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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Background Briefing on the International Syria Support Group Meeting

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Munich, Germany
February 12, 2016

MODERATOR: Our briefers got still a long night ahead of them, so 15 minutes total, senior State Department official, everything is on background, and I think – [Senior State Department Official], I didn't know if you wanted to start with a couple of things.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I think just briefly, and I'm going to start off by lowering expectations because I'm fried, so if this is less coherent than normal, please just ask for clarification or give up, one way or the other. But I'll just say a few things and then happy to answer questions.

So I wanted to start off by talking through the ceasefire or cessation of hostilities concept a bit, because it's being reported all kinds of ways, although not – you guys seem to mostly have it straight at this point. But I wanted to describe how we see it and then talk a little bit about where this all goes from here, and then happy to answer questions on whatever.

So a few things on ceasefire or cessation of hostilities: The first thing that I think is important to emphasize is that these concepts are virtually identical in terms of – cessation of hostilities, what we use now, is a virtually identical concept to what we've been describing as a ceasefire all along. The bottom line objective is to stop the violence. The distinction is actually one that's much more directly drawn by the opposition, and so the adjustment in terms really came in response to conversations with them.

In their mind, a ceasefire indicates the formal end of a conflict, okay, where the political objectives that underlie the conflict have either been abandoned or resolved, and we're obviously not there yet.

QUESTION: Wait, will you say that part again about abandoning?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In the mind of the opposition, the cease – a ceasefire connotes sort of the formal end of a conflict, where the political objectives that underlie it have either been abandoned or resolved, where you would have some sort of a formal treaty or an armistice of some kind. That's never been the way we exactly thought of it. We use the term more colloquially to mean, again, stopping the violence, essentially, and not actually having a whole lot more detail in our minds than that because we thought the details needed to really be worked out by the parties on the ground.

So we're obviously not at the point of the type of ceasefire that the opposition conceived, so we shifted the term to cessation of hostilities. But the bottom line, what it actually means in terms of facts on the ground, is virtually identical to what we've described all along in the ceasefire.

In terms of how this is going to play out, I think you can expect that it will not be smooth and that it will not be clean, almost certainly. There will be problems to work through, perceived violations most likely on both sides, and I think we very much expect that. And I think everybody who's been a part of this process accepts that that's going to be part of getting this into the right place.

It's worth pointing out that in other conflicts, there are often several attempts to establish a ceasefire or cessation of hostilities before it takes hold. That's not unusual. The Balkans had somewhere on the order of eight to ten depending on who's counting. This is something you should look up for yourself. I'm not trying to provide a fact here, but just some context. And then there are some conflicts that essentially end with a cessation of hostility that's never formalized. The Israeli conflict with Hizballah in 2006 – essentially, what happened at the end of it was a cessation of hostilities that is still in place but without any sort of formal –

QUESTION: Korea, 1953.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And the United States war in Korea --

QUESTION: Yeah, that's a little bit of an armistice.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- but that's a slightly different situation.

QUESTION: Yeah, but still has no --


QUESTION: -- formal resolution.

QUESTION: Well, but it does have a --

MODERATOR: Let's keep it – let's keep it moving, guys.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Is there any more on that or are we good? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: No, he is just making an argument that you denied to me earlier, so --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You guys can – you can clear it up later. But the bottom line is we're putting a premium on stopping the violence, and that's the underlying and main request to both sides. And the goal is to give space – by stopping the violence, to give space to humanitarian access, which is essential and much needed, and to give space to a political process that actually has a chance to – of success. Because one thing we've learned during the course of this is that – and it seems self-evident – but that it's hard to talk while you're fighting, and we hope it's also harder to fight while you're talking. So the goal is that these end up being mutually reinforcing processes. So that's on the concept.

In terms of where we go from here, you've all read the communique at this point. So the two main advances that were made yesterday and this morning were, in terms of humanitarian access, specificity for the first time about where we are going to start providing access, which we think is important because it gives us sort of a concrete and fixed roadmap for the days ahead, and also a timeline so that this is going to need to begin – the sustained delivery of assistance is going to need to begin, quote-unquote, "this week," and there's not all that much more time in this week. So we know that people are on the hook to move this fast. And the work of actually figuring out how this is going to get done is going to take place largely in Geneva and largely through this task force that's been set up. It's going to be predominantly experts on the delivery of

humanitarian assistance from a range of countries and under UN auspices.

Similarly with the ceasefire, what's new and different this time – because, as you've all covered this stuff before – we have, quote-unquote, "called for" a ceasefire many times going back to the first meeting of what's become known as the Vienna process. The timeline is different this time. There is actually a date or at least a period of one week for which – during which this is supposed to get started. And the establishment of this ceasefire task force – we decided to keep the word "ceasefire" because "cessation of hostilities task force" was a bit unwieldy, but it's the same thing, as I said, for all intents and purposes – is going to work through things like what exactly is permitted and what isn't; how monitoring will work; how remedies will work for perceived violations; and what sort of mechanism is established to actually do the work of overseeing the cessation of hostilities.

And the goal of this mechanism is – one major goal of this mechanism is to obviate the need for and prevent parties from resorting to self-help, essentially perceiving a violation and then responding to it immediately. What we would prefer and what we intend to do is establish a process for dealing with those. And that process may take some time, and that's actually a good thing because it allows the temperature to get turned down a bit rather than each perceived violation leading immediately to escalation that ultimately undoes the whole thing.

And then the final piece of this near-term next steps is that we fully intend for the political process to resume. Now, again, it was never – not formally ended, obviously. It was suspended by Special Envoy de Mistura. He has said that he hopes to resume it on or around February 25th. We've seen in the past that sometimes these dates don't end up being 100 percent firm, but that remains the objective. We've also said there's no preconditions associated with the resumption of political talks, and we've been clear about that at every session of the Vienna process, but I think it's also clear – I'll put it this way: It's also hard to imagine the resumption of political talks absent some progress on both of the two tracks that I described earlier.

So with that, I'm happy to take some questions.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], two questions if I could.


QUESTION: Can I just ask where – do you have this --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: AP always gets to go first, I guess, huh.

QUESTION: You have this meeting --

QUESTION: Because he talks louder. Bullies.

QUESTION: You have this meeting that basically says that everyone who signed up to the UN Security Council resolution agrees that the U.S. – UN Security Council resolution should be followed. I just don't get where the progress is here.


QUESTION: Explain to me – I mean, we went from Vienna, where everyone called for a ceasefire and called for talks to start, to December at the UN Security Council, a binding resolution which said there will be a ceasefire and there will be political talks, and now we seem to have gone back a step to a cessation of hostilities maybe in a week and --


QUESTION: So how is this going forward?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I guess I'd explain why I don't think it's going back a step. I think it's identical in terms of what we're actually trying to accomplish.

QUESTION: Okay, all right. So it's identical. So you haven't gotten any --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Can I answer the rest of the question?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All right, thanks. So in terms of what's new and what's gone beyond where we were before, I mean, I think there is now a measurable timeline in place by which people will be able to judge if progress is being made on the ground. What we never had previously was any sort of specificity as to when these things that we were calling for would occur, and that's important because that drives work to try to meet those objectives.

QUESTION: All right. Well, just to point out --


QUESTION: -- and I won't make this a question, but just to point out --

QUESTION: Then don't say it.

QUESTION: No, but there were timelines in place in Vienna.

QUESTION: Yeah, it said "immediately."

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There were timelines in place for the political process, Matt, not for the ceasefire --

QUESTION: Same time.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- and not for the delivery of --

QUESTION: The same time. It said "at the same time." Anyway --

QUESTION: So do you expect the Russians to perhaps increase bombing over the next week? That's something you've seen in past situations as well --


QUESTION: -- and I've just got a quick second question.


QUESTION: Lavrov – Kerry has met with him dozens, hundreds of times, even as often --


QUESTION: Okay, dozens. You see anything in his demeanor, did the Secretary see anything in his demeanor that indicated a real change of heart? And if you want to go off the record with that one, it'd be interesting to know.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I'll leave the last one alone because I don't think we judge these things by demeanor; we judge them by what they actually say and what they actually do, and the rest of it I don't think matters a heck of a lot. He's obviously a very sort of experienced diplomat and he can choose the words and then the Russians can make the actions that are required, or not.

In terms of – wait, sorry, the first part?

QUESTION: Sometimes the ceasefires --


QUESTION: -- the parties – I mean, will the Russians increase bombing in the next week --


QUESTION: --before they stop, if they stop?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- I take your point in terms of sort of the historical precedent. That does occur from time to time. I would point you to the section of the communique that calls on the parties to, even during this interim week where we try to get to the cessation of hostilities, make best efforts themselves and then through the parties on the ground that they work with to bring about a reduction in violence. Everybody signed up to that. Does that mean I will guarantee you that we'll see that, or that I would be shocked if we saw either a continuation or an increase? No.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], a follow-up to that.

MODERATOR: Five more minutes, guys.

QUESTION: Is there concern that Russia in essence left itself a little bit of wiggle room when it comes to Aleppo? And I'm referring back to what Lavrov said last night in his definition of terrorists, and terrorists being around Aleppo, and of course terrorists are not part of the ceasefire. Is there concern that that's sort of an open door where the bombing can continue there indefinitely?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I know there's this this concern that the Russians have a broad definition of terrorists and are going to essentially continue striking what they consider to be terrorist targets. I would, again, point you to the – I mean, our – the best thing I can do right now since I don't know exactly how this is going to play out is to point you to the language of the document. And the language defines terrorists in a very particular way, or it defines the people who are excluded from the ceasefire in a very particular way. It's either ISIL or al-Nusrah or groups determined by the UN Security Council to be terrorists.

QUESTION: That was decided in November.

QUESTION: But Nusrah – they say they're going after Nusrah in Aleppo.

QUESTION: But we don't have the third thing.

QUESTION: Yeah, they're just going to say Aleppo is full of Nusrah.

QUESTION: That was what the – yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. So a challenge of this process will be that these groups are intermingled in parts of the country, and this is going to be one of the major issues that this ceasefire task force is going to have to address, because there are groups that are defined under these – under the terms of the agreement as terrorists that are in, among, around groups that are not defined that way. And how that is handled for the purposes of the hostilities is going to be a big part of what this task force is going to work through during the coming weeks.

QUESTION: Can I back you up on the cease --

MODERATOR: Okay, one more question, guys. Just one more.

QUESTION: -- the ceasefire issue that you mentioned? Because you describe the rebels thinking of the ceasefire as the sort of ultimate ending political solution and all that. Does that make it difficult for you to actually move this next step from cessation of hostilities to ceasefire? Because what they're really describing is the ultimate political agreement, which we're all in agreement is a long way away.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. I mean, again, I guess I don't consider it all that important as long as – if the cessation of hostilities takes hold and the violence is significantly reduced or stopped eventually, whether we move to definitionally the next phase is a question, I think, that we can answer down the road. What we are trying to do right now is gain enough space for the political conversation that can help us get to where you're describing. And absent a reduction in violence, I think the past few weeks has shown that's going to be very difficult to do.

QUESTION: I want to ask one thing. Is there any merit to just focusing on humanitarian delivery, reducing the violence, trying to make life bearable for as many people as possible, and pushing off the political process because it doesn't seem like the two sides can reconcile at this point?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I understand the appeal of that concept, just focus on making people's lives better and defer the very difficult political conversations. I think the reality is it's going to be very hard to prevent the opposition from fighting if they do not see any sort of a political horizon for addressing their very legitimate grievances.

QUESTION: Oh God, the political horizon.

QUESTION: Can I ask one question?

QUESTION: Yes, Karen.

QUESTION: Thank you. The – Lavrov spoke last night about new military cooperation between the United States and Russia. Can you tell us if there is going to be any change in it? And one of the goals of this was for everybody to work together against the Islamic State. Is that part of what was talked about? Is there any thinking about that, that there'll be new sharing of information or coordination in that effort as a result of this agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, I don't want to get ahead of the process that's going to be worked out through these task forces. I think one of the objectives of the ceasefire task force, which we still call it, is going to be determining how the different combatants in this conflict – and there are more beyond just the United States and Russia, obviously – are going to have to find a way to support the cessation of hostilities. I don't want to address any further U.S.-Russia work beyond that. The Russians are obviously – I mean, Lavrov said it multiple times in his remarks last night – are sort of focused on this concept. We're focused much more on the two tracks that we have described – making sure humanitarian access is provided and making sure – trying to make sure that the cessation of hostilities takes root.

QUESTION: But I was asking about the anti-ISIL fight.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, the counterterrorism fight?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So you mean are we going to start working with the Russians on that?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, again, I think absent progress on these two tracks – progress on these two tracks can unlock a lot of things. But absent progress on these two tracks, I think you're not going to see significant advances on any of these concepts.

MODERATOR: Okay, we've got to go, guys. I said one more and that was three questions ago.

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