the point, Margaret, is that if you ask me any country in the world, I can give you the pluses and the minuses. We don’t get everything we want with any country that we are involved with, even our very best friends. Countries have their own interests. They see the world in their own way. But I do believe that in the last three and a half plus years, we have helped to stabilize the relationship with Russia. And we have a very frank exchange of views in areas where we don’t agree, like Syria.
QUESTION: And on that point, it’s become a little politicized. Mitt Romney, in his acceptance speech, said he would show less flexibility and more backbone towards Russia. In your conversation with President Putin, did you see any room for movement on Syria?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I had a very long conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov. I had a shorter but a pointed conversation with President Putin. And we’re going to try again to see whether there is some way forward through the Security Council. They know our redlines, which is that we’re not going to vote for something that has no consequences; we’ve already done that. We’ve accepted Kofi Annan’s six-point plan, we’ve called for humanitarian aid. But we haven’t gotten to the main issue, which is putting some consequences on Assad and his regime that could begin to change his behavior and stop him from killing his own people. And that’s our condition, but we’re going to see whether we can come to some understanding with the Russians.
QUESTION: Three times, Russia has opposed those efforts of the Security Council to have any kind of resolution that has sanctions or real consequence. So what alternatives are open? When you talk about “bite,” what do you mean?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, the Russians have consistently said they did not want to open the door to military intervention. And my response has been, well, then, work with us to draft language that would make it clear this is not about military intervention; this is about very tough sanctions, this represents the opinion of the international community, so the message to Assad is abundantly clear he can’t hide behind you or anybody else.
And in my conversation with the Foreign Minister, I challenged him. I said, “You keep saying you don’t want to do Chapter 7, which the Arab League has called for, which the Europeans and we have called for, because you don’t want to open the door.” I said, “We are smart enough to figure out how to structure that, how to make it clear that we’re not talking about military intervention.” Because, to be fair, military intervention is still something that is viewed as contentious, even among the Syrian opposition. Many of them are on the record saying they don’t want any military intervention.
So we’re going to continue to try to pursue that with the Russians, the Chinese, and others. But at the same time, we’re not just standing idly by, waiting to see whether we can reach such an agreement. We are trying to shift the balance of power on the ground. We’re working with likeminded nations to support the opposition. We’re not providing arms, but we’re providing a lot of assistance that can enable them to be better organized to try to hasten the day when the violence finally ends. Because either Assad will stop, or there will be enough of a presence on the ground that he will be forced to stop.
QUESTION: While this diplomacy has been happening, a hundred thousand Syrians fled in August, 20,000 have died so far. So when you talk to some in the opposition, they say this is running out the clock while civilians are getting killed.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well --
QUESTION: Is there a situation where you would support a coalition of the willing to create a no-fly zone?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, there’s nobody in that coalition, because everyone is worried that some kind of military action would cause more death and destruction. The first order of business in trying to deal with this terrible situation is first, do no harm. And in all of our very intense conversations with the neighbors in the region and others, this is a very difficult set of logistics, if you will; technical kinds of decisions. And nobody’s willing to say, okay, we’re going to come in with military force, try to do a no-fly zone, which means you’ve got to bomb a lot of sites. And the Syrians have proven that they are not only ruthless, but they are totally shameless in placing defensive materiel in places that are in civilian areas and the like.
So, look, I am as heartsick as anybody about what has happened in Syria. It just beggars the imagination that you would have a leader who is so willing to slaughter his own people without regard, drive them into refugee status, destroy ancient cities like Damascus and Aleppo. I mean, that’s just terrible. But at the same time, the international community does not want to make it worse. So we are doing what we think are the best options available to us right now.
QUESTION: So the conversation coming from Turkey, this proposal of a safe zone, you see that as a nonstarter?
SECRETARY CLINTON: No. We’re engaged in discussions with the Turks. When I was there about a month ago, we set up a mechanism for very intensive discussions because there’s a difference between calling for something rhetorically, and then sitting down with military planners and saying, “Okay, how do you actually implement something?” And again, it’s a lot harder than perhaps it sounds to some ears.
But we are having intensive discussions with the Turks, with the Jordanians, with others in the region and beyond. So this is something that we spend an enormous amount of time on every single day. In fact, we just had a team here consulting with the Russians because we’re looking for any way forward that helps the situation – not makes it worse, not causes more death and destruction, but brings about the end of the Assad regime, saves as many lives as possible, and begins a political transition.
QUESTION: Is Russia still sending arms to Bashar al-Assad?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, they had preexisting contracts, some of which they fulfilled, some of which they held back on. They will not commit to stopping sending arms, because they claim, “You have people in the region who are arming the opposition, so we’re not going to stop helping Assad.” That’s their rationale. But we follow this pretty closely, and we think it has slowed down. But Syria already had so many arms. I mean, it was the fourth largest army in the world for a country that size. So they have, unfortunately, a lot of military equipment that they had stockpiled.
We are especially concerned about their chemical weapons. We’ve made that as abundantly clear as we could.
QUESTION: Would Russia help to secure some of those stockpiles?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Russia is worried about the chemical weapons. They don’t think that they have yet been falling into the wrong hands, or being used. But we’ve made it clear, as has other governments around the world, including the Russians, to the Syrians that we will hold them accountable if these chemical weapons are used. But it’s not so much whether Syria uses them – because right now they claim they won’t, and we are watching it very closely – but we worry about them getting into the wrong hands, whether it’s some existing terrorist group or some new group that comes out of nowhere and gets a hold of them. So we’re very watchful about this, and working with other countries on it.
QUESTION: So there is a plan to secure those?
SECRETARY CLINTON: There is a lot of work going on.
QUESTION: You told us in July that you would be willing to speak with Bashar al-Assad. Does that offer still stand?
SECRETARY CLINTON: If he will step down, I’ll meet him anywhere outside of Syria. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: What would you say?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I would say – I don’t know. I have no idea. I’ve never met him. But I would hope that it would not be too late to end this, but I see no indication that he’s willing to.
QUESTION: Do you see any open path towards a negotiated exit for him?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, that is certainly an issue we have all discussed. And in the so-called Geneva communique that we worked on all day, which the Russians have gone back to in saying that it’s a good framework for moving toward a transition, as – and we’re in agreement as long as it has consequences if the parties – if the Assad regime doesn’t perform – that was left open. And we would certainly encourage he and his family to leave. It’s not likely that that will happen, from all of the information we have.
QUESTION: You think he’d come here, to Russia?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I don’t know. I don’t know. That was certainly an issue we discussed early on in this conflict. And the Russians kept saying they didn’t want him. And I said, “Well, you basically own him; you better take him.” But I don’t believe that he’s going to leave Syria. I think he’s of the mindset that this is an existential struggle for him, his regime, his family. And it’s just terrible; it’s a tragic, historic setback for Syria.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, thank you very much for your time.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you, Margaret. Good to see you again.