Background Briefing in Paris

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Paris, France
January 23, 2018


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: (In progress.) -- of the conference today to have a bit of a breakout session with some key ministerial colleagues, French --

QUESTION: Which session? The chemical weapons one or the ministerial?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: From the CW --

QUESTION: Okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The ministerial – took advantage of that to have some breakout meetings. One of them was with some of his colleagues from France, the UK, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, to discuss how best, given the timing of the UN’s plans for a meeting in Vienna with the regime and opposition on the 25th and 26th of this month, given Russian preparations for a meeting planned for Sochi on the 29th and 30th to best support, best provide backing and some concrete reinforcement for UN efforts to advance the political process in Geneva in accordance with Resolution 2254.

As you know, the likeminded community of nations is firmly committed to 2254. In Da Nang, President Putin with President Trump reaffirmed the Russian commitment at the highest level to 2254, to a credible political process moving ahead; to constitutional reforms; parliamentary, presidential elections under UN auspices. What Geneva is all about: how you make these pledges, these statements real, how you translate them into action on the ground, and the ground happens to be Geneva and the overseer, supervisor of that ground is the United Nations and the UN Special Representative Staffan de Mistura. The bulk of the conversation was on exactly that topic: how best to provide support and encouragement to de Mistura, to the United Nations.

The UN, as I said at the beginning, is going to have meetings in Vienna with the regime, with the opposition. The UN is looking to commitments on the part of the Syrian regime to 2254, to a Vienna process, in the voice of the regime directly to the United Nations. But assuming a process gets underway in Vienna, which we very much want, we, those we met with today, the broader likeminded community of nations – we’d like to be in a position of providing as much help and assistance to the UN as possible.

The question will be raised by you: Why this group of attendees, why not others? And the answer is we were moving in a way that we hoped was as efficient, as rapid as possible given the timelines that we are working against, which really are only a few days, at most another week before Sochi happens, to try to structure support for the UN in a meaningful fashion and being able to collectively encourage progress, not just with the UN, but also with the Russians, with the Syrian opposition group, the so-called Riyadh 2 group – how could we best engage in this time ahead.

Now, our efforts don’t stop, our desire to support Geneva and the United Nations doesn’t end, if whatever decisions are or not taken by the UN after the meetings in Vienna, whatever the Russians may or may not do with Sochi, whatever the position of the UN happens to be toward Sochi – and those are all pending issues. The UN process of trying to move forward a credible political process on the ground in Syria is going to be difficult. It’s going to take time. The Secretary’s spoken many, many occasions to that need for time. And so we would like to be supportive in an ongoing sense, not a one-off or a one-time sense.

You can look at this, if you will, as the nucleus of the kind of support which has also been reflected in New York in September at the UN by the broader likeminded group, and that’s the support which we very much think we still have, can still represent, and certainly want to engage and cycle back to. So don’t look upon this as an exclusive club. It was an ability given the events here in Paris and given the timing of events in Vienna and possibly Sochi to try to move some real, meaningful help to the UN as quickly as we could. That, in essence, is we were about this evening.

QUESTION: Can I just --

QUESTION: Can I --

QUESTION: This is just a logistical thing. So France, UK, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, all foreign ministers?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.

QUESTION: Going back to the Secretary’s comments about Russia at the chemical weapons meeting, he – his remarks were pretty tough. He faults – he said Russia is culpable for the attack regardless of who did it. In June, the Trump administration, if you recall, put out a statement warning that if the Assad regime conducted a chemical – it was – I think they said they were – that they found that the Assad regime was making preparations similar to what they saw in April for the sarin attack. Tillerson identified the attack that happened yesterday as a chlorine attack. Are – was he aiming to draw a redline for chlorine? Is this a pretext to --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Absolutely not. The Secretary’s words were quite clear. They were quite detailed. They referenced the various undertakings, obligations that Russia has committed itself to in the CW area, including chlorine gas. It was a laying out of the facts as we, as the broader international community understand them in Syria, and I would view it, as the Secretary did, as doing two things: identifying in a larger voice than just the U.S. alone the clear responsibilities here not just of the Syrian regime, but also of Russia, given its undertakings, to stop this kind of horrific action. And we certainly hope that the message taken away from this is that Russia will indeed act in accordance with its undertakings, commitments, and, frankly, basic conscience in stopping the use --

QUESTION: (Laughter.) It hasn’t for eight years.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’d like to --

QUESTION: Yeah, I was going to say --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’d like to think.

QUESTION: -- what happens --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I can --

QUESTION: -- with like – let’s let you finish.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We would like to think – we would like to think that Russia is motivated as a member of the community of nations and given its particular undertakings and responsibilities in Syria, including its specific role in support of the Syrian regime, to stop this kind of action taking place. And I would not read into it anything more than his words and what I’ve just told you.

QUESTION: I mean, some of us have – well, Matt for many years, me at least for four, have covered presidential --

QUESTION: Me for 19.

QUESTION: -- presidential efforts or administrations’ efforts to work with Russia on Syria. The Obama administration kept coming close to deals and those fell apart, and warning Russia that it had to change its course – I mean, Secretary Tillerson today called on Russia to do the same thing. What happens if Russia doesn’t hold Syria accountable?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, what happens if Syria doesn’t stabilize? What if the violence, the antagonisms get worse, are still further enflamed? And we’re not talking here about territory that may be more or less under control of the regime, we’re talking about something more fundamental: Is Syria, in a meaningful, long-term sense, stable? And that’s not the stability of pre-2012 Syria. That’s some other model of governance.

If that doesn’t happen, what are the practical consequences? Well, first, it’s not so good for Syrians. It doesn’t bring back the displaced, internally or externally, populations. It doesn’t contribute to the ability of Syria to recover and grow. What it doesn’t do, as we go down the list, is it doesn’t allow the international community to contribute to the reconstruction needs, which are significant for Syria. It doesn’t provide any authentication or legitimization or validation for a so-called victory by either the regime or, frankly, by Moscow.

Now, are these things important? Well, we in the likeminded community, not just those in the room tonight – the broader likeminded community that we met with in New York that continue to support this feel that those are important principles to cling to. Does it matter to Russia? We think it does. We think Moscow doesn’t want to own this problem, and that’s one of the consequences if things don’t go well. And “go well” means violence down, these horrific crimes against the Syrian people stop; there is a meaningful, credible political process underway which includes constitutional reforms, preparations for elections under UN auspices. All those things that Russia has formally signed on to – Resolution 2254 and again in Da Nang with President Trump. We think there are consequences for Russia, both good and bad, depending on how they act and what they do.

QUESTION: So what --

QUESTION: He’s spoken, though, about being hopeful about Russia in the past. On Saturday he had that phone call. What happened between Saturday outside of the attack and this that led him to this point to speak so concretely? And what does he actually hope to happen over the next two weeks?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You had a CW conference. That’s one thing. This is the venue – this is the venue --

QUESTION: That means he lost faith in Lavrov?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. This is the venue where you talk to these kinds of issues.

The second event was we had what is credibly attributed to be yesterday morning, the 22nd, another chlorine gas attack in Syria, and it is not just the coincidence of the two. The conference alone would have been the appropriate venue for these kinds of remarks, but the chlorine gas attack was a powerful reminder: This issue is not behind us. It is with us all in the international community, the CW community, and it’s with Russia because of its special obligations and undertakings still. And I think it would have been very remiss of the Secretary or any leader not to have made the kinds of statements, the kinds of remarks, given the setting and given the actual events on the ground within 24 hours of the conference taking place.

QUESTION: So what’s your comment on this meeting tonight? I mean, you said you wanted to see how best support and back the UN efforts. So how best? I mean, do you really think there could be some outcome in Vienna just ahead of Sochi?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) that Vienna will be – do anything --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me sort of disaggregate the two. Where we are going is specific measures which we’ve discussed amongst ourselves, we’ve discussed with certain other countries, we believe broadly reflect the consensus of the likeminded group and which we will be discussing with Mr. de Mistura in Geneva before the meetings in Vienna and afterward. Much of what we are saying is making a bit more in the way of concrete support, concrete suggestions on ways ahead that we think can be of use to the United Nations, but it is at all times respectful of the fact that the UN has the lead on this and must have and retain that lead.

And there is no attempt here to exclude Russia from the process of exchange and dialogue. The Russians are closely in contact with the UN, with Secretary-General Guterres as well as with Staffan de Mistura, as well as with us and with all of those who met this evening. We want to see the Russians positively engaged, supportive of what they say they support: 2254, the UN lead. Geneva is the place for the political process to move ahead. But we’re trying to, if you will use a terrible gerund, concretize the process of how best we can help.

QUESTION: Can you just give us a (inaudible)?

QUESTION: I’m not sure. No, hold on. I don’t think concretize is a gerund. Gerunds have to end in i-n-g.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Concretizing.

QUESTION: No.

QUESTION: Sir, could you just give us an example of what you mean by concrete support in this process? I mean, I’m not clear, I mean, we’ve been through four years of --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: How do we – how can we best support, encourage, provide a endorsement, international backing for steps on two big processes which Geneva is all about: constitutional reform and the preparations for the holding of elections.

There is another element here, which is the establishment of conducive environment on the ground for all of this to go forward. But the big processes Geneva sees, the things that make up a credible political process, that term of art that we all use, are constitutional reforms in Geneva and a political process that leads to the holding of elections under UN auspices with all that UN auspices means in international practice and in modern application. That’s what we’re trying to help. And I’m not going to go into further details on the --

QUESTION: Do you mean that --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- the private dialogue we have with the United Nations.

QUESTION: Do you mean that the United States are going – is going to engage more actively in Geneva?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We have been very active. As have – as --

QUESTION: Even more active?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We have been very active. We will continue to be active in Geneva.

QUESTION: Can I just --

MODERATOR: This will be our last.

QUESTION: But – so you guys have been trying to shame the Russians for – since 2013.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Your words.

QUESTION: It’s – no, not my words. The words of Samantha Power, the words of Barack Obama, the words of John Kerry, the words of Tillerson, the words of you, the words of – and it hasn’t worked. What – why in God’s name do you think it’s going to work now?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Matt, what we’re trying to do is not – is not a matter in a strategic goal of shaming. It is to try to put Russia before those responsibilities which Russia has formally made to the international community, one. Secondly – secondly --

QUESTION: But right – they made those commitments seven years ago.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- secondly, to try to do all we can to encourage Russia to engage with respect to Syria, given its extensive involvement with the regime and the debt the regime owes to Russia for the fact that the regime is the regime right now, to try to get Russia to engage in a way that we believe – whatever other critical judgments might be, that we believe and those associated with us believe it’s really, at the end of the day, in Russia’s interest as well as that of the Syrian people and the broader international community.

QUESTION: But it’s always been that. It’s always been that and they never bought into it, so what’s the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You try your best to make a construct --

QUESTION: I get it. I do.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- to build a set which offers both inducements and disincentives for behaviors --

QUESTION: I get it, I --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- not a new lesson in international practice.

QUESTION: No, certainly not. I get it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And if you – if you want to go further, there are, as every one of you here knows, two schools of thought about the Russians. One is transactional actors. You can always find, if you look hard enough, areas of consonance with all the areas of dissonance – sometimes profound dissonance – that’s surrounding. We believe that proposition needs to be tested until it has been firmly (inaudible).

The other point of view is no, it’s zero-sum, you can’t work at all. That is not a sound way to go into anything as high-stakes, as important, as trying to better shape the future of Syria and through it the presence of Iran, the strategic goals, the strategic concerns we have.

QUESTION: Just can you read out the meeting with the Turkish minister?

QUESTION: Oh, also actually on Yemen, the Yemen thing --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That I can’t do. Wasn’t there and can’t give you the read.

QUESTION: But sorry – on the – Yemen?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.

QUESTION: You were in the Yemen thing?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, I was.

QUESTION: So what was – how did that go? Yeah. No, I’m just curious.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yemen. Yemenis – I think you know the participants – UK --

QUESTION: Yeah, it was the quad.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- the Emiratis, the Saudis. It was the quad. The quad stripped, which means minus the UN special rep. Not the quad plus one.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, we’ve got so many just – (laughter) –

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, yeah, okay. Yeah.

QUESTION: Quad plus/minus stripped. (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We talked about the agreed critical goals in Yemen, which are, first and foremost, sustain measures that have been taken over the course of the past weeks to expand access for humanitarian and critical commercial goods; alleviate, relieve, and try to prevent the expansion of and then ultimately reduce the scope of civilian suffering and want in Yemen – critical goal. That’s what provides all of us the space to go to any further goals. Saudis have been very supportive in these weeks on that objective, and that’s something we very much welcome. Second step, try to see whether there is a political process that can provide more, rather than less, stability to the country. This is a very tough challenge.

So a political process, how is it getting underway? With that political process is comingled the security threats posed by Yemen, by the Houthis, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, by Lebanese Hizballah, by the proliferation of highly accurate ballistic missiles to the Houthis enabled by the IRGC. These are major concerns. You’ve heard us all speak to them many, many times. But they’re real. They’re serious. They are not diminished. And how we address, through all of the steps that are available to us – not single countries but collectively, and the international community and the United Nations – to address this issue, ideally, before it gets much, much worse with much, much greater consequences in terms of damage.

QUESTION: Okay. But so --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Those are the issues we discussed.

QUESTION: Right, okay. But so – but any way forward, (inaudible) any --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the political track – I’ll take that one out first – there will be, I think, at the end of February, beginning of March a new UN envoy.

QUESTION: A new UN envoy?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: A new UN special envoy. We strongly support the work that Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed continues to do. We give him all the backing that we can. We hope that he can help at least determine the lines of a possible step forward on the political process. We will strongly support the next UN special envoy just as --

QUESTION: Who will be?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That name is not yet announced by the secretary-general. But we will support IOCA as long as his tenure lasts. We will certainly engage significantly with his successor to try to help him move forward.

Now, on the security front, I think on that most of you are very well informed. It’s a combination of the efforts we’ve been undertaking with respect to the evidence for the Iranian-proliferated missiles having been used. We’ve welcomed a very good set of UN reports, and this is something which the council will be considering shortly in terms of how does the international community respond.

QUESTION: And do what? What would you guys like to see them do?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Iranian proliferation has to come to an end. If it doesn’t come to an end, there need to be consequences. And I won’t go beyond the reference to consequences.

QUESTION: Okay. So but – and I don’t want to change the subject here, but could – would that be part of the whole Iran deal, kind of – would you put that into --

QUESTION: A side --

QUESTION: Iran (inaudible).

QUESTION: -- side deal on the – a side agreement on the Iran deal?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s – it’s – there is no side arrangement or deal. This issue stands on its own. This is illicit proliferation of missiles and missile-related technology that are already proscribed. There is no need for additional proscriptions. What’s needed is acknowledgment and consequences for it.

QUESTION: The President has said --

QUESTION: Okay. So in – but in your – but in the discussions with the Europeans about a side deal or a supplemental deal to the Iran – to the JCPOA, this would not be a part of those? It would be something separate that --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The ballistic missiles, the – when we talk about the steps required, that the President requires from the Europeans, or the U.S. Congress for that matter, on missiles, we’re talking about advanced range missile technology --

QUESTION: No, I get that. But I mean --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- another level of proliferation and acquisition.

QUESTION: But it could be separated.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, these are separate issues.

QUESTION: Okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Separate issues. I really don’t want to lead you down the route of this is the same thing.

QUESTION: Fair enough, all right.

MODERATOR: All right, I think we’ll call it quits at this point because you’ve got more work to do tonight.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I have much more. Thank you.