Daily Press Briefing - August 2, 2012
Index for Today's Briefing:
- Reaction to Annan Resigning as Syria Joint Special Envoy
- Sanctions / Humanitarian Assistance / Security Council Resolution / Assad Regime / Czech Republic Protective Power / Transition / Nonlethal Assistance / Peaceful Protests / Summary Executions / Cross-Border Spillover
- NORTH KOREA
- Track II Discussions / Flood Assistance
- Terrorist Threats / Cooperation
Daily Press Briefing
Today's briefing was held off-camera, so no video is available.
1:03 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon and welcome to the State Department. I will turn it over to you all.
MR. VENTRELL: Yes. Go ahead.
QUESTION: So, obviously you’re aware of Secretary – former Secretary General Annan’s announcement that he’s resigned. And I’ve seen the White House comments about this. What I find interesting is that one of the factors that Annan cites, both in his farewell op-ed in the FT and also in his news conference, is – says one of the reasons he’s left is finger-pointing among Security Council members. And judging by the White House statements, you – the U.S. Government seems to have engaged in precisely that, essentially pointing a finger at China and Russia for blocking Security Council resolutions.
Do you take or feel no responsibility yourselves for not having found a way to either persuade Russia and China to join in or to have taken more robust action yourselves to prevent or stop or halt or slow the violence?
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks for the question, Arshad. Let me just start by saying that, of course, we greatly appreciate the Joint Special Envoy’s efforts to bring an end the violence in Syria and thank him for his work. He has shown a strong commitment and support for the Syrian people’s aspirations for a freer, more democratic, and prosperous future for the Syrians. And so we thank him for his work.
Having said that, clearly the onus is on the Syrian regime. And as he said in his own press comments just a few moments ago, the bloodshed continues most of all because of the Syrian Government’s intransigence. And so the onus is clearly on the shoulders of the Assad regime, the slaughter of their own people, their refusal time and again to live up to their promises to implement the six-point plan, which is a plan that is a good framework and a framework we continue to support and we will continue to push forward with, but of course, within the context of our wider strategy that we’re pursuing, which, as you know, Arshad, we’re pursuing robust sanctions to squeeze the regime. We’re pursuing assistance to the opposition in the terms of the – in terms of nonlethal assistance which we’ve talked about. We’re pursuing humanitarian assistance. You also saw that, just this morning, we announced an additional $12 million of humanitarian assistance to help refugees, to help Syrians who are literally starving to death in the face of this crisis. And we will continue with our accountability and justice efforts as well.
And so within this wider strategy of ours, the framework that the Joint Special Envoy designed and worked to implement, and the Geneva communique that all of the members of the Security Council agreed to, is indeed the right plan in terms of having a transition to a democratic, free Syria.
Having said that, it’s of course not surprising that, given where we are, given the continued onslaught, and given, as he said, where the Security Council’s not at consensus on this, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing him step down. But we really thank him for his efforts, and we’re going to continue with our strategy in all of these elements that I’ve outlined.
QUESTION: But leaving aside your argument that the onus is on the Syrian Government, I mean, in a certain sense you could argue that is a constant, right? The Syrian Government, over the course of 17 months, has accelerated its violence. Why is the United States sort of impotent to do anything more, without the blessing of a Security Council resolution, that might actually stop the violence?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Arshad, no doubt we’re not pleased that we weren’t able to get a Security Council resolution. No doubt, clearly, the Russian and Chinese blocking, there’s some onus there as well. But having said that, we’re going to continue full ahead with our strategy. And the UN was one element. We preferred to go that route. Clearly, there was some intransigence on the part of the Russians and Chinese as well. But we’re not going to let that stop us from moving ahead with our plans because it’s too important for the Syrian people for us not to continue to press ahead.
QUESTION: And what is your – sorry – what is your strategy?
MR. VENTRELL: I just outlined it, Arshad, which is to accelerate our sanctions to squeeze this regime as they run out of money. It’s to assist the opposition so they can better communicate and organize and get around the type of political transition plan that not only was outlined by the Joint Special Envoy, which helped inform the Geneva communique, which helped inform now what is an organic Syrian opposition transition plan as well. So we’re increasing our support to the opposition and all elements of that as well. It’s the humanitarian assistance and it’s, again, the accountability and justice track. So those – that’s our strategy, and we’re going to continue to press on all of those fronts.
QUESTION: Last one from me on this.
MR. VENTRELL: Yep.
QUESTION: Sanctions don’t usually work fast. I mean they just don’t. You can look at any country that you’ve sanctioned extravagantly, and it’s typically years and years before they might change their behavior. The nonlethal assistance that you’ve provided is, according to your briefing yesterday, a total of $25 million --
MR. VENTRELL: Yes.
QUESTION: -- which is a tiny amount in comparison to the U.S. budget. And the other stuff that you talked about, the humanitarian aid is really treating the symptoms and not the underlying causes. You’re just trying to alleviate the effects of the violence on people either with (inaudible) or people who’ve actually physically been hurt by it. So what makes you think any aspect of this strategy is going to work in anything like a reasonable timeframe, a timeframe even of let alone days but weeks or months? What makes you think this strategy is actually going to lead to an end to the violence this year?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, here’s what we see, Arshad. The Assad regime is losing control. The situation continues to move in the direction of the opposition having increasing strength. The Assad regime is running out of money. They’re continuing to clearly spend it on their war machine as opposed to taking care of their own people. But we’re continuing to pinch them there, and that’s having an effect. The opposition is gaining ground. Obviously it’s a fluid situation, but what we’re seeing it is the opposition becoming more confident. They’re clearly taking territory around Aleppo. They clearly have made some significant gains.
And so our analysis is that the regime’s capabilities are being weakened, that the Syrian army’s soldiers are becoming demoralized, and that the opposition is gaining ground. So in effect, our strategy is having an impact, but of course, most importantly, it’s the Syrians themselves that continue their struggle for freedom. And they’ve been relentless in that struggle for freedom in the face of a despicable onslaught by the Assad regime.
QUESTION: But I mean, just to follow up –
QUESTION: Can I – I’ve been waiting for –
QUESTION: Oh, sorry.
MR. VENTRELL: Nicole, go ahead.
QUESTION: Sorry. The framework that you’ve outlined, this strategy that you’re going to pursue, given the failure in the Security Council, doesn’t include any kind of diplomatic effort. I would like to know whether you think diplomacy is dead, whether it’s now a nonstarter, and if not, what you are doing on the diplomatic front.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, there is a diplomatic front. And of course when I talked about the work with the opposition, I mentioned nonlethal assistance, but of course, our diplomatic engagement is intensive. Ambassador Ford is in Cairo –
QUESTION: I’m talking about with the regime to talk about political transition.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, this is a regime that’s slaughtering its people, so what we’re doing is we’re working with the opposition so that they’re in a place – our diplomatic efforts are so that they can put more meat on the bones of their transition plan so that it has the kind of robust and detailed and operable functionality so that when they take over the –
QUESTION: So you’re saying that given the failure on the Security Council, this now marks an end to diplomatic outreach to the Syrian regime?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I didn’t – again, I refer you to the UN and the AU* in terms of whether they’re going to appoint another special envoy or have that track. That’s really a question for the UN and the AU.*
QUESTION: Well, what about the U.S., then?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, where we’re at, clearly, as you know, we had to, for example, evacuate our Embassy due to the security threats many months ago. We, as you know, yesterday announced that – and we’re thankful to the Government of the Czech Republic for now being our protecting power. So we have a minimally – channel of minimal communications that way. But we’re not at a point where we’re negotiating with the Assad regime.
QUESTION: Can I just –
MR. VENTRELL: We’re at a point where the opposition is gaining ground and making their plans for the day after, and we’re, here in the State Department, working very carefully and in coordination so that the day after is a transition. Now --
QUESTION: Last –
MR. VENTRELL: -- we’re going to be at a point – let me finish for a second, Nicole.
MR. VENTRELL: We’re going to be at a point where we’re not – and we’ve been very clear about this. There are elements of the regime at a technocratic level who we want to – and the opposition wants to – be part of that transition. We’re not at a point where we’re saying that the Syrian institutions should simple crumble and go away. That’s not what we’re trying to look for here. We – obviously, there are elements, people that don’t have blood on their hands, that aren’t part of the inner cronies, who are going to have a very significant role in Syria afterward in coordination with the opposition. But that’s the way forward right now.
QUESTION: Can I go back to your first response? You said something – it wasn’t a hundred percent clear about – it is not surprising I think the situation we’re in, or what was it exactly?
MR. VENTRELL: I think we’re not surprised that the Joint Special Envoy was at a point where, given the regime’s intransigence, he thought it was the appropriate time to step down.
QUESTION: If this is not surprising, why did you waste, what, six months on this effort if you expected it all along to fail?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think we worked very hard on this –
QUESTION: But it failed. And it’s not surprising, right?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, the transition plan that he designed is still the framework we’re working with. And remember what his transition plan is. The transition plan envisions a new transitional authority with full executive control of the country, and that’s what the entire Security Council P-5 members signed onto. And so it doesn’t envision a future for Assad.
QUESTION: But you --
MR. VENTRELL: It envisions a future of some of the –
QUESTION: Who’s going to negotiate?
MR. VENTRELL: Let me finish. It envisions the opposition with elements of the regime who don’t have blood on their hands forming a transition.
QUESTION: Well, that’s not my question. You said it is not surprising that we’re at this point here and that he’s had to step down. You spent months and months of diplomatic effort that all failed to try to promote his plan and make it a viable political transition strategy. And that has gone nowhere. So if it’s not surprising, why did you spend so much time if you never – if you didn’t think it would succeed in the first place?
MR. VENTRELL: Brad, you’re trying to words in my mouth. I never –
QUESTION: I’m not.
MR. VENTRELL: Our position has been very clear that we obviously did work through the UN –
QUESTION: So you thought it would work?
MR. VENTRELL: We obviously did invest diplomatic capital.
QUESTION: I said that, too.
MR. VENTRELL: The Secretary was involved in this because we thought it was a potential way forward. Having said that – and I was here when we had the day of the double veto, and we said right there very clearly while that’s clearly a roadblock, we’re going to work through every other possible avenue. And so our diplomacy, our activity as a U.S. Government, has accelerated, and we continue to work on this.
QUESTION: So you said that you’re not at a point where you’re going to negotiate with the Assad regime. So if there’s nobody to negotiate – if the UN Security Council via an envoy is not going to negotiate a political transition with the Assad regime, and you point to the opposition gaining ground and this is the way that the opposition is going to overtake the regime, wouldn’t you be able to hasten that turning point if you were to up your support for the opposition?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, it is –
QUESTION: If you’re putting all your eggs in the opposition overturning the regime, then shouldn’t you be supporting the opposition in a more extravagant, to quote my colleague, way?
MR. VENTRELL: There’s no doubt that we’re supporting the opposition, and we want to hasten the day that Assad steps aside, because that is the best way to end this bloodshed –
QUESTION: With communications equipment? That’s the way you’re going to –
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m not going to get into all aspects of our nonlethal assistance, which I said we wouldn’t from this podium, for obvious reasons. But suffice it to say that we continue our support to the opposition. Ambassador Ford, for example, is working in Cairo with the opposition as they come together around their plan, so we’re working for greater unity politically with them, as well as working with the opposition inside of Syria so that they have not only the political support they need, but some of the other support they need that they’ve asked for.
QUESTION: Well, the Secretary said – was it earlier this week or last week – that the more territory that the rebels are able to gain and hold, the more support would be forthcoming. But aren’t you kind of putting the cart before the horse in the sense that if you were to give them more support, they would be able to hold and – capture and hold more territory? I mean, aren’t you setting them up to fail when you could be helping them to achieve your aim?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’re ramping up our support for the political transition to happen.
QUESTION: I’m talking about military support.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have --
QUESTION: I’m talking about military --
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t have anything new to announce from the podium, but we’re preparing for all scenarios.
QUESTION: Can I just ask one more thing? Is it --
QUESTION: What does that mean, preparing for all scenarios?
QUESTION: Yeah, what does that --
MR. VENTRELL: It means it’s a very fluid situation, and so we have said and we continue to say that we don’t think that further militarizing the situation is the answer.
QUESTION: So basically, you’re just going to let them fight it out on the ground --
QUESTION: -- and hope that the opposition will win; that’s the U.S. stand?
QUESTION: That’s what it sounds like –
QUESTION: We send nominal support in terms of communications equipment, which – and some, obviously, humanitarian aid for those who have been affected. But practically, you’re just going to let the Syrian opposition fight it out until Assad goes?
MR. VENTRELL: We are going to continue to use every lever that we have in our plan --
QUESTION: But not military.
MR. VENTRELL: -- to hasten the day that Assad steps aside and the plan goes forward. That’s the quickest way to end this bloodshed, and we will continue --
QUESTION: But you’re talking – but you’re --
QUESTION: But every lever, you just cut out, like, five of them. You’re not using military, correct? You’re not arming the rebels, you won’t consider a no-fly zone, you’re --
QUESTION: But yet you’re pointing to the opposition overtaking the regime as the way that this is going to go down, so you’re putting your support in one area but hoping that it’s going to end in another way.
MR. VENTRELL: This has come up earlier in the week and last week and when Toria was here at the podium. One of the things we said is the type of – some of you are asking – we should come in, guns blazing, as the U.S. And what we said is we’re not seeing the kind of calls from the inside of Syria asking us to come in with that kind of --
QUESTION: They’re asking for arms.
QUESTION: Well --
MR. VENTRELL: Said.
QUESTION: Patrick, explain the dichotomy in your position. On the one hand, you call for the use of nonviolence; you support the opposition because it was – to begin with, it was nonviolent. Now this opposition, it has tanks, it has antiaircraft guns, it has shoulder-fired, ground-to-air missiles and so on. It is becoming an army of – formidable army as itself. So what’s going on is a war between factions that are well-armed in this case. Why are you – then you taking a position on the side of the opposition that is armed and that has blood on its hands?
MR. VENTRELL: Said, we’ve been very clear – again, you’re right; this started as peaceful protests. And the Assad regime decided to use violence to put those peaceful protests and peaceful calls for a new way, for a more freer and open Syria, to put that down by slaughtering people. And so it has evolved; there’s no doubt. I’m not here as a lawyer to give you a legal analysis of where we are in terms of the definition of this conflict from the podium. But what I will say is that clearly, the regime’s intransigence, its refusal to see another way forward, has caused the situation to get where it is today. And we want to work with the opposition who are the ones that continue to push the best plan for a free and democratic Syria forward. We think that’s the way forward.
QUESTION: Then the flip side of that is that the quicker you arm the opposition or the more you arm the opposition, the more likely to end this violence on a shorter timetable?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, we’ve taken our sovereign decision when it comes to nonlethal assistance, others have taken their decisions. This is the way we’re going forward.
QUESTION: You still believe that the sooner –
QUESTION: Okay. And one last quick question on --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: -- Annan – sorry. Was he also forced – sort of forced out or driven out by the Arab League that felt that he was perhaps too placating or too accommodating of the Syrian regime?
MR. VENTRELL: I believe this was his own decision. I can tell you that the Secretary just recently spoke to the Joint Special Envoy this morning, so they were able to touch base. But my understanding is this was his own decision.
QUESTION: The guiding premise, though, still for this Administration is that the sooner Assad leaves power, the better, correct?
MR. VENTRELL: Absolutely.
QUESTION: Now you want to hasten the day. In theory, you could do more to hasten the day, but you’re choosing not to; right?
MR. VENTRELL: We don’t believe, Brad, that further militarization is the right way forward at this point. This is obviously a delicate part of the world, there’s a lot of factors that are involved, and so we don’t think that further militarizing it with --
QUESTION: For the long term?
MR. VENTRELL: For the long term and in general is the right way forward, and that’s why we have the strategy which I outlined very clearly and you all have been hearing us talk about day in and day out is the direction that we’ve gone. And so there’s a lot of naysayers, but clearly the regime continues to lose control. And so it’s always up until the day when something changes when – there are a lot of naysayers, but we think our strategy is the right way forward.
QUESTION: Right. That is not to say that the U.S. military doesn’t have the capacity to accelerate Assad’s downfall if it were so inclined and if you didn’t have this reservation.
MR. VENTRELL: From the State Department podium, we never talk about military capabilities. That’s not our --
QUESTION: There are other things that you could do which don’t involve arming the rebels, which I can understand the reluctance because you don’t know whose hands they’re going to go into, et cetera, et cetera, and it is a volatile part of the world. But the United States has a huge intelligence machine, and it’s got huge surveillance opportunities. Are you now at a point where you can start providing some of that to the rebels to at least help them in their fight against Assad?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we don’t talk about intelligence, and that sort of stuff from here at the State Department podium, that’s just not something that we do. But obviously, our strategy is comprehensive, and I’ve outlined the areas that we’re working on.
QUESTION: Now that the diplomatic chances are over, and no, you’re not talking about any militarization, so what way is there left?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, the opposition is --
QUESTION: Diplomatic is blocked and no militarization --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, what we see is the opposition is gaining ground, and they’re increasingly taking territory, and we’ll be at a point where eventually they – they’re – they continue to increase their hand.
QUESTION: Are you --
QUESTION: There have been – over the last few days, there have been some clips shown, particularly on CNN, among other places, showing – detailing evidence of torture and summary executions by the opposition of Assad troops that they have captured. In your conversations, whatever conversations you had with the opposition, are you calling them out on these tactics that are more and more resembling what Assad has been doing to them all along?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, let me just say from the beginning that summary executions committed by any party are abhorrent and are inconsistent with international law. And those responsible must be held to account. And we have encouraged – we’re encouraged that the local opposition commanders have condemned these horrible acts. We’ve seen members of the FSA and others on the ground condemn them. And so we’re encouraged by that, but we’re very clear that this is abhorrent and inconsistent with the type of struggle for freedom and a new Syria that the broad opposition is looking for.
QUESTION: On the nonlethal assistance, the old pot of money, has that all been spent in this new – that’s been allotted is --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I don’t think you were here yesterday. We had a very long discussion on this yesterday; obviously, point you to what I said there. But go back and look to yesterday. We had a long discussion of it.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Did you have any concerns about the conflict being more militarized, independently of what the U.S. will do, but the fact is that it’s going to take more military ways?
MR. VENTRELL: We don’t – we want to get –
QUESTION: No, no. I know. You’re not --
MR. VENTRELL: You know where we want to get.
QUESTION: For the time being, you’re not getting into any military, lethal things but the opposition is getting weapons from other sources. Are you concerned that those weapons are going to – are they going to get more weapon, maybe ask for more weapons, get more weapons, and the conflict is going to get militarized anyway?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again --
QUESTION: Independently of what the U.S. --
MR. VENTRELL: I simply don’t have a crystal ball. This is obviously a very complicated part of the world and a very complicated conflict --
QUESTION: But do you have concerns?
MR. VENTRELL: -- but we’re pursuing our strategy because we think it’s the right one.
QUESTION: On top of the humanitarian – the increase to the humanitarian aid, which the White House announced this morning --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- will there be a matching or similar increase to the amount of money directed towards nonlethal aid?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I don’t have anything specific to read out to you. We talked about yesterday how we have a $25 million total pot we’re working with. As Camille was asking before, we haven’t spent all that money yet, but we continue to spend it. So that’s where we are right now.
QUESTION: Do you have any --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- information on cross-border confrontations between Jordanian regular forces and Syrian regular forces today in the aftermath of the visit of the Secretary of Defense?
MR. VENTRELL: I did see some news reports of that. I don’t have any independent verification of it, but we did see some news reports of that, and obviously, one of the things that we’ve had longstanding concerns about is the potential for cross-border spillover with the neighbors.
QUESTION: Just going back to the 25 million --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- I think it may have been drawn to your attention that there’s some interest in when the $10 million was notified to Congress. Do you know the answer to that?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t, Arshad. We can look into it afterward. I just – on all items of the budget, I prefer to get a detailed readout before --
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t want to – okay.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- a former State Department official had a meeting with North Korean delegation in Singapore this week. Are you aware of that meeting? And do you have any response to that meeting?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I understand those were some Track II discussions that did not involve U.S. Government personnel. So I don’t have any additional information for you, but they were not talks that were attended by or had a U.S. Government role.
QUESTION: Still on North Korea?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Has North Korea asked anyone in the United States for – in the U.S. Government for flood assistance?
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks, Brad. Well, as you know, we continue to be deeply concerned about the well-being of the people of the DPRK, both, of course, in terms of these recent floods, but in terms of their overall well-being. And – but on the specific instance, the U.S. Government has not received any requests for assistance, nor are we aware of the DPRK making requests of aid to other states at this point.
QUESTION: Do you want to give flood assistance?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, I don’t want to speculate. If requested, it’s something that we would carefully evaluate, but we’re not at that point.
MR. VENTRELL: Jo, go ahead.
QUESTION: Can you tell us if – what the U.S. involvement was, if any, in the arrests of three suspected al-Qaida members in southern Spain today, and an explosives cache that was also found?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Well, Jo, we’re in contact with the Government of Spain regarding this case. We appreciate the vigilance of Spain, of Spanish authorities, and all of our global partners in combating potential terrorist threats. I obviously refer you to the Government of Spain for more information. But they’ve been a longstanding ally in the fight against terrorism. They – we cooperate with all of our allies closely on our efforts to degrade, disrupt, and defeat terrorist groups, and Spain is a good partner in that.
QUESTION: There was a suggestion it was part of the – it came about as a result of an international investigation. Was there any new U.S. involvement in that investigation?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any additional details on that. I really refer you to the Spanish authorities.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Patrick, the Orient House in East Jerusalem remains closed by the Israelis, forcibly closed. It’s a place where Palestinians normally received dignitaries and looked after the affairs of the Palestinian side of the city and so on. Have the Palestinians submitted a request to you – my understanding that they have, to – sort of appealing for reopening of Orient House?
MR. VENTRELL: Said, I don’t have any information on that, but I’ll take the question, and we’ll get back to you afterwards.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Anything else? Thank you, guys.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:31 p.m.)
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