Special Briefing
Jeffrey D. Feltman
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Via Teleconference
Damascus, Syria
March 7, 2009


OPERATOR: Good morning and thank you for standing by. At this time, I would like to remind all parties your lines have been placed on a listen-only mode until the question-and-answer session. Also, today’s conference call is being recorded. If anyone has any objections, you may disconnect at this time.

I would now like to turn the call over to Mr. Gordon Duguid. Sir, you may begin.

MR. DUGUID: Thank you and good day, everyone. We have with us Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Asian Affairs Jeffrey Feltman from Damascus. We are on the record this morning, and we have, after the Assistant Secretary’s remarks, about 20 minutes for questions. So please try and limit your follow-ons so we can get as many people in as possible.

We can go to you, sir. Ambassador Feltman.

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: Hi, hi, good day, Gordon, and hi – hello to everybody.

Dan Shapiro from the NSC and I, of course, came to Damascus today to build on the February 26th meeting that I had back in Washington with the Syrian ambassador. Of course, this is consistent with the message from President Obama and Secretary Clinton. They have stated their desire to use engagement, you know, with all countries in the region in order to address, you know, issues of mutual concern. And so my visit today with Dan Shapiro is sort of a concrete example of that commitment to use, you know, the sustained and principled dialogue that the President referred to in his Camp Lejeune remarks.

I would characterize the discussions we had today as constructive. We met – along with our Chargé in Damascus, Maura Connelly, we met with the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mu’allim, with the presidential advisor on political and media affairs, Bouthaina Shaaban, and with the Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Faisal Mekdad. We met together for about three and a half hours, and I had some private time with the foreign minister at the end of that meeting. And, you know, we discussed a broad range of issues – regional issues, international issues, as well as bilateral issues – and how we could move forward in a variety of ways.

You know, it’s our view that we would be using engagement like this consistent with the President and Secretary’s desires to meet key objectives bilaterally, regionally, internationally. And it’s our view that, you know, Syria can play an important, constructive role in the region. And so Dan Shapiro’s and my visit here today was an opportunity to basically start achieving objectives by using diplomacy and dialogue as one of our tools.

With that, I think I would prefer to go to questions.

MR. DUGUID: Okay. Thank you very much. Operator, can we go to our first questioner, please?

OPERATOR: Thank you. To ask a question, please press *1. To accommodate as many questions as possible, please limit your number of questions. Again, *1 to ask a question. One moment.

Thank you. Arshad Mohammed, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Good morning, Ambassador Feltman. Can you point to any concrete achievement that resulted from these meetings, either in the bilateral relationship or regionally or internationally? Is the U.S. Government any closer now, or has it decided to restore or return a U.S. ambassador to Damascus? And is the U.S. Government any more interested now in supporting the indirect Syrian-Israeli peace talks that the Bush Administration seemed to have relatively little interest in? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: Thank you. You know, the President, when he asked Dan and me to travel to Damascus, when the Secretary talked to us about this trip when we were together with her in Sharm el-Sheikh and in Israel and Ramallah, you know, they talked about engagement as a means to achieve goals, as a way to achieve objectives.

But – so we came out here with the idea that yes, we should be addressing with the Syrians areas of mutual concern. We have areas where our interests overlap. We have areas where our interests differ. So we do want to achieve goals. But this is also a process. I met with the Syrian ambassador in Washington on February 26th. We had good discussions. We had our meetings today with the foreign minister. We – I said these were constructive.

I don’t want to comment today on what we’ve achieved or not achieved. The goal is certainly to achieve diplomatic objectives through engagement, but this is part of – this is, you know, part of a process and we’ll see how it develops. The Syrians have concerns with us as well. I’m sure the Syrians will be looking at choices we will be making in the future, just as we’ll be looking at choices that Syria is making.

In terms of the Israeli-Syrian track, I think the President’s been clear, the Secretary’s been clear, the United States wants a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. And I consciously did not use the word “process” but simply the word “peace.” They want to achieve peace. Comprehensive peace includes peace between Israel and all of its neighbors. That means that there will be a Syrian-Israel track at some point. At this point, though, we need to be a bit patient, let the government formation exercise in Israel play itself out.

But Senator Mitchell’s mandate from the President and the Secretary is definitely a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. Right now, he’s been focusing primarily on the Israeli-Palestinian part of this, working toward a two-state solution, but his mandate does include comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. So we do want to see forward momentum on the Syrian-Israeli track at the time when the parties are ready for this.

MR. DUGUID: Thank you. Next questioner.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Zayad Hadar, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yes. Mr. Feltman, I need to know, does the Obama Administration have a strategy to work on with Syria and Iran? Or is it just improvising on the concept of really having dialogue and then seeing how far it can go?

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: As I – as I’ve said, the President and the Secretary have a goal-oriented strategy. You know, you want to achieve things. You’ve heard the – you heard the President talk about the stable and secure Iraq that he wants to see as part of the responsible drawdown that the President announced at Camp Lejeune. And so dialogue, engagement, diplomacy, these are things you use along with other tools in order to meet certain objectives.

I don’t want to go into a lot of detail in what was discussed in diplomatic channels today or elsewhere, but you know, you’ve heard the Syrians say that they want a stable, secure Iraq. We (inaudible) Iraq. Both sides say they want a unified Iraq. There are areas like this where our interests coincide (inaudible) the Syrians say their interests are. And these are areas that we can explore. The (inaudible) – these are the sorts of subjects (inaudible) can address.

You know, let’s see where our interests overlap, where we can together promote goals in the region, and let’s see where our interests don’t intersect, if we can try to bridge some of the differences and address each other’s concerns.

MR. DUGUID: Thank you. We have some cross-chatter. Please could we have the next question?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Toshia Umahara, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Hello? Hello?

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: Hello?

MR. DUGUID: Please ask your question.

QUESTION: Yeah, could you (inaudible) talk about whether or not did you address the issue of nonproliferation with (inaudible) about the alleged cooperation about nuclear with North Korea?

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: You know, again, I would characterize the discussions today as both constructive and comprehensive, but I’m not going to get into details about what we discussed. We all – we both agreed, the foreign minister and I both agreed, that it’s – that we want to try to see what we can achieve through private talks right now, and so I’m not going to get into a lot of detail.

I think you know our positions on nuclear nonproliferation and things like that, because we’ve been fairly clear. We are – you know, we’re looking to the IAEA for their examination of various concerns, but I really don’t want to get into details of our topics today, except to say that they were constructive and comprehensive.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Sam Ghattas, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Mr. Feltman, do you have any plans to meet the president of Syria? And is there any significance for not meeting him on this trip? Is – do you see a Syrian message to the United States that they would like to see their ambassador back in Damascus before having such a meeting? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: Sam, we have a really – now I hear cross-talk, I’m sorry.

MR. DUGUID: Jeff, (inaudible).

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: Sam, we have a very talented chargé in Damascus and we have a very hardworking Embassy staff, so there’s already people on the ground here in Damascus who can engage with the Syrians on a variety of subjects in addition to having visits like the one that Dan Shapiro and I are on today.

The – what was the first part of your question again? I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Do you have any plans to meet with the Syrian president and is there any --

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: Oh, that’s right, that’s right. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: -- significance for not meeting him?

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: I’m sorry. What we – Sam, what we did – you know, when the President and the Secretary ask us to use engagement, again, to try to achieve certain goals, to explore the bilateral relationship, to compare notes on regional and international developments, we asked for meetings with Syrian officials. We did not specify which Syrian officials. We wanted to leave that up to the Syrians to decide who was most appropriate for us to meet with today. And as I say, we met with the foreign minister, with Minister Shaaban, with Dr. Mekdad, and I’d say that, you know, this was a, you know, appropriate, comprehensive, constructive meeting, as I said before and, I can add, a lengthy meeting at three and a half hours plus a private conversation at the end.

So we stated that we want to come to Damascus, we wanted to come and talk to officials, but we didn’t, you know, try to dictate to the Syrians who our interlocutors would be. You know, we chose – the President and the Secretary chose to send us, and the Syrians chose who would receive us. And I think that’s fine.

MR. DUGUID: Thank you. Next questioner, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from James Rosen. You may ask your question.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

First, just a housekeeping matter: Jeff, we’re very grateful to you for arranging for this conference call and ditto to the State Department. But in announcing it, the State Department Press Office specified that the sound of your voice, the actual recordings that are being made of your – of your answers may not be used for broadcast purposes. And I wonder if you might reconsider that for those of us in the broadcast realm, TV and radio, who want to give appropriate attention to the very important trip you’ve made and want to be able to cover it, if you would consider allowing us to use the sound of your voice and not just the text of the words.

The second question is, without asking you to delve into any of the details of your conversations today: first, if you could give us a sense of your itinerary going forward; and secondly, we must bear in mind that these are discussions you’re having with representatives of a country that is still on the State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism, and I wonder if you could, again, without delving into the areas that you specifically discussed, give us a sense of how actively you believe the Syrian Government is still engaged in terrorist activities in and out of the region. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: In terms of the rules of this interview, you know, I’m not the rule keeper, I’m not the rule enforcer, and so I’m going to leave that to Gordon and his colleagues to work out. I --

QUESTION: But you have no (inaudible).

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: I will leave this all to Gordon and people to work out. I’m not even going to comment on this. I’m not the professional media meister here.

In terms of my itinerary, I’ll answer the last part first. We will – Dan Shapiro and I will be going back to Beirut tomorrow. We’ll continue the consultations that we started yesterday with the Lebanese. You know, with upcoming Lebanese elections, with the establishment of the special tribunal that came into being last Sunday, there’s a lot to talk about with the Lebanese. So we will be having more consultations with the Lebanese tomorrow.

I then am stopping in Europe for some consultations with French counterparts, and I’ll be back in the office early in the week. So that’s the itinerary.

In terms of Syria, FTO, et cetera, as I said, we’ve got concerns with Syria, I’m sure Syria has concerns with us. Today was an opportunity to start to raise some of these concerns with each other directly, in addition to the dialogue that takes place already between our embassies and officials in capitals. You know, the reason why Syria is on that list is because Syria is playing host to some organizations like Hamas, you know, and we believe that Syria is supporting groups like Hezbollah. I think everyone knows why Syria is on that list.

But you know, my job today was not finger pointing per se. My job today was to discuss a whole variety of bilateral, regional, and international issues where we do have differences. In some cases, we do have overlapping interests. But you know, you use engagement not to confirm where you agree, but you use engagement to try to start bridging differences where you don’t agree.

MR. DUGUID: Thank you. Next questioner, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Lukman Ahmed, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yes, if I may just follow up about the – Syria’s support to Hezbollah as it generate a problem between the United States and Syria. And have you sensed any cooperation or understanding that this issue might be (inaudible) through your contacts there in Syria, Mr. Feltman?

And the second question: What kind of level of the next meeting would be, if there will be any?

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: You know, let’s keep our expectations somewhat in check here. We – I had a very good meeting with the Syrian ambassador on February 26th. Dan Shapiro, the chargé of our Embassy here, Maura Connelly, and I had a very good meeting today, a very long meeting today, with the Syrian foreign minister and a couple of other officials.

But the differences between our two countries will require more work than simply two conversations like this in order to address. We found a lot of common ground today. We were able to talk about a lot of issues. We were able to – you know, there were no subjects that were taboo. We tabled a lot of various issues. But in terms of do we expect this result or that result out of this particular meeting, I think that’s simply unrealistic at this point.

We will be looking – you know, we will be looking at the choices Syria makes, and Syria will be looking at the choices we make in the days to come. We will be, you know, looking at what opportunities for engagement there might be in coming weeks based on what we see as an aftermath of these meetings. But we have not had sustained and principled engagement like the President has called for with Syria for quite some time, so a lot of these concerns that the Syrians have with us, the concerns that we have with the Syrians, you know, are going to take some time for that sustained and principled engagement to achieve results. We want to achieve results. I’m sure that the Syrians want to achieve results. But let’s not expect that things are going to change dramatically from today until tomorrow.

In terms of Hezbollah, which you asked the question about Hezbollah, you know, I would refer to Syria’s public statements that Syria fully backs UN Security Council Resolution 1701, because certainly that’s been a principle of the United States as well. The United States fully backs Security Council Resolution 1701. This is the Security Council resolution that led to the cessation of hostilities after the July-August 2006 war. And so I think if we use as a principle Security Council Resolution 1701 as our objective, right there, for example, is a way for us to address some areas where we might not agree.

MR. DUGUID: Thank you. I think we have time for one more question, one final question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our final question comes from Hisham Melham.

QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: Hi, Hisham.

QUESTION: What would you expect the Syrians to do as a prelude for higher-level meetings and a return of the American ambassador to Damascus?

AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: You know, Hisham, this was not a meeting where the Syrians set up benchmarks for us or we set up benchmarks for the Syrians. This was a meeting consistent with the Secretary and the President’s request that we try to use engagement to achieve goals. You know, so I don’t really want to try to give you a list of things that we’re looking for and the Syrians – or a list that the Syrians might be looking for with us. We had, as I’ve said – I will repeat it – we had constructive, comprehensive talks today. I would expect that the Syrians will be thinking about what we had to say, just as we will be thinking about what the Syrians had to say. And each of us can look to see if there are ways to address the differences that were raised.

But in terms of, you know, a laundry list or benchmarks, that was not the atmosphere of the discussions today. That was not the purpose in coming out. The purpose was, you know, yes, to register concerns, certainly, and to give the Syrians an opportunity to explain to us their concerns about us, to give the Syrians an opportunity to tell us their vision for the bilateral relationship, just as we were able to give the Syrians our view of what a constructive bilateral relationship would be. But you know, I think each of us have a lot to think about after today’s meeting, and each of us have things that we can look at in the days moving forward. But no, no benchmarks.

MR. DUGUID: Thank you very much, Ambassador. Ladies and gentlemen in the press, thank you very much for calling in today. That is all the time we have, and we will sign off at this point.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That concludes today’s conference call. You may disconnect at this time.




PRN: 2009/193