Secretary Clinton Press Availability on the Meeting of the Friends othe Syrian People

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Tunis, Tunisia
February 24, 2012

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, good evening, everyone. Good evening. It’s been a very, very, long and productive day. And I want to commend, once again, the Government of Tunisia, in particular the foreign minister, for executing this conference on such short notice, bringing together more than 70 countries, being able to reach consensus on an important chairman statement. I am very grateful to him and to his government.

I think today the Friends of the Syrian People sent a strong and unified message that the Assad regime’s escalating violence is an affront to the international community, a threat to regional security, and a grave violation of universal human rights. And the work that has been done by the Arab League to bring us to this point, where we put together a strong international consensus has been extremely important. The violence must end and a democratic transition begin. I applaud the selection of Kofi Annan as a special envoy for both the United Nations and the Arab League. He will seek to advance the positions reflected in the Arab League transition plan and the UN General Assembly’s resolution.

Let’s remind ourselves what was accomplished today. The international community agreed to take a number of concrete steps that will help begin providing humanitarian relief to the Syrian people, increase the pressure on Assad and those around him, and prepare for the democratic transition.

First, with respect to the humanitarian relief, we know that conditions are dire and getting worse, and that emergency assistance is desperately needed. But I want to underscore that the people who bear responsibility for this humanitarian catastrophe are Assad and his security forces. The regime is doing everything it can to prevent aid from reaching those who are suffering the most. Today, I announced that the United States is providing $10 million to quickly scale up humanitarian efforts, including support for the thousands of refugees who are being displaced from their homes. These funds will support makeshift medical facilities, help train more emergency medical staff, provide clean water, food, blankets, heaters, and hygiene kits to Syrian civilians.

This is not the end. The United States will provide more humanitarian support in the coming days. We have already been working with trusted humanitarian organizations who have prepositioned supplies at hubs in the region, and they are already on the ground poised to distribute this aid if safe access can be arranged. If the Assad regime refuses to allow this lifesaving aid to reach people in need, it will have even more blood on its hands, and so too will those nations that continue to protect and arm the regime. And we call on those states that are supplying weapons to kill civilians to halt immediately.

Second, we resolve today to ratchet up the pressure on the regime and increase its isolation. Now you know that until now, the Assad regime has ignored every warning, squandered every opportunity, and broken every agreement. But today, we heard specific additional commitments to more sanctions, new measures, including travel bans on senior officials in the regime, freezing their assets, boycotting Syrian oil, suspending new investments, and beginning the closure of embassies and consulates. In short, there must be accountability for the regime and a heavy cost for ignoring the will of the world and violating the human rights of its own people.

Third, we heard directly from members of the Syrian opposition in person and on the video screen. We do view the Syrian National Council as a leading legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change, and as an effective representative for the Syrian people with governments and international organizations. It’s very important that in the coming days, the full range of opposition groups and individuals inside Syria, including representatives of all ethnic and religious minorities, come together and make their voices heard outside of Syria and inside around a shared vision for the future.

Only a genuine democratic transition will solve this crisis. As the Arab League has said, the goal should be the formation of a national unity government followed by transparent and free elections under Arab and international supervision, and Assad’s departure must be part of this. Looking ahead, there should be no doubt the United States will support a managed transition that leads to a new Syria so that just like in Tunisia today, the rights of every citizen are respected and protected.

As I told the assembled nations here today, the people of Syria are looking to us in their hour of need, and we cannot let them down. But of course, it is a difficult dilemma to face a government that is intent upon killing in the most brutal, terrible fashion, as many of their citizens as possible. Now, the world has seen terrible conflicts before, and one cannot become discouraged or impatient in trying to resolve what are often intractable, violent confrontations.

In fact, today, we had very good news from an old conflict that has been resolving itself over time – that between Kosovo and Serbia. I well remember the ethnic cleansing, the violence, the bombings, the terrible events of that time. And I thank the European Union for bringing those two countries closer together so that Kosovo can be an equal partner in regional multilateral settings, moving toward integration in Europe, that Serbia can see a chance for it, too, to be part of the European Union. Serbia’s progress toward European integration is good for Serbia, good for Kosovo, and good for the future of the entire region.

And it reminds us that we must stay on the path of peace. We must stand against those leaders, whoever they are and wherever they are, who use violence instead of negotiation. And I am convinced that Assad’s days are numbered. I just regret deeply that there will be more killing before he finally goes. But I hope that we will see soon the Syrian people having the opportunity that the Tunisian people now enjoy.

And thanks again to our Tunisian friends who are making this possible, and I would be happy to take some questions.

MS. NULAND: We’ll take three tonight. The first one is CNN. Elise Labott, please.

QUESTION: Madam Secretary, thank you very much. Several countries at this conference, particularly the Saudi foreign minister, said well, good commitment doesn’t go nearly far enough and they feel that it’s time to arm the opposition to help them defend themselves. And you heard from Burhan Ghalioun today asking for the means for the Syrians to defend themselves. Why is this group not advocating – I understand that you don’t want a military intervention, but why not advocate giving this group the means to defend themselves?

And last week, top military intelligence officials in the U.S. spoke a lot about their concerns about the opposition, saying it fractured, even some groups possibly infiltrated by extremists. So does that not give the U.S. concern when considering backing this group?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first, Elise, let me say that I think it was quite remarkable, especially on such short notice – and thanks to Tunisian leadership and Arab League leadership – that all of us gathered here today reached consensus. Now, that doesn’t mean that every one of us don’t have other ideas and other recommendations, because we are all quite diverse from all over the world. But I want to stay focused on what we agreed on. We agreed on increasing the pressure on Assad, getting humanitarian aid in as quickly as possible, and preparing for a democratic transition. That was my message and that was the message of the chairman’s statement that reflected the consensus reached here.

We want a political solution. We know that’s what’s best for the Syrian people, their future of the region, and indeed for international peace and security. I don’t think anyone wants to see a bloody, protracted civil war. We would like to see the kind of transition to democracy and peace that happened here in Tunisia.

Our goal is to bring as much pressure to bear as we can, not only on Assad but on those around him. I said in my statement – I spoke directly to those who are supporting Assad, including members of his security forces – they’re continuing to kill their brothers and sisters is a stain on their honor. Their refusal to continue this slaughter will make them heroes in the eyes of not only Syrians but people of conscience everywhere. They can help the guns fall silent.

We also know from many sources there are people around Assad now who are beginning to hedge their bets. They didn’t sign up to slaughter people and they are looking for ways out. We saw this happen in other settings in the last years. I think it is going to begin happening in Syria.

Assad can still make the choice to end the violence, save lives, and spare his country from descending further into ruin. But if he continues to reject that choice, we and the Syrian people will keep pressure on him until his deadly regime cracks and collapses – because it will. I am absolutely confident of that.

So let’s stay focused on what we accomplish today. I’ve been to a lot of meetings over many, many years – rarely one that was put together with such intense effort on such a short timetable that produced so much consensus. So let’s stay on the path we have begun on. We will obviously be taking into account at every turn everything else that we are aware of, but let’s work toward the democratic, unified, peaceful future that Syria deserves.

MS. NULAND: Next one, Al Jazeera Arabic, please.

QUESTION: (In Arabic.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: I’m going to answer the same way that I have answered. I think we ought to take this from where we end it today. This was a productive, constructive consensus. I think that we ought to continue on the path we’re on. We will constantly be evaluating what is happening inside Syria. And let us remember that Syrians themselves, including those at the highest reaches of the Assad government, are seeing the same images that we’re seeing.

And I believe that we will begin to hear more about internal conflict within the regime, because this is absolutely unforgiveable behavior and I do not believe that every Syrian serving the Assad regime agrees with this policy. So I would caution us to let us not move beyond where we are today until we’ve had a chance to fully implement what we agreed to.

MS. NULAND: Last one this evening, from Assabah here in Tunisia.

QUESTION: After this international conference, do you expect that you will ask the UN and mainly Security Council to discuss again, negotiate and to ask mainly Russia and China to (inaudible) make pressure for Syrian regime? And for the public (inaudible) I mean, we are divided and we have hundreds of people involved (inaudible). A lot of people are scared that many (inaudible) of the Syrian regime, one million Palestinians, and all Palestinian (inaudible).

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I don’t agree with the second question. I don’t see any connection there, so I don’t agree with that. I think that is a separate, very important issue that we have to continue to deal with. But I think there will be refugees. We are seeing refugees in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Syria – out of Syria into Turkey, I mean. So there will be refugees, but I think that that’s a problem that we have to take into account as we deal with Syria.

With respect to your first question though, it’s a very good question. Look, I think every one of us would like to see Security Council action. The United States worked very hard to obtain a resolution from the Security Council that was vetoed by Russia and China, although it received support from every other member of the Security Council from Latin America to Africa to Europe to Asia. The entire world, other than Russia and China, were willing to recognize that we must take international action against the Syrian regime.

I would be willing to go back to the Security Council again and again and again, but we need to change the attitude of the Russian and Chinese governments. They must understand they are setting themselves against the aspirations not only of the Syrian people but of the entire Arab Spring, the Arab Awakening. They are basically saying to Tunisians, to Libyans, to others throughout the region, well, we don’t agree that you have a right to have elections, to choose your leaders. I think that is absolutely contrary to history. And it is not a position that is sustainable. So the sooner the Russians and the Chinese move toward supporting action in the Security Council, the sooner we can get a resolution that would permit us to take the kind of steps that we all know need to be taken.

So thank you for asking that, because it’s quite distressing to see two permanent members of the Security Council using their veto when people are being murdered – women, children, brave young men – houses are being destroyed. It is just despicable. And I ask, whose side are they on? They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people, and they need to ask themselves some very hard questions about what that means for them as well as the rest of us.

Thank you.

PRN: 2012/T60-07

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