Solo Press Availability at the Geneva II International Conference on Syria

Press Availability
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Montreux, Switzerland
January 22, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good evening, everybody, and thank you for your patience. We appreciate the opportunity to be able to share a few thoughts with you after the events of the day.

Obviously, for three years now the world has been witnessing civilians and refugees by increasing numbers who are enduring unspeakable suffering and continued violence. Today, both sides sat in the same room for the first time since the war began. And as all of you know, this has not been an easy road to bring people together; the hurdles have been enormous; government resistance, opposition resistance, different factions, different groups; a real tug-of-war, so to speak, within the war. But finally, the global community, through the force of the Geneva I communique, and through the force of the diplomacy and insistence on the political solution being the only viable long term solution, finally people came together.

No one should doubt, no one’s trying to gloss this over, that this is the beginning of a tough and complicated process. But the truth is that today, I think what leapt out from more than 40 countries and organizations in articulate, well- thought-out presentations, from more ministers than I have seen assembled in one room at any time other than at the United Nations itself, a very significant gathering of ministers who took the time to come – and all suggest together how this must end: that it has to have an inclusive Syria where every citizen can live in dignity, led by a government that the people of Syria empower with their consent.

So the fact that 40 countries and organizations came here from near and far – from Asia, from South Central Asia, from Europe, from America, from the North American continent, from Latin America, from Africa, north and south – all came united in support of the Syrian people, in support of their hopes for the future of Syria, and in support of the Geneva communique which does one thing that is of great significance: It recognizes that a political transition is the only way to go and that the political transition required under Geneva I is a transition government with full executive authority by mutual consent. Every entity here today with one exception talked about that and embraced the Geneva I communique.

It is significant that all of the other countries but that one came here to endorse the Geneva I communique understanding from the outset that the invitation sent by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made it clear that was the purpose of gathering here today, and that is the purpose of the negotiations that will begin day after tomorrow in Geneva.

Now, I believe that this gathering today, which we all know is only a beginning and we have said so from the start, actually created a moment of special focus on the nature of this tragic conflict. Today, people can more clearly understand how alone Assad is in standing up for himself, not for Syria. And the resolution to this crisis cannot be about one man’s insistence or one family’s insistence about clinging to power. This needs to be about empowering all of the Syrian people.

The international community expressed a united vision for Syria that respects its citizens and that protects the rights of every group, every sect, every faith – pluralism: where all people are represented without discrimination; a nation in which all Syrians can peacefully confront their government without fear of retribution, without fear of imprisonment, without fear of death; a Syria that works closely with its neighbors, but also can exist peacefully as a sovereign, independent, and democratic state. These are the Syrian people’s hopes for the future of their country, and we support them.

Now let me emphasize, as I said earlier in my comments today, what happened in Syria began in the wake of a transformation that began to break out throughout the Middle East, throughout the Maghreb and the Middle East. And everybody knows the events that began in Libya and in Tunisia and Egypt. Eventually, young people in Syria stood up for change and some young kids with graffiti cans were arrested. When their parents came out to protest the arrest of their young children, 120 of them were killed.

That’s the beginning of this. Not a religious revolution, not terrorists. No terrorists were there then. This was people looking for change peacefully in their country, and they were met by bullets and violence and death.

It’s no secret that getting to where we are now has, as I said, been difficult, and peace and stability will not arrive overnight. But it’s important that this process is now in place. It is important that the government and the opposition will sit down over these next days. And we don’t expect a sudden breakthrough. What we do expect is a crystalizing of the difference: who stands for what, who’s really fighting for what, whose arguments are based on truth, whose arguments are based on facts. And this is what all of you will have an opportunity to be able to measure and to judge in the days to come.

Let me reiterate what the United States, the Syrian opposition, and many others said this morning: No one should think for a moment that in the future of Syria there can be a place for a man who has turned on his own people, permitted the death of 130,000 through many of them by his choice of weapons and others by his choice of their mission, because some of those deaths are obviously soldiers.

But the fact is that innocent students and doctors have been killed by Scud missiles. Those aren’t terrorists. Those are the people of Syria trying to serve the people of Syria, or trying to have a future by going to school in Syria. And they’ve been killed by those Scud missiles, children in a schoolyard, death by napalm. You’ve all reported on it. You’ve seen it. Gassed not once but many times, but once so egregious and so provable that it was sufficient to bring to the international community and to actually get a regime that one day earlier denied they even had the weapons, the next day they were ready to move the weapons out of Syria. What kind of credibility is there left in that?

This is a regime backed by Iran and by a terrorist organization that has crossed over from Lebanon into Syria into order to fight. There is no one who has done more to make Syria a magnet for terrorists than Bashar al-Assad. He is the single greatest magnet for terrorism that there is in the region. And he has long since, because of his choice of weapons, because of what he has done, lost any legitimacy. Who can imagine that tomorrow or in a week or in a month you could suddenly say oh okay, it’s all right, you can lead Syria? I think everybody here understands, as we have come to understand, that people in the region who support the opposition will never stop because of what he has done and how he has done it. You cannot have peace, you cannot have stability, you cannot restore Syria, you cannot save Syria from disintegration as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

So this is what is at stake here. And as we continue to pursue, we know that the latest charges are charges with photographs and documentation of mass torture with bodies with numbers on them and designations written on them. And the questions raised by this require an answer. I can’t tell you exactly what all of it is except that I know that they are people who have suffered egregious torture and death. The opposition today called for the United Nations to investigate these allegations, and we join with them in demanding that there be a thorough investigation of these charges.

Now, as we continue to pursue a political solution that will enable the Syrian people to realize the better future that they seek, we cannot over these next days turn a blind eye to the crisis that Syrians live with every single day. And that’s why the United States is proud to have contributed more than any other country to support refugees within Syria and the housing and shelter and education and safety of refugees in Lebanon, in Jordan, and elsewhere. The United States will continue to press for local ceasefires and we will work with the international community to press for increased humanitarian access to the hardest-hit areas. This is what human dignity at its most basic demands, and it is what security in the region and the fight against extremism requires.

We will keep pushing for improved humanitarian access and for the return of journalists and aid workers who are held hostage. And as we proceed toward a political transition, we will continue to demand an end to the regime’s Scud missiles, barrel bombs, and horrific weapons that have been used against civilians, including the weapon of starvation.

We are joined by the international community in calling for Assad to stop using these tactics, and today you heard a universal condemnation of Assad’s violent assaults and his use of starvation as a weapon of war, which is, by the way, a war crime. In the coming days, our team, including Ambassador Ford and his team, will travel to Geneva to support the more intensive discussions that will follow. And led by the UN, these talks will continue between the regime and the opposition. We all know the process ahead will be difficult, but what I would like on behalf of President Obama and the American people for the Syrian people to know is that we will continue to support the people of Syria, broadly spoken, every step of the way as they fight for freedom and for the dignity and stability and security and the future that they deserve.

I’d be happy to take a few questions. I think Jen will call on the questions.

MS. PSAKI: One at a time, please. The first question will be from Margaret Brennan of CBS News.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. Diplomacy typically works when there’s a parallel pressure track. Should increased support to the armed opposition be a consequence if this round of diplomacy fails? And what assurances do you have that the Syrian opposition will still participate in this diplomacy given that today, the Syrian foreign minister blasted them and questioned the very premise of this conference and explicitly said that Assad’s exit is not an option? Does that surprise you?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. That was fully what we, frankly, expected. And opening positions are opening positions. Who knows where they decide to go as this goes on? But the bottom line is that the support for the opposition is already augmenting, it is growing, it is continuing from many different sources of support that exist for it, and I am confident that that will continue in the days ahead.

Now, there are still other possibilities of ways to be able to bring pressure and to try to work a solution to this. Foreign Minister Lavrov and I have talked. Our presidents talked yesterday. President Obama and President Putin talked, and they talked at some length about this. And they both instructed Foreign Minister Lavrov and me to continue our efforts, which we will do. We will continue to talk, and there are a number of things that we believe we can engage in that may or may not be able to have an impact; I can’t predict with certainty.

But I can tell you this: What you see in the direct talks between the opposition and the Assad regime will not be the full measure of effort being expended in order to try to find a solution here. And so without going into any further detail, I will just say to you that lots of different avenues will be pursued, including continued support to the opposition and augmented support to the opposition.

MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from Hayvi Bouzo of Orient TV.

QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary Kerry. My question is: There’s some fears that – from Secretary Lavrov, today’s speech, and the Assad regime in general – that they’re going to try to use the Geneva talks to use more time and to spend more time. Is there going to be any timeframe or time table that’s going to be set for the Geneva talks to deliver results? And what is after Geneva? What is the alternative solution if the Geneva talks don’t work? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re not going to talk about after Geneva on the first day that Geneva starts. Geneva, today, is the opening statements and the beginning of the negotiation is on Friday. I expect that there’ll be a first round, maybe second round.

Look, negotiations to end wars, particularly complicated, difficult confrontations and conflicts like this, sometimes take a long time. You can go back and look at Bosnia, Kosovo, you can look at other open conflicts, you can look at the – go back as far as Vietnam and think of all the hours spent just deciding the shape of the table – I think a whole year before they even began to talk.

So talk takes a while. None of us are satisfied with leaving Syria to the kind of horrendous acts that have been engaged in, which is why I said there will be parallel efforts being made, even while the talks are going on in order to try to find different pressure points and different ways of finding a solution. But my sense is that – I mean, this is already one of the worst catastrophes of humanitarian crises in the world today. You have upwards of 9 million people displaced and in refugee status. The burden on Jordan is growing and significant. The burden on Lebanon is growing and significant. The increase of the number of terrorists and terrorist groups is unacceptable to any nation that cares about stability and the long-term safety and security of our people.

So this crisis is growing, not diminishing. And I believe the impact is going to be continued to be felt in ways that’s going to compel others to think in many different ways about what the options may be as we go down the road. I’m not going to go into those now, but clearly the importance of today cannot be underestimated in terms of focusing people’s attention on the nature of the crisis and the ways in which it is actually getting worse, not better.

So it’s up to all of us to do our best to try to make sure that Geneva and/or one of the parallel tracks works, and I’m not going to talk about the possibilities of it not finding some road forward.

MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from Kim Ghattas of BBC News.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for taking our questions. Iran was disinvited from this conference because Tehran did not endorse the Geneva communique. But then clearly, as we saw today, neither does the Syrian Government. Iran is almost as much a party to the conflict as the Syrian Government. Can you really expect to make progress in the negotiations without finding a way to involve Iran in the conversation at some point?

And as a follow-up, I’ve just spent a month in the region, and everybody I spoke to said that there is simply no way that things will get better, whether in Syria or in the region, if you don’t get Iran and Saudi Arabia to talk to each other. How can you help facilitate that?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to go into the details of it, but obviously, we’re very aware of the need for a number of specific countries to be able to contribute to a solution rather than to be part of the problem.

With respect to Iran’s participation formally in the conference, it was very clear what the standard was for participation. We never ever minced our words about that. We always said countries that want to support Geneva I, which since 2012 has been the framework – since June of 2012, that has been the framework for trying to resolve the problem of Syria. And country after country after country has signed up to Geneva I communique. So what you all need to do is ask yourselves why Iran won’t sign up to it, not why they’re not here. Why didn’t they sign up to it? Why won’t they agree as every other nation has that this is the method that even – I mean, the Russian Federation signed up to it and was here, and Russia has been a critical partner in helping to bring us this far.

So I believe that with Russia and other efforts – Saudi Arabia was here. Saudi Arabia wasn’t going to be here, but they decided that it was important and they came. So I think that we have a critical mass building, and yes, Iran certainly does have an ability to be able to help make a difference. We hope that they would decide to be constructive and to make a decision to operate in a way going forward that can allow them to do so. There are plenty of ways that that door can be opened in the next weeks and months, and my hope is that they will want to join in a constructive solution.

MS. PSAKI: We have time for one more question. Michel Ghandour from Al Hurra TV.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, is the military option still on the table in dealing with Syria?

SECRETARY KERRY: President Obama has never taken any option off the table in dealing with Syria. I think he made that very clear. When he made a decision to use military force, he used – he made the decision in the context of the chemical weapons. The chemical weapons problem got solved, but he left that issue on the table, as he did leave it on the table for the full compliance of Syria with that agreement. So the President has fully left that option on the table with respect to the compliance issue of the chemical weapons, and depending on what happens in the future, the President never takes any option off the table.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone.

QUESTION: Please stay.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all.

QUESTION: I had a question (inaudible).

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. I know, but everybody else does too. (Laughter.)