Background Briefing Previewing the Ad Hoc Ministerial Meeting on Syria
Senior State Department Official
Waldorf Astoria Hotel
New York City
September 27, 2012
MODERATOR: All right, everybody. Here this afternoon to preview tomorrow’s Ad Hoc Meeting on Syria, we have [Senior State Department Official]. [Senior State Department Official], take it away.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Maybe I’ll just talk for a couple minutes and then take some questions. The Friends of Syria is a large group of countries – about 90 –Friends of the Syrian people. They last met in Paris at the beginning of July – July 6th. The group that is meeting tomorrow is a much smaller group of about two dozen nations that are most active working with humanitarian assistance issues, most active working with Syrian political opposition and transition issues. And so the meeting tomorrow is really a chance for us to work on coordination amongst our nations. The Secretary will host this. It’s not the first such meeting. There was a meeting of this much smaller group last in Istanbul in June.
So we will focus really on three areas. The first will be support, which our countries give to the Syrian political opposition. As you know, we, for example, have been working with the Syrian political opposition on both things like making sure that they are able to organize themselves and communicate with the outside world despite attempts by the regime and the Iranians to shut off that communication. And we’re also working with them on things like respect for human rights, codes of conduct, things like that. Other countries are working in that area as well, and so we want to make sure that the work that we’re all doing is going in the same direction.
Second, humanitarian assistance, size of the refugee populations in the neighboring countries is rising dramatically. At the same time, the number of internally displaced people inside Syria is rising dramatically. There are estimates now that the number of internally displaced people surpasses one million, could be as high as one and a half. The numbers of Syrians outside the country as refugees is now somewhere in the neighborhood of 350,000. That number was only 50 to 60,000 as recently as 6 months ago.
So we think it is important to work with the United Nations, the Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, for countries to continue to provide and to find ways to increase assistance – humanitarian assistance to those refugee populations both inside and outside of Syria. And we are looking for ways to do that as well.
And finally, we’ll talk about how our governments together can increase pressure on the regime itself. We are looking always for additional unilateral measures we can take, and then as well working with partners in areas such as financial sanctions and accountability. So that’s really what we’ll be discussing tomorrow with the assembled foreign ministers.
None of this, obviously, is happening as quickly as we would like in terms of the regime leaving – of Bashar al-Assad and his clique stepping aside and allowing a transition to go forward. We would like it to go much faster. That said, the regime is steadily losing ground. If you look at the changes on the ground over the last months, the regime is definitely slipping militarily. In the end, the regime will go and – but it is also important that the Syrian opposition then be ready to lead a transition forward, and that’s why the support for that opposition is so important.
Finally, I just would make one note that the Iranian role continues to be incredibly pernicious, and I was very struck, myself, at the acknowledgement by the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps about 10 days ago that they do have boots on the ground in Syria. And I loved how the foreign ministry the next day said, “What the Revolutionary Guard Corps commander meant to say was.” But I think we indeed do know they have boots on the ground – a little bit of transparency from Tehran. So why don’t I stop there?
MODERATOR: Why don’t we – [Senior State Department Official], if you don’t mind, we will have representatives of some of the opposition groups at this meeting. They do not want to be named for security reasons, but I think [Senior State Department Official] can give you a little bit of a sense of the groups that we expect to attend, is that okay?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. One of the things that’s happening on the ground in Syria is that revolutionary councils in the different cities – Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, Deir al-Zour, et cetera – are becoming more organized at the provincial level. There are also now local councils being set up to run sort of municipal-level affairs in some of the liberated areas, particularly in places like Idlib up in northwest Syria, where the Syrian army has not been present for months. It’s also happening out east in places like Deir al-Zour.
So we at this ad hoc meeting have asked some of these people to come and talk. The reason we’re not announcing their names or anything publicly is because several of them are going to go back in to Syria. It’s important to recognize the courage of these people, but also we need to hear from them firsthand about the types of support that they want as they look at things such as how to organize themselves, how to provide services to their people in these liberated areas. So we want to hear from them directly.
The Syrian National Council will also be present. The head of the Syrian National Council, Abdulbaset Sida, is here, as well as several of the other prominent members of that council. So we will have both the Syrian National Council, which is primarily outside the country, and then several groups from – representatives of several different groups from inside the country.
Okay. I mentioned that we want them to talk about support. We are in regular contact with these groups inside. And so we have been looking for ways to increase not only humanitarian assistance – not only humanitarian assistance in response to the growing numbers of refugees, but also how to increase assistance to the Syrian opposition. And I think the Secretary tomorrow will be talking about how can we increase our support to the political opposition in Syria so that it will be able to play its vital role in bringing this crisis eventually to an end.
MODERATOR: Good. Let’s go to questions.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], when you talk about additional assistance, what if they come and say as they have publicly what we really need is better weapons? I take it that’s still not an issue that’s on the table for the U.S. Government. What kind of other assistance could you do beyond what the U.S. already has --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. In our conversations with them, some – not all – do talk about more weaponry. But these people are primarily political opposition. And so they are interested in everything from maintaining contact amongst themselves -- there is no cell phone service, for example, in the liberated areas. So just even communicating amongst themselves is very difficult. So – not to mention the outside world.
So we have this office in Istanbul. I can tell you, for example, we just had a group from northern Syria, about 40 organizers and activists and people from local councils in Istanbul. We gave them some equipment, showed them how to use it. They just went back. We have a group from eastern Syria arriving in Istanbul – what's today, Thursday? They are coming in Saturday. So from the eastern part of the country, the far-eastern part.
We have now provided somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200 pieces of equipment. It’s mostly off-the-shelf stuff, but sophisticated off-the-shelf stuff. I mean not quite Radio Shack, but close to it.
QUESTION: That's a pretty sophisticated Radio Shack, though. (Laughter.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I usually just buy fairly simple stuff for my iPod. But anyway, they need that kind of stuff.
Let me give you some examples of, like, what I'm talking about. In places like Homs, places like Aleppo, places like Deir al-Zour, the east, the regime has specifically targeted communications. They have tried jamming, they, a lot of times -- you know Marie Colvin, who was killed? This just – they were, again, going after people who were sending an outside message. So we have worked very hard to make sure that in these places where the regime is targeting civilians, where the killing is atrocious, that the story can be heard. No more Hama 1982.
So, that kind of stuff they appreciate and they like very much. In addition, we have now started working more directly with groups that are trying to provide services. The state, in some of the liberated areas, the Syrian Government, has stopped providing repairs to infrastructure. Literally, the Ministry of Agriculture is no longer maintaining canals. The Ministry of Energy is no longer maintaining fuel lines. And so people are having to make repairs to these things. So we are helping them organize it. I want to be clear; we are not sending in teams to repair these things, we are not. They have the people to do it, but they need help themselves, organizing it. So we are providing them, if you will, some ideas on management techniques and organizing themselves. And this, I think, they find very useful.
Steve, what I would say is it is so useful that we have a waiting list to do this. I mean people are waiting to come and talk to our people and get stuff.
QUESTION: Do you see that --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So – but that isn't weaponry. That is stuff to political people and local organizers.
QUESTION: Do you – Elise Labott, hi – Do you see this as, like, the future of assistance kind of going into these liberated areas? I know the French have talked about it a lot. And these areas like – that either, like, the kind of rebels have taken over the regime abandoned --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is this a --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don't think it's -- that's not the only thing we're doing.
QUESTION: It’s not exclusive but it --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But it is important, it's an important part of what we are doing. It's not the only thing we're doing. It's not the only thing we're doing.
We had -- just to give you a different kind of example, we had women activists from around Syria come up to Turkey, and we talked to them about how women can better network amongst themselves. So it's not only about that. But this is going to be one essential part of it, because this is important for two reasons. One, as the Syrian state is losing the battle on the ground, something has got to fill the vacuum. Otherwise, extremists will fill that vacuum, and we don't want that. So it is important. And what the French are doing is important, and other countries are playing in this, too, which is why it's on the table tomorrow to coordinate. But it's not the only thing.
QUESTION: Just real quick on Lebanon. It seems as if more and more, like, the more trouble that they're having inside the country, they're kind of going into Lebanon and trying to spark up instability there.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Syrian interference --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- in Lebanon is hardly new.
QUESTION: I mean, I know there is a long history, but --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean it's a long history --
QUESTION: I mean, how concerned are you that the more this spirals out of control, that Lebanon is going to become the most immediate outside casualty?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The good news is that the Lebanese armed forces have done a pretty good job to date, maintaining law and order and stability in the country. And, of course, our assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces is long-standing. But it is also important for the Syrian regime to understand that not only the United States, but countries in the region, Arab countries, Turkey, European countries, the international community writ large, reject Syrian attempts to destabilize Lebanon. Lebanon's sovereignty and Lebanon's stability are important to everyone in the international community. And it is important, therefore, for the Syrian regime not to think that it can escape its internal crisis by trying to export a crisis to some other country.
QUESTION: First thing, I'm wondering if you could give us the status right now of the Administration and perhaps just this group, of the extent of political cohesion on the topic of the Syrian regime. I know several months ago there was a lot of discussion about signals being sent and potential cracks opening up and that seems to have – not have continued. Where are they now?
And the second is, I understand that Iraq is going to be taking part in these meetings for the first time.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.
QUESTION: Is this in some way – are they – I wouldn't want to call them proxies for Iran, but are they – do you see that bringing them to the table is somehow going to broaden the discussion in a useful way that may also include some of the Iranian elements of the situation?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me first talk about the cohesion of the system at the top. There are cracks in the regime. And some important people have defected, notably the Prime Minister, former Prime Minister Hijab, who is now in Jordan. A deputy oil minister, who was very involved in the day-to-day running of the ministry defected. Several governors have defected, including the one that was in Hama and who is trying to restrain orders from Damascus to fire on peaceful demonstrators, and the government fired him and he left the country. And Manaf Tlas, a general that was very close to the regime. And a name that probably you haven't heard of but is very important, a guy named Muflih, Lieutenant General Muflih, who is probably the most important defector, and he was a very senior member of the Syrian intelligence operation.
QUESTION: Can you spell him?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Muflih is M-u-f-l-i-h. He's a general in Syrian intelligence. He defected in August.
So there are cracks, but the decision-making authority is still able to make decisions. The cohesion is not so challenged that they can’t make decisions. And even the bomb that killed the four senior officials, they quickly replaced those people and maintained operations.
I would just say one other thing, but I do think people in the regime are nervous and I don’t think it’s an accident that the sister of Bashar al-Assad has moved to Dubai with her family. And she is by no means the only senior Syrian official whose family has left the country. There are plenty of others. I mean, a lot of the top people in the regime are sending their family out.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, do you want me to talk about Iraq?
QUESTION: If you would, please.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure.
MODERATOR: Sorry. Yeah.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, first on Iran, we do not view Iraq as a proxy for Iran. We have our own relationship with Iraq and longstanding and it’s an important strategic relationship. However, the Iraqis are a country that borders Syria. There are now somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 Syrian refugees who have gone to Iraq, so that now the humanitarian crisis that I described is now touching Iraq in a real way. We welcome a decision by the Iraqi authorities to start providing assistance. They had closed the border at Al-Qaim. It’s on the other side from the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, where there’s been a lot of fighting and where the opposition finally took control of the border. They had closed that border crossing. They reopened it to most categories of Syrian refugees, and we think that’s a positive step. They are still restricting some entry, which we would like them to allow all refugees to come in. But they have an interest in this now in a more direct way.
And in addition, you know our concerns about the Iranian overflights. And we have seen the announcement – the announcement that they will randomly compel Iranian aircraft to come down and be searched. When the Turks did that some months ago, they found all kinds of weaponry, including mortars and assault rifles on a so-called civilian airplane. So we think that’s a good step if the Iraqis actually implement it.
Iraq has an interest in a rapid, peaceful political transition in Syria, as do the other countries meeting tomorrow. And so it’s natural to bring them into the discussions and to try to get them to work with the rest of us more to ensure that that peaceful political transition goes forward sooner not later.
MODERATOR: Would you say, [Senior State Department Official], it’s also fair to say that having the Iraqis meet some of these opposition figures is useful as well so they can hear directly what the plans for the future might be, that kind of thing?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I’m on background, right?
MODERATOR: You are.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ve been encouraging the opposition to go talk to the Iraqis for a long time, so they have made several trips to Baghdad already. They already know them. I think what’s going to be more useful in a sense is to have the Iraqis engage with other countries in the region – the Jordanians and the Turks, for example, the Saudis – about what can be done on the Syrian problem. And that’s new. I mean, we haven’t had that kind of discussion with the Iraqis.
QUESTION: Just to follow up, who’s representing Iraq tomorrow? Hoshyar Zebari, Foreign Minister.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So that’s – I mean, that’s new and that’s good that Zebari will be there.
QUESTION: I have a question, but I also just want to clarify, when you say the opposition had gone to Baghdad, are you talking about the same people who are coming here on Friday?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Some of the ones that will be here Friday have gone to Baghdad, but other groups as well. I mean, there have been multiple delegations from different Syrian opposition groups that have visited Baghdad.
QUESTION: Can you give us a sense of the attack that just happened this week that killed four army --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Downtown?
QUESTION: That killed four army guards and I think 14 others, how significant that was. And then given how long this has gone on, how do you think the nature of the conflict has changed? Because certainly the people we talk to talk about just exhaustion, increased influence, not dominance but increased influence of Islamists internally. Like, how has the nature of this changed?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, first with respect to the attack at the Defense Ministry Building in Damascus, it’s remarkable for two reasons. Number one, it’s smack dab in the center of the most well-protected part of Damascus. It is literally across the street from the American School, literally across the street from the American School. Ambassador Ford used to go jogging in Damascus in the early mornings, and whenever he got near that building, the guards always said, “No, no, don’t run here, cross the street.” So it’s very well-protected, even from joggers. So the fact that they could get in and hit a target like that, I think just shows the general decline even in Damascus of the regime’s capabilities.
That said, I don’t want to overplay it. They have not knocked out, to the best of my knowledge, the regime’s ability to communicate with units on the ground and to maintain operational control.
The other thing I would just note, because I think this is important, that building is not even two-thirds of a mile from the President’s palace. I mean, it’s that close.
QUESTION: When you say they, what do you mean? The fact that they got in?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, the armed opposition people that implemented the attack, carried out the attack.
With respect to the change in the – on the ground, a couple of things I would say. First, number of fatalities on all sides have gone way up. It’s much higher than it was months ago. Some people say it is a war of attrition, but it’s clear to me that the government is little by little losing. I can just throw out some indicators. Three, four months ago, the regime controlled all the border points on the borders. Now it controls only one border point along the Turkish border. All the others are controlled by the opposition. And it has lost control of at least half of the border crossings on the Iraqi side, including after one in Albu Kamal which I mentioned was a very long, hard-fought battle and the opposition prevailed.
Second, the second biggest city, Aleppo, some say the – I guess it’s the biggest city in terms of population, second city in terms of it’s not the political capital, the commercial capital – four or five months ago was not a hotbed of problems. It was not – the opposition had no presence there – armed opposition. Opposition had a presence, but they weren’t fighting for it. Now the regime controls maybe half of it, maybe less, maybe more. The battle is sort of see-sawing going back and forth.
At the same time, it’s fighting to control the suburbs of Damascus and doesn’t really even thoroughly control central Damascus. When you see prolonged fighting in Kafur Suse, which is, frankly, central Damascus, or Mezze – you didn’t have these things six months ago. You certainly didn’t have them when our Embassy was there in February. You can just sort of – if you stand back, you can see a progression of the regime steadily losing ground. They are not able to recall recruits. There’s massive draft evasion now. And so the regime is having to depend more and more on the paramilitary groups called Shabiha, which is aggravating the sectarian tensions.
And so one of the things we talk a lot to the political opposition people is thinking about how to contain sectarian violence, how to respond to it. I don’t know how long the regime will last, but given that its foreign exchange reserves are declining, given that its military capabilities are declining, it’s clear that he’s going to lose sooner or later. And it would be better if he would acknowledge that now and step aside. He would save this country a great deal of misery.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) refugee, the figures you gave from a million to a million and a half, what are you basing those on? And where are most of those people at the moment, within – inside Syria, and how are they being cared for?
MODERATOR: That was IDPs, right?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Internally. Yeah, internally. They’re United Nations estimates.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They are the coordinator for the international community’s efforts on humanitarian assistance. We work, for example, very closely with them on a lot of the assistance that we deliver – comes through United Nations agencies like UNHCR and World Food Program.
Inside Syria, they had been going mainly to Aleppo and Damascus because those were the safest parts of the country. So they were fleeing places like Homs and Hama and going there. Our sense now is that those places aren’t just safe, and in fact, a lot of the refugees that came up into Turkey were fleeing the fighting in and around Aleppo. So that the IDPs are sort of more dispersed around the country now. They’re not as conglomerated in the two big cities as they used to be because there’s been so much fighting. There’s been very heavy fighting, for example, in places like Yarmouk and Tadamon neighborhoods of Damascus, where there had been a lot of IDPs. Now, frankly there are refugees coming out of those, and so they’re more dispersed.
That makes the job of getting assistance to them even harder. Access to the internally displaced people is a constant problem, constant problem.
MODERATOR: Others? Please. Hannah.
QUESTION: For the groups coming tomorrow --
MODERATOR: Speak up, please.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can barely hear.
QUESTION: For the groups coming tomorrow, what’s the relationship generally with the fighting groups? We’ve seen the dueling communiqués (inaudible).
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. The groups coming tomorrow are not representatives of the fighting groups. They are political groups. They are, frankly, organizers of protests. They’re people who help put together field hospitals. They are people who organize assistance to families who’ve lost breadwinners, and more and more they are people who are trying to figure out how to restore electricity, or to get bed – bread baked.
So they are literally – yeah, I would call them activists and organizers. They’re not elected. There haven’t been elections for these organizations. No revolution council has ever actually been elected. You can’t do it that way. But they are people who maybe at the beginning of this whole crisis, when there was peaceful street protests and that’s what was dominating, they were organizing protests in certain areas then. Over the last 18 months, these organizations have become more sophisticated, and frankly, more administrative in response to the needs and the pressures that they’re under.
QUESTION: But isn’t that the problems – sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, just as a follow-up, I mean, that’s sort of the – some of the fighting groups have said when this is all said and done, the guys with the guns should be in charge. So I mean, how – (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I haven’t heard them. Who said that among the armed groups? Who said that?
QUESTION: Well, there have been several individual commanders –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Who? I haven’t – really, I’m not trying to badger you, I just haven’t seen it.
QUESTION: Sure, no. We’ve had two people in Syria for many months now, and –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Are you talking about commanders or street fighters?
QUESTION: Commanders, mostly.
QUESTION: Well, but also, [Senior State Department Official], street fighters, I mean --
QUESTION: But there have been more of these coming out, even from the --
QUESTION: Isn’t that a big concern? Isn’t that a big concern? I mean, just generally, isn’t that a big concern that, like, when this is all said and done that the people with the guns that were the ones fighting are going to be the ones that say, “To the victor goes the spoils and you can listen to us.” I mean, you anticipate them really --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The people with the guns are fighting. The people with the guns are not providing field hospitals. The people with the guns are not providing bread bakeries. The people with the guns are not organizing funding drives and getting funding from outside of Syria to provide for families that have lost bread winners. So I think there is a real distinction between the two, first.
Second, in terms of the political future, and whether or not the people with the guns are going to be the ones who decide, the importance of making sure that the political opposition is able to provide the services that I just mentioned, and making sure that the Syrian political opposition is able to organize itself, will give it a leg up when ultimately the regime goes and is replaced by something else. People with guns who don’t know how to have bread baked are quickly going to lose credibility on the street. People with guns who can’t make the lights come back on are going to quickly lose credibility on the street. And the best example I can give of that to you is the Jaish al-Mahdi in Baghdad.
MODERATOR: I would also say that this goes to the work that [Senior State Department Official] and his team has been doing to try to take the work on a democratic transition that’s been done by outside groups to encourage inside groups to work from that kind of a template, because ultimately the hope and the goal of the Syrian opposition is that there will be an electoral process to pick the government, and so anybody who wants to help run Syria is going to have to stand for election.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But the reason I’m pushing you so hard on “who said” is because there is a political transition plan that was announced in Cairo in July, and it includes – it’s kind of a two-part document. There’s kind of a broad vision statement. If you will, I would call it, like –
MODERATOR: It’s like a bill of rights.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, kind of like that. And then there’s an actual transition plan, how we get from Bashar al-Assad to permanent elected government. Step one, step two, step three, step four, step five. The transition plan’s pretty good, actually. It took them a long time to write it. We were pushing on them for a long time to do it. They finally did it.
There is now a committee – I don’t want to call it a committee, I should say a team – a team of oppositionists – most of them are pretty young. It includes representatives from some of the groups coming tomorrow who are actually now going out and talking to the Free Syrian Army commanders. They’ve already had discussions with some of the senior generals in the Free Syrian Army who have said they’ve signed on to these two documents, that they support them. And so I don’t know if the commanders they’re talking to are more important than the commanders your colleagues are talking to. I can’t answer that.
What I would say is that I think all of these issues are still in play, and it is important therefore for the United States to make sure that we are enabling the political opposition to demonstrate its credibility and for it to play its role going forward. I don’t want to leave space open for boys with toys, young men with guns, and I don’t want to leave --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- and I don’t want to leave – well, no, I don’t challenge that Islamists have growing influence. And I also don’t want to leave the space open for extremists. And so it’s great that we’re going to have people like the French tomorrow and other countries. Turkey will be at this meeting tomorrow, the British, the Germans and others - all of them are working on helping the Syrian political opposition. And we just need to make sure we’re all rowing in the same direction.
QUESTION: Can you help us with the reporting on that? When you say the Free Syrian Army, and you’re differentiating between street fighters and commanders. First of all, is there an army? Second of all, who are you listening to that you think is actually credible as a representative of that group, or is it just militias?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m thinking, because I want to be able to answer the question carefully. Not all of them are in military uniform. I’m not an expert on the Geneva rules of war, but in many cases, they are civilians who have taken up arms. There is an element of defected soldiers among them, but they’re a mix. They call themselves the Free Syrian Army. And so I’m simply using their own nomenclature. If we called them armed groups, I’d be very comfortable with that. In terms of who we talk to –
QUESTION: Meaning not a military structure, a chain of command.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, they have structure.
QUESTION: In a centralized form?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In some places they do. No, no. In some places they do. It depends. It literally varies city to city and even within a city, neighborhood to neighborhood. Let me give you an example.
Homs, it’s the third largest city. There is something called the Homs Military Council. It has somewhere between 60 to 70 percent, we think, of the armed groups basically operating under its authority, under the command of a guy, a defected general – colonel, sorry. He’s a colonel. There are some that are not in that. There’s the 30 to 40 percent, the other fighters, that are not under his command. In fact, we know that in part because when the UN observers were there, the commander – that Free Syrian Army commander said, “Well, I can tell you what my guys are doing, but you’re going to have to go talk to this group and this group, because they don’t listen to me.” So in some places, there is a very clear, from the street-level fighter through somebody basically the rank of a lieutenant up to a colonel, I mean, you can see a chain. In other places, it’s less evident. It’s just little group by little group.
So by the way, I heard an interesting story yesterday about Homs, that in some places the regime militias are not paying attention to senior orders that are basically carrying extortion campaigns that are terrorizing people. And they’ve lost their chain of command, too. It’s another sign of the government’s control degrading. So it kind of depends place to place. But what I do think is that compared to April and May, say, there are more military commands and military commanders in more cities that are exercising more control over more fighters. That’s another dynamic.
QUESTION: In Aleppo – are the people doing the fighting in Aleppo, are they mainly (inaudible)? Are they from Aleppo, or are these groups coming in and fighting?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s a mixture, and I can’t tell you 50/50 or 60/40. I don’t know. Certainly, fighters from other parts of Idlib to the west and even from down south in places like Hama have gone up to fight. But a lot of them are Aleppines at the same time. So one of the interesting developments in Aleppo is there’s something called the – how would you translate tawhid – I guess the unification brigade, which was outside the control of a commander named Oqaidi up there – just joined Oqaidi’s command. So now he has more effective control, maybe up in the range of 70 percent of the fighters in Aleppo. That’s just in the last couple of days.
MODERATOR: Okay. Let’s take two more. Andy.
QUESTION: One very quick one, and it’s really sort of a planning question more than anything else. Can you give us a sense of how the meeting is going to work and what, if anything, is going to be the end result of it, a sort of statement, a – what – how is that going to –
MODERATOR: Why don’t I take that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure.
MODERATOR: As you know, this sort of ad hoc group has come together a couple of times before and membership has sort of steadily been growing. I think you can expect that you’ll be able to hear the Secretary’s remarks, maybe a couple of others. I don’t think we expect a formal communiqué. It’s not that kind of a group. It’s a sense – it’s an opportunity for the various –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s an ad hoc meeting.
MODERATOR: Yeah, and for the various governments that are invested in these three chains of work to compare notes on what they’re doing to better coordinate that work and also to hear from the opposition directly what’s working, what they need more of, et cetera. So I wouldn’t expect an outcome document. This is very much a working meeting, if that makes sense.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. It’s an ad hoc meeting.
QUESTION: Not to be confused with core group.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You can call it a core group.
QUESTION: I’m kidding.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Jo, and then we got to wrap.
QUESTION: Are you able to give us any sense of what kind of assistance – new assistance – the Secretary’s going to be able to announce tomorrow?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t – I’d like the Secretary to make that announcement. What I would say is we’re looking to increase our assistance both to the political opposition and then as well on the humanitarian side. So I mean – can I just mention one thing? I just – right before I came in, I was kind of struck by it. I just got a note from colleagues over at USAID, and they were saying we just managed to get a large shipment of medical supplies and medical equipment into southern Syria just in the last few days, and they think it will be enough to help roughly 27,000 people that are being treated at different field hospitals in southern Syria.
QUESTION: How do they get it in?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t want to talk about that.
QUESTION: Southern Syria? So it didn’t come through Turkey, then, did it?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s where it – I’m just not going to discuss it. I’m not going to put people at risk. But I’ll just say it’s important that this kind of stuff get it, so we did.
MODERATOR: Good. Thank you, [Senior State Department Official]. We will see you tomorrow.
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