Joint Press Availability with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed al-Thani

Press Availability
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Quai d'Orsay
Paris, France
December 10, 2016

FOREIGN MINISTER AYRAULT: (Via interpreter, in progress) Yesterday at the UN General Assembly meeting, the resolution of – a resolution that was voted with (inaudible) full majority, and despite the use of chemical weapons by the regime, this is the logic of war that is still prevailing. This is why Sheikh Mohammed, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and myself wanted to call upon our close partners and to meet for discussing a possible political solution for the crisis in Syria. We have been supporters from day one.

Now, in the scope, a very dramatic situation reminded ourselves of our number one objective, which is the humanitarian situation. We are absolutely hell-bent on relieving the suffering of a people that has been suffering a barbaric war for so many years. So this is an emergency, and it is an absolute priority to have the fighting stop in Aleppo and elsewhere in the country and to have the bombing stop and allow humanitarian aid to be given to all of those who need it. We will carry on providing our support to all of the players in the field who are helping those who suffer, and we’re thinking of the white helmets in particular.

The international community needs to be vigilant and demanding with the regime and its supporters. What becomes of the people who are forced out of their destroyed cities? What is going on in these refugee camps? When will this policy that looks like ethnic cleansing stop? The city dwellers are forced out of their cities and replaced by others with the risk of increasing the tensions. There’s also the risk of all of the refugee and – refugees and displaced persons. What kind of peace can be waged if it’s a peace of cemeteries?

Now, these are the questions that the allies – allies of Syria ask themselves, but also all of the refugees who are flooding into neighboring countries, in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, but also in European countries.

The second objective and emergency is how to define the conditions for a real political transition that will ensure a future for Syria that is pacific and that keeps it united in its diversity. We need to reinstate negotiations on very clear bases, and this under the aegis of Resolution 2254 of the UN Security Council. And we noticed through the voice of Riyad Hijab, chairman of the council for negotiations, that all of the stakeholders need to show and repeat their willingness to negotiate on this and the framework validated by the international community.

And what Mr. Hijab said is that the opposition which he represents is ready to return to the table of negotiations without any precondition. This is an offer of peace that needs to be taken into account.

The third emergency is to fight terrorism and in particular Daesh. The battle in Aleppo and many others are not meant to only fight terrorism but also to eradicate any kind of political opposition. It wants to get rid of a dictator that is hated by the population and to eradicate terrorism much more than what we do, and al-Nusrah. The real battle against terrorism is waged elsewhere, not only in Aleppo but also in Mosul, where the Iraqi forces pay a heavy price for it, and it also needs to be played in Raqqa, like France is demanding or has been requesting for a long time. All of these battles are essential for the safety of the people and for us all. It’s not only the people massacring those in Aleppo, but it’s us in the framework of the international coalition.

Now, then will come the time for rebuilding Syria, and we hope this will occur as soon as possible after years of war and the almost total destruction of the country by the desire of one single man and to please his regime. This construction will involve the whole community, the whole international community, and Europe in particular. But I’m saying this to you today solemnly: the intervention of the coalition will only be possible if there is a political solution that is negotiated and by UNSC Resolution 2254.

In due time the European Union will go along with it, but France will not agree to any kind of commitment that is made just to save the regime. We want to rebuild Syria to allow all of those who left Syria because of the war to be able to return to their home and to live in peace and safety in their country.

Thank you. Frank, you have the floor.

FOREIGN MINISTER STEINMEIER: (Via interpreter) Dear colleagues, Jean-Marc, first of all I would like to express our thanks for inviting us to attend the meeting in Paris today, an invitation you extended to us to discuss a topic we’ve been working relentlessly on for weeks now.

Seeing what we see in the media over the past few months and seeing images for Aleppo – from Aleppo, we’re absolutely speechless. There are no words to describe what is going on on a daily basis in Aleppo. The suffering of the people is endless. Day after day, these people live in total fear of dying and can see the increasing destruction of the city. Now, in the future or even now, all of those who are still in Aleppo are wondering how long they’ll live for – maybe a few days. They can’t think of any further future. Jean-Marc very rightly described the situation, and we have a moral obligation, which is to think about what should be our number one priority: relieve the suffering of the inhabitants with whatever means we have and, namely, humanitarian aid. So far we’ve made several attempts to try and provide humanitarian aid to the locals, and every time it ended up in a failure, at least in Aleppo. At least we managed to be successful in other areas throughout the country, but not in Aleppo.

Now, this doesn’t mean we’re going to stop trying, because the population is still suffering. That is why in the past few days in Hamburg we took advantage of the OSCE conference to hold consultations in a – under a restricted forum just to discuss these matters.

Dear Jean-Marc, I am happy that we are gathered today in Paris in order once again to try and assess the chances we might have to get at least a truce in the fighting which might allow us to send humanitarian aid to the people who are suffering. And might it be possible after several truces to end a final ceasefire? Today the delegations present didn’t manage to reach an agreement per se, but because of the emergency, the situation and the obligation we have is very clear to all of us.

Dear John, I would like to add that today we are eager to see what will come out of the meeting that will occur in Geneva. As for the subject matter that we’ve been discussing during the past few days and in particular those involving the Russians and the Americans and the priority objective, there’s one in particular, the opening of corridors, that will be useful to the population to leave the city and to allow groups to leave the eastern part of Aleppo. They need to be given the possibility to leave the city in all safety, so we will request that Russia and Iran leave the fight – allow the fighters to leave the city. They shouldn’t be jailed or – and they should be left free.

We are thinking in particular of one group, and no later than last week they were awarded a Franco-German award, and those are the white helmets. They are having a very difficult time and they carry on and they put their lives at risk for their (inaudible) to carry on providing assistance to the population. If Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime carry on affirming that radical fighters are still in the city – they still affirm that groups like al-Nusrah and other groups of fighters which are similar to them. I cannot deny this. The presence of al-Nusrah fighters does not justify the fact that one brings total destruction to a city and that the fighting carries on as it has been so far.

Now, we’ve been talking about the military situation. Lately, in the past days or weeks, the situation has evolved to the benefit of the regime, but all participants in today’s meeting saw very clearly that even if Aleppo should fall, that it won’t be the end of the fighting at all. The fighting will carry on elsewhere in Syria, and maybe even through terrorist means rather than actual fighting.

So let us not be mistaken. At the end of the day we’ll never be able to shy away from going back to the table of negotiations to find the means to reach a political solution. So that is why I’m saying that it is our obligation and it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to put an end to the tragedy in Aleppo.

Because of the objective difficulties that we have, we need to find solutions and the means to put an end to the tragedy. All of those involved in the fighting, also those who perpetrated war crimes, should also participate in the efforts towards peace. We haven’t abandoned Aleppo and we haven’t given up, and we’re going to do whatever we can to find solutions. And we will use whichever means we have at our disposal like truces and humanitarian aid to find a solution and to reach a political solution. Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER AL-THANI: (Via interpreter) Thank you. I would like to thank you all, and my friends John Kerry and Jean, Walter Steinmeier, for your participation in the meeting. It was a very constructive meeting. This meeting took place at a critical moment. In four, five years now we’ve always met at very critical moments. And every time we meet, we state how critical things are, but now Syria is being completely destroyed, Aleppo is brought to the ground, and the Syrian people is being bombed everywhere.

I think Aleppo might be in the spotlight, but all other Syrian cities are also threatened with destruction and demolition by a regime that has lost all credibility, and only thanks to the help of their foreign allies or militia. Today we reformed – we reaffirmed – sorry – the need for a political solution and the fact that we would not inflict a military solution. And this is what we reaffirm every time we meet. And every time we speak up we, the countries supporting the Syrian people in their fight for their freedom and for their dignity, we state again the fact that there is no solution in military confrontation, but there’s only a political solution. The other side seems to be thinking differently, even if it isn’t true.

Genocide and war crimes that were perpetrated recently in Aleppo are totally unacceptable, and these are things that are unacceptable for all religions and all international institutions. And the international community cannot remain silent. We insist on the need to make those responsible for these crimes accountable and we need to make them accountable. There perhaps chemical weapons were used; the regime was not held responsible for it in the past, and we haven’t made them responsible for the crimes perpetrated by the regime.

So the policy aiming at starving – making the people starve or making the moderate opposition disappear so that there are only longer extremists and representatives of the regime in place is something that we refuse. So we would like to reinstate our request for an immediate ceasefire and renewal of the negotiations, because we’re still convinced that a political solution is the only possibility so we have to take into account the humanitarian situation of all of the rebels in Aleppo and in all other Syrian cities. So the humanitarian part of aspects of the situation should not be used to wage a political war. It cannot be a tug-of-war negotiation that is not negotiated at all.

We met with the representative of the Syrian opposition, the HCN, and we insisted on the importance of fighting terrorism. We, as an international community, we committed ourselves to fight terrorism and terrorists like al-Nusrah, Daesh, or others. But let us not forget that terrorism is the consequence of the regime and of the militia fighting alongside the regime. There needs to be a minimum commitment on our part, and we have to hold them – the terrorist organizations – accountable for their acts. We’ve reaffirmed the importance of finding a political solution, and we think that something important that came out of today’s meeting is that we, the support group of likeminded countries for the Syrian opposition, we still favor a political solution in full respect of humanitarian aid under all circumstances.

Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Jean-Marc, thank you very much. Thank you. Merci beaucoup, and I particularly want to express our gratitude – all of us – for your gathering us here in Paris for this very, very important conversation, and we appreciate your passionate concern and your leadership. I thank you personally for that, and I’m very grateful to Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Mohammed al-Thani, the foreign ministers of Germany and Qatar, for joining us in this effort to try to do more than wring our hands and express frustration at the difficult task diplomatically. We assembled here to talk with urgency about what additional steps, if any, what creative mechanisms could be employed after a number of years now of different attempts to be able to try to bring the parties together to end the bloodshed, to stop the carnage, the horrific war that is taking place in Syria.

Let me just start on a positive note about something, if I may. Jean-Marc mentioned the ever-present challenge and urgency which Paris and France understands only too well, and that is the need to defeat Daesh/ISIL even as we are involved in trying to manage this civil confrontation in Syria with respect to the Assad regime and the opposition, and to balance other equities that are complicated – the gap between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the challenges of sectarianism in the region, and the overflow from Iraq. This is complicated. If it weren’t complicated we would have resolved this three or four years ago. But there are many forces at play, all of them with a different agenda, different interests.

One interest that is universal which is shared by the United States, all of our allies here, and all of the allies in the 68-nation coalition, including people who aren’t in the coalition like Iran or Russia, is the determination to defeat Daesh/ISIL. And as we begin the days of wrapping up the Obama Administration, I want to make it crystal clear that we have made enormous progress in that regard, in some ways not as fast as any of us always wanted to, but significant progress. Communities like Ramadi and Tikrit, Fallujah, others, have been liberated and people have been able to return to their homes. More than 55 percent of the territory that was taken by Daesh is now liberated.

And everybody knows that the effort to liberate Mosul, which was the self-anointed head of the caliphate, is well underway and making progress, and I am personally confident, without question, based on the shrinking of space for Daesh, based on the cutting of their financing, based on the foreign fighter recruitment which was at about a thousand a month and it then dropped to about 500, now is a trickle, because of the squeeze on their leadership. Very significant portions of the upper level of leadership have been eliminated from the battlefield. I can say with confidence, as I’ve said many times and with the same confidence, Daesh is going to be defeated. And as we press against Boko Haram and al-Shabaab and other entities in the world, I think all of us, those members of the coalition who have been working together, can be pleased with progress being made, though all of us would like to move faster and the world would like this to move faster.

That said, we convene today over this vexing challenge of Syria, and our message and our objectives here are clear. The indiscriminate bombing by the regime, which violates international rules of law, of war, in many cases crimes against humanity and war crimes, needs to stop. And those who support it, those in Moscow and elsewhere who have supported it, should do their utmost to bring it to a close.

A meaningful ceasefire needs to be reached for a number of reasons, and I’ll go into them in a minute. But it also has to do so on a basic humanitarian basis to allow humanitarian goods to flow and permit civilians who want to be able to depart the scene of this warfare, who are caught in the middle, who have little choice and who should not be used as human shields by either side, it is vital for those people to be able to make a choice to leave if they want to. And it is only a matter of fundamental human decency that they be allowed to leave.

Now, all parties – the basic agreement that we all who assembled as the ministers representing the countries of likeminded – our likemindedness understands that we need to get to the negotiating table because that is how you, in fact, effect a political solution. Now, the fact is – and I think you know it – that in recent days we’ve had another of a series of conversations with Russia. Foreign Minister Lavrov and I have met several times, as well as our conversations with Special Envoy de Mistura and with the ministers represented here, in an effort to try to find a way to reach an understanding about how to save the city of Aleppo, how to save the people who are their – innocent – who want to be able to move out of the line of fire, and to give a choice to the opposition, to the fighters, as to whether or not they want to stay or whether they want to be able to leave safely, in order to prevent the complete destruction of the city and those remaining in it.

And I would say to the opposition that we understand their challenge, we understand what they are fighting for, we understand their bravery and their courage in fighting against extraordinary odds. They don’t have airplanes. They don’t have helicopters. They don’t have large artillery. They are fighting greatly outnumbered and greatly outpowered. And in order to make peace, people with power, people with the extraordinary excess of power, need to often take the first steps and the bigger steps in order to express confidence and build confidence in the capacity to change things.

So our teams, along with representatives from the United Nations and other international organizations, are meeting in Geneva today, and they will meet very shortly in order to try to flesh out the details of a possible – I emphasize possible – way of trying to save lives, save the lives of everybody – fighters, people who are innocently caught in between. And I’m hopeful that these talks could try to find a way forward, though I cannot stand here and tell you they will.

Now, what is it that complicates these talks? Well, here it is. The fighters, who are being bombed and who have been mercilessly prosecuted by the Assad regime in ways that, as we all know, defy the laws of war, don’t trust that if they indeed agreed to leave to try to save Aleppo that, in fact, it will save Aleppo or that, in fact, they will be, in fact, unharmed and free to move and able to go to a destination where they also will not be immediately attacked. The choice for many of them as they think about it today is die in Aleppo or die in Idlib, but die. That’s the way they see the choice. And it seems to me that the regime and Russia have a fundamental responsibility here that if they are trying to effect a genuine transition and a genuine reach to get to the talks in Geneva and a genuine cessation of hostilities to permit people to move, they need to provide guarantees and allow guarantees to be put in place that make certain that people are not marching into a massacre.

Now, that’s pretty simple and straightforward, folks. And that’s what makes this complicated. I’m hopeful that we can find some progress as we go forward. This is the hardest kind of diplomacy because it’s not diplomacy where we are a combatant directly or France or Germany or Qatar, but where individuals within the country are the combatants and they have to make a decision for themselves as to what it is that they choose to do.

So we believe that we need to give the opposition forces and civilians alike the opportunity to leave Aleppo, and that if particularly the fighters were to leave with a commitment that the regime is genuinely ready to go to the table and negotiate in Geneva, that they are prepared to negotiate a transition according to the Geneva communique and that they will, in fact, uphold a ceasefire to permit this, then it may be possible to move forward. But this is not a one-sided decision. It’s not something where the opposition can just decide okay, we’re ready to go. The regime particularly, because it hasn’t indicated this at any time in this entire conflict, and Russia need to guarantee that they’re willing to take the steps to give confidence to people that this is a different moment and a different move.

Now, we discussed this morning that if this fails and if the bombing does continue and Aleppo falls to the regime – and by the way, it’s been no secret to anybody involved in this as to what the strategy was going to be of Assad and Russia with respect to Aleppo. It’s been no secret that this was what they’ve been seeking to do, and we all knew that ultimately this test would come and we knew the difficulties of the opposition prevailing in it. But if Aleppo were to fall, every one of us here knows, as does every person in Syria, that the war does not end. It will not end. In fact, it may even create more jihadis and more people who are more committed to seek revenge and to try to continue to prosecute their interests.

So we believe that rather than embolden the opposition, rather than encouraging its backers to keep fighting, attract more extremists, create another wave of refugees fleeing the country, Russia and Assad have a moment here where they are obviously in a dominant position; they have an ability to be able to show a little grace. And sometimes in diplomacy, a little grace goes a long way.

I want to emphasize that if Aleppo were to fall, that does not move you closer to a political negotiation, a negotiated settlement. And that is, according to every single person involved in this, the only way to end the war. The war doesn’t end militarily because you can’t share power that way. You can’t solve the problem of the opposition that has been seeking a voice in governance. You can’t fulfill the mandate of the Geneva communique unless you have a negotiation. So I urge – I’ll speak for myself – I urge to Dr. Hijab and the opposition to think about how they could help save Aleppo and save the lives of many people by being willing to negotiate – not any concession, not a capitulation, not giving in, but actually start what we have been unable to start for these years, which is a genuine discussion about the political solution, about the transition, about the new constitution, about election, about the Syrian people being able to do what we have promised they could do in both communiques from the ISSG and what we promised at the United Nations Security Council, that the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria.

Now, that has to guide us. This is the lone path to peace in Syria, and none of the parties to this conflict should accept a bloody fight to the end that continues to place civilians under siege and at risk.

So that was our central aim coming here today. And with the efforts in Geneva informed by the discussion here today – and I will certainly communicate to Sergey Lavrov the conclusions and the predominant feeling of the people who assembled here today – I believe there could be a way forward, but it really depends significantly on big choices, magnanimous choices, choices of a genuine peaceful spirit that might come from Russia and at the urging of Russia and I would hope the insistence of Russia, would come from the Assad regime.

So I reiterate my thanks to our colleagues standing here today. I’m particularly grateful for their partnership in this effort to try to bring this travesty in Syria to a close.

QUESTION: Yes, Karen de Young from The Washington Post. Secretary Kerry said yesterday and repeated again today that the world was tired of meetings. He said he himself was tired his meetings – of meetings. And many of you have pointed out the fact that over many of these years of meetings you haven’t really changed the situation on the ground. Syria is being destroyed, more people are dying, and these meetings haven’t seemed to accomplish very much.

I wonder if you can tell us specifically what you accomplished today and what your level of optimism is that it will actually make a difference. And also, Secretary Kerry, I wonder if you could tell us what your expectation is for some kind of results to come out of the meetings in Geneva. Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: I think – well, I think the only piece that I’m being asked about per se, I think, is the expectations out of Geneva. I have no way to predict the expectations out of Geneva. I mean, my expectations are pretty constrained because I think issues were raised here in the meeting today that we will need to raise in the meeting in Geneva that will take a little moment for people to digest and see if we can get a decision or two regarding some of these ideas that were put on the table here.

What was accomplished here today was a very – was a clarifying moment with respect to how people see the options in front of us and a consensus, I think, about some of the things we’d like to see happen, specifically getting to the talks now but doing so in the right circumstances, doing so in a way that respects the choices that the opposition has to make, that does so with guarantees, that lays out – so I think there’s a clarity to how we could go forward that came out of this meeting, and that’s what we wanted to do: bring likeminded people together in order to build a consensus about the difficulty of the choices that we faced, and I think we have that by and large. It doesn’t mean everybody agrees with every choice, but it does mean we understand what those options are, and we will put those on the table shortly in Geneva.

QUESTION: Hello. Secretary Kerry, this week we’ve seen President Obama lifting the restrictions on weapons being provided to some groups in Syria. What assurances do we have that those weapons won’t fall into the wrong hands as we’ve seen happen in the past? And also with regards to the evacuation of civilians, what kind of measures are in place to pressure some of the rebel groups who’ve been accused of not allowing some of the civilians to leave those areas?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me deal with the second part first. It is true that there have been some occasions where certain elements of opposition have – excuse me – where certain elements of the opposition have threatened people who were going to leave and in some cases prevented humanitarian assistance from being delivered. That is a very serious offense also, and we have taken steps with respect to anyone we have communication. We don’t have communication with all of these groups. There are different countries and different players engaged in that, but we have relayed to everybody that is absolutely unacceptable behavior and we would not support anybody who engages in that activity.

With respect to weapons falling in the hands of groups, I’m not going to go into the details of the measures being taken, but I can just assure you that that is very carefully vetted. It is distributed only in cases where we have confidence and there are certain measures taken to guarantee that certain things on an ongoing basis cannot, in fact, remain dangerous. So let’s just leave it at that and say that we are very cognizant of this challenge.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) The last question, Mr. Ayrault. You very rightly spoke about the disappearance of civilians who were arrested by the Syrian regime, also executions, as we hear every hour. So how can we concretely exert a pressure on the regime?

FOREIGN MINISTER AYRAULT: (Via interpreter) Well, the discussions are underway in Geneva, as John Kerry said. We need guarantees for the civilian population. Now, which guarantees can we give them if they wish to leave, and of course, preventing executions and being arrested? So things are being discussed now. What I would like to state, quite frankly, is that the regime, thanks to its support – Iran and Russia and also the militias – finds itself in a strong position, as we all know. But what is being said here is that the objective was to take Aleppo, but the fall of Aleppo plus its victims and massacres, how is going to solve the Syrian war? Some believe that it will be the end of the war. This is not the end of the war. Terrorism will continue. The war would continue. The most radical groups find themselves in a more, even stronger situation.

So the question we raised and we do agree on the answer is the necessity to get out of this trap in which Syria finds itself, thanks to its supports. And we should resume as soon as possible the negotiations without preconditions, as we have been discussing with the Riyad Hijab. We need to save the population, but we also need to resume the political process. Russia plays a decisive role in this situation. If Syria did not have this military support, the Syrian army would have failed. What does Russia want? Does Russia wish – ensure the security in this very region in Syria? This is an enormous responsibility, and if they do accept this responsibility they will be alone and they will have to assume all the consequences and they will not able to count on us on rebuilding the country. So we need to bear in mind the refugees, millions of displaced people who will not be able to go back to Syria because they will not find themselves in a safe situation.

So this boils down to the same situation. The total war strategy has no future. Of course, we may have discussions, we may disagree on some points, but on this essential point – i.e., put in place the necessary conditions to resume negotiations in Geneva – is the only way out. So the international community has already decided, there is a Geneva declaration and there is also the Resolution 2254. There is no other way out.

Thank you very much.