SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon, everybody. First of all, let me just thank Foreign Secretary William Hague for his terrific hosting today, convening all of us together to be able to talk about a number of challenging issues that we’re facing together, and I think after today, with an even better sense of direction.
We gathered here, I think it’s safe to say, frankly more united than we have been in some time. And we, all of us, unanimously, remain committed to changing the dynamics on the ground in Syria.
Since we last met, the opposition has itself taken some significant steps forward to expand their leadership, to expand their reach into Syria, to become more effective. And we know, as you know, we just hosted President Jarba and his delegation in Washington for a number of days and a series of meetings, including meetings with the State Department, the White House, and the President.
The truth is we all know that the grave humanitarian crisis is growing more dire by the day, notwithstanding the best efforts of people to date. And the bloodshed and the suffering of the Syrian people have not stopped. So today in one unified voice we made it clear that we remain committed, even more so, to taking steps that could in fact make a difference. Most importantly we start in one unified voice with rejecting any notion whatsoever that the elections that the Assad regime has called somehow have any legitimacy whatsoever. There is no way for this illegitimate effort, for this impossible set of circumstances for an election to somehow give legitimacy where there is none. Together we are unified in saying that Assad’s staged elections are a farce, they’re an insult; they are a fraud on democracy, on the Syrian people, and on the world.
And the fact is that the cynical political theater that he is engaged in will not change one thing the day after it happens. His status in the world, his position with respect to future leadership in Syria, and in fact, the potential of any resolution will be exactly where they were the day before the election – although perhaps even slightly worse because of the fraud of this effort. It just – I mean, ask yourself: How do you have a legitimate election when half the people in your country are displaced and not able to vote? How do you have a legitimate election when another several million people are in refugee camps unable to vote? How do you have it when hundreds of thousands of people, literally – almost a million perhaps – are scattered in various countries in the region, seeking safety from Assad? It is just impossible to believe that under those circumstances, where people are hunkered down in their homes, intimidated and afraid to be able to come out, afraid of being forced to do one vote or another – you just have no climate, no framework within which you can talk about legitimacy.
We also agreed today that we have to redouble our efforts, all of us, in support of the moderate opposition in order to bring about a peaceful resolution that the people of Syria want. And that requires the full support of the international community, and that was really the focus of our discussions today. I’m sure your question would be: So what’s different today? Well, look at the length of the communique. It’s short and it’s purposefully short. It purposefully points to the election and then to the renewed efforts, and the most important sentence, I think, is the last sentence in which it points out that our teams are going to come together in very short order now to lay out a specific set of steps that we can and will take together in order to have a greater impact here.
There isn’t anybody who didn’t come together today with the realization that there have been hurdles over the course of the last year, from the time when Foreign Minister Lavrov and I announced the possibility of a Geneva conference in Moscow last year – about a month earlier than now. Things changed on the ground. Hezbollah entered the fight. IRGC – Iranian forces entered the fight on the ground. And more terrorists were attracted to the fight against Assad, regrettably, thereby creating a framework where some of the opposition was fighting the terrorists, not Assad.
So that is a very clear and simple reality of what has taken place over the course of the year. That has changed. And now I think there’s a greater level of coordination, a greater level of unity, a greater level of understanding of purpose, and over the next days as those teams meet, there will be a serious definition of steps that can be taken in order to have a greater impact. The United States is committed to doing our part. Each country today sat there and sort of discussed what they felt they could do to grow the effort. And that is what is different.
Just last week, we announced that the Syrian Opposition Coalition representative offices are now foreign missions. And we’re also working to provide new nonlethal assistance and to speed up the delivery of assistance to the Free Syrian Army. The Treasury Department has imposed new sanctions and restrictions against members of the regime, and we will continue to strengthen our ties with the Syrian opposition, as I think you’ve seen firsthand in the visit to Washington this past week.
On behalf of the United States, I want to extend our deep concern for the two British journalists who were shot and who were beaten while trying to share with the world the real story of what is happening in Syria. And this is not the first time that courageous reporters have been part of the heartbreaking story of Syria. Far too many journalists and innocent civilians have been hurt, killed, or held hostage in Syria. And just two days ago in Washington, we met with one of the families – with many of the families, actually – of those being held in Syria. And we’re keeping up a very focused effort to try to secure their release. We reiterate our respect and our admiration for the reporters who put their lives and their liberties on the line to tell the stories to the world that otherwise people would never learn.
Let me also say a quick word about two other issues that we touched on this week, here, today, in the early part of our meeting this morning: that is Ukraine and Libya. We had a very good discussion this morning with the British, French, German, Italian foreign ministers, our counterparts – on Ukraine. We welcome the successful National Dialogue roundtable in Kyiv that took place yesterday and the very good conversation there on decentralization, constitutional reform, and the protection of minority rights. And we hope that the separatists, we hope the Russians, we hope that others who are disgruntled by what has taken place will take note of a legitimate effort to try to reach out, bring people to the table, and find political compromise.
We are absolutely committed to the notion that there must be a protection of these minority rights, and we support the government in Kyiv’s efforts to reach out with serious, concrete plans for increased autonomy and decentralization. I would note that the level of decentralization and autonomy that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has articulated far exceeds any level of autonomy or decentralization that exists anywhere in Russia. And I think it’s important for everybody to note that.
We believe that the process of the roundtables coupled with the election provides the people with Ukraine with an opportunity to be able to heal the divide. And that will now be encouraged through a second meeting of a roundtable that will take place in eastern Ukraine in a few days.
This morning, we also underscored the vital importance of a free and fair presidential election across Ukraine on May 25th, including, importantly, the eastern provinces. And we’re also working with the Ukrainians and the OSCE to protect the rights of all Ukrainian citizens and to make their voices heard through the ballot box in a legitimate election.
We call on the separatists and Russians to respect this election process, to help to make it happen, even; to encourage Ukrainians to be able to define their future. That’s the best way to de-escalate this situation.
We believe that this effort to legitimize an election and move to have a broad-based election according to the constitutional process of Ukraine is in stark contrast to the agenda of the pro-Russian separatists and their supporters, who are literally sowing mayhem in communities like Slovyansk. Far from defending the rights of the people in the east, they are seeking to speak for everybody through the barrel of a gun and through their own narrow sense of what they want for an outcome.
We agreed this morning that if Russia or its proxies disrupt the election, the United States and those countries represented here today in the European Union will impose sectoral economic sanctions as a result. Our message is really quite simple: Let Ukraine vote. Let the Ukrainian people choose their future and let them do so in a fair, open, free, accessible election.
Finally on Libya, the United States and our quintet of partners reiterated today our shared commitment to the stability and security for the Libyan people and for the region. We agreed that we need to do more, and we understood that there is this challenging moment in Libya. We need to try to accelerate the effort to bring about stability and security and the governance that is necessary to provide the time and the space for Libyan authorities to be able to confront the threat from extremism and the challenges that their country faces of just providing governance to their people.
In that light and in support of the Libyan Government, we are working collectively through a number of different envoys. The Arab League has an envoy, the – Great Britain has an envoy, we have an envoy – we will work in concert, and we task them, literally, to be working as one entity – not as individuals out there in opposite directions. And we’re going to do all we can to help the Libyans in these next days to try to be able to gain control over their revenues and begin to forge the kind of coalition that can actually begin to build the offices of governance that are necessary. This is a small country – six and a half million people – smaller than the state that I represented in the Senate – privileged to represent for almost 29 years. I know something about what you can provide when you want to. Libya is a country rich in resources, rich in people with talent and capacity. And we hope that in the days ahead we’re going to be able to tap into that and find a way to help the Libyan people to move forward to have the kind of stability and peaceful governance that they aspire to.
So with that I thank you, and I’d be happy to take a couple questions quickly.
MS. PSAKI: The first question will be from Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. On Syria, I think you correctly put your finger on what the question is, which is: What’s different after today? In terms of U.S. policy, could you tell us whether the United States is prepared to do what Britain has done, which is to change the way its aid is sent into Syria and start sending it through NGOs or other means instead of through the United Nations?
And also on the expanded aid that you’ve talked about to both the military and political sides of the opposition, President Jarba has publicly called for increased weapons assistance, specifically portable surface-to-air missiles to stop the Syrian Government’s air attacks against civilians, including the barrel bombs that you personally have denounced. Are you now prepared to take this step or allow your allies to take this step? And if not, why not?
And finally on Syria, Foreign Minister Fabius said in Washington this week that France has seen credible evidence of at least 14 chemical attacks by the Syrian Government since October. Secretary Hagel said in Saudi Arabia yesterday that the United States has seen no such evidence. Is this because you haven’t seen what the French have seen, or that you’ve seen it and don’t find it conclusive? Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me take them one, two, three. We are open to the idea of providing aid through any means that will get to the people who need it. And while the decision has not been categorically made, I’d just repeat: We are open to anything that will get the aid to the people, and we are very frustrated with the current process. It is not getting to people. It’s going through one gate, one entryway, and it’s going through Damascus and/or controlled by the Assad regime. That’s unacceptable. We need to be able to get aid more directly and we’re going to work to do that. That’s a certainty.
We are in addition that, Karen, we are going to in the United Nations Security Council challenge the appropriate level of follow-through that is necessary to be able to fulfill what was passed in the resolution previously a few months ago in order to guarantee the delivery of aid. It is not being fulfilled. It has to be fulfilled and our patience is gone. We’re going to join with other countries in an effort to try to guarantee accountability through the UN in making that happen. We are determined that people will be able to get aid.
The people who left Homs, for instance, did so because they were literally under siege. They were being starved to death – civilians and others. And that is against the laws of war – not to mention anybody’s fundamental values and decency, but obviously not Assad’s. So we intend to press this issue in every way possible in the days ahead.
On the issue of weapons, I’m not going to discuss what specific weapons, what country may or may not be providing or not providing – as you know, we’re providing nonlethal aid. But I will say that out of today’s meeting every facet of what can be done is going to be ramped up. Every facet, and that includes political effort. It includes the aid to the opposition. It includes economic efforts, sanctions. Today we announced, as I told you, additional sanction. There will be ramped up effort to make it clear that despite the fact that Assad may think today he’s doing better and this process is somehow going to come to a close with him sitting pretty, the answer is: no. It’s not going to suddenly – we’re not going away. The opposition is not going away.
We are determined to reach a political settlement that protects all of the people of Syria, and I want to make it clear: Alawite, other minority, all can be protected here. Assad’s just protecting himself. The fact is that he, in doing so, he is making partnership with terrorist elements, attracting terrorists, engaging in terrorist activities against his own people, and I don’t think that anybody today felt deterred one iota in the notion that there might be a better route, another route, other than a political settlement, which can only be brought about when he is prepared to negotiate.
As everybody looks at Lakhdar Brahimi’s resignation and makes a judgment about it, it’s not that – I mean, he performed valiantly against great odds. But if the parties aren’t prepared to perform according to the standards that they have accepted to negotiate on, there’s nothing that a negotiator or an intermediary can do. So we remain committed to try to find that solution and I’m not going to discuss specific weapon systems or otherwise except to say that every possible avenue that is available is going to be pursued by one country or another.
One the third issue – the issue of evidence, I suspect – I haven’t talked with Secretary Hagel about what was in his mind or what he was referring to with respect to that. Chlorine is not listed on the list of prohibited items by itself freestanding under the Chemical Weapons Convention. But chlorine, when used and mixed in a way that is used as a chemical weapon in the conduct of war, is against the chemical weapons treaty. And I have seen evidence, I don’t know how verified it is – it’s not verified yet – it’s hasn’t been confirmed, but I’ve seen the raw data that suggests there may have been, as France has suggested, a number of instances in which chlorine has been used in the conduct of war. And if it has, and if it could be proven, then that would be against the agreements of the chemical weapons treaty and against the weapons convention that Syria has signed up to.
MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from Mina Al-Oraibi.
QUESTION: Thank you. Secretary Kerry, to follow up on your last point, if it is proven that chlorine was used as a chemical in war, which is prohibited, what will the Syrian Government face? What steps can be taken?
And I want to go back to the point of military aid. I know you won’t go into details of the assistance, however, what I’d like to ask you is: are you more confident now in the Free Syrian Army and after the meetings you’ve had with the Syrian opposition linked to the use of weaponry by the FSA and the SNC in general.
SECRETARY KERRY: I think the Free Syrian Army – I’m going to give you the second part first. The Free Syrian Army has clearly improved. It has clearly gained in its capacity. It has gained in its command and control. It is also now being supported in a more coordinated way than it was over the last year as one country or another may have been supporting one group or another, now that is much more concentrated.
So we think that they’re making progress. Are they a trained army in the context of nation-states that we measure things by in many places? No, not yet. But they are improving and under very difficult circumstances holding their own, in fact making gains in certain parts of the country. Now, we have – we are committed to continue to be helpful to them and give them greater capacity in many different respects. And everybody there today shared in that commitment.
With respect to the CW and what the consequences are, it has been made clear by President Obama and others that use would result in consequences. We’re not going to pin ourselves down to a precise time, date, manner of action, but there will be consequences if it were to be proven, including, I might say, things that are way beyond our control and have nothing to do with us. But the International Criminal Court and others are free to hold him accountable. And as you know, we have a resolution that will be in front of the United Nations with respect to culpability for crimes against humanity, atrocities in the course of this conflict. So one way or the other, there will be accountability.
MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from Indira Lakshmanan from Bloomberg.
QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, you just told us that you and the four EU foreign ministers agreed today that sectoral sanctions will be imposed on Russia if Russia or its proxies disrupt the May 25th elections. Foreign Minister Hague earlier referred specifically to Russia’s specific interference. So I want to know – Russia has denied Western reports of supplying weapons, personnel, and coordination to the separatists. Will Russia be held accountable and responsible for actions of the separatists even if they cannot be proved as a link to Russia itself, or what’s the criteria that you and the EU and are going to use?
And second part of that question: We understand that the approach for sanctions is going to be a scalpel, not a hammer. So does that mean it won’t be Iran-style bans on entire sectors of commerce, and does that mean that it’ll be a ban on future deals with an exemption for existing contracts?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to get into announcing today what the precise sanctions are except to say to you we have completed our work. We know what they are. We’re ready. And last week we had State Department and Treasury personnel here in Europe working with our European allies in order to define precisely what that road ahead should be. And indeed, our hope – I’m not going to get into characterizations of scalpel or sledgehammer or whatever except to say to you that they’re effective, and if they have to go into effect they will have an impact.
Now, obviously, the purpose of it is to have a greater impact on the target than it is on the people imposing it, and so we will be thoughtful and we are being thoughtful and we’re being very, I think, deliberative in trying to make determinations about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate.
Let me emphasize our hope is not to do this. Our hope is not that we have to go to a next stage. I say to the Russians and everybody our hope is to de-escalate. We appreciate that President Putin made a statement about the elections and sort of acknowledging that they would take place and probably a good thing, I think was his language. We acknowledge that he said that the referendum should be stopped but didn’t stop the referendum.
And so what we need to make certain is that people aren’t trying to have everything both ways. William Hague a few moments ago told you that it’s in the attitude and behavior that you make this judgment about what is being done. And I’m not going to start laying out the whole series of definitions except to say to you that it is clear what proxies mean. If Russia or its proxies disrupt the elections, stand in the way of the Ukrainian people being able to exercise their vote, that is when and if there would be additional sanctions.
But our hope is that Russia will join in to encouraging the vote, that Russia will encourage pro-Russian separatists to say that they should work through the process that has now been opened up that Russia has helped insist on, that that process now be given a chance to work through the OSCE and otherwise. That’s our preference. That is what we want to have happen here. And our hope is that in the eight days, between now and the election, there can be a concerted effort to try to put the confrontation behind us and put the effort to build Ukraine in front of us and to try to do it together. That makes a lot more sense and that would be our hoped-for direction.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, all. Appreciate it.