Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry’s Travel to Montreux and Davos, Switzerland
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior Administration Officials
January 20, 2014
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us. We’ll turn it over quickly to [Senior State Department Official Two], who will be the Senior State Department Official speaking during this call. We just wanted to preface from the top, obviously there have been a lot of developments over the past 24 hours. We will be available to answer questions as information becomes available, but we’re not going to speculate on hypotheticals on what may happen if. So we know we have limited time, you have lots of questions, and we just wanted to preface that from the beginning.
Also, as always, your lines will be open for follow-ups, but there are a number of people on the call, so if you can just try to keep it to one question so we can get around, that would be very much appreciated. So let me turn it over to [Senior State Department Official Two].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Good morning, everybody. And I apologize I was a couple of minutes late. First off, I’d just say I’m happy to chat with you about what’s going on. I’m not in New York, I’m in Istanbul, and so I’m not the best person to ask for the moment-by-moment state of play between Ban Ki-moon and the United States that’s going on in the United States. I recommend you talk to USUN about that.
But I’m happy to talk about where we are with the Syrians, both the regime and what it’s doing, and then where the Syrian opposition is. And I’d just lead off by saying that there was a lot of effort on the part of many people in the Syrian opposition, both the political opposition and the armed opposition, to get them to where they were willing to go to Geneva. They have suspended that decision. They’re waiting to see what happens with the Iran invitation. And so we’re all sort of in Turkey right now with the state of play being, I think, more between Tehran and New York than with the Syrians here for the moment.
And so with that, I think I’ll just be happy to take the first question. And, [Senior State Department Official One], are we on background or deep background or what?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It’s background for attribution to Senior State Department Officials. And obviously the purpose – and I should have mentioned this – is to preview the Geneva —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The trip.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: — conference, which we are still planning for despite the events.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yes, okay.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So let me turn it over to the first question.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay.
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * followed by the 1. You will hear a tone indicating that you’ve been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. Once again, for questions, please press *1 at this time.
Our first question today comes from the line of Anne Gearan with the Washington Post. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Hi, [Senior State Department Official Two]. I just – I understand you’re not going to go into hypotheticals, but I mean, there’s just sort of a giant hanging one out here. I mean, is the United States prepared to walk away itself if the ground rules are abrogated here and Iran participates on the terms that Ban has apparently invited them to participate on?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Mm-hmm. Well, as I said, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals, so we’re not at that point yet, although it’s getting close. We’re going to have to make a decision. It’s very fluid. So we’re in touch with a lot of capitals. We’re in touch with the people in the Syrian opposition as well.
What I just would like to underline because I think this is really important: For a year, we have been meeting with the United Nations and with Russians in Geneva. I’ve been in all of those discussions, when I was with Secretary Kerry when he went to Moscow and met Lavrov last May. And we have been very explicit and clear in both behind closed doors in meetings with the United Nations and Russians, and publicly that we did not think that any country that refused to endorse the Geneva I communique, the one from June 30th, 2012 – any country that refused to endorse it and support its full implementation should not be in a Geneva peace conference.
And so we are where we are, but I just want to make clear that it’s not – this isn’t a new American stance. It has been very consistent. We have said we do not think there should be a conference at which a country – it could be Iran, could be other countries – that refuse to accept publicly the Geneva I communique’s full implementation. And in that case, we didn’t think they should be in the conference.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And one thing to add, Anne, just given there were statements overnight: Our view remains the same as it was last night. So their statements this morning yet again fall far short of meeting the bar, as [Senior State Department Official Two] outlined, of what we have long communicated publicly and privately we expect. So we continue to believe that Iran should not attend if it has not endorsed the Geneva communique. And obviously the statements overnight did not do that.
QUESTION: Okay. So one quick follow-up. So that means a difficult conversation between you and Ban’s office, correct? Can you talk a little bit about that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Again, I’m in Istanbul, I’m not in New York, so I don’t know how difficult the conversation is going to be. But our position is very firm and it’s not new, which is that Iran has never endorsed the Geneva I communique and has actually refused to do it. It’s been asked many times, and it’s always refused to do it. And so we just do not see how it can get an invitation.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And we have communicated this point —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And I know – and believe me, I mean, think of it. This context is important also. The Geneva I communique, if you look at it, talks about the parties, meaning the international parties that are signing up to it, are going to work to deescalate tensions on the ground. Iran’s actions are just the opposite. They are actually escalating problems on the ground. They have sent in their own uniformed military personnel, Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces. They have mobilized foreign militias to go fight in Syria, whether they be from Afghanistan, whether they be from Lebanon, Hezbollah, whether they be from Iraq. The Iranians have provided substantial amounts of military material and they have backed the regime economically.
They are doing nothing to deescalate tensions and sectarian tensions in particular. I mean, now they’re actually – their actions are aggravating them. And so the idea that they would come to the conference refusing to acknowledge support for the Geneva I communique, from our point of view we just do not see how it could be helpful.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. Let’s move on to the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Michael Gordon, representing The New York Times. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. Just very quickly, a question and a quick clarification. [Senior State Department Official Two], President Assad was quoted just today as telling a French news agency that the purpose of the conference should be a war against terrorism and that it was unrealistic that – to think that his government would share power with the opposition. Given these statements, do you think – and also the letter from their foreign minister that the regime is coming itself with a mandate at the conference in mind and that the conditions have been set with – for progress.
And then second, just a quick clarification. [Senior State Department Official One], Brahimi said a week ago today that all – the decision as to invite Iran was to be taken by consensus only, meaning the United States, Russia, and the UN. It would seem to me that if the U.S. is not satisfied, Iran cannot, in fact, attend. This is supposed to be a consensus decision. Has the UN violated the principle of consensus? And if you don’t agree that Iran has met the conditions, isn’t it the case that Iran simply can’t attend?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m going to – just for a minute on the Assad interview, Michael, a couple of things I would say. Number one, the invitation letter itself from the secretary general is very clear about what the purpose of the conference and the subsequent Syrian-to-Syrian negotiations are about, and that is the implementation of the Geneva I communique. The Geneva I communique nowhere mentions fighting terrorism. Those words are not in the text. Look it up.
It talks instead about measures to deescalate on the ground, for example: cessation of using heavy weapons; stopping to move troops into civilian residential areas; withdrawing troops out of those areas, actually, back to bases; humanitarian access, which is a huge problem right now in Syria; release of prisoners, another huge problem in Syria right now; and the establishment by mutual consent of a transition governing body.
That’s what’s in the Geneva communique, and the invitation letter makes very clear that this conference is about the implementation of that communique and in particular, the establishment of a transition governing body. The Russians agreed to that invitation letter text as one of the two initiating states, and we did.
So the foreign minister in Syria is welcome to make any statements he wants, but the agenda of the meeting should make clear that the purpose of this – these Syrian discussions, the conference itself and then the discussions between the two Syrian delegations, should be implementation of the Geneva I communique.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And on your other piece, Michael, I think our statement last night was pretty clear, but let me just reiterate. Iran has not publicly endorsed Geneva, not before last night and not overnight. Since they have not made a public statement – or their public statement, I should say, falls well short of what the UN says it was told, we expect the invitation will be rescinded. We, of course, saw Brahimi’s comments and we’ve been in close touch with the UN, and we’ll see what happens over the course of the day.
QUESTION: But isn’t it – [Senior State Department Official One], just to clarify, isn’t it the case that Iran can only attend on a consensus basis, and if the United States agrees that they have met the conditions to attend and that you – if you don’t accept those conditions, they cannot attend? Because that’s been the case.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, Michael, I think I’ve been clear what our position is. I’m not going to speculate on what’s going to happen today. Obviously, they haven’t met the conditions that the United States has set out.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’re ready for the next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question today comes from the line of Kim Ghattas with the BBC. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Good morning, [Senior State Department Official Two] and [Senior State Department Official One]. My questions were asked, but I’ll perhaps do a bit of a follow-up.
Can you tell us – and if, [Senior State Department Official Two], you can’t answer that question, perhaps, [Senior State Department Official One], you can clarify a little bit – what was the sequence of events that led to Mr. Ban Ki-moon issuing this invitation? Were you taken by surprise? Did you expect him to issue the invitation? Did you say we will object if you do? Or I mean, we’re a little bit in the dark here about what happened. And I understand that some of that is (inaudible) over at UN mission with the U.S. mission and the United – the UN itself.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, what I – Kim, again, I’m not in New York and I’m not in the discussions between Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a team in New York or the Secretary. But we have always said that before Iran or any other country invited to the Geneva II conference gets an invitation, it should publicly support the full implementation of the Geneva I communique. We’ve said that for all countries – not just for Iran, but for all countries.
What’s interesting is, like, Iran is about the only country that refused to do it. So that position, as I said, goes back to January of a year ago. So that position is longstanding before Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ever issued his invitation. Now, I think the secretary-general has had conversations with Iranian officials. We’re not privy to those. But the American position throughout has been quite, quite consistent.
QUESTION: But if – sorry, just to follow up. If Ban Ki-moon is satisfied with what he heard from Mr. Zarif, obviously he understands that those are the conditions for Iran to attend, and he issued the invitation based on his conversation with Mr. Zarif. So why are you still not satisfied, or why is he satisfied and you aren’t?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, first of all – first of all, because all of the other countries that are going to this conference – I want to underline this, this is a point that is frequently mischaracterized by some other countries’ foreign ministers. Iran is not being asked to do anything that other countries have not already done, including, for example, Saudi Arabia, which has repeatedly stated in public – look at the different London 11, Friends of Syria communiques dating all the way back to the first one in Istanbul in March of 2013. There is a mention of the utility of finding a political solution along the lines of the Geneva communique. The Saudis have consistently – whether it be in a London 11 communique in Istanbul or the London 11 communique in Amman or the London 11 communique in Doha, or the most recent ones in London and then in Paris – the Saudis have consistently signed up and said they support implementation of the Geneva I communique. Iran, by contrast, has never done that.
And so they are not being asked to do anything that no one else has done. To the contrary, they’re simply being asked to join an international norm. They decline so far to do so. Their latest statements do not do so. If you look at them very carefully, there is no mention anywhere of full implementation of Geneva I communique, and especially the most sensitive part, which is the establishment of a transition government with full executive authorities established by mutual consent.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Just to add one thing —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Frankly, the Iranian policy is pretty clear, actually, when you look at it on the ground.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Just to add one thing, Kim. So we did know and we had been in touch with the UN, as would be (inaudible), over the last 24 hours or so. We expressed the same concerns privately that we made publicly. Since the public statement that was made overnight by the Iranians falls far short of what the UN said it was told privately, we expect the UN will review the invitation that was issued. Our statement last night made very clear and expressed clearly what our concerns are. So I don’t think there should be mystery. That’s a summary of where we stand at this point.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We should move on to the next question.
OPERATOR: All right. Our next question comes from the line of Elise Labott with CNN. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks for doing this, [Senior State Department Official Two] and [Senior State Department Official One]. Just a quick question and then I’ll add a kind of larger question. Did – when you said, [Senior State Department Official One], that they – we expressed this privately, could you say who expressed that? Did Secretary Kerry call Ban Ki-moon, or how was that communicated?
And then just in general, I mean, I understand that the opposition voted to go, but only about two-thirds of their members even went to this meeting, a big – I think a little bit more than a third decided not to attend the meeting because they don’t support Geneva. And then out of that, you had your consensus. So we’re talking only about a half of the opposition that supports this conference.
And I’m – just given the fact of what Michael’s question was about the regime not really coming prepared to discuss a transitional government, given the fact that the opposition is – remains still very divided and there is a lot of concern that this conference could actually cause them to collapse, I’m just wondering how realistic you are about any type of progress at this conference towards the goals.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. [Senior State Department Official One], do you want to go first, or shall I?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, go ahead, [Senior State Department Official Two]. I’ll follow you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay, a couple of things. First – and I should have mentioned this when Michael asked his question – I don’t think anyone who’s dealt with Syrian officials has any false expectations of rapid progress. I’m old enough to remember Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, and when he was negotiating with Philip Habib and the Israelis in the Bekaa Valley in the Lebanon war in – well, that was 1984 – 1983 and ’84.
So I mean, the Syrians – officials, that regime is very tough. They’re very provocative at the negotiating table. They say outrageous things. They’re a known quantity. And everybody has to understand that this is the beginning of a process. It’s not going to be fast. It’s very bitter fighting on the ground. And so there’s going to be an absolute requirement for patience and for persistence.
But the opening of a process, we think, is important. I think it is also important to note that there are elements inside the regime itself and among its supporters that are anxious to find a peaceful solution. And we have gotten plenty of messages from people inside. They want a way out. And so if this conference provides an impetus to finding a way forward whereby Syrians understand that the issue is not the entire state of Syria, the issue is a ruling family – rapacious, incredibly brutal – and the change of some officials, but the safeguarding of the remaining institutions of the state so that we don’t have a repeat of the Iraq scenario. I think it is possible with persistence to drive that point home and isolate a brutal ruling family.
Oh, you asked about the opposition and whether or not they’re united and the number of voters. There were two issues that were dividing the coalition. One was Geneva. The second was Sheikh Ahmad Jarba himself. A lot of people don’t like his leadership style. There are complaints about him; that is not secret. We actually received an official letter, Secretary Kerry did, from the faction whose third didn’t go to the vote – the one that you were talking about, Elise. So in fact, that faction has communicated to Kerry that they support a political process, they support the Geneva process, but they didn’t vote because they’re unhappy about Ahmad Jarba himself.
I think more important, frankly, than the different factions of the Istanbul-based opposition are the reactions of armed groups on the ground. And I think this is vital and probably hasn’t been reported on enough. There were meetings here in Turkey between four major factions. Those factions are the Islamic Front, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, the Jaish al-Mujaheddin, and the Ajnad al-Sham. Those meetings were over the weekend. And at the end, they issued a statement saying that they did not object to – or first of all, that they supported a political solution if it would save lives and help bring about a transition government faster than sole reliance on military means; they supported a political process.
And second, they did not object to the coalition sending a delegation to Geneva to discuss that, as long as it was understood that the purpose of the talks in Geneva was to discuss full implementation of the Geneva accord and establish a transition governing body. They had themselves the text of the UN invite, so they clearly looked at it and copied it into the statement that was issued on – got to get my days right – Friday.
So I think that statement by those armed groups was probably the single-most important thing that then gave confidence to the political opposition people here in Istanbul to go forward. The next day, they voted to go forward and send a team to Geneva.
Can I just add one more thing and then I’ll shut up?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: In addition, among those armed groups that were meeting here in Turkey last Friday and Saturday, some of them have come forward and said they would like to put representatives of their fighting battalion in the delegation going to Geneva. And I believe that is being – it’s actually been worked. They may still be doing it. I know they’re discussing which people they’re going to take. There will be representatives from the armed opposition in the Geneva Syrian-to-Syrian talks if we get over the current hurdle and get to the conference and the Syrian talk.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow, [Senior State Department Official Two]. You mentioned you’re getting messages from elements of the regime anxious to find a political solution.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Are you saying that you’re getting private communications from members of the regime that are – that you think that you might be able to peel away? I mean, could you just flesh that out just a bit?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. I’m not going to say much more than that, but we regularly get messages. Can I just give you some examples of what I’m talking about? I’m not going to name any names, obviously. I don’t want to get anybody killed, and they would be killed. It’s a very brutal regime. But here are just a couple of public things.
Frequently at funerals for Alawi soldiers that are killed – and the regime is heavily relying now on Alawi militias as well as foreign Shia militias from Lebanon and Iraq, and now more and more even from Afghanistan of all places. But for the Syrian Alawi soldiers that are killed, there are not infrequent demonstrations against the regime, so that in some cases the regime has actually delayed transferring bodies home, because they don’t want to trigger political unrest in the regime’s own heartland around Qardaha and Latakia, that area there. And a prominent member of one of the regime’s families – there are three main families in the regime – this one from the Shalish family was murdered by Alawis in Bashar al-Assad’s hometown of Qardaha a couple of weeks ago.
So my point is that the Alawi community has borne the brunt of the fighting. If they see that there is a way out – which this is the political opposition’s time to present that way out; that’s the whole point of their going to Geneva, to promote the alternative, the alternative vision and the alternative possibility – I think they will get a lot of resonance inside Damascus and inside the rest of the country.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: One piece, Elise, just to add before we move on. The Secretary has been in touch with Ban Ki-moon over the course of the weekend, as have other officials.
Let’s move on to the next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Cami McCormick with CBS. Please go ahead.
Ms. McCormick, is your line muted?
QUESTION: Are you there? Can you hear me now?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’re here. Go ahead, Cami.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yep.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you for doing this. I have two questions. One, is Secretary Kerry making any phone calls today, [Senior State Department Official One]?
And also, sort of to follow up on Anne’s question, how surmountable is this – insurmountable? Is this a deal-breaker? If Iran doesn’t change its stance and the invitation isn’t withdrawn, is this a deal-breaker for the U.S.?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: [Senior State Department Official Two], do you want me to start, or do you want to start?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, no, you go ahead. I think you’re closer to the Secretary, so you’ll know more about his schedule than I will.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, Cami, the Secretary was on the phone this weekend. I mentioned that he spoke with Ban Ki-moon, and certainly he is open to making calls today. We’ll see if there’s an update to get around to all of you. I expect he will be, I guess is the short answer.
I think we’ve addressed the other question, and we don’t want to get ahead of where we are at this point. Obviously, those statements that they made don’t meet the bar we feel that they needed to meet. We expect the UN will take a – will reevaluate the invitation. Beyond that, I don’t think we want to speculate on where things will land.
[Senior State Department Official Two], anything else you’d like to add to that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No. I think we’re all waiting to see if Iran does anything.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Let’s move on to the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Jo Biddle with the AFP. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, guys. Can you hear me?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yep, we can.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Just a couple of questions, quick ones. First off, do you know yet who is going to be leading the Syrian delegation, the regime delegation, to the Geneva talks?
And secondly, on the interview that AFP did with Assad on Sunday, he is saying that he anticipates that he may well run again. And I just wondered what your reaction was to that. He said there’s a significant chance he’ll seek a new term, and he’s ruling out this sharing power – any sharing of power with the opposition, saying it would be a joke to put them into any kind of government. Could you just react to that? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, sure. With respect to who’s going to lead the Syrian delegations, I think they need to announce that. I don’t want – it shouldn’t be the Americans that announce that.
What I can say is that the delegation is very likely to have both members of the political opposition inside Syria as well as members of the political opposition outside Syria, members of the armed opposition from inside Syria. I expect it’s going to have at least one, possibly two Kurdish politicians. It will have a couple of women. Beyond that, I don’t know too much yet. They made the decisions on the delegation composition, I understand, only early this morning. So – and they have to communicate that now to the United Nations, and I’m not sure they have or not.
QUESTION: Sorry. I was asking —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And then they announced they were suspending their participation. I’m not sure they went ahead and informed the United Nations of who their delegation would be. They may have put that on hold.
Oh, you had a question then about Bashar al-Assad’s statement.
QUESTION: Yes, that’s right. Actually —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And I do have —
QUESTION: — thank you for that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I do have a comment on that. First, this is a guy who has used Scud rockets. This is a guy who’s used chemical weapons on several occasions, killing literally thousands of people. This is a guy who has surrounded cities and starved them. If you look at the Homs opposition revolution Facebook page yesterday, you will see pictures of bodies of people who have allegedly starved. It looks like people who have come out of concentration camps in World War II, these emaciated bodies. This is a man who is using this kind of force to stay in power.
And we have long ago thought he lacks legitimacy and would not win in a free and fair election. His family controls the intelligence apparatus, which is an incredibly brutal apparatus. They have never had a free and fair election in the country. The idea that international observers could go into Syria in the middle of a war and manage an election process which the family controls the election machinery for is ludicrous. And I really mean that – ludicrous.
In addition, the population is approximately one-third either refugees or internally displaced. And how you would arrange for voter registration, how you would arrange for candidate registration is entirely unclear during a war.
So you have a variety of both technical issues and then just – how do I put it? – credibility issues. And so I don’t think – he may present himself as a candidate, but I cannot imagine that it would be in a free and fair election, and it certainly would not stop the fighting. So to us, his joining an election process, again, in the summer, is simply not a way to end the fighting in Syria.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Let’s move on to the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question today comes from the line of Margaret Brennan representing CBS News. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. A question for Administration Official Number One here. Just to clarify, when you’re talking about some of the signs that you’ve seen from within the regime, has any of that led you to believe that when the regime actually shows up in Switzerland that they would be in a position to negotiate in good faith?
And secondly, on the opposition which you’ve been working with very closely, did you have assurances that they are now in a place where they could show up in Switzerland with a list of folks who could participate in any potential transitional government, any way to talk about anything beyond humanitarian support at this point?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think we view the opening of Syrian-to-Syrian discussions about the full implementation of the Geneva I communique, both the different elements to deescalate on the ground and improve the immediate living conditions for Syrians, whether it be humanitarian aid or the release of prisoners or allowing journalists and others to move around freely or establishing the transition government, we think that it will give heart to those inside Syria who want to find a way out of this.
I don’t think anybody, whether in the political opposition or the armed opposition, or frankly within large segments of the regime, (a), are happy with the situation – I think even people in the regime acknowledge that it’s tragic; maybe not Bashar in his interview that was very hardline, but we’ve gotten plenty of messages from other people who say that this is sad and tragic.
But more importantly, it is an occasion for the opposition to present a vision and to present a plan for how to get out of it. And I think there will be a huge amount of media attention given to them and just by necessity because there are going to be so many media there. And it will be an unprecedented opportunity for them to actually show Syrians inside Syria and even inside the regime that the problem is not the state, the problem is not Syrians who have been backing Assad; the problem is the family and the immediate circle around Assad, and that they – there is a way to isolate those people and move forward as a country.
So – but I don’t want to pretend that that’s easy, and I don’t want to pretend that it’s simple; it’s not. It’s going to be a long, hard process – a grinding process, I would say. And we have warned the opposition people going into Geneva in this delegation if they go – which is a big if – if they go that this is not going to be done quickly. It’s going to be a long process.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Let’s —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Did you have a question about the armed groups?
QUESTION: Well, I asked if they – if the opposition actually had a list of candidates for a transitional government. But I also asked —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I would prefer – I would – let me answer it this way, but I think you ought to ask them. If you go to Geneva, ask them yourself. It shouldn’t be me talking about what their plan is.
But what I can tell you is this: They have had a team working on different proposals. They have had a series of international legal firms working with them, for example, that they’ve hired. And they have developed some fairly detailed proposals. And so they will be ready, I think, if they go to Geneva, to put those on the table. And I know that Walid Muallim says they’re not going to discuss – the Syrian regime’s delegation to – they’re not going to discuss transition government arrangements. But the letter, the invite from the secretary general of the United Nations is very clear. So – but Brahimi, who will be the mediator in those Syrian-to-Syrian talks, to find a way a way to manage that agenda issue.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We have time for just two quick more questions. I know —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. I was going to say my team is forming up here, [Senior State Department Official One], so I’ve got to cut out.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’m sure they’re staring you down. So let’s do two more questions, and then we’ll conclude the call.
OPERATOR: All right. Our next —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: (Inaudible.)
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from the line of Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thank you for this. [Senior State Department Official Two] and [Senior State Department Official One], I just want to be clear: Are you expecting the UN to withdraw that invitation, or is that unclear now? That’s my first question.
The second one is: Given what’s happening now, I mean, can you still expect that conference to go ahead?
And then number three, have you made any advances on a humanitarian corridor? Do you think that the confidence-building steps that the Secretary was asking for from the government and opposition for the conference have been implemented? Have there been any signs of those confidence-building measures?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Can I – I want to start on the humanitarian confidence-building measures, and then we can talk about the other stuff. I don’t – so on that, last Monday, Secretary Kerry had a press conference with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the UN Special Joint Representative Lakhdar Brahimi. At that press conference, Foreign Minister Lavrov announced the Syrian regime was going to make some gestures, and he mentioned allowing food shipments into two places, al-Ghezlaniya and Jdaidet al-Shibani. Those, according to the Russians, were in this area that was blocked called the Eastern Ghouta.
To be honest, we had not heard of them, and so we checked on them. It turns out that they were – neither one of them was blockaded. Neither one of them was besieged. The government controlled both, and they were simply poor areas with legitimately needy people, but that in no way were they blocked prior to this from getting food aid. The government simply wanted the UN to send them some. But they were not in any way blockaded. People in those towns, unlike other places that are under blockage, people in those locations were able to come out and get food if they had the money or the resources to do it.
The only significant gesture that the regime has made in weeks is allowing one convoy to go into the Yarmouk camp three days ago. That is the only significant gesture they have made.
With respect to ceasefires, the government has actually escalated its bombing. They bombed residential areas in Aleppo again yesterday and killed several dozen people. It’s all over the Arabic news feeds – again, the same kind of incredibly grim film footage that we’ve seen so often. So no progress on that. The regime has said that it is prepared to do prisoner exchanges. The opposition has said it is prepared to do prisoner exchanges. And it is something we’re looking at to see if that can be arranged. But so far we do not have any progress to report.
QUESTION: And then on the other one, please?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t – as I recall you were just saying, do we know if the conference is going to be held. And I would say the situation is fluid and we’re waiting to see. I don’t – I mean, I’m just – I don’t know where it’s going to go.
QUESTION: And have you received any indication that Ban Ki-moon is going to withdraw that invitation?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m in Istanbul so I’m not the right – I’m not up to date on what Ban Ki-moon is doing. So I don’t know, [Senior State Department Official One], if you want to –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, I don’t have any updates or predictions for you. Obviously, I would point you to the UN for that. But just to reiterate, we’ve made the same points privately that we’ve made publicly, which is that since the – Iran has not publicly and fully endorsed the Geneva communique, that we expect the invitation will be rescinded. But I would point you to the UN otherwise.
Let’s go to the last question here so [Senior State Department Official Two] can get going on the ground.
OPERATOR: Our final question today will come from the line of Margaret Warner, representing – or please excuse me, Terry Atlas with Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: All right. Thanks. This will be a quick question. Just can you run through just operationally what will happen if the conference goes ahead? What will the Secretary be doing aside from speaking at the conference?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: [Senior State Department Official One], I’m going to leave that with you, because again, I think you’re closer to the Secretary’s schedule than I am.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. So, Terry, the Secretary will be there on Wednesday. As you know, after Wednesday – Wednesday is the day the foreign ministers will be there, so he will be, of course, representing the United States there. The UN has put out kind of a tick-through of what the day will entail, so I would point you to them on that. But he will be there all day Wednesday, and then he plans to move to Davos on Thursday morning.
QUESTION: What – does he have any bilaterals? Will he have side meetings with the opposition or with other – the Saudis or with others?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We are still – that’s a great question. We are still working through that, so we will venture to get you guys an update on bilateral meetings by the end of the today, if not by the time we get on the plane very early tomorrow morning. We’re still working through the schedule.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official One], can I ask you one other question?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Sure.
QUESTION: Some of the Israeli press are reporting that Livni is going to meet with him here in D.C. tomorrow. That’s not on his public schedule. Is that happening?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That’s correct. We’re putting out an updated public schedule shortly.
QUESTION: Will there be any kind of opening – any comments or more on that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, it’s a closed press meeting.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you, everybody, for joining. We’ll be here, of course, as events unfold today. Thank you, [Senior State Department Official Two], very much for taking the time, and of course, we’ll otherwise see you all tomorrow morning bright and early on the plane.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. Thanks, [Senior State Department Official One], thanks, everybody. Bye.