SECRETARY KERRY: Good morning. I want to thank all of you for coming, and I want to particularly thank both Ambassador Brahimi and Minister Lavrov for joining me here today as we prepare for the Geneva II conference later this month.
Today, Ambassador Brahimi, Minister Lavrov, and I continued our conversation on the civil war in Syria, where more than 130,000 lives have been lost thus far – to the best of people’s ability to measure – and millions more have lost their homes and any sense of security. The estimates are there are maybe 8 million people displaced and well more than 2 million refugees.
In terms of the path forward, the United States and Russia met bilaterally before we met with Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi today, and I think it’s fair to say that Russia and the United States are in full agreement on a number of points.
We are in full agreement that the violence, the death, and the needless suffering in Syria must come to an end. We are in full agreement that the humanitarian crisis is not only affecting millions of Syria, people, but also those in neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan; and this dislocation, this disruption, is absolutely unacceptable.
We are in full agreement that the resolution to this conflict must be peaceful, that there isn’t a military solution. And we are in full agreement that we need to make our best efforts. From the moment that we announced this last spring in Moscow, through now, we must continue our best efforts in order to try to bring the parties to Geneva and forge forward.
For all of the reasons I’ve just cited, we are in full agreement that we have to do all we can in order to begin the process in Geneva, a process that we all understand will be difficult and will take some time. But we must begin and we must begin now.
In the days leading up to the dialogue that will begin in Montreux, Switzerland, the United States will continue to consult very closely with our international partners, including Ambassador Brahimi and our Russian counterparts. And we will also keep in very close contact with the Syrian coalition. I will be meeting later today with President Jarba and with other ministers here in Paris.
While the United States believes that the only precondition for participating in Geneva II conference should be support for the Geneva I communique, it is hard to see how a regime that does not have within its hands the ability to improve the situation on the ground, improve the climate, could participate in a sense with the good faith that people are looking for in this situation.
There should be no further delay, in our judgment, in ending the aerial bombardment of children, civilians, and the use of starvation as a weapon of war. We believe that the basic disregard for human rights and human dignity that we are witnessing in the area needs to come to an end. I’ve discussed with Minister Lavrov the ways that we can work together to try to ensure – and by the way, there are on both sides abuses, and I want to be clear: This is not one-sided. We are reading accounts of some of the extremists on the opposition side engaging against each other and engaging in atrocities against each other.
And it is that widespread violence that is motivating all of us here to believe in the urgency of trying to bring this to a close. There is no question but that the ultimate path in order to end the bloodshed and the suffering and the brutality and instability is through the kind of negotiated settlement that we are trying to reach through the implementation of the Geneva communique.
Bringing the two sides together in order to begin these conversations is absolutely critical. And I think Minister Lavrov and I both understand that the United States and Russia need to use the good offices of our countries and our relationships in order to encourage the parties, all of the parties, all of the interested players, to come to the table in order to engage in this dialogue. And we have both agreed today that we will exercise our best efforts in order to do that.
It’s our hope that in the face-to-face meeting of the regime and the opposition will be the beginning – the beginning – of the end to this unspeakable conflict. Russia and the United States also agree that it is the parties in the end who must come to a conclusion. We are not standing here proclaiming or suggesting some kind of Russian and American outcome that will be imposed on anybody. This is something the parties are going to have to negotiate on. But we will use every effort at our disposal to use our offices, our good offices, in an effort try to encourage the parties to come to that kind of conclusion.
Ultimately, it’s up to the Syrian people themselves to decide the future and the political path forward. The international community has an all-important role to play in pressing for that agreement, and the leadership of the United Nations and Russia, together with our good efforts, are going to be critical to that effort.
Now let me just say a couple quick things. Today, we discussed a number of things that we think could help set the stage for success in Geneva. And success is defined by a good beginning. It is not defined in the beginning by a final outcome. That is going to take some time, and we acknowledge that. But we talked today about the possibility of trying to encourage a ceasefire, maybe a localized ceasefire, beginning with Aleppo. And both of us have agreed to try to work to see if that could be achieved. The opposition has already agreed that if the Assad regime were willing to declare that, they would live up to it and they’re prepared to do that.
We also discussed the possibility of prisoner exchanges, and we have discussed that with the opposition. The opposition has declared that they are prepared to put together lists, they are prepared to entertain such an exchange.
And finally, we discussed the all-important issue of humanitarian access. I’m pleased to say that Foreign Minister Lavrov indicated that he’s had some conversations with the regime, that the regime may be prepared to open up a number of areas, specifically East Ghouta, which we have been pushing for for some period of time, and it may be possible for convoys now to be able to access. The proof will be in the pudding, as we say. The proof will be in the actions that may or may not be taken in the days ahead, but this is – this news of a possibility is welcome and we look forward to working with our Russian counterparts in an effort to try to follow through on it.
The anguish of the Syrian people demands action. Our global responsibilities, which we accept, demand action. Our conscience collectively demands action. So it is imperative for all of us that we try to push towards the peace and stability that the people of Syria long for and deserve, and the stability that the region, all of those countries affected most adversely – Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and others – they also need to find stability and peace in this process.
It’s time for the Syrian people to be able to chart a future for themselves where all Syrians have a say and a stake in their nation’s success. And we believe that we can help them start to walk down that path with our actions today, but most importantly with what can begin in Montreux and move to Geneva.
Foreign Minister Lavrov.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Ladies and gentlemen, we have had very constructive talks, indeed, had various bilateral talks with State Secretary Kerry and his delegation and then with the participation of the Joint Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. Our discussion, as you understand, was focused on the preparations for the Geneva II conference. The secretary general has already circulated the invitations. The Syrian Government has given its consent and submitted the list of its delegation, which is comprised of several members, including two women incidentally. Now we are concerned with the delay and what the opposition should do.
Yesterday, I met the delegation of the National Coalition, and it was led by Mr. Jarba. We stated our concerns and urged the National Coalition to, as soon as possible, determine its attitude to cooperation with other opposition groups so that the opponents of the government, the opposition to the government, is representative, as it was last year.
We’ve agreed with John Kerry and Lakhdar Brahimi on a number of most important issues. First of all, we are firmly in favor of convening the Geneva II conference, as was declared on January the 22nd. We do have some information given to us by Mr. Brahimi on a number of organizational matters the United Nations is dealing with at the moment. We welcome the work that has been undertaken, and once again we are in favor of convening the Geneva II conference on January the 22nd.
Secondly, we have some common ground and we’ve reaffirmed it today, and that is the Geneva II conference should be dedicated to fully implementing the Geneva communique of last year, which, among other things, presupposes that the exchange of prisoners of war should be discussed, the humanitarian access to those who need it, and the ceasefire – all those issues should be accomplished. But as State Secretary has already said, we do not want to postpone it until the conference, and what can be done before the beginning of the conference should be done.
We are going to try to send the signals to all the Syrian sides on the need of establishing at least localized ceasefires, on the need to consider the lists of prisoners of war and simply prisoners, including civilians. We are also trying to expand the opportunities for providing humanitarian access to those areas which are now blocked either by the government or the opposition. Our American counterparts and we do have an understanding we should act in concert. The government has declared its willingness to provide humanitarian convoys to Yarmouk and Baza’a as early as today, and they declared the need to agree, together with the opposition and with support of the International Red Cross, the U.S., and Russia, on providing humanitarian aid to East Ghuta and to a number of other suburbs of Damascus, and we wait for similar steps from the opposition with regard to those areas of Syria which are so far blocked by the opposition.
We are going to continue this work. Those are not preliminary conditions, and this is our common understanding as well. This is not a precondition for convening the conference. These are the steps that are going to assuage the anguish of civilians, and we’re going to facilitate it. We’re going to work in concert with the opposition and the government.
Today, we also recalled – even though we didn’t forget about that – it is difficult to forget about that. We recalled the decisions of the G8 in Lough Erne. The final statement urges the government and the opposition to agree on uniting their efforts in the fight against terrorism, which has engulfed Syria. This should be decided upon during Geneva II. If it will not solve, the Geneva II conference is not going to succeed. And it is encouraging that both the government and the opposition, as was (inaudible) by Mr. Jarba – still holds to that because they’re concerned about the terrorists that have engulfed Syria.
And finally, apart from the need to secure, as soon as possible, a positive response from the opposition on their participation in the Geneva II conference and making it representative, it is also very important to invite the external actors, which should also be representative, and therefore it is quite clear that Iran and Saudi Arabia should participate in this conference.
We do hope that in the end, the Secretary General who is responsible for sending the invitations to the conference is going to send the invitations to all those in whom the developments of the situation are concerned. Therefore, I can say that I’m content with our – today’s talks, and I think that in those short few days that – before January the 22nd, we’re going to do everything in our power to initiate a process. This is going to be a process, as John said. This is not going to be a one-time event. We’re going to do everything in our power to secure a direct dialogue between the Syrians themselves, with a view to determine what the future of their country should be, and they should do that themselves. And we’re going to grant our assistance to them. Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: (Inaudible.) Mr. Special Representative. Thank you.
SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE BRAHIMI: I’m very grateful to you, Secretary of State, and to you, Minister Lavrov, for inviting me to this meeting and for the very useful exchange of views that we have had before moving to this press conference.
I think that – I was pleased to inform you of the preparations that are taking place for the meeting in Montreux on the 22nd of January, and then the preparations also for the direct negotiations between the government and the opposition in Syria, with facilitation by us in the United Nations in Geneva, as of the 24th. We are extremely grateful to you for the effort your two countries, together with many other countries, are deploying now to prepare the best possible atmosphere for the conference to take place in Montreux and for the negotiations to start in Geneva on the 24th.
In particular, the Secretary General has been calling for some humanitarian unilateral actions to be taken by the government in particular, but also by the opposition concerning prisoner exchange, humanitarian access, and also a ceasefire – as wide as possible, but even local ceasefires would be welcome.
So we’re looking forward to what can be done in all these three areas before the conference takes place and also immediately after the conference takes place. I hope that these confidence-building measures will also contribute to create the necessary atmosphere for these negotiations to succeed.
We heard today that some aid is going into the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus. We also were happy to hear of negotiations that have taken place directly between the government and some armed groups around Damascus. This shows that a lot can be done to alleviate the terrible sufferings that have been inflicted on the Syrian people. And we hope that this is a beginning that will be built on before coming to this, before Geneva, during Geneva, and then after Geneva, as you said, Secretary of State, the Syrian people can take their fate into their own hands and start building what I called the new Syria that has to be built by them and by none other.
But I think that the Syrians recognize that the seriousness of the crisis they have been going through in these three years is such that they need a lot of help from outside, from countries like the United States and Russia, the P5, and their neighbors. I think their – it’s high time that their neighbors show what is – the will, the imagination, the creativity – to help Syria solve its problems, because if Syria continues any longer in this crisis, that crisis is going to affect them. It is already affecting both of them, as we have seen, in Lebanon and Iraq.
So we are now looking forward to this conference on the 22nd with all the countries that are going to be there whose role will be, essentially, to encourage the Syrians to start these negotiations on the basis of the communique of Geneva I, of the 30th of June. And once again, I thank you, Secretary of State and Minister Lavrov, for this opportunity you have given me of joining you to discuss the preparation of Geneva. Thank you very much.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador. I think we’re open for questions.
MS. PSAKI: The first question will be from Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post.
QUESTION: Thank you. First to Ambassador Brahimi, you said that you would welcome Iran’s participation in the Geneva II talks, but that the United States did not agree, and Mr. Lavrov has just asked for Iranian participation. The United States says that you are the host and that it’s a UN decision. If you would believe it would be helpful, why don’t you invite them?
And secondly, to Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Kerry, you’ve spoken about confidence-building steps. To Foreign Minister Lavrov, your country has a bitter experience with siege and starvation. You just spoke about lifting the siege of East Ghouta and other places. Can you tell us anything more about your conversations with the Syrian Government, and do you think there should be consequences for a failure to allow such access?
And to Secretary Kerry, again, could you talk about whether there should be consequences for failure to allow access for humanitarian aid? And separately, since opposition fighters are divided among themselves into warring factions, how could you guarantee that the rebels would honor any ceasefire?
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: I think your last sentence was the answer to all three questions. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Could you elaborate?
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: You are first, Lakhdar.
SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE BRAHIMI: It is true that the Secretary General of the United Nations, and I with him, have been saying that Iran is a very important country in the region and that they have to be present in a conference like this. But – and it is true also that it is the Secretary General who has been – who has sent the invitations to Geneva II. But I think the agreement has been that the decision will be taken by consensus between the initiating states, which are – at both this conference – which are Russia and the United States, and the host of conference and the convener of the conference, which is the United Nations. Discussions are still continuing between the three countries, and we hope that before we are over, the right decision will be taken. Thanks.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) As usual, the UN is trying to shun responsibility, trying to put the responsibility on Russia and the U.S., but I do hope that the Secretary General is going to take the right decision. After all, one cannot be influenced by ideological sentiment so much that it harms the interests of the cause. We are engaged in talks with Iran. When we – the American troops were in Afghanistan and in Iraq, we were talking with Iran. And back then, no one had any problems with any ideology, and I’m convinced that the Syrian issue, as important as the Iranian nuclear program, so – all the countries that can influence the situation and Iran and Saudi Arabia just like that, should be invited to the conference.
As far as your question to me is concerned concerning the humanitarian access, you said yourself that there are many groups in Syria; there is no single front, as it were, between the government and the opposition. The opposition is fragmented. There are many terrorists in Syria and they are becoming more numerous. Jabhat al-Nusrah, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is acting there. The Islamic Front is also active there, and has been formed recently, and the militants are circulating from one group to another depending on who pays most. There are many foreign mercenaries there. By the way, I’ve had a glance at the charter of the Islamic Front. It urges the foreign jihadists to come to Syria and be recruited into the ranks of this organization. So I believe thinking that the opposition is the counterbalance against the extremism is not justified. I believe all those organizations are like that.
Now when we talk about the need to get a ceasefire, to unblock as many (inaudible) settlements as possible to provide humanitarian access – while all those factors are taken into account, up until recently in Aleppo, the Free Syrian Army and ISIS and all other groups were fighting there. According to the latest reports, the ISIS’s posture there has been somewhat weakened. Anyway, we do not want a ceasefire, which would be used by a terrorist group, because that would be against the interests of everyone.
Therefore, when trying to resolve the issue of a ceasefire and providing humanitarian access, we should take heed of all of those factors. There are examples. When, without any external pressure, agreements have been reached, say, in the region of Moadamiya where the government and the opposition forces agreed on a ceasefire to get humanitarian aid to that region. Today, the government has announced that it’s going to provide humanitarian access to Yarmouk, to the camp of Palestinian refugees. Some days ago, such an attempt has already been undertaken, but it was undermined by the militants which attacked a humanitarian convoy. The government is also going to try to provide humanitarian aid to yet another area, and the government is also willing, as I have already told you, to get assistance from the International Red Cross, with the support of Russia and the U.S., to provide humanitarian aid to East Ghouta and a number of other suburbs of Damascus.
Regarding the consequences in case of failure to provide humanitarian access, well, I think right now it is most important to meet the needs of the people that are suffering. We should not be engaged in any saber-rattling. The provision of humanitarian aid is undermined by militants, and those attacks cost us 32 lives of those who work for international humanitarian agencies. Ultimatums, sanctions, we’ve already seen that. It does no good.
SECRETARY KERRY: What Sergey has just described is precisely why it is so urgent to be able to end this conflict and for countries to come together in a responsible way. And frankly, it calls on Iran to be a responsible actor. Foreign Minister Lavrov is absolutely correct. There are these various groups, some of them completely unacceptable to the other oppositionists who are more moderate and who are supported by some of us both in the region and in the West.
The fact is that groups like ISIL – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – al-Nusrah, al-Qaida, are terrorist organizations, and they’ve been labeled as terrorist organizations. And their behavior is completely unacceptable, and they are one of the concerns that we share with Russia and with others in the region. And those terrorists greatly complicate this equation. It’s one of the reasons why Geneva conference is so imperative as an effort to try to resolve this in a political way, with a political solution, because there isn’t a military solution. And if disorder is allowed to continue to grow, it is extremists who will benefit, and it’s all the people who want a peaceful solution and stability who will lose. And that includes Russia, the United States, and others in the region. That’s why it is so compelling for us to move now while we can, while there are still institutions of the state of Syria, to hold those institutions together and try to find this peaceful solution.
Now, let me be crystal clear about something. Iran is currently a major actor with respect to adverse consequences in Syria. Iran is supporting another terrorist-designated organization called Hezbollah, and they are supporting Hezbollah to come out of Lebanon, across cross the border, into Syria, and to be a fundamental basic fighter. No other country, no other nation has its people on the ground fighting in the way that they are and that they are supporting. So this is a fundamental contest with respect to what has to be resolved in Geneva.
Now, I want to make one other thing very, very clear. Iran’s participation or non-participation is not a question of ideology. It is a question of practicality and common sense. Lakhdar Brahimi stood here a moment ago and said this conference is for the purpose of putting in place the Geneva I communique. Minister Lavrov confirmed that’s why we’re here. We’ve confirmed that’s why we’re here. We agree on that. But Iran has yet to state whether or not it supports implementing the Geneva I communique, which calls for nothing more than the mutual consent of the parties to a transitional governing process to make peace.
Iran – we would welcome Iran’s participation if Iran is coming to participate for the purposes of the conference. That is not a matter of ideology. That is a matter of practicality and common sense. If they’re going to participate in order to further the goals of the conference, they would be welcome. And we’ve asked them several times to simply state their support for the concept of mutual consent with respect to the outcome of this conference. So there’s a simple road ahead, and we would welcome that road. And we ask Iran – I invite Iran today to join the community of nations, the 30 nations that are already prepared to come, and be a constructive partner for peace. That’s the invitation.
Now, with respect to the question that – asked by Karen about a ceasefire, it’s complicated. Of course it’s complicated. But the opposition, the moderate opposition, has agreed they will enforce a ceasefire. They will adhere to a ceasefire. And there are very few of the other groups in a place like Aleppo right now. So we believe that you could actually achieve a step forward that would provide an ability to be able to build on it. You have to build these confidence-building measures. And frankly, you have to begin a process that will begin to isolate the bad actors. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take time. And ultimately, if they insist on their extremist approach, it may even take confrontation.
Our hope would be that that confrontation would be the consequence of a peaceful resolution, a peaceful outcome in Syria that provides a government that all of us could support. And when we do support it, that will give us the ability to be able to deal with those extremists who lie outside entirely of any process of rule of law, any process of decency, any process that actually seeks a legitimate solution decided not by them and their guns and their weapons and their terror and their intimidation, but decided by all the people of Syria through a legitimate process. That’s what’s at stake here, and that’s what we’re fighting for together to achieve through the Geneva process.
MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) Final question, (inaudible) of the Echo of Moscow radio station.
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) I’m sorry, Mr. Brahimi – do I understand you correctly that Iran has already received an invitation to take part in the conference? And if yes, do I understand it correctly that nonetheless, this invitation requires a confirmation on part of the U.S. and Russia and it’s not a final one? At least, that’s what I understood from what you said. Could you please specify?
State Secretary Kerry, you’ve said that an invitation to Iran should be pragmatic one, that it should be a pragmatic decision. What else Iran should do for the United States to confirm this invitation in a pragmatic manner where Mr. Rouhani just has to say, “Yes, we’re going there,” and then you’ll welcome them?
And the last question: You are standing, Mr. Secretary, before the Russian flag, and Minister Lavrov is standing next to the U.S. flag. You presented Mr. Lavrov with potatoes from Idaho. It is a symbolic gift? What does it mean? And how, Mr. Lavrov, you are going to use it in the settlement in Syria?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, he told me he’s not going to make vodka. He’s going to eat them.
Look, let me just say on Iran: I think --
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: In Poland, they make vodka from potatoes. I know this. But that’s in Poland.
SECRETARY KERRY: Do you want --
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: We used to do this in the Soviet Union. Now we try to do it from wheat.
SECRETARY KERRY: Can I – sorry, go ahead.
MR. BRAHIMI: On Iran, yes, you are right. As I said, there are two initiating states and a convener. And we have been working together from the day John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, on the 7th of May in Moscow, called for this conference to convene. And that discussion is still going on. We have still few days, and definitely we need an agreement, all three of us, on the – on who is going to be invited or who is not going to be invited to the conference.
SECRETARY KERRY: Let me just say very quickly on Iran: I think I answered the question before, where I said Iran needs to let the UN know, and let us know that it’s coming in furtherance of the goals of the Geneva I, just like the rest of us are. Just tell us that they support the idea of a mutual consent being the guideline for a transition government so that we can resolve this crisis. That’s the purpose of the Geneva I communique. And we would hope Iran would be willing to do that and be constructive in this. Because obviously, a country that has IRGC personnel on the ground, training in the country, a country that is supporting this other organization, Hezbollah, a country that has had a long-term relationship with Assad and with Syria, has a huge ability to be able to have an impact if they want to have the right impact. And the right impact, it has been decided by many nations, is to implement the Geneva I communique.
With respect to the potatoes, I really want to clarify: There’s no hidden meaning. There’s no metaphor. There’s no symbolic anything. We were having a good conversation in the course of the Christmas break over the subject of Idaho, which was where I was at the time, and he recalled the Idaho potatoes as being something that he knew of, so I thought I would surprise him and bring him some good Idaho potatoes. And that’s the full symbol of the whole thing.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Once again, a couple words on Iran: I do not renounce what I’ve just said. I’m convinced that practicality and pragmatism John has been speaking of required that Iran be invited. After all, the invitation states that the conference is convened with the view to furthering and carrying out the Geneva communique. Therefore, consenting to go to the conference means that the condition John lays down has been required. The need to – well, if this principle that everyone who is invited should say that they fully support the communique – well, I don’t think all the countries would agree to that because there are certain countries invited to the conference and – who do not want the conference to succeed. There are some who regret that no strikes were performed against Syria. I believe that practicality means not isolation, but engagement.
And regarding potatoes:
(In English.) The specific potato which John handed to me has the shape which makes it possible to insert potato in the carrot-and-stick expression. (Laughter.) So it could be used differently. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all.