QUESTION: Geneva. As you’re obviously aware, the Geneva meeting for Saturday has been announced. Does the fact that the meeting is to be held mean that the P-5+1, notably Russia, have now come to some sort of agreement on a – the outlines of a political transition for Syria?
MS. NULAND: Well, let me start by saying that the Secretary spoke to some of these issues in her press conference in Helsinki a few hours ago. As you know, Kofi Annan has been working with key states on a political transition plan. He put forward a plan a number of days ago that states have been consulting on for this – most of this week. The Secretary spoke to him yesterday and told him that we like and accept his transition plan, and we think it can form the good basis not only for a meeting – the kind of meeting that he’s been looking for to show international unity – but also to help the Syrian people move forward.
So on that basis, the Secretary has agreed to go to the meeting in Geneva on Saturday, and we very much hope that this will be a meeting that really does fully endorse the plan and takes us to the next step in supporting the Syrian people.
QUESTION: Well, do you think that you have the Russians on board with the idea of a political transition that ultimately leads to the departure of Bashar al-Assad from power or not?
MS. NULAND: Well, again, I’m not going to speak for the Russian Federation. I will let them speak for themselves. But our litmus test for whether we thought this meeting should go forward, as we’ve been saying for many days now, was that we expected we could make concrete progress. We’ve been working with Kofi Annan, who’s been working with all the member-states. Based on our consultations, we have hopes for a successful meeting on Saturday in Geneva.
QUESTION: And does a successful meeting mean that Russia would have to sign onto a political transition plan that would entail Assad’s departure?
MS. NULAND: Well, again, that is the purpose, is to put some flesh on the bones of how this transition can go forward. The Secretary also said that if you look at the way Assad has played his cards over the last few months, and basically over the last year, he has believed that he’s had the support of China and Russia in this process. He – the first indication that they were having reservations about the way he was conducting himself was when they signed up for Kofi Annan’s six-point plan in the first instance. So now the hope and expectation is that working together on a transition plan, that will make clear to Assad that he does not have a blank check from those countries anymore, and that it is time for – time to move on. And it’ll also dishearten those who are still supporting the regime.
QUESTION: Here’s the thing: I don’t see how you can plausibly argue that yet another meeting is a success if you don’t persuade the Russians that Assad should go.
MS. NULAND: Well –
QUESTION: Do you – can you plausibly claim it a success if the Russians don’t agree to the proposition that Assad should go eventually?
MS. NULAND: Again, I think you’re asking me to get ahead of where we are. We believe that we have the grounds for a good meeting. The Secretary is looking forward to going. And I will ask you to be patient for the outcome of the meeting.
QUESTION: And just one – can I ask one other one on this?
MS. NULAND: Yeah, mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Just – are you gratified that Iran has not been invited to the meeting? And are you dismayed that Saudi Arabia has not been invited to the meeting?
MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, this is Kofi Annan’s invitation list. We are comfortable with it. We had made strong representations, the Secretary had throughout these discussions, about Iran and our view that Iran was not playing a constructive role. But we are comfortable with the collection of actors that the Joint Special Envoy has chosen to invite.
QUESTION: Can I ask you what changed between yesterday and today that made this meeting possible? You spoke about a transition plan that he outlined days ago, and it seems to me the only thing that changed is that we learned that Iran will not be going to this conference. Is that correct?
MS. NULAND: Well, as we have been saying all week, there were – there are – were a number of issues here. First of all, was the meeting going to be substantive, was it going to show unity? And second, who should be there? And all of these issues had to be worked through diplomatically over the course of the week. We are comfortable enough with where we are that we think the meeting can be a success on Saturday.
QUESTION: How are you comfortable? I mean, you say, “Was it going to be substantive?” What is the substance that is going to be presented at this meeting? He asked you a very simple question about are we going to speak – is there going to be a commitment from all present that Assad must leave as part of a transition plan, and you can’t answer that.
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to get ahead of where this meeting is going to take us. Kofi Annan’s been working on a transition plan. We are supportive of it. We expect a lot of unity at this meeting. And we just need to let the meeting go forward before we predict its outcome.
QUESTION: But you were supportive of this days ago. And yet now in the last 24 hours you say you are ready to go to this conference. Wherein was the change?
MS. NULAND: We have seen increasing unity over the last two to three days about what the right message to send from this meeting will be. That said, we need to let the meeting go forward.
QUESTION: So you expect – if you say there’s unity on the – on what the right message should be, you expect – fully expect Russia to join in any statement that calls for Assad to leave power?
MS. NULAND: Again, you’re asking me to prejudge –
QUESTION: But you said there’s unity on a message?
MS. NULAND: — the outcome of a meeting before we’re going to have it. Kofi Annan’s put forward a transition plan. We think it’s a good plan. We think that this will be the basis of the discussion. We are increasingly optimistic about the support that he has gotten for his plan. And we need to see how the meeting goes forward.
QUESTION: I’d just like to add I’m not prejudging the meeting.
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: You are the one who stated here that you guys would only go to the meeting if you would get to a political transition.
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: So you’ve prejudged the meeting, that it has to fulfill X and Y. I’m asking you if it will.
MS. NULAND: And I’m saying that we feel that we are in a strong enough place, in terms of the consultations that Kofi Annan has had, that the meeting can be productive.
QUESTION: This is along the same lines and not looking ahead –
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: — but where we are right now. The Secretary said recently we disagree with Russia on Syria. Do we currently disagree with Russia on Syria?
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, the Secretary’s on her way to St. Petersburg on Friday, where she will have a chance to have a bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov and we will be able to take soundings on precisely where we are. The – among the many advantages of the Kofi Annan process has been his ability to bring countries together around common elements, first his six-point plan, and now he’s working to have unity around a transition plan.
That doesn’t change the fact that we will continue to make clear to Russia that we think it is a bad idea to be arming the Assad regime as we work towards this – towards a transition. But I think the full range of Syria issues will be on the table when the Secretary sees Foreign Minister Lavrov and when they are both present at the Geneva meeting the following day.
QUESTION: Would you say the U.S. and Russia have narrowed their disagreements at this point?
MS. NULAND: Again, I don’t want to prejudge, but I think we would not be going to this Geneva meeting if we didn’t think that there was – there were improved chances for unity among the participants on the way forward.
QUESTION: Victoria, could you explain to us what is exactly the understanding of the United States for the transition? Does it have to be immediate, complete, and total?
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to prejudge the meeting we’re going to have on Saturday.
QUESTION: No. I’m not talking about the meeting. I’m asking your view of the transition that must take place.
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: It has be immediate and complete, that includes Assad, his family, his regime, everything? And then I have a follow-up.
MS. NULAND: Again, I think the best articulation that we have made in this format is when the Secretary spoke to the principles that need to underlie any transition, that there needs to be a complete ceasefire that is observed by all sides, that we must have a transition government that reflects the views and the needs of Syrians of all stripes – men, women, minorities, the various different ethnic and political groupings, et cetera – and that we’ve got to have human rights and rule of law respected in the transition period, and this transition has got to lead to free, fair, transparent elections.
QUESTION: Okay. And do the Russians have a different understanding of this transition, that it might be partial transition?
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m going to let the Russians speak for themselves.
QUESTION: But wouldn’t you agree when you say that your positions are closer you must have a better understanding of the Russian position on transition then you did, let’s say, at the beginning of the week?
MS. NULAND: Again, Kofi Annan has put forward a transition plan that will form the basis of discussion on Saturday. We have been working at various levels to try to bring countries closer around those ideas. So let’s have that meeting on Saturday and see how we do.
QUESTION: And finally, just one last thing. Do you believe that the uninviting of Iran was a tit-for-tat with uninviting Saudi Arabia?
MS. NULAND: I think you ought to talk to the Special Envoy about how he came up with his list. You know where we were on Iran.
QUESTION: Toria, can you shed some light on the transition plan that Kofi Annan has put?
MS. NULAND: I’m not going to get ahead of the Joint Special Envoy in ventilating what he’s thinking, but we’ll have this meeting on Saturday. And our expectation is that we can have a good meeting.
QUESTION: Do you feel he’s put a lot on the line at this meeting?
MS. NULAND: Well, the Secretary made clear – and has been making clear for some time – that we have to change up the game here and that one of the underdeveloped aspects was how you get from the bloody Assad regime to a post-Assad transition. And we needed to give confidence to more Syrians that their life would be better after Assad, and we needed to create more unity within the international community about how this could be done.
Some of our international partners have been saying we have no love for Assad, but we’re concerned about sort of chaos after. So the idea here is to present a real plan that creates different realities, that creates a framework of support, within which Syrians can come together and join forces to implement it.
QUESTION: So is there a risk in having this conference, considering it doesn’t appear that everyone is fully at the same place yet among the international –
MS. NULAND: Again, we’ve done a lot of diplomacy, and Kofi Annan has led this over the last week and a half to try to narrow positions so that if we agreed to have a meeting we had some degrees of confidence that we would come out of that meeting with more support for the longsuffering Syrian people. So that’s the hope and expectation.
QUESTION: So if this thing blows up with two camps completely disagreeing, you would be surprised it sounds like?
MS. NULAND: Again, you’re taking me into all kinds of hypotheticals, but you know how carefully we’ve worked with Kofi Annan to try to prepare it properly so that we didn’t have an empty meeting, we didn’t have a meeting where we split and gave – because such a – that kind of thing would only give comfort to those who are perpetrating the violence.
QUESTION: Fair enough. I’ll hold you to that.
QUESTION: How this meeting would be a turning point, do you think, as the Secretary has said?
MS. NULAND: Again, I think you’re asking me to predict events this Saturday. So let’s just go on what she said.
QUESTION: That’s on the – I have a question on Syria, but on violence today, so if you’re still on the — today a TV station was attacked – a pro-Assad Syria TV station was attacked in Syria. Do you see that as an escalation in violence? And have you guys had any contact with any opposition forces about their participation in that?
MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to whether we’ve had contact with anybody who claims to have participated. We have, on a daily basis, contact with a broad cross-section of Syrian opposition figures. We’ve seen these reports that seven staff members of a pro-government TV station were killed outside of Damascus. We’re not in a position to confirm who is responsible or even what the circumstances were. There are claims and counterclaims with regard to that. You know that we stand against any violence against civilians from any quarter.
QUESTION: Victoria –
MS. NULAND: Please. Still on Syria?
QUESTION: To your knowledge, did all the country invited have officially confirmed that they would attend the Geneva – the Russian, the Arab, and everybody?
MS. NULAND: Again, I think that’s a question for Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan. I haven’t heard of any countries not being willing to go.
QUESTION: Victoria, if you would just clarify something that you said, that some of your partners told you that they are not in love with Assad, and does that mean that the Russians have told you that they are willing to live without him –
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m going to let the Russians speak for themselves. They have made –
QUESTION: But they are the ones that have made that statement. The Russians –
MS. NULAND: They’ve made some public statements along those lines, I believe. Yeah.
QUESTION: Was there today a delegation – a Syrian civil society delegation – at the State Department arguing for a visa issuance for Mufti Hassoun?
MS. NULAND: My understanding is that that conference has now been canceled, so I don’t know about any delegation lobbying here, but that the entire event has now been canceled by the organizers.
QUESTION: There are also news that the Syrian Support Group is opening an office in Washington to further contacts with the State Department. Are you aware of –
MS. NULAND: I’ve seen the press reports. I don’t have any particulars on who these folks might be.