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Preview of Secretary Kerry's Trip to Riyadh

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
January 22, 2016

MODERATOR: So thanks, everyone, for joining us. I just want to make sure that we're clear on this. We have our press who are actually in the vans. As a matter sort of logistics, we understand you guys may be going through some tunnels, so if you drop we will wait until you come back on the line.

As a reminder, this is a background call. For your planning only but not for reporting we have [Senior State Department Official] joining us. Moving forward, he will be known as [Senior State Department Official]. Our senior State Department official will offer some opening remarks, and then we'll go ahead and we'll take a few questions.

So first I'll turn it over to our senior State Department official. Sir.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hi, everybody, and thanks for joining us. I just again, as we said, just for your own background and preparations for the trip, the Secretary will be traveling to Riyadh (inaudible). This is one of a series of meetings, as you know. I mean, the last time that they met as a group was on the margins of the UNGA in September, but we've had a number of interactions with them, mostly to talk about Iran and the way forward there, but also, of course, to cover other regional issues, including Yemen and Syria and others.



MODERATOR: Okay, you're fading out


MODERATOR: I can hear you now, but I think we lost the last portion of what you said. You ended with Yemen.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, I said that in addition to conversations about Iran, they will want to cover Yemen, Syria, Libya, and other regional issues of mutual concern.

In addition to the meeting with the GCC Foreign Ministers, the Secretary will have a number of bilateral engagements with the Saudis including a session with King Salman and also with the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. And there, again, to talk about both the regional issues as well as bilateral issues to follow up, if you'll recall, on some of the comments that Mohammad bin Salman made when he was here with his father last fall concerning economic cooperation and a way forward in strengthening U.S.-Saudi relations. So this will be a good opportunity to recheck where we are in those activities and initiatives and to plan the way forward.

So it's a quick stop – a number of important meetings while he's there. Of course, the Secretary is also likely to meet with Riad Hijab from the Syrian HNC while he's there to check the tires on the way forward on the planned Saudi negotiations under the UN Staffan de Mistura that hopefully will kick off next week. So let me stop there.

MODERATOR: That's great. Thank you very much, sir.

QUESTION: I have a question. It's Elise Labott. Can you hear me?

MODERATOR: Go ahead, Elise.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks for doing this [Senior State Department Official]. But I mean, can we talk about the rules of attribution? I mean generally, what this is a call about background to get us ready to be able to write the stories (inaudible) --

MODERATOR: Yes, this is on --

QUESTION: -- on background from a Senior State Department Official; is that right?

MODERATOR: That is correct, Elise.

QUESTION: Okay. All right, because you said it was just for planning, so --

MODERATOR: No, I'm sorry, for planning I gave you the name, but the call is for background, a Senior State Department Official.

QUESTION: All right, thank you. I mean, could you frame a little bit more about what he's going to be talking about with the – with particularly the Saudis but also with both leaders about the need to kind of put this feud with Iran behind them and try and work more cooperatively, particularly on Syria, but some of the other regional issues? And I mean, that would certainly play into his meeting with the head of the Syrian opposition group, Hijab.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right, absolutely. And you're exactly right, Elise. (Inaudible).

MODERATOR: Sir, can you talk more into the phone?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Can you hear me better now?

MODERATOR: Just a little bit, yes.


MODERATOR: Much better.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. So let me just say that Elise is absolutely correct that one of the issues that he's going to want to discuss both with the Iranian foreign – the GCC foreign ministers and with the Saudis is the importance – we understand the Saudi anger over the attack on their facilities in Iran. We – we're fully with them on all of these issues, but we also understand that lessening tensions is an important objective not only for the United States but for the region. It is important. And one of the things that we think is relatively positive about this whole episode is that both the Saudis and the Iranians have made it clear that despite their own challenges in their bilateral relationship, neither one wants to see this spill over into affecting issues like the Syrian negotiations. And as far as we can see so far, that has been the case. We haven't really seen either the Saudis or the Iranians trying to obstruct or delay or otherwise undercut those negotiations.

We also, of course, think that it's important that the Saudis and the Iranians be able to have some kind of modus vivendi, if you will, that would allow us to move out on the Yemen situation and try to end the conflict there and get back to political negotiations. There's also the issue of Lebanon and the stalemate over the presidency. And there, again, both Saudi Arabia and Iran play an important role in influencing domestic issues in Lebanon.

So in all of those areas, very important that the two establish some kind of a capacity to allow things to proceed, and the Secretary will definitely be talking about that.

MODERATOR: That sounds great. Thank you, sir.

Can we go to our next question? Matt, are you on the line?

QUESTION: This is Pam.

MODERATOR: Hi. Go ahead, Pam.

QUESTION: You said lessening tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran is one of your goals. How far will the Secretary go down that road? Can you be a little bit more specific in terms of what's going to be put forth? And is the U.S. looking at some type of diplomatic effort to encourage Saudi Arabia to re-establish its ties with Iran?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think that at this particular juncture, I don't think that there's any particular plan for us to engage on that particular issue. And of course, we're not necessarily the best positioned to do that since we don't have a diplomatic relationship with Iran ourselves.

I think that certainly in his engagements with Adel Jubeir and with Mohammad Javad Zarif, he has certainly emphasized the importance that we see in having the two sides reconcile and figure out how to move forward. There have been a number of others – as you know, Nawaz Sharif from Pakistan has engaged; there have been other engagements. I think the Chinese have been engaged with trying to reduce tensions. So there are a number of parties that are working the two sides, and I think that everybody is delivering the same message to both the Saudis and the Iranians, and that is the importance of putting this episode behind us and moving on.

And having said that, I would also say that we certainly noted and took the significance of the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei himself expressed regret over the attack on Saudi diplomatic facilities. That was, I think from our perspective, extremely noteworthy. And hopefully, maybe that will open up the possibility that the situation will resolve and that the Saudis will find their way forward in reopening their embassy in Tehran.

MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Can we move to our next question?

QUESTION: Hi, it's Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. Thanks for doing this. So General Dunford the other day mentioned or said – told reporters that Assad, kind of his position has been strengthened. And I was wondering if you could talk just a little bit about how the U.S. is viewing this in relation to the peace talks. Are you concerned that Assad won't be as willing to negotiate? And are you hearing anything from the Saudis about the Russian campaign and how it's affecting Assad?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think certainly we have seen the reinvigorated Syrian campaign with, of course, direct intervention and support from the Russians here. And we do think that Assad's position is stronger today than it was prior to last September, when the Russians engaged. Having said that, I don't think that our fundamental view has changed that there is not a military solution, and despite Russian support for Assad and his forces, we still don't believe that there is any prospect that he is going to be able to defeat the opposition, or that his reinvigorated campaign is going to fail to halt the extremist groups that are operating there. And we still have, of course, as you know, a deep concern about the fact that the campaign has been directed more heavily towards the moderate opposition than it has been against ISIL or Nusrah.

So we still have the concerns; we still don't believe that, despite all of the military efforts that they're making, they have effectively changed the balance so that there is no longer the requirement for a political approach. We believe that the political solution, the political track is the only way forward, and we will continue to emphasize that point with both the Russians and the other members of the ISSG.

MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Next question?

STAFF: Anything --

STAFF: Repeat it.

QUESTION: Hi, sorry. Could you speak a little bit about what you're hearing from the Saudis about the Russian military campaign and how it's boosting Assad?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think nothing in particular other than the generalized concern that reflects and mirrors our own concern about what the Russians are up to. So I think that all of us who are looking at it are worried about what the intent is and what the consequences will be of this continued Syrian-Russian effort on the ground. But I don't think that the Saudis go beyond that in terms of what they're saying to us.

QUESTION: Matt Lee. Have you seen this FT story today about Putin sending his general to Damascus in December and telling Assad he should step down and Assad refusing? If you have, what do you think of it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Easy answer: I haven't seen the story.

MODERATOR: Next question.

QUESTION: Hi. This is Carol Morello from the Washington Post. Since the Secretary's just coming from Davos, where he's talked once again about the need to fight back against violent extremists, do you think he has any – are there any indications he's going to speak with the Saudis about its support for madrasas and clerics who are themselves extremist in other countries?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, it's a complicated issue. No, the simple answer is I don't think that that particular point is on the Secretary's agenda. I do think it is an issue that we have discussed broadly with the Saudis over the years, and that is the importance of ensuring that we don't feed into the rise of violent extremism. I think that overall, the Saudi record in the fight against extremism has improved markedly over the years, and that they're playing an important part in the overall global coalition against – not only against ISIL, but also against extremist violence everywhere. And I would point to the efforts that they're undertaking right now in trying to organize a coalition of Islamic states that would take on the extremist challenge broadly – not only in the Iraq and Syria theater, but globally to try to push back against this extremist message.

So the Saudis are good partners. They have done a number of things that we think contribute directly to our efforts to defeat these extremist groups. And we'll continue to talk to them and engage with them on how all of us can improve our efforts.

MODERATOR: Next question. Anything else?

STAFF: No more questions from me from my end.


STAFF: No more --

MODERATOR: That's great. I'd like to thank our senior State Department official. Again, this is on background to a senior State Department official. Safe travels for our crews in Europe and thank you very much for joining the call.

STAFF: Thanks.

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