Remarks at a Press Availability After the London 11 Ministerial Meeting

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Foreign & Commonwealth Office
London, United Kingdom
October 22, 2013

SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for your patience. It’s a great privilege to be back in London and to be here with all of my fellow ministers who are part of the so-called London 11, which has been the principal support group and organizing entity to assist the Syrian opposition. And I want to thank our terrific host, Foreign Secretary William Hague, who ran a very effective, focused meeting this morning, and who has welcomed us with a great and traditional hospitality. We’re happy to be here.

I also want to thank the Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, who is out in the region now meeting with various parties in preparation for the possibilities of the Geneva conference. And we’re grateful to him and to his team for their efforts.

Needless to say, we came here to London – I think this is the fourth or fifth meeting that I have taken part in as part of the London 11 – in order to reaffirm the international community’s strong commitment to trying to end the bloodshed in Syria, and to try to bring stability to that war-torn country, and to provide sanctuary, and ultimately, an opportunity to return to their country for the millions of refugees and displaced people.

When we last met, we spoke with one voice about the need to move towards a transitional government with full executive authority by mutual consent. Those are not my words; those are the words of the Geneva communique of June 2012, known as Geneva 1. And in that communique, the United Nations and other representative entities in many countries, including Russia, signed on to a communique which called for a transition government in Syria.

What we did today was increase our commitment to the convening of the Geneva conference for the specific purpose of implementing the Geneva 1 communique. We agreed to increase today our coordinated assistance to the opposition, including to the Syrian Opposition Coalition – the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. And we also committed to do more to assist the brave people who are on the ground in Syria. We also agreed to direct military aid exclusively through the Supreme Military Council from those countries that have chosen to do so or are able to do so, as they fight – that is, the Supreme Military Council fights to curtail the influence of extremists, to isolate the extremists, and to change the balance on the ground.

Now as these efforts all occur simultaneously, we are convinced, based on the meeting we had here today, that those increased efforts will create their own synergy that will help the opposition to continue to be able to grow stronger. So far, the United States has committed a significant amount of funding to both the humanitarian effort and to the effort to assist the Syrian opposition. We’ve now totaled shy of $2 billion, a large – the largest proportion of it, I might add, humanitarian assistance. And we are proud that the United States is the largest humanitarian donor in order to try to address the growing humanitarian catastrophe that exists on the ground.

President Obama recently announced that the United States will provide an additional $339 million in humanitarian assistance on top of the more than billion that we’ve already put in. But one thing is clear, and one thing really was made even more clear in the meetings that we had this morning: I don’t know anybody, including the Russians and others in the region who are not part of this support group, who believe that there is a military solution to this conflict. It is clear that both sides will continue to fight, and to fight, and to fight. And in the end, the greatest victims, the people who suffer the most, are the Syrian people themselves, who are being driven from their homes and killed in the most wanton violence, and who are having an increasingly profound impact on surrounding countries that are seeing their lives affected as a consequence of the outflow of refugees. This war will not come to an end on the battlefield, I believe, and I think most people believe. It will come to an end through a negotiated settlement.

Joint Special Representative Brahimi and the Russians and we have come together and consulted closely in an effort to try to define a path forward for convening the Geneva 2 conference as soon as it is practical to do so. And Special Representative Brahimi is making his judgments now. There will be a meeting; you will hear shortly from the Syrian opposition. They will be meeting in about a little more than a week’s time for their own general assembly to make their own decisions, and subsequently other decisions will be made with respect to this.

But we believe that the London 11 that came together today, Europeans and Arabs, Turks, members of this support group, came together and all agreed that it is imperative that we try to get to the negotiating table and try to save the lives and to save the existence of the state of Syria itself.

The only alternative to a negotiated settlement is continued, if not increased, killing. We’ve seen children napalmed. We’ve seen university students bombed at their desks. We’ve seen hospitals, which are supposed to take care of people, become the targets. This is a tragedy, and right now it is one of the great tragedies on the face of this planet, and it deserves the focus and attention of all of us to try to bring it to an end.

We believe that the path of war will simply lead to the implosion of the state of Syria. It will lead to the rise of extremist groups and extremism itself. It will lead to more refugees spilling over the borders and putting strains on surrounding countries. And it will further destabilize the region and lead ultimately to the disintegration of the Syrian state. All of this makes this challenge a global challenge, an international challenge of the greatest proportions.

So that’s why we’re here. That’s why we came to London today – to demonstrate our support for the moderate opposition and to create the conditions for settlement that implements the Geneva communique and brings the bloodshed to an end. Our job as the 11 states who form the core group of the Friends of Syria is to do everything in our power to help the opposition be able to come together with a strong, unified position and a representative body at Geneva so that they can negotiate effectively.

The agreement that led to the strong and unprecedented UN Security Council resolution to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons – actually the concept first floated right here at this podium in this room – that initiative has become a very important step forward in this overall effort. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is now making progress on the ground, on identifying Syria’s chemical weapons and destroying its mixing and filling equipment.

And everyone here should ask themselves, if it is possible for us to have an agreement which allows people to get on the ground and go into communities and get ahold of chemical weapons, is it really not possible for us to have people on the ground who can go in and get food and medicine to people who are starving and dying for the lack of it. Surely we have the ability to be able to do that, and that is something we are going to focus on increasingly in the days ahead.

The United States has also provided armored vehicles to the United Nations to support the UN and the OPCW efforts to verify and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, and we’re going to continue to explore ways to do more.

But I just have to say to all of you, we cannot stop there. Removing the chemical weapons does not remove the crisis. And it doesn’t remove the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding before the world’s eyes. It doesn’t change the situation for people who are under fire from Assad’s artillery or his bombs, his airplanes, his Scuds. Assad continues to deploy ballistic missiles and other conventional weapons, and he’s using his air force to rain down terror on the people of his country. Innocent men, women, and children are starving, as I mentioned a moment ago, while the Assad regime continues to block humanitarian access.

So I think the stakes could not be more clear: The killing of well more than a hundred thousand people, innocent men, women, and children, the destabilization of an entire region, the displacement of millions of people inside of Syria, the creating of refugees by the millions outside of Syria, and the potential for a beautiful and ancient country to be fully destroyed by sectarian and extremist violence is what is at stake here. And that is why the 11 of us are committed to pursuing every avenue available to bring this tragic conflict to an end.

I want to just end by saying that the Geneva communique is more than a piece of paper, and it should not be a forgotten level of diplomacy. It is the roadmap that leads to a new future, and it’s a future that can end the bloodshed in Syria, can respond to the humanitarian catastrophe, and it rids the country of violent extremist groups. That’s our goal.

What we seek is a unified, pluralistic Syria, one that is representative of all of its people’s aspirations, one that protects minority and majority alike, all religions, all points of view, all politics, all sectarian affiliations – Kurds, Christians, Druze, Ismaili, Alawi, and any other minority group must be protected. So that is our goal. That’s what brought us here. We’re in the important days of trying to make this conference happen. I believe it can, and we’re going to stay at it until it does.

On that, I’m happy to answer any questions.

MS. PSAKI: The first question will be from Michael Gordon of The New York Times.

QUESTION: Sir, one stated purpose of the meeting here today was to bolster the moderate Syrian opposition, and indeed the communique talks of stepping up support to that opposition, but there are no specifics. Can you tell us specifically what concrete support – financial, military, or materiel – will be given to the opposition as a direct result of today’s meeting?

And a related question is the communique lists a host of confidence-building measures, such as humanitarian corridors or the release of people who have been arbitrarily detained. Are any of these steps to be taken prior to the holding of Geneva 2, or are these long-range goals for the culmination of that negotiation?

And lastly, have all of the moderate opposition committed to attending a Geneva 2? The communique makes clear that there’s no role for Assad in a transitional body, but it may take quite a long time for there to be such a body since it’s by mutual consent. Indeed, it may never happen. And people like Mr. Jarba and others have asked for an upfront commitment that Assad will go before attending. Have all the moderate opposition agreed to attend? And if not, what are you going to do to persuade them to attend?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me clarify. Let me be absolutely clear. The opposition is not saying that Assad has to go before this negotiation. That is not what they’re saying. That is the formula that this process was stuck in before I went to Russia last May and met with President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov, and it was agreed that we needed to get to the conference in order to have the discussion and reach mutual agreement. You can’t reach mutual consent if you’re not talking to anybody. There’s no mutuality. There’s no potential of consent.

So the fact is that you have to go engage in the discussion and then see. What the opposition has said is their condition is that the intent of this is to see that Assad goes, which, in fact, is what happens if you implement Geneva 1. Geneva 1 contemplates a transition government by mutual consent with full executive authority. There isn’t anybody in the world who believes that the opposition is going to give consent to Assad to be part of that. Now, Assad also can veto other people.

So the trick here is to find the people who would be acceptable to both sides, who would have the respect of the Syrian people, and be able to manage a transition government that allows the people of Syria to choose their future. But one thing is guaranteed: There’s no way that mutual consent includes Bashar al-Assad. And the position of the United States has not changed. We believe that he has lost all legitimacy, all capacity to govern the country, and therefore it’s hard to imagine any resolution in any other way.

Now, he obviously has different plans. We understand that. But the Russians have said that he accepts Geneva 1, and the Russians have said that they will make sure that the regime is there and negotiating in good faith. And we accept the Russian statements on face value and we expect them to be there and negotiate in good faith. The opposition has told us in the past that it’s their intention to do it, but they have to make up their mind in their new format in about a week when they meet for their assembly, and none of us are going to prejudge or precondition what they will choose to do in that process.

MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from Jonathan Rugman from Channel 4 News.

QUESTION: Mr. Kerry, Saudi diplomats are letting it be known that they will limit their dealings with Washington in protest at what they see as the lack of action on Syria. What has the Saudi Foreign Minister told you about that? Is this a serious rift with your Saudi allies?

And secondly, do you think this conference in Geneva will happen next month or not, or are the prospects as gloomy as today’s very English weather? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: I thought it was pretty nice out, actually. It didn’t seem all that gloomy. First of all, Prince Saud al-Faisal, who is the Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, told me yesterday at a meeting that we had in Paris – two meetings we had, actually – and again today that Saudi Arabia is taking part in, working with, cooperating with us. And Saudi Arabia today signed onto this communique and was part of its formulation and the discussions we had today.

So all I can tell you is that Saudi Arabia and the United States agree on a great deal here going forward. We work closely with Saudi Arabia on a range of regional, political, and security issues, including Syria, Iran, Middle East peace, Egypt. We’re still working with them on those. We know that the Saudis were obviously disappointed that the strike didn’t take place and have questions about some of the other things that may be happening in the region. It’s our obligation to work closely with them, as I am doing. The President asked me to come and have the conversations that we’ve had. I think they were very, very constructive. And I am convinced we are on the same page as we are proceeding forward, and I look forward to working very closely with our Saudi friends and allies.

QUESTION: Will the conference happen in the next month?

SECRETARY KERRY: I believe the conference can happen next month. I’m hoping it will happen next month. Both Foreign Minister Lavrov and I in our conversations with UN officials have expressed our hopes that it can happen next month. But obviously, there are other players, and we’re not going to sit here and we do not have the right to make the decision for other players. They’re independent, and they have to exercise their own rights here.

The opposition has a series of steps that it’s taking. We respect those steps. You’ll hear from President Jarba. And we respect their process by which they need to decide how to come to the table if they come to the table. But I’m confident that in the end the opposition will decide this is in their best interest. You can win at the negotiating table what it may take a long time and a lot of loss of life, a lot of bloodshed, and potential destruction to win on the battlefield. So I think they see that. I think they see something very positive in that, and our hope is that this conference can begin.

It will never be easy. I don’t want to suggest to anybody here that just because everybody says yes and you have the conference and you go to the meeting that this is going to be easy. It’s not. But it is far better to be at that table, working diplomatically, laying out a groundwork and a framework, and allowing nations to come to the table and help to work their will as to how we can resolve this crisis. And it would be irresponsible on all of our part simply to let this mayhem and chaos grow at the expense of the Syrian people and the region while we do nothing. That is obviously unacceptable. So the best thing to do is try to get to that table, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

MS. PSAKI: Lara Jakes, from AP.

QUESTION: Thanks. I’d like to go back to some of your comments about the Saudi issue. How do you square what your takeaway was from Prince Faisal yesterday to what Prince Bandar is quoted today saying describing this rift? It sounds like you don’t think that that is a – going to be a durable shift away or a durable problem and policy issue between Saudi and the U.S. But how would you answer specifically some of the issues that the Sauds have had with U.S. policy, specifically that the U.S. has – they would say that the U.S. has done little to back the Syrian opposition. They would say that the U.S. picked the wrong horse in Egypt when it worked with the Muslim Brotherhood. And they would --

SECRETARY KERRY: When it did what?

QUESTION: When they worked with the Muslim Brotherhood, when the U.S. worked with the Muslim Brotherhood. And they would say that they fear that Washington is cutting a deal with Iran that would hurt Saudi interests.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m very familiar with their concerns. And as I say, I spent a really delightful and very, very constructive several hours yesterday with His Highness Prince Saud al-Faisal. And we discussed every single one of these things, and I explained exactly where the United States is coming from, what we think about each of these issues. And we will continue to consult with our Saudi friends, as we always have in the past. And I think – I think Prince Saud and I left that meeting with a strong agreed-upon sense of what is important to both of us and of how we are going to continue to work together in order to achieve our ends and our goals together.

Now, I saw the comments that were printed today. They were printed from several days ago, before this conversation took place. I think people need to touch base and kind of get a sense of – from Prince Saud himself, who is the foreign minister, exactly how he sees this.

But I will tell you that on Egypt both of our countries want to see a successful return to an inclusive, democratic government with progress on the interim government’s specified roadmap. We want to see that. And while, yes, the United States engaged diplomatically with the prior government, the prior government was elected by the people of Egypt and duly sworn in. And we have interests in the region that mandated government-to-government dealings. But we understand fully the failures of that government, and we understand fully some of the deep-rooted feelings with respect to the Brotherhood in that region. And I think the United States is perfectly capable of making distinctions between its own philosophical groundings and values and the necessity to government-to-government do things with respect to security, peace process, Sinai, and other issues of national consequence to us.

On the Middle East peace, Saudi Arabia has been a critical partner. Just yesterday, we reaffirmed the Saudi commitment to the – the Saudi commitment to its own initiative, a very significant initiative. And I praised Prince Saud’s description of the – of his vision and the Saudi vision for the peace that waits for Israel, providing we can move the process, which they are committed to and very much a part of. We can move that forward. They are a partner in that effort through their role in the Arab League, as well as their authorship of the Arab Peace Initiative.

In addition, we both share – Saudi Arabia and the United States share with almost every other country in the region deep concern about Iran’s nuclear program and its impact on the region. And we had a very frank conversation yesterday about that. I think they understand exactly what the United States is engaged in, and I reaffirmed President Obama’s commitment that he will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. And I reiterated our position in any negotiation that our eyes are wide open, actions are what will speak to us, not words, and no deal is better than a bad deal.

So I think there’s a clear understanding in our relationship going forward, and I have great confidence that the United States and Saudi Arabia will continue to be the close and important friends and allies that we’ve been.

MS. PSAKI: The final question is from Mina al-Oraibi.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mina al-Oraibi, Alsharq Al-Awsat newspaper. Secretary Kerry, I wanted to ask you about the transitional governing body. Once there is an agreement on this, it’s meant to have full executive powers. But would it be possible for President Assad to remain as president, hand over some powers, and then run for the elections as he spoke about yesterday and he’s spoken repeatedly? And the communique says that this is not to be an open-ended process. Can you see a timeframe for it?

If I can ask you also about Iran: Since your meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif, have you seen the Iranians being more constructive when it comes to Syria? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, with respect to Syria? Well, Syria wasn’t a topic of our conversation. The topic of our conversation was their nuclear program. So --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SECRETARY KERRY: We have not seen a significant change in that period of time with respect to Syria. And needless to say, it would certainly be welcome and it would be a very important sign with respect to good faith in terms of resolving the regional issues and showing a desire to have stability over business as usual. So we would certainly welcome it, but it was not a topic of the conversation, and I want to stress that. We were uniquely talking about how we would proceed with respect to the nuclear negotiations.

With respect to Assad and the timeframe, it means what it says. The language is very clear. The language says that there should be no delay in this process, that this will not be open-ended, and that it ought to, if you’re acting in good faith, be able to be completed in – within months, within some period of months. Now, that gives you a timeframe. And I think that it would be wrong to pre-judge what that is. We will know if they’re serious very quickly. It’s not hard to show you’re serious about setting up a transitional government, and I think very early on we’ll be able to see if people are offering up real people who have real capacity to do it who could legitimately be acceptable to both sides, rather than offering up people who have blood on their hands who are a mere continuation of the Assad regime itself. So this will not be hard to discern.

And finally, with respect to Assad himself and his continuance, the question you asked, that’s for the parties to negotiate. That’s not for us to predetermine. The key is that you have full executive authority that is transferred. That means you’re not playing games and someone isn’t pulling the strings from behind the scenes and the people who are there are legitimately moving for all Syrians to protect all Syrians and send a message about a fair, free, transparent, accountable, accessible election for everybody to be able to choose the future of Syria. That’s the standard. And within that standard, the parties will have to decide. We’re – it’s not our decision to make. You have two sides negotiating. Others will be there, but this will be negotiated by the opposition represented by one delegation, by the Syrian opposition, who will bring others in with them, but one delegation on each side, and they will make that decision.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all very much. Good to be with you. Thank you.

PRN: 2013/ T16-03