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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Background Briefing on the Meeting of the International Syria Support Group

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
September 22, 2016

MODERATOR: Okay, folks, thanks for joining. We're going to get right to this. This is on background attributable to senior Administration officials. Senior Administration Official One is [Senior Administration Official One]. Senior Administration Official Two is [Senior Administration Official Two]. Senior Administration Official One will have a couple of short opening comments, and then we'll open it up to your questions. We are going to try to be brisk on this and try to get this done in about 15-20 minutes, so thanks for your patience and thanks for working with us.

Over to Senior Administration Official One.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Hi, everybody. Thanks for joining. As I think most of you know, we just got out of a two-and-a-half-hour-plus meeting of the International Syria Support Group. It was a pretty contentious meeting, which is not surprising because it's been a pretty contentious week on the subject of Syria both here in New York and then obviously and more importantly on the ground in Syria as well.

We received reports during the course of the meeting of an announced regime offensive on the city of Aleppo, which was just further evidence of what the Secretary has been describing all week of the type of acts that are eroding the credibility of this process, and also of why we are not sure at this point whether or not it can be fixed.

As we've said for days, getting things back on track is going to require extraordinary steps by the Russians and the regime. And as the Secretary has been quite clear about, bombing has been the biggest challenge both to the cessation of hostilities and also the biggest threat to Syrian civilians during the course of this conflict. So the discussion of extraordinary steps has focused very much on bombing and on the types of steps that could take regime and Russian forces out of the skies over parts of the country where this has been a problem.

As you heard the Secretary say, he and Foreign Minister Lavrov have exchanged ideas on these topics. They have agreed to continue consulting on this subject both tomorrow and on these ideas both tomorrow and in the coming days. And our view at this point is if the Russians come back to us with something significant and something serious, we will be ready to listen. But again, I want to stress at this point that it's going to require something extraordinary beyond the types of things that have been agreed in the past, and that we are not sure at this point whether they are ready and willing to take those kinds of steps.

The only other thing I want to tell people about this ISSG meeting is about the only thing that there was clear consensus on is that this process, troubled as it is, gives us the best chance of any available avenue for finding a way forward in Syria that can reduce the violence, increase the humanitarian access, and eventually get us to the point where we can have a viable conversation about a political transition.

In many cases, the biggest concern among some of the players in the room was that they were picking up on the frustration that we feel and that the Secretary has exhibited that you've seen over the last couple of days, and that we're ready to turn away from this process. So with that – with that I'll turn it over to your questions unless my colleague has anything he wants to add.


MODERATOR: Go to questions, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you'd like to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your telephone keypad. You'll hear a tone indicating you've been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the # key. And our first question will come from Elise Labott with CNN. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call. Between listening to the Secretary and senior official number one, it seems like you're coming perily close to kind of – I know you know that this is the best – you say that this is the best chance, but it sounds like you're coming perilously close to saying that you don't think that there is a ceasefire, and that when the Secretary says we can't keep making promises anymore, I feel like he's trying to say, like, let's call a spade a spade, this is dead. I don't know where that leaves you, but I was just wondering if that's where your – your comments seem a lot more pessimistic, if that is even possible.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I think as the Secretary said, we're not going to call what is not a cessation a cessation. It's impossible to speak of a cessation as being in effect when there's an offensive that the Syrian regime has just announced in east Aleppo. So I think we have to call the facts as we see them and describe the situation as the people of Syria are experiencing it.

What he also said is that he's not going to close the door on any – any possibility of lowering the suffering of the Syrian people, getting them humanitarian access, because that's what every member of the ISSG asked him to do, and that's what civil society and ordinary Syrians are expressing to our people that if we can succeed, it's still the best chance that exists, a ceasefire that would be negotiated between – a cessation of hostilities between us and the Russians and complied with, adhered to, by the regime and by the opposition.

So you picked up frustration, and that's correct because the situation is far worse than we hoped it would be at this point. And you also picked up that it's hard to describe the situation today as complying with the cessation that had just been agreed to between our two countries.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Michael Gordon with The New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Can you please tell us what specifically is supposed to happen tomorrow? Is there supposed to be a specific meeting between Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov? Are there specific ideas that Moscow now has to a make a decision on that you're interested in hearing back from them, or is it something much less tangible; you're just waiting to see if they might have any new ideas at all? And is there any receptivity on the Russian side to a grounding initiative of some kind, or have they not shown any interest in that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So I'll start. We don't have a meeting scheduled tomorrow. I would say at this point, in our view, the ball is very much in the Russians' court to come back to us with an idea or some ideas that are serious that would be above and beyond, again, the types of things they've been willing to agree to in the past with regard to air activities over large parts of Syria. And I'm not going to detail exactly the extent or the timing or the nature of what's under discussion, but that's basically the range of possibilities that we are exploring with them.

In terms of their receptivity, you'd have to ask them. They have not shut the door completely, but nor have they agreed to the types of things at this point that we think would be necessary to, as I said, restore the credibility of the process and give us some faith that this could actually work. So we are certainly not there yet.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we have Margaret Warner with PBS NewsHour. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official Two] and [Senior Administration Official One]. Thank you for doing this. The Russians insist they did not bomb that convoy. The U.S. says it did. One, did that come up at the meeting? Did Lavrov still continue to deny it? And two, what makes the United States so sure that it was the Russians and not the Syrian regime?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I think, what we've said, again what Secretary Kerry has said, is there are only two countries that fly over that area, Russia and the regime. We've also said that Russia, as the country with which we entered into this deal, is – should be the guarantor, obviously, of its own activities but also of the activities of the regime. So one could draw the conclusion that Russia is responsible. And as we've said, we believe that between those two countries, we know that they were collectively – one or the other or both were involved; and that Russia, as the guarantor of the deal, has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that the cessation was adhered to and the bombing was a violation of the cessation and of international humanitarian law.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Robin Wright with The New Yorker. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. I want to follow up on that. Do we not have any intelligence to determine who actually hit the convoy? Is there really some doubt as to whether the Russians did it or the Syrians? And secondly, you said there's a new offensive against Aleppo. Is it that the Russians have given the okay for the Syrians to go ahead, or is it that the Russians don't control the Syrians?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So, Robin, it won't surprise you, I think, having covered these issues for a long time that we certainly do have all manner of information about what happened on the ground, including eyewitness accounts, including reports from a number of actors who either witnessed this or got information other ways. We also, of course, do have intelligence, but we generally don't talk about that in background calls to the press. I think we put out the level of detail and the level of information that we're comfortable using at this time, and, obviously, we're going to continue to develop our theory and our understanding of what actually transpired.

I forget the second part of the question.

OPERATOR: Just a moment. Let me bring her back. Okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: The question was about whether this new offensive by the Syrians in Aleppo is something that the Syrians are doing without Russian permission, or are they – or the Russians have given the go-ahead.

But back to the first question, [Senior Administration Official One], I mean, if you're so sure that it was the Russians, can you say definitively, without giving us the details of how you know, that, in fact, the Russians absolutely were the ones to bomb the convoy?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So, Robin, I don't know why you keep saying, or you in the previous question, if we're so sure that it's the Russians. I think my colleague has given our explanation for why we hold the Russians responsible for what happened, and I think my – our answer sort of speaks for itself in that way.

On this offensive, the best destination for the question of whether the Russians authorized it or were even aware of it is the Russian Government, the Russian military. It's very hard for us to be able to answer. But again, given that this sort of offensive is not supposed to take place under a cessation of hostilities, whether or not Russia was involved in the way that you describe, we do hold them responsible for these types of actions even if they're simply by the regime.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Laura Rozen with Al Monitor. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Thanks. I hope you can hear me. Is the U.S. amenable to a Russian proposal for reciprocal steps that the U.S. might take to if they do something on grounding flights?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: We're waiting to see what the Russians come back with. They haven't – we'll wait to see if they come back with something constructive. What we'd say is what we've seen over the last several days, in fact, weeks and months, is that the principal culprit in terms of indiscriminate bombing of civilians and hospitals and schools is the regime. And so that's why we want to see something dramatic happening in terms of stopping the perpetrators of those outrageous acts from being able to conduct them.

So if they – well, I don't know what they might come up with, but that's what we're focused on is taking a step that would reduce the suffering of the Syrian people and restore confidence that a cessation of hostilities could actually hold.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we have Anne Barnard with The New York Times. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Hi, guys. Thanks for doing this, again. I was just – I was – I just basically wanted to ask if Russia does not accept any of your proposals and things continue as they are, what will the United States do? What are the next steps?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Anne. So, obviously, this is something we're giving a lot of thought to ourselves. And I reported to you the – sort of the tenor and the tone in the room at this ISSG meeting, which is that, again, as frustrated as all of us are, there is not – there at least was not a clear voice for a different path among our – both the strongest supporters of the opposition, our key partners, and also countries like Russia and Iran that are obviously on the other side of this conflict.

I think as we've said, our patience for the current process is far from limitless, and my colleague outlined our views on that before. I don't think tonight, and right now as we approaching a climactic stage of this, is the time to say where we will go from here, but your question is obviously one that is very much on our minds as well.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And that does conclude our Q&A session. Please go ahead with any closing remarks.

MODERATOR: No closing remarks. Thank you.

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