12:44 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon, and welcome to the State Department. I will go ahead and turn it over to you all.
QUESTION: Okay. Can I start with something that we touched on yesterday, but maybe you have more clarification? The – do you have any knowledge of the Iranians who were either captured or abducted over the weekend in Syria? Were they in fact spies, as some are claiming, or were they pilgrims?
MR. VENTRELL: Brad, at this point, we’re still following the reports closely and monitoring the situation. We cannot confirm the identity of those reported to be kidnapped, and as I said yesterday that – the wider issue of us having deep concerns about Tehran’s destructive behavior in Syria continues, but these particular individuals, we don’t have any independent information about who they are.
QUESTION: Okay. That said about Iran’s behavior, its foreign ministry says they will hold you responsibly – the U.S. Government responsible for their well-being, and they’re saying that you should use all your leverage that you have with the rebels to help them be freed. Are you, beyond monitoring the situation, actually talking to people about this, and trying to ascertain who they are and whether they should be freed?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Brad, suffice it to say, we don’t have all the information about who these people are, where they are. Again, that’s not information we have.
QUESTION: Are you trying to find out?
MR. VENTRELL: What we’re – the message that we’ve stated publicly and had been very clear about, is that we call on anyone holding prisoners in this conflict to treat them humanely in accordance with international law, and of course people will be held accountable if that’s not followed. So we’ve been very clear about that.
But in terms of these individuals, we just simply don’t have more information on who they are.
QUESTION: I know. Okay, but are you trying to find out? Are you in discussions with FSA, either directly or through intermediaries to figure out – to try to find out what you say you don’t know?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I don’t – there’s nothing in great detail that I can say about our private communications. But what I will say here, again, publicly and on the record, is very clearly that we’re repeatedly calling on anyone holding prisoners in this conflict to treat them humanely and in accordance with international law. That’s our message.
QUESTION: All right.
QUESTION: Do you think it’s reasonable that the Iranians – to say that they are holding you responsible for these people?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, that doesn’t seem to make sense. Let’s talk a little bit again about the Iranian role in Syria. What we’ve seen in the last weeks is that Tehran has intensified its relationship with Assad’s Government – high-level visits, signing economic agreements, passing a bill in parliament to cement its support for the Syrian Government. And to us, it’s just unconscionable that the Iranian Government is ignoring the massacres of civilians in Aleppo and throughout Syria, and instead, finding new ways to try and prop up a regime who is killing many of thousands of its own citizens. So that’s sort of our broader opinion about Tehran’s role in Syria.
I can confirm that the Syrians, through – called in our Swiss protecting power – but I understand we did not receive any official correspondence through that channel.
QUESTION: Sorry. Who – the Syrians? Or the Iranians called in?
MR. VENTRELL: Excuse me. The Iranians in Tehran called in the Swiss protecting power on this matter. We did not, however, receive an official note or some sort of correspondence on the matter.
QUESTION: And they called them in to say what?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, we don’t – we’re not in a position to read out in great detail those kind of private diplomatic communications, but it’s --
QUESTION: Did they ask for your help in finding them or getting them released?
MR. VENTRELL: The subject was this – these individuals.
QUESTION: And you can’t say it was to seek your assistance in getting them released?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, we don’t tend to characterize meetings like that. They’ve been – they’ve made some public statements about what they think. But our public message, as I just said repeatedly to Brad and said repeatedly publicly, is that we call on anybody holding prisoners to treat them humanely.
QUESTION: Well, you often will read out when the Swiss will go in to seek the release of Americans in Iran. You’ll often tell us about that. I mean, are you sure you can’t say what they asked you for besides just saying it’s about these people?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, that’s all I have for you, Arshad, that’s it about these individuals.
QUESTION: Patrick, just to confirm then, you can’t because the Swiss aren’t telling you or the Iranians? What is the reason for not --
MR. VENTRELL: No, just because this is private diplomatic communication. I just don’t think it would be appropriate to give a detailed readout, but --
QUESTION: According to state media in Iran.
MR. VENTRELL: -- what I will say is that at times they give us diplomatic correspondence through this channel. And in this case, they did not give us any written correspondence.
QUESTION: When were they called in?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if it was late yesterday or early this morning.
QUESTION: So, in other words, the Iranians did not give any correspondence?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. They called in the Swiss protecting power to discuss the issue but did not give us any correspondence.
QUESTION: But did the Swiss – you don’t have details necessarily what they said, but the Swiss informed you that they had been called in on your behalf, correct?
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: And was it the ambassador or somebody else who went --
MR. VENTRELL: For -- I believe it was the chargé from the Swiss – of their mission in Tehran.
QUESTION: Can you get --
QUESTION: Can you get back to the situation with this group? When you say that you’re simply calling on all those who are holding others to treat them in accordance with international law, are you suggesting that the U.S. contact with the opposition, with the FSA, are simply an advisory statement? There’s no real politicking or leverage being exerted by Washington in this case?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean – I don’t have any private communication between us and the opposition to read out on this particular case. I can check into it to see if we have more to say, but right now I just simply don’t have anything further for you, Ros.
QUESTION: Because it does seem a bit incredulous that the U.S. has been dealing with the opposition for all these many months and yet on something that Tehran decides is worth calling in the charge for, it’s crickets.
MR. VENTRELL: These are presumably Iranian citizens inside of Syria. We in the U.S. Government are calling for them to be treated humanely, and we think that’s the appropriate, principled stand to take, but beyond that I don’t have anything for you.
QUESTION: Patrick --
QUESTION: On Jordan?
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Brad.
QUESTION: This is the problem. You’ve been calling for months – you’ve been calling out the Iranians for their involvement in the Syrian conflict. Now you have 48 Iranians who are being held there, and you’re not even making an effort to figure out who they are? It’s a very bizarre thing.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Brad, we – this isn’t --
QUESTION: They have people of their nationality who are being held inside the country. Wouldn’t you at least try to figure out whether these are military people or civilians? Because if they’re civilians, surely they’re going to have, whether it’s right or wrong, even more interest in being involved in the conflict.
MR. VENTRELL: Brad, clearly this is an area where active conflict is going on. This is – Syria is a very dangerous place right now. People are being killed and slaughtered. So obviously, this is a conflict zone. And so within that context, we don’t know who these individuals are. We’ve had very deep concerns about Iranian involvement inside of Syria, and so obviously we’re following it closely. Clearly --
QUESTION: Following what?
MR. VENTRELL: Clearly, the situation, and that does mean we want more information. Our – any of our sensitive diplomacy that we may be having is not something I’m going to get into here from the podium. But suffice it to say it is an issue of interest for us and something that we’re looking at carefully.
QUESTION: Just a factual thing. Can you find out for us whether it was yesterday or today when the Swiss official was called in and –
MR. VENTRELL: I’d be happy to look into it. It was yesterday or today.
QUESTION: It would seem to be that since the United States is already actively working with the opposition and with NGOs on the ground that some of those NGOs might actually be able to help. Are you in contact with them to try and find out where these people are and who they are?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, the NGOs who are either in country or in the bordering states are there primarily to provide humanitarian assistance. And as you heard the Secretary – obviously, for those of you who didn’t see, I hope all of you have seen her press availability that she had with the – her South African counterpart earlier this morning.
As you heard, she talked about the importance of hastening the day that the bloodshed ends and the political transition begins. She discussed how important it is given the desperate humanitarian situation to get aid to those in need, and some of those NGOs are – and other implementing partners are the ones who do that given the severe suffering of the Syrian people, which the Secretary referenced. And then you also, of course, heard her talk about the planning for what happens next and the importance of planning for the day after. So I think you heard her speak pretty clearly on Syria this morning.
QUESTION: Can I ask you –
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Cami.
QUESTION: -- about her remarks this morning? This is not the first time she’s noted the advances of the opposition.
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: And I’m just wondering in this conflict, with the two sides or more, is the U.S. supporting the armed opposition in Syria against the regime?
MR. VENTRELL: What we support is a peaceful transition to a new Syrian Government that is democratic and free and supports the rights of all Syrians.
QUESTION: But do you support the armed opposition which is fighting the Assad regime? And if not, why not arm them? Or if you do –
MR. VENTRELL: Well, you know where we are on this, Cami. We’ve talked about it at great length over a number of days. We do provide some nonlethal support for the opposition as they gain more ground and get more organized and cohesive, and we think that’s a good thing in the sense that that provides a better option for the way forward in Syria. But we’ve been pretty clear about where our support is and not wanting to further militarize the conflict.
QUESTION: Does that mean you don’t support the armed opposition?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, what it means is we’re providing nonlethal support, we’re providing other assistance as this group of people who started as peaceful protestors and were slaughtered and then had to defend themselves move toward a new Syria. And clearly, they’re gaining ground, and there’s going to be a new day in Syria. And so clearly, those are people we’re working with. And obviously, our diplomacy is intensive in the sense that we’re working with a hundred-plus other countries who are on the same page that we are to push the opposition to become more united to have a plan for the day after to run a new government.
QUESTION: But why won’t this Administration say just outright that it supports the armed opposition and its struggle against the Assad regime?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, what we want to see is the quickest possible transition to avoid further bloodshed. What we’re looking for is the quickest way to get to a peaceful solution, and that’s what the Secretary said this morning. What we want to get is to a peaceful solution as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: But she talked about the advances of the opposition. She talked about them acquiring regime weapons, including tanks, and she talked about them taking more territory. I mean, that’s her speaking about the fight.
MR. VENTRELL: It’s clear that that’s happening. And what’s clear is as they take that territory, they need to continue to consolidate on the political front as well, because it’s one thing to start to have a new responsibility to be in charge in an area; they also are going to have to govern and control the space that they continue to take.
QUESTION: Are those advances hastening the day in your opinion that the Assad regime will fall?
MR. VENTRELL: They’re clearly having an effect. I mean, the sooner he steps aside, the better.
QUESTION: So if that’s your goal and these rebel advances are hastening that goal’s realization, you would support that, right?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, Brad, we’ve talked about this all week, and our –
QUESTION: Yeah, but you’re not giving a simple answer to a very simple question.
MR. VENTRELL: Our position has not changed, and we’ve been over this extensively this week.
Jill, go ahead.
QUESTION: Patrick, if this is speeding up, and if the people who are going to win, I guess you would say, are the opposition, are the opposition ready at this point? Let’s say that it happens quickly. Are they ready to take over?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, I’m not going to – as we’ve talked about this, we don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know when this is going to happen. We think it’s very important, and that’s why the Secretary said today that it’s the appropriate time to be talking about the planning for the day after. And so we’re encouraging the opposition to do that, and they’re increasingly organized and increasingly coherent in their plans. So we think that’s a good thing.
QUESTION: Could I ask about concerns the United States says about the comments today by the Iranian Envoy Saeed Jalili who talked about the fact that Iran will continue to back Syria saying that they were part of an axis of resistance against regional and global enemies. I mean, that kind of would seem to strengthen the Iranian position and could – how worried are you that this will involve a greater – a deepening involvement of the Iranians in this conflict in Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Jo, what I would say – and I said it earlier – we think it’s unconscionable that the Iranian Government is ignoring these massacres and instead finding new ways to prop up this regime that has now killed so many thousands of its own citizens. We just think it’s unconscionable.
QUESTION: Have you seen the new video that was aired on Syrian state television today ostensibly of Assad welcoming an Iranian delegation? Has the U.S. Government been able to verify that this happened today?
MR. VENTRELL: We saw the same video you did, Ros, but I just don’t have any further information on it.
QUESTION: Does that – is there any indication that he is still very much in control and is still leading his government from Damascus?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we have no reason to believe it wasn’t him in that video. But at the same time, we’ve been saying overall that the general trend is that the situation continues to slip out of control, out of his hands.
QUESTION: You said the Iranians were finding new ways to prop up the regime. What kind of new ways –
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I talked about that earlier today, just now, Jo, when we talked about how they’re intensifying their relationship, exchanging all these high-level visits, and signing economic arrangements and passing a bill in the Iranian parliament to cement their support. So those are the kind of things where --
QUESTION: Are you saying new military ways of propping up the regime?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, suffice it to say we’ve been deeply concerned about their malign and destructive actions inside of Syria, and that includes material support.
In the back.
QUESTION: Where specifically are the advances you’re talking about? Because the news out of Damascus yesterday was, I mean, the regime took some journalists on a tour, bragging about how it had reclaimed all these neighborhoods that were contested. And then also in Aleppo, the news out of Aleppo is about gunships and fighter jets pounding rebel targets. They couldn’t even take over the state TV building. They were pushed back. So what specific advancements are we talking about?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, first of all, you’re right; there have been fixed-wing aircraft assaults, which are just abhorrent, on the civilian population. Despite that, the Syrian people’s will to continue to press on, to push for a brighter day in Syria, continues, despite this onslaught. And as the Secretary mentioned, there’s this corridor from Aleppo up toward the Turkish border is one area. Damascus has gone back and forth, but there’s been opposition gains there as well. So clearly it continues. He’s having trouble holding his two – the two major cities in the country. Clearly the opposition continues to have – their message for a new day in Syria has extraordinary resonance. And what I would say also is that people who would normally continue their alliance and support for Assad or would be his natural allies are starting to peel off, because they don’t see a future with this regime.
QUESTION: What natural allies?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, we’ve seen the – whether it’s the prime minister of the entire country and others. I mean, we’ve seen another general and another thousand Syrians leave overnight. So defections continue. And part of that is because as they look at their options, they see that this is a man who’s willing to go to no length to kill people to stay in power. And those who are on the fence, some of them are saying that’s not – they’re realizing the resilience and the determination of the Syrian people to continue in their struggle for freedom.
QUESTION: In the Secretary’s comments today, she talked not only about foreign fighters but specifically said proxies. She used that word today. Proxies for whom? Is that the axis of resistance? Was it a reference to that? Who was she referring to there?
MR. VENTRELL: In general, when – what we’ve seen with some of this chaos that the Assad regime has sown is that it has given an opening to some extremists. And that’s of deep concern to us. But --
QUESTION: But this was – proxy is usually used with a state.
MR. VENTRELL: Let me finish. Yeah. So not only do we see some people are doing that independently, what would be – what’s even more concerning is if there are people who would actively support that kind of extremism. And so that’s the kind of thing that she’s referring to.
QUESTION: But that word today, in my recollection, she has not used before.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if she said – she’s – we’ve definitely been talking and the Secretary’s been talking at great length about our concern with extremism and our concern with the malign influence of others. I’m not sure, again, whether she said that precise word before, but --
QUESTION: But it wasn’t in reference to this axis of resistance and the meetings between Iranian officials and Assad?
MR. VENTRELL: I think it speaks for itself.
QUESTION: Now, who’s the proxy? Who are the proxies fighting on behalf of whom?
MR. VENTRELL: What the Secretary was getting at is there is already enough conflict inside of Syria and there are already some extremists who are trying to take advantage. Having governments add fuel to the fire, and specifically backing foreign fighters and others, would be of even more concern.
QUESTION: So that – she was referring to what? Saudi Arabia and Qatar supporting the Free Syrian Army? Or can you clarify?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re talking about the type of extremists and terrorists that would throw further fuel on the fire and kill more innocent Syrians.
QUESTION: Do you have any discussions with the Russians regarding Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, obviously our contact with the Russians is ongoing. I don’t have any particular meetings or any diplomacy to read out, but it’s ongoing.
QUESTION: Patrick, is there now a working definition of when Assad is gone here at the State Department? I mean, is it he himself? Is it his regime? Is it he and his family? Is it – what is it? When is he gone, in your definition?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, we don’t have a crystal ball. It’s very hard to predict.
QUESTION: I don’t mean timing. I mean your definition. Like if he said tomorrow I’m off to Tahiti with my family but the structure of that regime remains in place, is that – is it over? Is that –
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, you know, Jill, that from the podium it’s very hard for us to try to do hypothetical scenarios. Suffice it to say we’ve been very clear if he’ll fully step away from power, that’s a good thing. We’re not there yet. But if that were to happen, that would certainly be a positive thing, and then we would look at the scenario going forward.
We do think, and as the Secretary talked about keeping state institutions in place, that the opposition can and should be planning to work with elements of the regime that don’t have blood on their hands. So that’s one of the scenarios that we’re looking at, but it’s impossible to predict how this is going to happen.
QUESTION: I’m wondering what your assessment is of where things are, so I won’t ask you anything hypothetical. But while the Secretary talks about advances made by the opposition and so forth, we have one group saying that more people died yesterday in a single day than since the fighting began. So where are we right now? It sometimes seems as if this Administration just keeps trying to put a positive spin on where things are instead of – I mean, where are we?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Cami, I think what you heard today from the Secretary was her expressing our deep concern for the well-being of the Syrian people. There’s no doubt that the slaughter continues, and it’s despicable. And some of the methods being used, like fixed-wing aircraft, it’s particularly reprehensible. There’s no doubt that the conflict continues.
But the opposition, in the face of this onslaught – and maybe Assad expected them to just be suppressed and stopped, but the will of the Syrian people has not been crushed. They continue to press on and continue to have remarkable gains. So no doubt it’s still an active conflict zone. Active conflict is going on.
QUESTION: But is the Administration ready to provide Free Syrian Army with anti-aircraft missiles to protect themselves, in Aleppo for example?
MR. VENTRELL: There has been no change in our policy about lethal assistance.
QUESTION: Why? If you need them to – if you need to help them or to protect themselves, why don’t you provide them with this kind of arms?
MR. VENTRELL: Guys, we’ve done this one 16 different ways, and I’ve said our policy clearly every time, and that’s where we are.
QUESTION: Patrick, now that the --
QUESTION: What is your main concern on this issue?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, we’ve done this so many times that I just don’t think we’re – this is useful to continue.
QUESTION: Now that the Cairo meetings have wrapped up, what – how is the Administration keeping in contact with the opposition and continuing the planning? How is that being structured? Will we see another conference or setup like Cairo again soon?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any meetings to announce, but our outreach to the opposition is intensive and ongoing. We obviously have some people in this building, as we mentioned, who are experts on the situation in Syria, people like Ambassador Ford who’s lived there and been our ambassador there, who continue their very extensive outreach to the opposition. So it’s daily and intensive and ongoing.
QUESTION: I want to come back to Michel’s point. It may be that the podium has spoken about not providing weapons so many times, but there is a growing chorus in Congress saying that perhaps it’s time to look at some sort of no-fly zone. We’re showing video today, very graphic video, of people who have been shelled, just trying to mind their own business, and dying on dirty hospital floors. At what point can the U.S. say this is a situation where it’s not just a little more pregnant, to use a cliche, but this is an all-out slaughter and we have to actually intervene to prevent more people from dying; war is ugly, no one likes it, but this is the time where the U.S. should seriously consider moving in?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Ros, as you know, we’re not at a point where the U.S. thinks that further militarization inside of Syria from the outside – for example, for the U.S. intervening or others – is the right path. And so that’s where we’ve been. We do think that there’s a resilient opposition who is determined to see an organic, Syrian-led opposition for a Syrian-led political transition. And so we support that, and we think it’s the right way forward. But we think it needs to be a Syrian plan and we think that’s the best route toward a freer, more stable, and prosperous Syria.
QUESTION: But certainly you can see the point that if people are watching their relatives die, they don’t know whether they’re going to make it to the next sunset, that they’re not going to be inclined to argue with the government that has decided that the best way to communicate its position is to put gunships in the air and to send fighter jets over to try to terrify them and then, when necessary, drop ordnance on them. That’s clearly the way the Syrian Government is communicating with the people in these cities all over the country. It’s not just one neighborhood; it’s all over the country.
QUESTION: And Ros, we share with you that perspective that this is deplorable and despicable and there’s no doubt that the onslaught continues and that it’s just deplorable. But having said that, in the face of that, there are Syrians who continue to be resilient and continue to plan for the next day after.
QUESTION: But they need arms. This is the point.
QUESTION: But is – yeah. Is --
QUESTION: They need arms to protect themselves.
QUESTION: Is this a fear of drawing Iranian forces into a conflict? Is this why the U.S. and its allies have not decided to go ahead, that they’re afraid of a region-wide war?
MR. VENTRELL: Ros, there’s no doubt that it’s a complex situation inside of Syria. There’s no doubt that it’s a complicated part of the world. We’ve made our assessment. We’ve made our policy. We’ll continue to push forward with all these levers. We’ll continue to squeeze the Assad regime with very strong sanctions that have deprived him of billions of dollars of income. We’ll continue to work with 130-plus other countries in the world who want to see a peaceful, Syrian-led political transition. And so there is no doubt in our mind – and we continue to stand with the Syrian people, and so do so many other people around the world. And we’re providing support to the opposition as they continue to consolidate their gains and continue to plan for the day after.
Okay. Moving on.
QUESTION: Do you expect any change in the U.S. policy after Secretary Clinton visit to Istanbul this week?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, as you know, the Secretary is going to go to Istanbul this weekend, on Saturday. She’ll meet with our Turkish ally. Let’s see how those meetings go. I don’t have anything for you at this point more about those meetings.
QUESTION: Any update on the schedule?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have an update on the schedule. We’re still a few days out.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:11 p.m.)
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