Background Briefing By a Senior State Department Official, Accra, Ghana
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, [Moderator]. I want to just start by setting the context for this visit. We were last in Istanbul in early June for the Global Counterterrorism Forum, on the margins of which we held a Core Group meeting on Syria with a number of key stakeholders, and then approximately a month later in Paris, a Friends of the Syrian People meeting. Since the Friends of the Syrian People meeting, there have not been any high-level gatherings or ministerial level visits by the Secretary specifically on Syria, but in that timeframe a lot has happened.
You’ve had a series of high-level defections, a major bombing that took the lives of key security officials in the regime. You’ve had the opposition, the Free Syria Army and associated groups, consolidate gains on the ground that stretch from Aleppo up to the Turkish border, and gains elsewhere in the country as well, including showing increased operational effectiveness. And of course, over the past month you’ve had the Syrian economy continue to deteriorate, you’ve had a Security Council resolution vetoed by the Russians and the Chinese, and you’ve had the resignation of Kofi Annan effective at the end of this month, among a range of other things that have unfolded just in the last four weeks.
So after that Security Council resolution was vetoed, we made clear that we were shifting from New York to a focus on supporting the opposition in its efforts to hasten the day that Assad falls and to begin in earnest planning for the day after Assad falls in close coordination with our partners and in support of Syrian groups on the ground, who are going to be charged with, ultimately, building the new Syria and trying to safeguard institutions of the state and deal with all of the challenges that will come once the transition begins.
So that’s the frame within which this visit takes place. The Secretary is eager to have the opportunity to roll up her sleeves and have in-depth, lengthy, detailed conversations with the senior Turkish leadership, with the President, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and a number of other key officials in the Turkish Government to talk about the three broad pillars of our strategy.
The first is to discuss with the Turks both what it is that we’re doing and how we judge the effectiveness of what we’re doing in terms of supporting the opposition, to hear from them about the latest approaches they’re taking to support the opposition, as well as the picture each of us have of the work that other countries are doing and how our work and the Turks’ work can fit into that broader effort by the international community to coordinate and effectively deliver support for the opposition on the ground inside Turkey.
At the same time – so that goes for the nonlethal assistance that we’re providing. It goes for other forms of support and assistance that are being provided to the Syrian opposition. And it also goes for the work that the Arab League, the Turks, us, and others are doing with the political opposition groups that are trying to come together under an umbrella to have a single common plan, a transition plan and vision for a future Syria that’s pluralistic, democratic, and effectively maintains the institutions of the state. So we’ll also want to talk to the Turks about the July 3rd transition plan that the opposition groups collectively arrived at and the work that is ongoing right now to try to follow up on that and put additional meat on the bones as everybody plans for the day after.
The second —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, sorry. Yes, I am reminded that in terms of supporting the opposition, we all have to remember that the overall goal here is to hasten the day that Assad goes. And part of that work is direct support but part of it also is pressure and isolation of the regime. And one of the key forms of pressure is economic sanctions, which in the coming days or very shortly we will be tightening even further with additional sanctions that drive at both Syrian entities and at those who are supporting the efforts of the Syrian Government to oppress its own people. So the sanctions piece and talking to the Turks about how we can most effectively both ramp up and enforce the sanctions on the books will also be a feature of the conversations.
The second area is humanitarian assistance. The humanitarian picture has grown more dire as the fighting has spread. That’s true both inside Turkey and in countries – I’m sorry, inside Syria and in countries bordering Syria, all of them, including Turkey. There are now more than 50,000 refugees that the Turks are supporting, and the need for international support in the form of funding and other types of tools and resources is growing.
So last week, the United States announced $12 million in additional assistance, a portion of which will go to refugees in Turkey or to support refugees in Turkey. And tomorrow, the Secretary will make further announcements both with respect to funding for UNHCR and for the specific Turkish appeal through IOM. And when the President and Prime Minister Erdogan talked on July 30th, one of the issues they discussed was how the international community can effectively support a growing burden on Turkey as it continues to be very generous in providing for refugees that come across its border. And they’re coming across every day in significant numbers.
MODERATOR: (Inaudible) more than a 1,000 a day –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The third area is transition planning and day after planning. The Secretary was very clear that we don’t want to put a date on Assad’s departure, because we can’t. We don’t know when that day will come, but it is our strong conviction that it will come and that the international community needs to be prepared to support the Syrians themselves as they deal with all of the challenges that will come with actually effectuating a transition to a new Syria.
There are political challenges in terms of organizing the state and protecting its institutions. There are economic challenges, both in terms of short-term stabilization and in terms of rebuilding a deteriorating Syrian economy. There are security challenges that may require international and multilateral assistance of various kinds. There are challenges related to securing, of course, weapons inside Syria to ensure they don’t fall into the wrong hands. And there are humanitarian challenges related to the need to provide basic subsistence to displaced Syrians both inside and outside Syria.
So all of that work has to be conducted at the earliest possible point, which is why we’ve been working on it for some time now and why we want to intensify our collaboration with the Turks and with other key stakeholders.
So all of this will be on the agenda, and in a specific way when the Secretary sits down with her counterparts and with the Turkish leadership. And the goal here is to try, as much as possible, to be able to arrive at a common operational picture, to gain a better understanding of the effectiveness of what we’re doing now and what more can be done, and then to take it from there and to coordinate effectively with the other key partners in the international community. And in that regard, the Secretary will be having conversations next week by telephone with key partners in Europe and elsewhere, and planning for another Friends of Syria gathering at some point in the coming weeks.
Also while she’s in Turkey, the Secretary will meet with activists, opposition activists, some of whom are just very recently arrived from Syria and have firsthand experience with what is going on on the ground in Aleppo and elsewhere. And she will talk to them about what their assessment is of where things are, where they’re headed, and what kinds of support they need from the United States and the international community. She’ll also have an opportunity to engage with the humanitarian and refugee issue in meetings as well.
So that’s a broad overview of where we’re headed, and I’ll take a few questions before we all have to go down to the van so we don’t miss our flight (inaudible).
QUESTION: On the activists, has she met any of these figures before? And can you characterize them anymore particularly than activists?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: She hasn’t met any of them before. They represent a cross-section of people from inside Syria and some now based outside Syria who are helping coordinate efforts to address the specific needs of the opposition. So you have students who are organizing student protests and student political opposition to the regime. You’ve got women who are working as part of a collection of women’s groups in Syria specifically addressing the needs of women who are part of the opposition. You’ve got those who are involved in communications, from Skype to Facebook to other web-based tools to try to get messages out and coordinate the public strategic communications dimension of the opposition.
So it is folks with a very hands-on set of experiences related to both resisting the Syrian regime and trying to organize and coordinate and effectively marshal various elements of those who are in the opposition or associated with the opposition on the ground in Syria.
QUESTION: And at this point, who’s doing the accountability – legal work on the ground in Syria?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: (Inaudible.)
QUESTION: No actual rebel figures?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. When you say rebel figures, meaning armed —
QUESTION: Fighters. Armed fighters.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Armed fighters.
QUESTION: Armed fighters (inaudible).
QUESTION: Can I wait?
QUESTION: I just have a quick one. On the announcements of further sanctions regarding both Syrian entities and those who are supporting the efforts of the Syrian Government, is this going to represent sort of a broadening of efforts to get at Iranians groups or others who may be involved here?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think that’s pointed in the right direction. I’d prefer not to preempt the announcements, although [Moderator] will work, I think, over the course of today to see what’s possible in terms of getting you additional information.
QUESTION: Is it today? It will happen today in D.C.
MODERATOR: We’ll talk a little bit more about this in a minute.
QUESTION: Does any of this discussion with the Turks or with the activists speak to any additional steps intervention or involvement, non-humanitarian, and kind of talking support that you’ve already offered?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, for starters, we’ve already gone beyond humanitarian by providing specific, tangible types of assistance that can help the opposition on the ground – communications equipment, medical assistance of different kinds. So – but I take your question to be moving beyond where we are now.
QUESTION: Right. Yeah, right.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: One of the key things that the Secretary wants to achieve when she arrives in Turkey is to compare notes with the Turks so that she can sharpen her own operational picture of what’s happening on the ground. It’s a very fluid situation. The groups that are participating are themselves quite fluid. And what she would like to do over the course of the day is gain a clearer picture of the effectiveness of what we’re currently providing and how it can be made more effective, and then whether or not there are additional things that we can do to be helpful to the opposition that will add value rather than cause harm.
And over the course of her conversations and in trying to arrive at conclusions on that, she will shape her advice to the President and to her colleagues back in Washington about any further types of support or assistance that the United States might be prepared to provide.
QUESTION: Does that mean you do or do not rule out lethal assistance (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think you heard this week from both Susan Rice and John Brennan that we’re never in the business of categorically ruling things in or out. I think her focus will be on the effectiveness of what we’re doing, how we can make it more effective. But she certainly will be looking to see whether there’s anything else that we can do that will have a positive impact as opposed to a detrimental impact on the overall situation in Syria.
MODERATOR: Let’s do Matt and then (inaudible).
QUESTION: Do we have anything else? I know that you’re not going to – the questions that I would ask, you’re not going to be able to answer. So –
QUESTION: Just to make clear the first pillar of your strategy, we are still taking about nonlethal assistance?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s what she’ll be focused on today.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks, everybody.