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Diplomacy in Action

Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Trip to Paris and Kuwait City


Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
January 10, 2014

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MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us. This is a preview call to preview the Secretary’s trip to Paris and Kuwait City over the next couple of days. We have a number of officials on with us who have graciously joined us. So we’ll give a few opening comments and then open it up for questions.

With that, let me turn it over to Senior State Department Official Number One.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you very much. And very pleased to join you on this call. Let me say that everyone in this Department – many departments – Secretary Kerry, have been heavily engaged in a vigorous diplomatic outreach with the Syrian opposition, international partners, the UN, Lakhdar Brahimi, to set the groundwork and the right tone as we head into Montreux to begin the process by which the Geneva communique can be implemented. And I think it’s worthwhile to sort of remember what the goals of the Geneva communique were, and the first is to form a transitional governing body – in this respect, the Geneva II would be a first step – which would have full executive powers, the beginning of a process. It would be formed by mutual consent, meaning the opposition has a veto. And then I can’t stress this enough that President Assad has lost legitimacy and should have no role in a future Syrian government.

The Secretary will participate in the London 11 ministerial on January 12th, chaired by the French foreign minister. He’ll be joined by representatives of the opposition, led by its recently elected President Ahmad al-Jarba. This is the last ministerial before Geneva II, and it’s an important opportunity to coordinate with our key partners on our goals and reaffirm our full support for the moderate opposition. And let me say there is an enormous amount of activity ongoing that we can discuss later, as we move into this process.

Let me outline some of the goals for the London 11 ministerial: again, preparations for a successful Geneva II conference; prevailing on the Syrian Opposition Coalition to cull ranks and unify before Geneva 11 This has been a struggle, as many of you know. You’re in contact with members of this opposition. Robert Ford and Wendy are in Russia. Ambassador Ford has been in close contact with many members of the opposition. And again, I know some of the people on this call have long experience. It’s a difficult process, and it’s a brand new opposition group, and it’s fractious. But we and many of our allies are working hard to get them to hold together.

We’re urging them, as I said, to send a representative to the negotiating delegation, despite their division. And we also want to build progress – achieve progress on three important confidence-building measures. The first is humanitarian access, and [Senior State Department Official Two] is going to talk more about the humanitarian situation in a few minutes. But it’s denying access to more than 250,000 people. We have cities and villages which are cut off where people are dying, particularly children, dying of malnutrition. And the most urgent humanitarian issue is East Ghouta, which is essentially a Damascus suburb where a 160,000 people have been cut off for more than year. So we want to ramp up – to take advantage of the London 11 – to ramp up public and private pressure on the regime, Russia, and Iran, to improve their situation.

The second confidence-building measure would be prisoner releases – there are about somewhere – again, it’s not clear, but between 48,000 and 215,000 prisoners – and focus again mostly on the situation of women and young people. And then finally a ceasefire or a series of ceasefires. There are many ways in which this could be done either regionally or to limit certain weapons usage. And we’re hopeful that the Russians will welcome this effort.

There are a number of additional meetings, and I’m sure you can get more information on the plane on these. The Secretary, of course, will meet with his close friend, Minister Lavrov. Wendy, as I mentioned, is in Russia today. The Secretary has been in constant talk – in constant contact with Lavrov over the last two weeks. There’s a trilateral meeting between Lavrov and Brahimi and the Secretary.

And then the Secretary will follow this meeting to attend the Kuwait donors conference. And we’re very much looking forward to that meeting, not only as a chance to highlight these humanitarian issues, but also to bring together the international community to acquire the resources to meet these enormous humanitarian needs. We’re also hopeful that we can start to address some of the enormous development challenges that any kind of post-Assad Syria will present. So there will be some preliminary discussion of that.

And I’ll let [Senior State Department Official Two] talk about the UN appeal and the U.S. contribution. We’re proud that we’ve given more than $1.3 billion to date, of which 700 million has been inside Syria. Thank you. [Senior State Department Official Two].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you, spokesperson number one. We are very pleased that the Secretary is going to lead the delegation to Kuwait. This is the second time Kuwait has hosted a pledging conference for a response – a humanitarian response to the crisis in Syria. It’s all about concern for the Syrian people and meeting their needs. And what it will help to do is provide resources for organizations that risk their lives, where their aid workers are risking their lives to deliver aid, helping the children who will be the future of Syria and have to be called on to rebuild Syria one day, and then getting food to people who are starving. Our funding is an investment in the peace and security of the region.

We want to support the neighbors who are shouldering so much, and a couple of us have spent a lot of time traveling to the neighboring countries. There are 2.3 million refugees outside of Syria, who fled Syria. Over 860,000 of them are in Lebanon. Another million are split – over a million split between Jordan and Turkey. And also others have gone as far as northern Iraq and Egypt.

We also want to ask these neighbors to keep their borders open for those fleeing violence, and we want them to respect the rights of people fleeing violence. We are tremendously grateful that they are hosting so many refugees, so this is an opportunity to thank them for taking on this role, for straining their resources. We support these countries; we also want to support the host communities in these countries that are doing so much to shoulder this responsibility. And by supporting them, we mean not just the traditional humanitarian aid, but we also mean trying to get – mobilize more development aid to these countries so that their own citizens don’t suffer from the – from offering hospitality to Syrians.

Finally, we want to push as much humanitarian aid into Syria as possible, and that is particularly challenged – given that it’s active conflict going on.

So at this point, let me turn to my colleague on the phone to talk about the inside of Syria.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you very much. As my colleagues have noted, the U.S. at this point is the largest single donor to the Syrian crisis, and we focused quite a bit of that on ensuring that assistance reaches as many people as we can inside Syria. We estimate we’re reaching about 4.2 million people across all the 14 governorates inside Syria, as well as the 2 million refugees. We note that the needs are escalating faster than our or collected responses across the international community can currently reach, and there remains, unfortunately, a large gap between those in need and those that we’re able to reach.

Part of this is, as noted earlier, is the need for greater humanitarian access. And this was addressed in the presidential statement that was passed on October 2nd out of the UN Security Council, which lays down very clear markers for what the expectations are for ensuring greater access, including, as my colleague mentioned, access into the besieged areas where people have literally not been able to receive assistance since, in some instances, last spring or this summer.

In the meantime, we continue to focus on provision of medical care. We support about 190 clinics inside Syria. We have been mounting a large winterization campaign. Since last summer we’ve been gearing up for that and have distributed tents, blankets, warm clothes. We are a significant supporter of the World Food Program as well as other partners to provide both food parcels and flour directly to bakeries, and we continue to work on water sanitation for many of the IDP camps inside Syria.

So we’re working through all the possible channels with a variety of partners – the UN, NGOs, local Syrian organizations – with the goal of reaching as many as we can at the same time that we are pressing vigorously for additional access so that the funds that we hope and look forward to being raised in Kuwait will be able to reach as many people possible. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Let me just give a few overview comments on the meeting with the API follow-on – the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee that the Secretary will be doing on Sunday, as well as the bilateral meeting he’ll be doing with Foreign Minister Fabius. We will, of course, provide you all a schedule of all of the bilateral meetings, as we would typically do.

As you all know, one of our overriding goals is to continue building international support for the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That was why the Secretary was – part of the reason why he was in Saudi Arabia and Jordan just this past weekend. We recognize the important that our Arab partners play and have historically played in this effort. Back in April, the Secretary promised to keep the representatives of the Arab League – Arab Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee regularly updated on the negotiations. This is a part of that effort and that commitment. He will review our efforts to achieve a framework for final status negotiations, which he and our team on the ground have been working hard on, that we are – and we, of course, are working with both sides on. And he will, of course, hear from both sides – I mean, excuse me – hear from our Arab partners on their thoughts on the process as we continue to pursue those negotiations.

He will also have a bilateral meeting while he is in Paris with Foreign Minister Fabius. We, of course, are grateful to France for hosting the London 11 ministerial. This is, as has been discussed by several of our colleagues here, a vital opportunity to coordinate with our key partners.

In that meeting that he will have with Foreign Minister Fabius, they will also discuss developments in Africa, particularly in the Central African Republic, given events over the course of the last couple of days. We are working with the French to support MISCA, as we have done for months now, which is, as you all know, the African Union-led stabilization mission in the CAR. We have committed – the United States has committed up to $100 million to assist with training, equipping, and providing airlift support to MISCA and to French troops. We expect they will also discuss other pressing multilateral issues, including Iran and the Middle East.

With that, let us turn it over to questions.

OPERATOR: Certainly. And ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1. And first we’ll go to Lara Jakes with the Associated Press.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks very much for doing this call. It’s really helpful. And I guess first off, I wonder if you all could – I’m sorry to ask you this, but to identify yourself, even though we won’t be identifying you publicly. I’m sorry. I’m new to the State Department. I just don’t know who’s speaking.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Sure. Well, you know me, [name withheld]. (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And I’m [name and position withheld].

QUESTION: Okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And I’m [name and position withheld].

[Senior Administration Official]?

MODERATOR: [Senior Administration Official], are you still on the phone?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. Hello? This is [name and position withheld].

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks very much.

MODERATOR: Great.

QUESTION: So Senior Official Number One, you had talked a little bit about trying to build progress on three confidence building measures. I’m wondering if first you can talk a little bit about how you all are seeing whether or not these will be reached or any kind of agreement will be reached on some of these confidence building measures, like how probable that is.

And then secondly, I’m sure you all have seen out of Spain the – a spokesman for the Syrian National Council is saying that the Geneva talks, Geneva II, should focus on establishing a timeframe for the end to the fighting. I’m wondering if you all have comments or thoughts on that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. On the confidence building measures, well, we just don’t know. I mean, that’s why we’re having the meeting, to try and resolve some of these issues. And that’s why it’s so important that everybody get through this process. I mean, we’re talking about a process here, a process that’s going to be necessarily extraordinarily long-term. The first step is to get everyone to the London 11 meeting, which is in my view sort of a traditional contact group, and then lay the groundwork for the Geneva II meeting. So frankly, it’s very hard to say at this point whether we will make progress on those, but we’ll certainly try.

On the opposition, as I mentioned, the Secretary and a long list of other foreign leaders are trying, frankly, very vigorously to get these fellows to coalesce and to get them to London, preparatory to getting them to Geneva, so they can make a serious contribution to this process, because they are quite divided and fractious at this point.

QUESTION: Well, right, but what they’re saying is that there needs to be – it seems like what they’re saying is that they want kind of a deadline for when there should be a ceasefire, or at least when there should be some kind of agreement reached. Is that something that you all support?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, we would support that, but this is a negotiation, and this is a process, and they have to come to Geneva and engage in this process. They have to come and engage in this process. And yes, of course we would support and end of the fighting. I mean, that goes without saying.

QUESTION: No, no. I’m sorry, a deadline for the end of the fighting, or a deadline for some kind of negotiated status.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No. We don’t support that

because this is a process that has to go forward under UN auspices, I might add. And Lakhdar Brahimi, who some of you on this call, I know, know very well, is essentially going to honcho this process going forward. And he and the rest of us will do the best we can to stop the fighting and setup the transitional governing body that, again, will be a very extended negotiation as this goes forward.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Just one point to add. I mean, what the significance of bringing these parties to Geneva, the regime and the opposition, is that this would be the first time they’re seated at the table. So to the point of [Senior State Department Official One] here, this is – that is significant. This is going to be a long process. We’re not going to set deadlines because we are – our focus is on beginning that process. And that’s why we are trying to get both sides to the table, and that’s the focus of our effort.

QUESTION: Okay, just very quickly. [Senior State Department Official Three], are your comments on the record, by the way, or are you on background as well?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: I’m on background, and we can talk on the record after the call if you’d like.

QUESTION: Okay. And then, also you said that President Al-Jarba is going to be at the London 11? I just wanted to clarify that and make sure that’s – I heard that correctly.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes. The Secretary has been in contact with him a number of times over the past 10 days.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: And we’ve been very clear about not wanting to have preconditions, and this is an important point, aside from a commitment to the Geneva communique and the implementation of that.

MODERATOR: Let’s move to the next question.

OPERATOR: And that will be from the line of Warren Strobel with Reuters.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me okay?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call very much.

I haven't followed this as closely as some of my colleagues, perhaps, but you’ve mentioned several times how fractious and divided the opposition is, which we all know, and I’m just curious how confident you are that they are actually going to show up in Geneva or show up in a way that they have a unified stance and are able to effectively negotiate.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There are people all around the world who are doing the best they can to get them there and to get them there with a unified position. And there is a team working with them, not just Ambassador Ford, but frankly, a broad international team of very experienced individuals who are working with them to get them there.

So personally, I’m reasonably confident that we’ll be successful because this is their first opportunity to face the administration – the Syrian administration face to face, and I think in the final analysis they won’t want to miss that opportunity, because frankly there’s no other game, really. So personally, I’m reasonably confident this will be successful, but there are a lot of potential bumps in the road between here and there.

QUESTION: Great. Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Next question.

OPERATOR: And it’s * 1 for questions. And next, we’ll go to Michele Kelemen with NPR.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi there. I wanted to ask about the U.S.-Russia piece of this, because when the Geneva communique was first negotiated, the U.S. and Russia came away with very different interpretations of that document. Have the two sides come anywhere closer together on that issue, on the issue of Assad, in particular? And what are you hoping the Russians could do on the humanitarian front?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, let me say that Secretary Kerry has been very closely engaged on this issue with the Russians. And we are, if not hopeful, certainly working hard to find common ground with the Russian position going into this conference.

As I mentioned, Under Secretary Sherman is there today to do some preliminary conversation for the Secretary’s meeting, and I’m sure between now and then he will be on the phone a number of times with Lavrov. So we’re hopeful that we can find common ground.

It’s been tough. I mean, that’s no secret on this, but there may be a coalescing of interests as we go forward that weren’t there a few months ago.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: And just to add, I mean, I think the key here is Russia has been a partner on this. It doesn't mean we agree on everything – you touched on that – but they have played an important role bringing the regime to the table. Obviously, a number of international partners including the United States have been closely engaged with the opposition. As part of the Geneva communique, there is language in there related to mutual consent, creation of a transitional governing body by mutual consent, so agreed to by both sides. This will be a long process. This is a first step in that, and that’s the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And the most dramatic incident, to state the obvious, is the cooperation on chemical weapons, as we and Russia certainly found common ground to move forward.

MODERATOR: We’re ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Okay. And it’ll come from the line of Michael Gordon with The New York Times.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Clearly, in order for Geneva II to have a chance of being successful and to create a transitional body, it would be important that the Syrians who participate in that event be representative of not only the people outside the country, but the people inside the country. And it’s also clear that some of the groups that are very active in the fighting and that are also influential within the country, such as the Islamic Front, are not directly supported by the United States. They don’t receive nonlethal aid, for example. Which specific Syrian groups do you want to see represented at Geneva II? Could you please name them? And would it include representatives of the Islamic Front?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Well, Michael, obviously this is a process that we’re working through with the opposition now. We’ve long said that we think this group should be – delegation should be representative, should include representatives of the armed opposition. I don’t have anything to outline or announce for you today in terms of what the composition will be, just to reiterate that that’s something we’re working through on the ground.

MODERATOR: We’re ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Okay. It’ll come from the line of Lara Jakes of the Associated Press.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I just – Michael’s question reminded me – can you all confirm the reports that the U.S. has begun – has restarted sending nonlethal aid to some members of the opposition?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It’s not true.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: It’s not true, Lara. And let me just give you just a few points on that. Obviously, as we said from the beginning when we did – when we put a hold on this aid going through the north, it was something we wanted to see returned. That’s still being discussed and evaluated, but nothing to --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, look. It’s under constant evaluation as well – it should be because it’s an important strategic priority. But no decision has been made. We’ve been looking at that constantly, frankly, over the past few days, but no decision’s been made.

QUESTION: Do you think that that’s something that will come up at this – at the London 11?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’d be surprised if it didn’t.

QUESTION: (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, sure. I don’t mean to sound glib. Yes, of course we expect it to come up at the London 11. And again, it’s an important thing for us to do, and frankly, we’re – we would very much like to do it when the conditions on the ground are favorable.

QUESTION: So what are you looking for, for that? Assurances from the opposition groups, or are you looking for intel? Or is it a range of both, or what? How will you determine that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, both, because we need to have some reasonable assurance. And there are no guarantees in this business, but we need to have some reasonable assurance that it’ll get to the people to which it’s intended to go. Again, there’s always risk in these situations, but – and we think, frankly, we’ll get there. I mean, the situation is improving now, but no decision has been made yet.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to the line of Nicole Gaouette with Bloomberg News.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for the call. I just wanted to ask if there’s any movement or update on the possibility of Iran taking part. And secondly, to ask if there’s any way, either on the plane or at some point before Kuwait, [Senior State Department Official Three], if you could give us some sort of an update of some kind on where we stand now with aid in terms of dollar amounts and what kinds and how it’s being delivered.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Sure. We’re happy to get you that, no problem – on the plane – at all.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And on Iran, Iran has not accepted the provisions of the Geneva I agreement, and no, they’re not coming.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.

QUESTION: I’m not on the plane.

QUESTION: I’ll sit in for you.

OPERATOR: And next we’ll go back to the line of Warren Strobel with Reuters.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, we can talk anytime they want.

QUESTION: Thank you. Yeah, a question on a slightly different topic; maybe this one is for [Senior State Department Official Three]. But the Secretary is meeting with the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee. I’m just wondering whether there are specific things that he is going to ask them to do. I believe there were some reports in the last few days that the U.S. would like the 2000 – was it 2002? – peace initiative to be modified to accept Israel as a Jewish state.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Those are false reports. This is a – this is a part of our coordination and our engagement with the Arab League, given the important role they’ve played in the recent negotiations and they have historically played. Obviously, that is a key component of this, and the Secretary feels they have a vital role. So this meeting, the purpose is to give them an update on the discussions we’ve had in recent weeks on a framework, where things stand, what are the remaining issues, and talk about the path forward, and, of course, hear from them on their thoughts and views given how closely they’re engaged in this issue.

OPERATOR: And next we’ll go to the line of Michael Gordon with The New York Times.

QUESTION: Yeah. Just one last question on my part – actually, just a two-part one. One is a clarification, one’s a question. On the question of Iran: When it was stated that they’re not coming, I take that to imply not only to formal participation in the opening round of Geneva II in Montreux, but also to this concept of a sideline participation, as Secretary Kerry mentioned in – on Sunday. They’re not coming in either capacity? Could you answer that, because I think what you’re saying is they’re not. And --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That’s right.

QUESTION: I’m sorry?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That’s right, Michael.

QUESTION: Okay. And then lastly on my part, the notion was at least out there that Secretary Kerry might, during this trip, not only go to Paris and Kuwait but also go back to Jerusalem for yet another round of talks, and it was stated he would only go back if he thought it would be useful and enough progress had been made by the team there to warrant his return. The fact that he’s not going back, according to your trip announcement and the latest housing announcement, suggests that you don’t consider enough progress has been made in recent days to warrant a return by the Secretary of State.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Well, Michael, I believe what he said is that he will go back soon when his presence is warranted and will help move the negotiations forward. Obviously, there is a lot on his broad agenda in the world, including Syria, including moving to planning for a Geneva conference, including addressing the humanitarian situation, and he will return back to the region, to Jerusalem and Ramallah, in due time. But the team continues to work on the ground, continues to make progress on the ground.

MODERATOR: I think we have time here for one or two more questions.

OPERATOR: Okay. And there’s one more in queue, and that’ll come from Lara Jakes with the Associated Press.

QUESTION: Hi. So I just wanted to make sure I’m absolutely clear on this. Iran is not going to be at Geneva II in any capacity, correct?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Nothing has changed. Obviously, this can be – and we – sure will be a topic of discussion, but nothing has changed.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, I don’t understand what that means. I mean, they – that – you’re saying that there is no plans for them to come, and that has not changed. But could that –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Correct.

QUESTION: Okay. So do you guys anticipate that that might change? Because, [Senior State Department Official Two] – I’m sorry, [Senior State Department Official One], you said it very bluntly that, no, they are not coming. But could that change down the road?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We see no – nothing that they’ve done – you could, I suppose, draw the scenario that you could have dramatic changes in which they would come, but we’ve seen absolutely no evidence of that.

QUESTION: Okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So, yes, nothing’s changed.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. Let’s do one more question.

OPERATOR: Hit *1 for questions.

No one else is queuing up.

MODERATOR: Great. We were so thorough and informative, it seems.

Thanks, everyone. See you tomorrow.



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