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Diplomacy in Action

Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Trip to London


Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
May 13, 2014

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SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Hi, good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us. So we are going to be – this call is to preview the Secretary’s trip to London, where we will be arriving there tomorrow evening. We have with us Senior State Department Official Number One, who will be previewing the London 11 meeting, and then I will give a few other details following that.

So with that, let me turn it over. Let me also say at the top we have a limited amount of time here because of the schedule, so we’ll try to quickly get to your questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, thank you very much. To start off, the Secretary is traveling to London on the – and the meeting of the London 11 will be on May 15th. This is the core group of the Friends of the Syrian People, which we also call the London 11. And just as a quick reminder that group consists of Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, the UK and the U.S. And while we have been and we remain in frequent contact with all of our London 11 partners, this is the first ministerial-level meeting of that group since January of this year.

And in London the Secretary and his counterparts will discuss the international community’s efforts to ease humanitarian suffering inside Syria, to bolster support for the moderate opposition, to advance a political transition, as well as other global issues.

And as many of you know, the Secretary’s participation in this London 11 ministerial follows immediately on the heels of the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s successful visit to Washington, which is ongoing now. And in that visit, we have reaffirmed our support for the moderate Syrian opposition. President Ahmad al-Jarba and the rest of the coalition delegation have already met with Secretary of State Kerry. They’ll be seeing National Security Advisor Rice today. And they have met with a range of other U.S. officials here at the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the Defense Department. And their trip has also included consultations with several members of Congress and, of course, some of the speeches and public events that you have seen reported on.

Their – the coalition’s visit reinforced their positive vision for Syria, and they reiterated their commitment to a political solution to supporting the moderate armed opposition, to alleviating the humanitarian situation on the ground, to rebuilding a democratic Syria. And they expressed their keen desire on building a strategic partnership with the United States. And Secretary Kerry looks forward to seeing President Jarba later this week to continue this important dialogue and to strengthen our cooperation and coordination.

Now the U.S. understands the urgency of the crisis in Syria and stands firmly on the side of the Syrian people in their struggle for freedom and dignity. And as part of that commitment to empower the moderate Syrian opposition and bolster its efforts to assist those in need inside of the country, I think you all saw the U.S. announced last week several measures to support the coalition, to support local communities inside Syria, and members of the moderate armed opposition. And these steps – just to review – included our announcement that the SOC’s representative offices here in the U.S. are now considered to be foreign missions. We also announced that we’re working with Congress to provide additional funds, more than 27 million, in new nonlethal assistance to the opposition, that we’re stepping up deliveries of nonlethal assistance to commanders in the FSA to enhance their logistical capabilities, and also are in position of some new sanctions and restrictions against prominent members of the regime and its supporters, who have suppressed the Syrian people.

So we basically are now looking forward to building on these steps later this week in London as we continue to work closely with our partners, who will be there, and discuss what we can do to increase assistance for the moderate opposition and particularly to change the realities on the ground in order to raise the prospects that the regime will participate in meaningful political dialogue and that the regime’s allies will pressure it to do so. And we are also intensifying and improving our cooperation with various international partners and backers of the opposition to ensure that the extremists are denied the funding and the flow of arms that are, unfortunately, enabling them to increase their strength.

So that’s kind of a, just a wrap-up of the London 11 meeting.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And let me just give one other update. While the Secretary’s there, he will also be meeting with European partners from the UK, France, Italy, and Germany to discuss pressing issues of the day, including, of course, Ukraine, as well as Libya. They will discuss support for Ukraine’s May 25th elections. We’ll welcome Ukraine’s commitment to starting a national dialogue on May 13th, today, otherwise known as, supported by the OSCE. The group will also reaffirm that if Russia continues to destabilize eastern Ukraine and disrupt the presidential election, we’ll move quickly to impose greater costs on Russia. The Secretary will welcome, as we already have, the EU’s actions Monday to broaden its sanctions criteria and add 13 individual and two entities to its sanctions list. We had already previously announced yesterday that the Secretary will also be meeting with President Abbas while in London.

So with that, let’s get to your questions.

OPERATOR: If you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you have been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up your handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question press * then 1 at this time.

Our first question is from Jo Biddle, AFP. Please go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Hi, Jo.

QUESTION: Hey, [Senior State Department Official Two]. Hi, everyone . Thank you very much, indeed. I just wanted – we hear the refrain a lot of times now since the last two years that you’re trying to change the calculations on the ground, trying to change the situation on the ground, and we don’t really see anything happening, other than that we see the Syrian regime causing more and more chaos. How – do you really believe that you’re in a position where this is going to happen and that you can make this happen? And I just wondered if you had any reaction to the news that Foreign Minister Fabius of France has just revealed that they have – they believe that they have 14 instances of chemical weapons, agents such as chlorine, being used on the ground in October. Do you have any reaction to that? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Regarding the French reports you noted and Foreign Minister Fabius, we haven’t seen those reports yet, or at least I haven’t, so I think we need to check that out before we’re ready to respond.

In terms of your first question, I think we do believe that we, together with our allies in the international community, can and must look at all the things that we do politically, economically, and through all means that could change the situation on the ground and try to get those conditions more favorable so that the regime would feel that it must participate in a serious political discussion and a transition. And really that’s one of the reasons that it’s quite timely that the London 11 meet at this ministerial level so that that interaction, that discussion, can happen at the highest levels, and we’ll be focusing on that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’re ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is coming from Indira Lakshmanan, Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. Thanks for doing this, guys. And I just want to say for future, my preference personally is to do these in person, and whoever can’t make it to call in. I know today is a tough day, but I think it’s always better to do it in person if we can and have the opportunity to call in.

I just wanted to ask: What is – what are we expecting from the meeting with Mahmoud Abbas? And is it just a sort of wrap-up, a chance to talk, or is there any possible movement that you expect from that?

And also, on the Ukraine question, will Kerry specifically be talking to his European counterparts about trying to press on more sanctions? Or what’s the specific agenda that’s going to be the takeaway from this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure, Indira. Well, let me first say that the meeting that the Secretary will be having with President Abbas in London on Thursday is an informal meeting. As you know, the door remains open to the peace process. The Secretary continues to believe that. The President continues to believe that that’s the best step forward for both the Israeli and Palestinian people. But the purpose of the meeting is more about our ongoing relationships – relationship, I should say, with the Palestinian people. So I would expect they’ll discuss everything from Syria, given the Secretary will have just been the London 11 meetings, to recent Palestinian political developments, and this is, again, a part of our ongoing and longstanding relationship with the Palestinians.

In terms of Ukraine, as you also may know, the – or we’ve had a number of officials who have been working closely with the Europeans on coordination and staying in lockstep when it comes to sanctions. So last week, Dan Fried was in Europe consulting with his European counterparts. Earlier this week, Under Secretary Sherman and Assistant Secretary Nuland were in Brussels consulting with European counterparts, and this is an ongoing discussion. And certainly as a part of what the Secretary will discuss and raise with his counterparts is the importance of staying – remaining in lockstep and being prepared to put in place consequences if those are warranted.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Michael Gordon, New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, I appreciate it. First of all, I think half the people on this call just heard the French foreign minister make the point that they were looking into 14 individual instances in which chlorine or other agents had been used. This just occurred within the last hour, so there’s no report for you to look into. The man just said it. You can read the wires. Two – but I think this is all familiar to you. So the question I have is: How many instances of chlorine use have come to the attention of the American Government?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’re just not going to have any updates on that, Michael, at this point. We understand what the reports are. Obviously, we’ve had a busy day here. We’ll venture to get all of you a response. As you know, we take every incident or allegation of use seriously. That’s why we’ve been working with the OPCW. But we will talk to our team that focuses on those issues and make sure you get a response quickly.

OPERATOR: Again, if you wish to ask a question, please press *1. Follow-up question from Jo Biddle. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks very much, guys. I also wondered, since we have you on the phone, could you just give us your reaction to the news that the Special Envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is resigning? That was announced by the – Ban Ki-moon just now in the United Nations. I imagine you already had a heads-up on it. So how is this going to complicate your efforts to try and bring about this transition considering that he had been the one who was trying to browbeat both the opposition and the Syrian regime to come to an agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, the U.S. does appreciate very much Joint Special Representative Brahimi’s efforts to work toward a lasting peace in Syria, and on the efforts that you’ve just highlighted, and we are very grateful for the leadership and the counsel that he has provided. We do look forward to the appointment of his successor and to working with him or her on these critical issues of getting a political solution to the crisis there.

QUESTION: But how do you believe – so this is not going to complicate your efforts? Are you not going to have to start again from scratch?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I don’t anticipate starting again from scratch. I think that our partners in the international community, whether they’re in the United Nations or elsewhere, are quite familiar with the conditions there, with the unfortunate stance of the regime that we saw in Geneva II to basically refuse to engage in a serious way regarding the need for a political transition. So I don’t anticipate that any future special envoy on the part of the UN or others who work on this in the international community are going to start from scratch. And I think we all know the challenges in front of us.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’re ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Karen DeYoung, Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Foreign Minister Fabius also said that the French Government is convening on Saturday a meeting of African heads of state, neighbors of Nigeria and Nigeria, and that the United States, UK and the EU have been invited. Could you tell us if the United States will send a delegation and who will head it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. It’s a great question, Karen. We, of course, will plan to participate. We don’t – we’re still determining who will represent the United States and at what level, but certainly we will be a part of that meeting on Saturday.

Ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Jay Solomon, Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. I’m also following up on the Fabius press conference. He publicly said it was a mistake for the Obama Administration not to go ahead with the attacks on Syria that were at first proposed in August of last year. Do you have any comment on the foreign minister’s comment?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Again, we haven’t seen all the context of his comments, but broadly speaking, you’ve heard the Secretary himself say that this – the agreement that was put in place last September has allowed us to, at this point, remove 92 percent of chemical – declared chemical weapons in Syria. That’s a significant step forward. It doesn’t mean there’s not more work to do, but there’s no evidence that a strike would have allowed us to remove that amount of chemical weapons. So we continue to believe that was the right step, it was an effective step, and it has enabled us to prevent Assad from using those chemical weapons to brutalize his own people.

QUESTION: Except for he just said that they’ve detected 14 chemical weapons attacks since September.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’ve seen the reports, Jay. Obviously we’re not going to speculate on those, and you know there’s an OPCW process of looking into these. They’re a member of the CWC. So any allegation will be looked into through the international community.

QUESTION: But you’re saying the French aren’t sharing that intelligence with us? They must be.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not speculating on what information is or isn’t being shared. What I’m conveying to you is that obviously any allegation of chemical weapons use goes through a process of review, through the international community, led by the OPCW. We support those efforts and will continue to, but we don’t have anything new for you on any new reports.

OPERATOR: Again, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 at this time.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. Well, thank you, everybody, for joining us. We’ll look forward to spending a lot of quality time together on the trip.



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