Excerpt from State Department Daily Briefing
QUESTION: Can we talk about Syria?
MS. NULAND: We can.
QUESTION: Portions of a draft of Annan’s proposal for a political transition are now out in public. And the key provision seems to be support for a national unity government that could include members of the current government, the opposition, others, but that would exclude anyone whose presence might undermine the credibility of the government, the credibility of a transition. And it seems to have been rather artfully drafted so as to allow – for example, you guys to say, “Well, that means Assad is gone” and the Russians to say, “No, no. It doesn’t mean Assad is gone,” but at least it gives you something around which you can coalesce to try to look at a transition. Are those reports accurate? And do you believe that Russia, in its willingness to come to the Geneva meeting, has shifted ever so slightly toward a position where maybe Assad should go?
MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, let me refer you to the general comments that the Secretary made when she was in Riga earlier today, with regard to her hopes and expectations for this meeting in Geneva. She underscored, again, that we are going not only to support Kofi Annan’s six-point plan, but because we think that the guidelines and principles he’s put forward for a transition make – form a good basis, and we should now unite as a international community behind them. That said, I’m not going to get into the details of the proposal that we are discussing until we’ve had the meeting, which, as you know, is on Saturday. So I’m, frankly, not going to comment on the various aspects that may or may not be out on the street accurately.
QUESTION: Do you still believe that Russia’s willingness to attend the meeting implies a greater willingness on their part to consider an end to the Assad regime?
MS. NULAND: Well, again, we got into this a little bit yesterday. And I declined yesterday to speak for the Russian Federation, obviously. We do think we’ve made progress over the last few days, as the Secretary has made clear, in narrowing the gaps among us about how a transition could go forward. We think that the plan that Kofi Annan has put out for us to consider at this meeting we’re to have on Saturday forms the right kind of basis. And as you know, the Secretary has just landed in St. Pete, so she’ll have a chance tomorrow to talk bilaterally with Foreign Minister Lavrov. And we’ll have a better sense of where we are after that.
QUESTION: There was another strong explosion in Damascus today. What do you make of the violence moving to the capital? And does this, for you at least, suggest a weakening – a further weakening of Assad’s grip on control?
MS. NULAND: We’ve seen the same reports that you have seen, two blasts occurring in a parking lot outside the Palace of Justice, which houses the ministry and some three people dead, reportedly. We don’t know who’s responsible for the bombing. You know that we condemn violence against innocents from any direction that they come from. But again, this points to the fact that the longer Assad continues on his current course, the longer he perpetrates violence against his own people, he creates the conditions for this kind of loss of control, including in the capital.
QUESTION: Are you worried about an increasingly – I don’t want to say military – tactics by the opposition that are increasingly taking civilian lives on the lives of innocents?
MS. NULAND: We are concerned about any attacks on innocents, any attacks on civilians from any quarter. But the larger concern is – as we’ve said for many, many weeks, it is Assad that bears the brunt of responsibility. He could today – by stopping his forces himself, pulling them back to barracks – change the calculus on the ground, create the conditions for a ceasefire, and end this. The preponderance of violence is coming from him, preponderance of force is his, and the responsibility is his.
QUESTION: And then I just want one last thing – if you want to follow up.
QUESTION: On that particular thing, given that, as you say, the preponderance of force is on his side, and the preponderance of violence is at his behest, why is it unreasonable for the opposition to start, as it appears to have done in the last week with the attack on the state television station and now what I understand is not just the ministry but also the country’s – or the main court in Damascus, for the opposition to be attacking institutions of the state?
MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve said for a long time that the longer the regime-sponsored violence went on, the more likely that the response to it would be increasingly violent. So that doesn’t change the fact, however, we condemn violence against innocents, drawing innocents into this conflict, by any side.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you – I should’ve asked you yesterday when – after Mr. Pinheiro presented his report in Geneva, the analysis of that latest report suggests that this is less and less a political conflict and indeed a sectarian one, where people are being killed or targeted because of their ethnicity or ethnic loyalty and not because of their support or opposition to the regime. Is that something you are sensing as well?
MS. NULAND: The report was full of all kinds of interesting and strong conclusions. I think you’ve picked out a couple of pieces. But the overwhelming message of the report is that because Assad is losing his grip on power, he’s resorting to increasingly grotesque forms of violence, increasingly depending not only on using helicopter gunships against civilians and this kind of indiscriminate firing of his military, the use of the irregulars, but also increasingly using torture, wholesale destruction of entire communities, et cetera.
So again, from our perspective, the biggest take-away from the COI report is that Assad bears responsibility for this and that its actually becoming more violent because he is not able to control what he himself has unleashed.
QUESTION: But regardless of who bears ultimate responsibility, are you equally concerned that the longer this drags on, the message of the armed opposition is becoming diluted and is less focused on, one, removing a dictator from power and is turning more toward settling some deeper ethnic tension or lingering hostility?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think we’ve said also for a long time – the Secretary said it, the President said it – that the longer this goes on, the more likely that the situation descends into a civil war, a sectarian conflict, et cetera. That’s why our focus as a diplomatic community, as an international community, has been in recent days and weeks on trying to present a viable option for a post-Assad transition so that Syrians of all stripes can see that their future will be better without him, that there is a way to move from where we are now to a democratic, stable, multi-ethnic Syria that protects the rights of everybody. Because increasingly, as they worry about not only Assad but each other, they’re tearing the fabric of the country apart.
(Second Excerpt from State Department Briefing / Victoria Nuland)
QUESTION: Can we go back to Syria a minute? You said that your emphasis has been on the violence which is being perpetrated by the regime. What have you said to the other side? Because if there’s a situation theoretically that the Assad regime should stand down and bombings would occur, chaos would occur in Baghdad, they do have a responsibility for reacting to that. So somehow both sides have got to be pressured into bringing this stuff down. What are you doing with regard to the Syrian Liberation Army? And obviously, there are groups that you don’t have control over who are operating there. How do you get them also to bring down the violence, which would, I think, help to get the regime to stop doing what they are doing? Or is it a one-sided affair here?
MS. NULAND: Well, since Kofi Annan put his original six-point plan on the table, we’ve been making clear to all players in Syria that we support the way that plan is crafted, which speaks very clearly about the regime ceasing fire, pulling its weapons back, and opposition responding in kind. So that is what we support. We’re clear about that with all of our opposition contacts across the board.
QUESTION: Is that that they would – first, the regime would pull back and then the opposition would pull back? Is that the –
MS. NULAND: I’m going to refer you back to the Kofi plan, which is out in public – the six-point plan – and that is the strategy that we support. The problem has been that despite its repeated promises, the regime has shown no evidence of implementing any aspect of it, and in fact, the violence has increased since it supposedly committed to the Kofi plan.
QUESTION: Do you have a reaction to the acquittal for Radovan Karadzic on one of the two charges he was facing?
MS. NULAND: Are we switching here?
MS. NULAND: Are we still on Syria here?
QUESTION: Are we back on Syria full-time again?
MS. NULAND: Still on Syria, yeah.
QUESTION: Just today, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov again once more repeated that they are going to go with the helicopters and other arms, they are sending it. What kind of message is this, in your assessment?
MS. NULAND: Well, I didn’t see what you were referring to today, but as I said, the Secretary has a chance to sit down bilaterally with Foreign Minister Lavrov tomorrow. She’ll also see him in Geneva on Saturday. And our message will be unchanged – that any assistance militarily to the regime, we think, takes the country in the wrong direction.
QUESTION: One more on Syria: To best of your knowledge, do you know, has the Turkish ally brought no-fly zone subject to the NATO summit a couple days ago?
MS. NULAND: To the meeting?
MS. NULAND: Beyond saying that we were briefed and the statement that we have, I don’t have anything further for you from the NAC.
QUESTION: Briefed on no-fly zone by –
MS. NULAND: We were briefed on the incident on the downing of the Turkish aircraft and the circumstances surrounding it, and Turkey asked for NATO’s support, which you saw publicly from Rasmussen. I don’t have anything further on the NAC session.
QUESTION: I think what my colleague is referring to perhaps is there’s a Daily Telegraph report which says – which cites a U.S. Government Official as saying that NATO explicit – that Turkey explicitly asked NATO to draw contingency plans for a no-fly zone to protect Turkey in the event of more violence or more incursions into its territory. Can you confirm that?
MS. NULAND: I don’t have a comment one way or the other on the Turkish – on the Telegraph report.
QUESTION: Does the framework of Mr. Annan has any way of making the Syrian President go by the plan or –
MS. NULAND: Well, again, we –
QUESTION: Without getting to details, but does it have this – any mechanism to make sure that –
MS. NULAND: Well, again, as we talked about yesterday, the concern has been that an Assad regime that sees the international community split on what needs to happen going forward, those inside Syria who are on the fence about what should happen, those still supporting him who are on the fence about whether to continue to do that, who see a split international community, may continue to stay on the fence or may continue to support the violence. The goal here has been to unite the international community around a clear path that could lead to a better Syria, that Syrians can see the international community is prepared to help us get from where we are here to what this plan calls for, and will change the calculus inside the country, draw support away from him, and he will understand that he can’t hide behind these big powers anymore.
Following that, or in conjunction with that, as you know, we are continuing to talk, as the Secretary has for many weeks, about whether going back to the UN Security Council for a Chapter 7 resolution with more comprehensive, more internationally enforceable sanctions, and other things will also increase the pressure on Assad. So that’s very much on the table as well.
QUESTION: But Mr. Lavrov is reported to have – saying this morning that no foreign meddling. If no foreign meddling, why is everybody going to Geneva?
MS. NULAND: Well, again, we are going to Geneva to try to put forward a plan that we think the Syrians may be able to rally around. We all agree that the Syrian people have to take their own country forward. This is the international community’s effort to try to help shape a path forward that will give them all confidence that will be with them if they take those steps.
QUESTION: Just one more: Are we – last week, this date, a Syrian pilot who defected to Jordan, in his interview quote, he says, “U.S. is asking us to defect, but U.S. has not given us enough support to do that.” Basically, he’s elaborating that how difficult it is, the regime, on them. And on the other hand, you basically – you are not supporting the FSA publicly. So he’s elaborating this vicious circle that we’re not getting any support, but we are being asked to defect. What’s your respond to that?
MS. NULAND: Well, as we’ve seen over the last week, the number of brave Syrian members of the military who are saying no to Assad’s orders and who are voting with their feet, or voting with their airplanes and leaving the country is increasing. So that also speaks to the fact that the regime is getting increasingly desperate and it is an increasingly bad bet to continue to support it.
QUESTION: So basically, he’s asked for is – this is happening despite the fact that U.S. is not giving enough support to –
MS. NULAND: Again, if what he is doing is calling for U.S. military support, you know that’s not where we are.
(End Excerpt of State Department Noon Briefing)