Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Visit to Vilnius, Lithuania
Senior State Department Officials
En Route Vilnius, Lithuania
September 6, 2013
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Hello, everyone. Good morning from the plane. We are doing a background briefing here which is – all comments can be attributed to senior State Department officials. This will cover the trip through Monday, when we return to Washington. I’m just going to start by giving you just a few points on Lithuania, and then we will, of course, turn it over to Senior State Department Official Two and Three here – or One and Two. I’ll be Three.
This is Secretary Kerry’s first trip to Lithuania as Secretary of State. As you know through our announcement, he will be meeting with the Lithuanian President as well as the Foreign Minister. While he’s here, he’ll also be holding an Embassy meet-and-greet with local staff and Ambassador McCarthy. This visit, of course, comes on the heels of the August 30th meetings hosted by President Obama and Vice President Biden with the three Baltic presidents in Washington, D.C. And one little historical note is that the Secretary met with the Foreign Minister in Brussels in April, and in Rome in February.
The United States, of course, has an excellent partnership with Lithuania. We have worked on a global scale on a range of issues, from Afghanistan to the Eastern Partnership countries to the Middle East and North Africa, to promote security, prosperity, freedom, and rule of law.
And with that, I will turn it over to Senior State Department Official Number One, who will give an overview, and then we’ll take some questions.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hi, everybody. This is my maiden voyage. I’m sure you’ll appreciate this and give me an easy time. It’s lovely to see Michael Gordon at my feet.
As you know, the Secretary has meetings with the EU foreign ministers in Vilnius, with the Arab League Follow-Up Committee for the Arab League Peace Initiative in Paris, and then a meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in London. These three meetings are part of his efforts, the Secretary’s efforts, to play a facilitating role now that he’s succeeded in getting the direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations started again after a three-year hiatus. And the purpose of that facilitating role is to ensure that the negotiations move forward to a point where the leaders have to make decisions, and we can try to achieve within the nine-month agreed timeframe an agreement on all of the core issues in their longstanding conflict. It’s – that’s the context in which these three meetings are going to take place.
The meeting with the EU foreign ministers is an opportunity to brief them all on this effort. The EU has been a traditional partner of the United States in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking over many decades. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. It is the biggest single donor to the Palestinian Authority. It has a big stake in seeing this conflict resolved. And we, therefore, have a big stake in ensuring that we are working together, pulling together to try to achieve that common objective.
So in that context, the Secretary wants to brief all of the foreign ministers. It’s an opportunity to do so in their meeting at Vilnius. We have regular engagement with the EU through the Quartet, which is the EU, the UN, Russia, and the United States, a mechanism designed to support the peace process. But here was an opportunity to brief them all in one room on what we’re doing, and to emphasize and discuss with them the way in which the EU can play a positive role in encouraging the parties to move forward, and supporting them as they confront the difficult decisions they will have to make. It’s very important that we remain coordinated with the EU as we go forward in this intensive nine-month process, and that’s what this meeting is about.
The Arab League Follow-Up Committee meeting in Paris is part of an ongoing and similar process of close consultation and coordination. Something we learned in a previous effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is if you don’t have key Arab players in on the takeoff, you cannot expect them to be in on the landing. And we need them very much to be in on the landing of this effort to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian end-of-conflict, end-of-claims agreement, because their support and their anchoring of the agreement in an Arab base is going to be critical to the effort to ensure Palestinian support and endorsement for an agreement, should it be struck. And that’s why the Secretary has done a, I think, terrific job of getting them involved from the beginning, getting them to take an important position in adjusting their own Arab peace initiative, to take account of the idea of swaps, land swaps of equivalent value for the territorial basis of the agreement. And it’s part of that ongoing effort to keep them involved, to ensure that they are supportive, that he is meeting them again in Paris. And he will be doing this on a regular basis as we move forward in the next eight months.
Finally, Abu Mazen. I’ll refer to him as Abu Mazen, although, of course, his official title is President Mahmoud Abbas. The meeting there will be of several hours’ duration. It’ll be a one-on-one meeting, part of an ongoing conversation that the Secretary has been having with both leaders, Netanyahu and Abbas, from the beginning of his efforts to get this process launched, and now to get – bring it to a successful conclusion. These kinds of meetings will be on a regular basis also, and they are designed to compliment the negotiations that are taking place at the level of the negotiators, Tzipi Livni, Yitzhak Molho, Saeb Erekat, and Mohammed Shtayyeh.
And if you think about these kind of two-tracks – and the Secretary has talked about this before – his engagement with the leaders is a way of lubricating the negotiations, and it’s a way, eventually, of bringing the negotiations to a point with the leaders where they will have to make decisions. And the United States will be in a position to put forward bridging proposals to help them in that effort.
That regular consultation will also take place with Prime Minister Netanyahu, of course. It was not possible to schedule that meeting. It was – as you may know, it was originally planned as part of this trip, but Prime Minister Netanyahu felt it was important at this tense time for him not to leave Israel, and – because the Secretary has to be back in Washington for very important business there, we couldn’t work it out on this particular trip. But he will be conducting a similar conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu very soon, as soon as we can work out the schedule for them.
So I can hand over to --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT THREE: Ready?
QUESTION: Number Three?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Number Two.
QUESTION: They’re both number one, but --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: They’re equal number ones, equal number ones.
QUESTION: They’re equal number ones. How about Number 1A and Number 1B?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Perfect.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, he’s definitely Number One and I’m a distant Number Two.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: A close two.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Just a couple of things. We expect that at the meeting of the European foreign ministers, Syria will come up, just because it’s such a prominent issue right now on the international stage. And the European countries with whom the Secretary’s going to meet, the foreign ministers are among some of our very closest friends, and so we want to talk to them about our latest thinking on Syria.
We’ll certainly want to talk to them about how we see the situation developing in the coming days, and we will also want to talk to them about where they can be helpful, especially in terms of building a broader international consensus. We’ll want to talk to them about what we understand is happening at the United Nations, what they understand is happening, how we’re going to be working with the United Nations, but also how we’re going to be working outside the context of the United Nations.
Shall I stop there, or do you want me to talk a little about Paris?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Sure. Keep going.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Then in Paris on Saturday, the --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Sunday.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: You’re right, Sunday, sorry. On Sunday, the Secretary will meet with a group of foreign ministers from Arab countries, again, including some of our closest friends. Syria was not originally on the agenda for that meeting, but it’s – we expect it’s going to be added. And so again, we will talk to them both about our sense of what’s developing on the ground in Syria, what we intend to do ourselves in the coming days. We’ll be talking to them about things where they may be helpful, and again, also building support within the international community for a response from the international community. Where we can work with the United Nations, that’s very good, but where the United Nations has its limitations, then, with the international community, we’ll need to take action beyond that. And so we’ll want to talk to the Arab foreign ministers about that.
I’m going to stop there.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Okay. And one – this was on our announcement, but just to make sure it’s still confirmed for everyone that he’s also meeting with Foreign Minister Fabius on Saturday evening and with UK Foreign Secretary Hague on Monday morning as well.
Let’s do questions. Let’s go around.
QUESTION: Thank you both. Two quick ones, one for each of you. Official Number One, obviously the Secretary, in the first part of his tenure so far, has been spending so much time on the Mideast peace process. Now he’s spending a lot of time on Syria. And I’m just wondering – obviously, you can still do both – but whether you’ve seen, from the parties, given the uncertainty of what’s going on in Syria and the kind of international attention to it, is there a hesitancy or a reluctance from the parties to really move full steam ahead, or just the opposite?
And Official Number Two, can you talk about whether your discussions with the Europeans and Arabs are part – involve – how the international community can help the Syrian opposition capitalize on any response that is taken? I know that this is a response just to the chemical weapons, but how do you build a diplomatic and military strategy to help them? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Inevitably, with so much turmoil roiling the Middle East, both the Israelis and the Palestinians are affected by that. And in some ways, it’s a major distraction. On the other hand, it also has a number of important benefits that are manifesting themselves in the way that the parties are dealing with these developments.
So for example, developments in Egypt I think had a fairly significant impact on the standing and credibility of Hamas, and that has boosted the political fortunes of the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas in particular. He is in a stronger position politically today amongst the Palestinians, and that makes it somewhat easier for him to engage in the negotiations and to stay in the negotiations, despite what’s happening around him.
QUESTION: Hamas (inaudible) Hamas, because the Muslim Brotherhood is having problems (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Right. Yes, exactly. The – what is interesting is that both sides, they have made clear to us and to each other that they do not want the turmoil to engulf them, and that therefore, it motivates them to try to resolve their conflict to prevent that from happening. So the negotiations have not been disrupted in any way by what’s going on around that. In some ways, the fact that the whole world’s attention tends to be focused elsewhere enables the negotiators to work in relative quiet, and that’s important. But as I say, it also gives them an incentive to try to resolve their own conflict so as to prevent the turmoil from engulfing them.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: With respect to Syria, the Administration’s move to request an authorization to use military force has been the headlines during the past six days, and our discussions in Washington about using military force have been in the headlines on Syria even longer than that, now for almost two weeks. So I’m sure we’re going to have a fairly detailed discussion about our thinking with the European foreign ministers in Vilnius about that.
But all of our countries – the United States and the European Union member-states – believe that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria and to the crisis in Syria, and therefore I’m very certain that we’re going to talk also about how to address the problem and how to begin to, (a) contain, and (b) ultimately resolve the conflict through military means. Some of the European Union member-states were at the first Geneva conference in June of 2012, countries like France and Britain, and the European Union itself was represented. But this will be a chance for a broader discussion with all of the European Union member-states about how to move a political process forward.
But at the same time, we have to understand that the political process itself will depend on making sure that Bashar al-Assad’s calculations are changed, and so our support to the opposition, which has increased since June – you will remember Ben Rhodes spoke about that at the time. So we will talk about what we are working with the Syrian opposition in terms of getting them both on the ground better able to extract concessions from the regime if and when we get to a negotiating table.
And then (b), our assistance to places in Syria where local councils and provincial councils are trying to hold on to what’s left of the state in the wake of withdrawals of the Syrian military from towns and cities in northern Syria. In eastern Syria, some of the European countries are very involved in that as well, countries like Britain, France, Germany. So I’m sure we’re going to talk also about how we can develop processes to better coordinate. There is a need for more coordination on that.
QUESTION: Hi. I have two questions on Syria. One, the Administration’s request to Congress – can you hear me? The Administration’s request to Congress has been sold as no boots on the ground, no open-ended commitment, we’re not going to get involved in the Syrian civil war. How can the Administration make such blanket statements, and have those kind of assurances been made before in these kind of circumstances?
And the second question I have is: There seems to be awful lot of lead time on this movement, and Assad is apparently moving things around, so can you shed any light on that problem?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: For a long time, the Administration and the President personally highlighted our extreme concern about chemical weapons, and that is not a new concern by the way, Karen. That – even when I was nominated as [title withheld], you’ll recall when I was speaking to the Senate we highlighted the problem of the Syrian regime’s efforts to develop chemical weapons stocks. We have a sanctions regime in place in part because of Syrian development of weapons of mass destruction. So that is a longstanding concern.
What’s new and different now is that the regime is using these things and using them in an ever escalating fashion. So – but the authorization to use military force is for a tightly, tightly defined purpose of stopping the regime from using them again, reestablishing deterrence. The regime right now does not feel deterred. That is very clear. You can just see what they’re doing on the ground. So there is a need to reestablish deterrence. That is a tightly defined objective.
Your second question?
QUESTION: Assad is moving things around.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Oh, I’m not a military targeting planner, but in discussions we’ve had with our colleagues in uniform, they say that – does it make the problem more challenging? Yes. Is it impossible to manage? No. They’re able to make adjustments on their side too.
QUESTION: For Official Number One, the European Union took a number of steps that were of great concern to the Israelis restricting grants and financial flows to occupy territories in the West Bank. Does Secretary Kerry plan on making the case to the European Union that now that Israel’s involved in these talks, it should suspend these sorts of sanctions or roll them back or not engage in any further actions of these sorts, since it’s – the Secretary said the two parties seem to be meeting in good faith? And if you could also explain your own role in the talks, because it’s been reported you weren’t in the meetings and you were excluded from the meetings in Jerusalem.
For Official Number Two, when the – what – for – if there is a military action to come, which nations plan to contribute assets for that military operation? And will Secretary Kerry ask for some of these EU partners or Arab League nations to contribute forces or assets or ships or planes or things of that sort so that the operation demonstrably is – has an international cast?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Michael. I think that the Secretary’s message to the EU foreign ministers will be very clear, that now that the parties are in negotiations and both leaders took difficult and painful, politically painful decisions in order to get into these direct negotiations, that it’s important for those parties who have an interest in a successful outcome that they be supportive of this effort and that they find a way to embrace the negotiators and encourage them to move forward, rather than, as it were metaphorically, bang them over the head.
As far as my own role, let me, first of all, say that it may sound surprising, but it’s not about me. It’s about trying to produce a successful outcome. In that context, back in Washington at the time of the beginning of these negotiations, the parties themselves made clear that they wanted an opportunity – and let me say it again, the parties themselves, that is both parties, made it clear that they wanted an opportunity – after a three-year hiatus in direct engagement – they wanted an opportunity to engage with each other directly and to have the opportunity for a direct bilateral negotiation. And we thought at the time and still think that it’s a good idea. And it has so far proven itself to be a good idea. They are, as we say on every occasion, engaged in serious and sustained and continuous negotiations. And that is important. It’s not broken, and it doesn’t need fixing at the moment.
But we will be in the room. And both sides are quick to say that they will need us in the room in order to get them to the point where they can reach agreements. The U.S. role has been in the past and will be in this negotiation indispensable to the achievement of agreements on all of these very difficult issues. And so it’s not a problem that needs to be fixed at the moment.
Now, let me just make one other comment, because we are, as you know, avoiding any comment about the substance of negotiations. And the two sides are, for the most part, also avoiding any comment about the negotiations.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I said for the most part. And that’s, from our point of view, essential. Those who are talking are not the people involved in the negotiations. And we strongly believe that negotiations are like mushrooms that grow in the dark, and darkness benefits the process.
So I would just caution you that a lot of the bellyaching that’s going on does not bear any relationship to what is actually happening in the negotiations. I know it’s difficult for you to be – to take my word on that, because all you’ve got is what people who aren’t in the negotiations but claim to be unnamed officials are saying about it. But what they’re saying is inaccurate and should not be taken as an indication of what is actually happening in the negotiating room.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Michael, do you mind just repeating the question on Syria so I make sure I answer it fairly directly precisely?
QUESTION: Which countries are contributing military assets for the operation if there is one? And is Secretary Kerry going to ask EU members, Arab League members to contribute assets of some kind – forces, planes, ships, whatever – so that if there is an operation it is clearly as international as possible, that he might want to do this with an eye toward the Congress, for example?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, for example, countries like France have already publicly stated their willingness to join in an international response to the Syrian use of chemical weapons. And Saudi Arabia has also stated very strongly that the international community needs to respond. So have other countries.
I do not expect the Secretary to get into the details of how particular countries might play particular roles. That is a function that we will leave to our colleagues in American military uniforms to conduct with other countries’ counterparts. I know that those discussions have started with some countries.
I think the Secretary will focus as much, Michael, on the military side of it – my guess is he will focus at least as much if not more on coordinating the political responses, what we say to Syria’s friends, what is our assessment of what Syrian friends are doing and what are they likely to do, how do we work with those friends to move forward the ultimate political solution that we would like to see at some point down the road, also what do we do and say in the United Nations. In Vilnius we’ll have four members of the Security Council president – present – France, Britain, Luxembourg, and the United States – so we’ll have plenty to discuss without getting into the details of the military side.
QUESTION: Did you mean to say – are the Saudis committed to a military role? Is that what --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: What I mean to say is the Saudis have publicly stated that the international community needs to take action. That’s as much as I’m going to say here.
QUESTION: Just to official number one, more a sort of housekeeping question, you said that Prime Minister Netanyahu originally planned to come. Was this going to be a three-way meeting, or is he going to come to London? How is that supposed to work? And could you just very, very briefly sort of catch us up on how many meetings have the negotiators have, how frequently are they meeting?
And for official number two, you probably more than anyone else in the U.S. Government maintain contacts with the Syrian opposition. Could you talk a bit about what their reaction on both the military and political level has been to what’s been going on in terms of will they, won’t they, and also what you would expect their reaction to be if the Congress vote goes against a military strike, which I think is – even though the President says he has the authority, I think that would make it very difficult for a strike to then go ahead.
And just one other point. There were reports last week that the rebels had shot down two Syrian airplanes with surface-to-air missiles. Could you tell us whether that’s true or not?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, there was no intention to have a trilateral or three-way meeting. It’s premature, in our judgment, at this stage. As I said in my lead-in, the effort at the moment at the leader level is to try to engage with each one of them in a serious discussion about all of the final status issues, much as the negotiators are doing with all of the final status issues, but to do it in a confidential way that enables the Secretary to get a real sense of where they’re coming from, what their needs are, what their bottom lines are, and therefore to begin to get a sense of how it might be possible to bridge the gaps between them.
I think that trilateral meetings is something that will come – will come, but they will come further on in the process at a point where it becomes necessary to start to try to bridge the gaps between them.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: He was originally coming to Rome.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Which proves the point.
As far as frequency of negotiations, as [Senior State Department Official Three] has said on numerous occasions, we are not going to go into the details of when and where they are meeting, other than to say they are meeting regularly come rain or shine. It doesn’t rain much out in the Middle East these days, but there are a lot of other events that have the potential to disrupt the negotiations. Indeed, we had one episode where there was an announcement that the talks had been canceled which was, in fact, not true, and yet another example of the misleading nature of the comments that are being made to the press.
There have been no cancelations of meetings. They have been continuous and they are ongoing. And if that changes we’ll tell you, but there’s been no change in that from the get-go back in Washington.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Syrian reactions to the American moves – first of all, they are hopeful that we are going to take steps to deter the regime from using chemical weapons. They have complained for many months that we have not taken military action to stop the regime’s use of chemical weapons, so they’re happy we’re doing it. Frankly, many, many of them, not all but many, would like us to do much more than that and to open up a much broader air offensive or to establish a no-fly zone over Syria. And to that extent we have been in fairly intense conversations with them for the past roughly two weeks to say this is what we might do and this is what we certainly won’t do. And we have been very explicit to the Syrian opposition that any military action that we might take in response to the chemical weapons attack is going to be limited and very focused solely on reestablishing the deterrence that I talked about. Do they all welcome that? No. Some would like us to do more than that. They will be disappointed therefore.
I also want to say something which I think is important to understand the Syrian opposition’s mentality. More than a few of the people with whom I have spoken have said to me with great sadness that it’s really sad that we have to ask for international countries to come and bomb targets inside my country, inside our country, we don’t want to do that but that’s how bad things are that now we’re reduced to having to support that, to having to ask for it. So that there’s both a mixture of hope that at least we will deter the chemical weapons use, and the fears among civilians about chemical weapons use are extremely elevated. It’s contributing to the refugee flow, for example. So they’re hopeful that we are going to deter that chemical weapons use by the regime, but at the same time there’s an element of sadness to it. It’s not elation at all. That’s not what I would call it.
Second, you asked what would their response be if we don’t take action. There are several things there. Number one, they will be extremely disappointed, and more than that, civilians on the ground will be extremely disappointed and probably more fearful than ever that the regime will use chemical weapons. I think it will be reasonable to expect that we’ll have bigger refugee outflows and thus more destabilization possibilities in places like Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq.
Second, they will look at the United States and other members of the international community as less reliable, and their response probably will therefore be that the moderates within in the opposition will feel somewhat weaker. And it will boost the prospects of groups on the more extreme edges who have always said the United States is not reliable, the United States is only interested in Israel or in keeping Assad in power. Those arguments are made all the time in some opposition circles.
It will boost their standing at the expense of more moderate elements, and that too will be a problem, especially when we are trying to move them to a negotiating table where the regime will have to make concessions, but so will the opposition ultimately in order to get to a political deal.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Oh, I saw the same reports that you did. I can’t confirm either one of them. We do think that the Syrian – some of the Syrian armed groups have captured from regime stocks surface-to-air missile systems. And so I can’t rule it out, but I can’t confirm it.
QUESTION: I’m wondering sort of, as it looks uncertain, highly uncertain, what Congress will do in terms of the authorization, what Secretary Kerry’s message is to these other countries in trying to convince them to join on board in an international coalition when it’s – looks uncertain what the United States Congress will even do.
And secondly, even as Kerry is courting international support, I wonder if you could detail at all if he’s still doing anything domestically, whether it’s calls to members of Congress or doing anything while he’s on this trip to try and convince members of Congress.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: I’ll just – I’ll take your second question. He certainly will be continuing to reach out to members of Congress throughout this trip, as he has over the course of the last couple of weeks. He makes calls from the plane. He makes calls at night. He makes calls in the morning. And that will continue on this trip.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, I’m afraid the Secretary has a quite a long call sheet, poor guy. With respect to his message, I think we need once again with the countries we’ll be talking to in Vilnius and in Paris and then with the British and – in London, just how all of us – all of our states are members of an international community that long ago established that the use of weapons like this is just outside the acceptable norm of international behavior.
And so I don’t think the Secretary’s going to try to prejudge what the President is going to do. We still are very hopeful that in the end, when Congress and members of Congress all come back from their recess and they all hear the case that we are now making with greater efforts, that we’re going to win the votes. So I don’t know that the Secretary’s going to give the foreign ministers tomorrow or the Arab ministers in Paris a detailed assessment of the politics in Washington vote by vote by vote but we are generally hopeful that we’re going to win the case. And so we need to talk about what we’re going to do. We’re going to need to talk about what they’re going to do. And we need to talk about how that relates then back to ultimately resolving the crisis through a political process.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Let me just add one thing to that. Obviously, part of the Secretary’s focus over the last couple of weeks has been building this international coalition through his phone calls. So in addition to making the calls to Congress, he’s making that pitch for public support that the President talked about last Saturday as part of the meetings over the course of this weekend.
QUESTION: This is for Senior State Department Official Number Two. Is the opposition ready for the day after the strikes? You’ve worked a lot on the day after Assad possibly goes. What happens after a missile strike? Are they any more organized, ready to go, fill up any kind of vacuum or advantage than previously?
And Senior State Department Official One, can you give us a sense of – you talked about sort of a knock-on effect from a benefit of pressure elsewhere in the region. Is there is a decision on the U.S.’s part to suspend any kind of aid, make any change to aid, is there an impact on what you’re trying to do? And is there an impact in any way right now on how Hamas fits into the picture without the Muslim Brotherhood as any kind of partner or communicator? Do we have someone in that role?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Let me say three things in answer to your question about being ready for the day after. First, I don’t expect huge, huge change on the day after on the ground. I think the war of attrition will grind on. I think it will grind on without the use of chemical weapons, but I think it will grind on. It is a war of attrition that the regime slowly, gradually, is losing. They’ve had a brief respite when Hezbollah sent in fighters into the center or western part of the country around Qusayr and Homs, but if you’ve been watching events on the ground over the last few weeks you’ll have noticed that the armed opposition is again on the offensive both in the south and the north and even in the area close to where the government had recaptured some places in July. That grinding war of attrition will continue and the regime’s manpower shortages will continue to grow. So – but I wouldn’t expect a breakthrough on the ground. That’s the first thing I want to say.
So what does the – what does the opposition need to do? Well, they need to do two things, in our opinion, and we’re helping them with both. The first is, in the areas where the government’s control has receded, they need to fashion some sort of governance. And so in places like Aleppo, in places like Maarrat al-Nu'man, in places like Arka Deir ez-Zor), places that have – where the government’s control disappeared weeks and months ago, little by little we’re seeing civil administrations being formed. Even in the presence of armed groups, including in some cases extremist armed groups, civil administrations are being established.
Frankly, we are helping with that. For example, we are now helping the police force in the city of Aleppo. We’re providing them with equipment. We’re providing them with the means of renovating police stations. And we’re even equipping the police force with things like communications gear, so that there is still – I don’t want to oversell it – but there is some law and order. It’s not complete anarchy in Aleppo. We’re about to start that again in another city in Syria; we’re going to expand that out.
So we work with these elected – and I emphasize the word “elected” – local – like municipal, if you want to call them that – municipal councils and elected provincial councils in places like Idlib, Aleppo, Arka.
But then the opposition needs to do a second thing, and that is to develop and prepare for eventual political discussions on a national level, not on a local level. And so there again we are working with them. They’re going to have to form a delegation to go to Geneva. They have not formed a delegation yet, but we’re talking to them about what kinds of things they will need in a delegation.
They have, in fact, made some plans. It’s not that they’re completely unprepared, but I think they still have some distance to go. But they’re now working on it. And we are starting to coordinate how we would work at Geneva with how they would work at Geneva.
Let me underline that at Geneva they would be direct discussions between the opposition and the Syrian regime. And it is not the United States that plays the role of a mediator, it is Lakhdar Brahimi and the United Nations. But we would be, along with the Russians, co-sponsors of that peace conference.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The President hasn’t made a decision yet on the issue of aid to Egypt, so that’s a hypothetical question which I can’t answer.
On Hamas, I would just say that the setback that the Muslim Brotherhood has suffered in Egypt has had a profound knock-on effect on Hamas. And that, combined with actions by the Egyptian military to try to secure the Sinai and prevent Hamas from assisting those jihadi elements in Sinai that are creating a national security threat to Egypt, has led to a situation where Hamas finds itself in very dire straits. And that benefits, by definition because it’s a zero-sum game, those in the Palestinian polity who oppose Hamas and who oppose Hamas’s objectives, which is basically to promote – Hamas’s objective is to promote a one-state solution that doesn’t include Israel. And those who seek a two-state solution – that is the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas in particular – benefit from the setback that Hamas is suffering.
And that is part of a development that is, I think, quite palpable in the region today, in which there is an emerging alignment between the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, and Israel. And that’s an alignment of common interest that manifests itself in all sorts of ways that are quite visible today in the press. But it also is a product of the fact that these unusual bedfellows face a series of common enemies, starting in Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, Assad. And that sense of a common thread and common interest, I think has a prospect of creating a moderate alignment in support not just of making war, but also in support of making peace, in terms of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No.
QUESTION: Thank you. You partly addressed my questions, but on Syria, State Official Number One, most of the 28 European countries are reluctant or opposed to any military strikes on Syria, so could you give us a list or an update of the European countries who are willing to participate to a military action with the U.S.? And specifically with the French, who are now your closest allies, what did you tell them after the President’s decision to wait for the green light of the Congress? The French seem to be quite disappointed by that.
And State Department Official Number Two, you addressed the question, but is it – you deny completely what Palestinians official have said this week that the negotiations are going nowhere and that they are actually pointless?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, it’s true that there are divisions within the European Union about what is the exact sequencing of the need for an international response. I don’t think there’s any question among any of the European Union members that there needs to be an international response. The real question that is posed is: What is the sequencing, and how does it relate back to the United Nations? And I think this is where there needs to be a discussion about what is possible with the United Nations. And therefore, if the United Nations avenue is blocked, what does the international community need to do?
So what you said about France is true, but there are other European Union countries that are publicly supportive of the international community moving ahead now, countries like Denmark, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania. So there may be others in the last day that I’m not aware of. So the discussions are continuing.
And with respect to the French, we very much appreciate their support with respect to what we’re trying to do in Syria. That support is not new, and in fact, we have been working very closely with the French on Syria, really since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. We’ve been coordinating quite a bit with the French. So I see the French stance as just the latest manifestation of a real equivalence in views about how to press the Assad regime and how to move towards the political settlement that both countries think eventually will be necessary.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Look, I’m not going to get into commenting on every statement made by people who are ignorant of what’s happening in the negotiations. They wouldn’t know whether it was pointless, because they’re not in the negotiations. And if they were pointless, they wouldn’t be negotiations, and I’ve already told you that they are continuing and they are not being impacted by the events – surrounding events close to home or further afield. They continue.
So I think it’s unhelpful to the negotiations for these unnamed and in some cases named officials to be coming out and characterizing things that they know nothing about. And it’s – let me just leave it at that.
QUESTION: To Senior Official Number One – One or Two – oh, now I’m confused between One and Two.
QUESTION: To Number Two first, then. (Laughter.) Senator McCain said at several forums in Arizona last night that still not a single weapon has gotten to the opposition leaders. And we have heard the same complaints from them. Can you update us on what the tempo – why the tempo is so slow since the decisions announced by the White House in June?
And why wouldn’t it have been helpful for some of them to be in Paris this weekend for some of these conversations, or in Vilnius? Why are they not part of this – directly part of these meetings?
QUESTION: The Syrian opposition. Yeah – no, not – and there are reports which seem to be coming out of the Pentagon today that contrary to the Secretary’s assertions – repeated assertions that this is limited, defined, very targeted strikes – that the White House has now asked the Pentagon for a much broader military plan, involving B-2s and 52s and other backup for a much broader engagement, which is raising questions about mission creep, the kinds of questions that are concerning right now a majority of the House. If you could address that.
To Senior Official Number One, you said that the negotiations and that the process has not been disrupted by what is going on, by the turmoil, and in fact, in the instance of the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s been helped vis-à-vis Hamas. But the fact that the Prime Minister did not feel comfortable leaving Israel right now for the meetings that could’ve taken place in Europe does indicate some disruption, does it not?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not going to go into great detail, for obvious reasons, except to say that the Syrian armed opposition is obviously receiving help from a variety of countries, including lethal weapons – that’s kind of an oxymoron – including weapons. The Syrian armed opposition wants a lot more than it’s getting. And therefore, it’s going to tell any visitor, including a distinguished American senator who’s very sympathetic to their cause, that they need much, much more.
I do not discount the need of the Syrian armed opposition for more than they are getting, but at the same time I recognize a certain Syrian negotiating tactic which those of you who have been to Damascus and to the Hamadiyah Market would also recognize. And so let’s understand that the Syrians can also game their visitors. So that’s all I’m going to say about that.
QUESTION: Are any of those weapons being provided by the United States since they were promised in June?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not going to say beyond what I said. The Syrian armed opposition is getting weapons from a variety of countries already and has been for some months, and even longer than that.
Did you have a second question, Andrea, about Syria?
QUESTION: A question about the definition of imminent strikes.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Oh, yeah, yeah, the article in The New York Times. Yeah, yeah.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I want to be – my understanding is that – and I think I’m in a good position to know – these military operations, if undertaken, have a tightly, tightly defined purpose, to deter the regime from again using chemical weapons, in part by making it harder for the regime to use them because it has fewer capabilities. But to be very clear, it is to deter the use of chemical weapons.
There are other programs and other efforts underway to change the balance on the ground that are not connected to this particular issue of deterring the use of chemical weapons. We have been providing support to the Syrian opposition. As Ben Rhodes said in June, we made a decision in June to substantially increase the scale and the scope of our assistance to the Syrian armed opposition. That is designed to help change the balance on the ground. The purpose of American direct military operations, if undertaken, would be to deter the use of chemical weapons. I’m not going to go in – I am not a military planner. Look at me; I’m in a blue jacket. So I’m not going to go into what the military needs to do in order to do that. The purpose is not mission creep, as you are saying. The purpose is deter the use of chemical weapons.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The Prime Minister would have been very happy to see the Secretary in Israel, so it’s not really a distraction. It’s a – it became a scheduling issue because of his own reluctance to leave Israel and the Secretary’s inability to get to Israel on this trip.
QUESTION: So I have two questions. I want to follow up with Senior Official Number Two, who I can’t see, but I hope he can hear me. Can you directly respond to the earlier question about military supplies that the Administration promised? Are they, in fact, arriving as promised and on schedule? That’s my first question.
The second is, you say the mission has a tightly defined purpose, but that’s not the same thing as expanding the means to accomplish that tightly defined purpose. So can you address the question of mission creep?
And third, well –
QUESTION: Third, you’re talking about preparing the opposition for Geneva when it seems like that’s not remotely a possibility right now. Can you tell us why you feel the – why you’re working on that now? Are there reasons for optimism?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: With respect to military supplies, I’m only going to speak about what we’re providing overtly. And I can tell you that last week we delivered three and a half tons of medical supplies to General Idris last week, about seven days ago. One of my people did it. So we have provided other supplies, military supplies that are used by the armed opposition. I’m not going to talk about other programs. I’m simply not.
So I could just tell you that they are getting through. But you should understand that there are literally hundreds of armed groups, and so are all armed groups getting supplies? That I doubt. That I strongly doubt. And so you will always have people who say, “Hey, I didn’t get anything.” So understand what you’re hearing.
With respect to mission creep, I define mission creep as shifting the objective, not the means, shifting the objective of the military operation. I have not seen any change in the objective of the military operation in terms deterring use – further use of chemical weapons. How it is accomplished tactically, if that’s how you define mission creep, I can’t speak to it because I’m not a military planner. I’m not going to be the person executing the operations either.
QUESTION: Can you speak to the Senate language about supporting the opposition?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Can you speak to the Senate language about supporting the opposition?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The Senate language talks about changing the balance on the ground. That is an objective that the Administration has long supported. If those of you who were with us when we went to Rome, and we met the Syrian opposition there, knew Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about it in Rome. That’s not new. We’ve been working on this for a long time.
Did you have a third question on Syria?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Oh, Geneva. Frankly, in the work we have done with the Russians, we have cleared away a lot of the questions about how the conference would be held. That’s not to say that we have a date. We don’t. That’s not to say that we have the two delegations lined up ready to go. We don’t. That is not to say we have decided who needs to be there. We haven’t. But we have clearly defined the questions and we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of figuring out what would be logical possibilities. And so although right now the focus is on the regime’s killing of hundreds of people in the suburbs of Damascus with chemical weapons, as I said before, the day after there’s any kind of military operation we’re still going to have this grinding war of attrition. And the international community, including Russia and China, are still going to have an interest in finding a political settlement.
And so I think if you go up in altitude and look at this from 100,000 feet, you’ll see that the need to get to a political process is still there regardless of what’s going on in this particular aspect of the authorization to use military force.
QUESTION: Two short questions for Official Number One. Just so we’re clear, has the United States Government in the current round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that began July 29th presented any bridging proposals whatsoever, or are you nowhere near that point?
And secondly, what, if any, has been the direct role of President Obama since July 29th? The last time I remember a reference in public was to his conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu just before the two sides agreed to resume talks, and it was part of a conversation that was previously scheduled that was mostly about other subjects. What, if anything, is the President himself doing on this?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The bridging – the idea of bridging proposals only becomes relevant once the parties have had a chance to identify the gaps and to try to close them themselves. That is a process that is going to take some time – not a lot of time, but some time. We’re looking at a nine-month timetable where we’ve just passed the first month. And I would not expect that you would see the United States playing a bridging role until those other things have taken place, so it’s more likely to be towards the end of the process rather than at the beginning of the process.
As far as the President’s – but let me just say, though, facilitation is more than just bridging the gaps. Facilitation involves encouragement, support helping the parties to think through their presentations, making sure that misunderstandings are cleared up, trying to promote a positive environment for the negotiations of policing those who would claim to speak on behalf of the negotiators. All of those kinds of roles, if you like, mid-wifery, is part of the facilitator’s role, and certainly there’s a hell of a lot at this stage of that kind of thing.
As far as the President’s role, as you know, the President met with the negotiators when they came to Washington as a manifestation of his commitment to the process. He made very clear then, and he has made clear to the leaders themselves, that if they’re in, he’s in, and that he wants to see this move forward. He thinks it was very important to try to achieve a final status agreement, and he has spoken to the leaders about that. He has met with his American team to go over the strategy. So I would say that his commitment is very clear to the parties and to his negotiators and he is fully behind the efforts of the Secretary of State in this regard.
QUESTION: He’s not actually making phone calls these days or these past weeks on this? I mean, we’re not at that stage yet where he’s actively calling both sides?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: You know, again, we’re all the product of our experience. And we went through an experience the last time we tried to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which the President – not this president, a previous president –became almost the desk officer for the parties. And that proved to be not the most productive way of using his time. If you think about the negotiations as a kind of continuum in which we start a process, map the differences, try to understand what the core requirements are, introduce ideas for bridging them, it’s at that stage of the process when the President’s involvement will become critical because these are, in many ways, life and death decisions. And I don’t mean it just politically, but as we’ve seen before with the assassination of Anwar Sadat and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, they can be literally life and death decisions. They are going to need the President’s direct involvement at that stage, but it’s not appropriate or necessary for him to be involved here. He did call the leaders after their negotiators were in Washington. As I say, he has manifested his clear support for the Secretary. And I think that that’s – that’s all that we could want from him at this stage in terms of helping the process move forward.
QUESTION: Hi, I’ve got a couple of quick clarifications. It’s for Official Number Two, please. Hello, I can just about see you. Arming the rebels is in the McCain-Coons resolution. Just – I was a bit confused. To what extent is this already happening?
And also you talking about Geneva, isn’t that the hypothetical, especially given Putin’s rather unflattering remarks the other day about the Secretary?
And then, the main question I wanted to ask is what discussions will Secretary Kerry be having with William Hague, given that the UK is no longer – I mean on Syria specifically – given that the UK has now pulled out of any action. And if there’s any more you can tell us about any conversations with the French as well. Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m going to say this as clearly as I can: We are giving material support to the Syrian political and the Syrian armed opposition, and we have been doing so for months. Can I be any plainer than that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m sorry?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think there is a desire on the part of some members of the Senate to lock in something which, frankly, we are already doing in terms of providing material support. So the State Department is playing a role in that, so –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not going to discuss other side – I’m telling you what the State Department is doing.
So your second question with respect to Geneva and President Putin – I saw his remarks. I think the Secretary’s remarks are exactly accurate, and I’m sorry that the Russian President didn’t agree with them, which explains why we need to continue to have a dialogue with the Russians, since although we agree we share an interest, we don’t seem to agree on exactly how to achieve – how to secure those shared interests.
But because the two countries, Russia and the United States, share an interest in ultimately finding a political solution, I think eventually we will get to a negotiating table with a mediation by the United Nations. I can’t tell you exactly when. Part of it also depends on what happens on the ground, and it should be obvious to our Russian colleagues that when the regime unleashes an attack that kills hundreds and hundreds of Syrian civilians, that does not help establish a good climate to open a negotiation. So we need them to weigh in more strongly with the regime that is, by Russia’s own admission, their friend.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Well, have you shown them in any type of classified terms the evidence, the case that you have? Are they saying that this is a weak case based on the public evidence that you’ve –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not aware of all of our conversations with Russia on Syria. Certainly, we have shared some information with them. I would just say to you that understand that when the Syrian Government on March 19th claimed that the opposition used chemical weapons, the United States made no judgment one way or the other. We said let us see what is on the ground. You will remember that we said we did not think the opposition had such weapons, but we were not sure what happened.
By contrast, the Russians, within a couple of hours of the Syrian Foreign Ministry announcement, said the opposition did it. We then said publicly, months later, after evaluating all of the information available to us, we thought the opposition had did it. We took a slow, measured time to study all of the information. The Russians made a decision in a couple of hours. I think they are doing much the same thing with respect to the August 21st attack. And so again, we have a disagreement.
But I think in the end, no matter what kind of name-calling goes on, the two countries share an interest in a Syria that is stable and is not a source of extremism that touches on other countries in the region and touches on countries that have had their own problems with Muslim extremists in the past.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Let me just add one thing, that the Secretary, as you know, spoke with Foreign Minister Lavrov yesterday, and they did speak about this. And the Secretary made clear that – and they both agreed that they wanted to move forward in their relationship, there are more important issues that they need to work together on, including a conversation about Geneva. So I just want to make sure you all know that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Correct. Yes. We have to conclude this, because --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Oh, I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Question about (inaudible.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Oh, sorry. Go ahead. I’m sorry.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Oh, with respect to the Secretary’s conversation with William Hague, well, we have the greatest respect for the Foreign Secretary. I have to say, in the meetings I’ve been in where he has been present, he is a fabulous speaker and incredibly articulate in boiling down problems and explaining them in forums such as the London 11 ministers. And we absolutely strongly value both his perspectives, and we will value Britain’s support in terms of rallying the international community to take action and not be held up by blockages in the United Nations. So for sure, we’re going to talk to them about how we and the British can work together.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: It wasn’t about them. (Inaudible.) The purpose was to talk about Syria broadly and a range of other issues. I don't know who initiated the call. I’m happy to check and see if there’s more specifics on that.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official Three], one clarification.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah.
QUESTION: On the medical supplies that went to Idris seven days ago, did they in any way --
QUESTION: The medical supplies that we were told went to Idris seven days ago, did they in any way address recent events? Were they standard medical kits, or were they in any way useful after a chemical weapons attack?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: They’re more for soldiers in combat, for armed opposition fighters in combat. It’s not – they’re not specifically to address chemical weapons.
QUESTION: Just one very (inaudible). What about this attack last week, that this horrible video was on YouTube about this recent chemical attack last Thursday? Have you – do you – have you started to investigate that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARMTENT OFFICIAL TWO: (Inaudible) the napalm?
QUESTION: The napalm. Yeah, yeah.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t have anything specific on that. I haven’t seen any specific reports about it. I saw parts of the video. It was a napalm attack. But it’s not the first time the regime has used weapons like that. So this is a regime that really does not know any bounds and which simply does not care about civilian causalities that it is willing to inflict, whether it be launching Scud missiles, which are incredibly inaccurate – I mean, these are not really used against defined military targets – whether it be using chemical weapons, or whether it uses other kinds of weapons, like napalm and other things. So it’s – I – it’s just the way the regime is. It is a very brutal regime. But the chemical weapons is something where there’s just wide international understanding that that’s just beyond the pale.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: One just very quick thing on Hague. No one should forget that the UK has been, I believe, the second-greatest contributor of humanitarian aid of all countries, and they’ve been a tremendous partner for months on Syria and many other issues. So as Senior Official Number One conveyed here, this is also – Two – about continuing to work in this close partnership in the months ahead.
Thank you, everyone. Longest briefing, I believe, on history, so applause to our Senior Official Number One and Two. (Applause.)
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