Background Briefing on Secretary Clinton's Bilateral Meetings With Lebanese Prime Minister Miqati and UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Syria Brahimi
MODERATOR: All right, everybody. We are here with [Senior State Department Official], hereafter Senior State Department Official, to give you a sense of the Secretary’s meetings this morning with Lebanese Prime Minister Miqati and UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Syria Brahimi.
Go ahead, [Senior State Department Official].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. You guys can all hear me? Everybody hear me at the back? All right. Andy, don’t laugh at me.
QUESTION: (Off-mike.) (Laughter.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I’ll give a quick rundown of her meeting with Special Representative Brahimi and then with Prime Minister Miqati, a minute or two on the Security Council session tomorrow, and then open it up to your questions.
The main purpose of the Secretary’s meeting with Brahimi – this was her first in his capacity as the Special Representative on Syria – was to hear his impressions of the consultations that he’s been doing with the Assad regime, with various elements of the opposition, and with a number of the key regional stakeholders and countries. And so she had a lot of questions for him about what he had seen, what he had learned, what his views were about the way forward. He was open and expansive with her. They were very candid in exchanging their views and perspectives.
He described the situation, as he has in many forums, as challenging, that Assad remains intransigent, and that there is still work to do with respect to the opposition coalescing around a common pathway forward, and delved into some detail on that coming out of his meetings in Damascus and his meetings with the opposition. He was clear with her, as he’s also been clear with many other interlocutors and even publicly, that he is not going to rush into putting a plan on the table, that he wants to be systematic in doing his consultations, he wants to look for opportunities and openings, he wants to find as many building blocks as he can piece together to ultimately come up with a strategy that he believes is workable.
And the Secretary wasn’t surprised to hear that, because he’s communicated that in a number of different places, but was broadly supportive of that approach of taking a systematic, deliberative approach that Brahimi has embraced. We expect him now to undertake both here in New York and then back out in the region another round of consultations with many if not all of the key players before he goes ahead and puts something forward.
They did spend some time at a broad level discussing ideas about how to bring about an effective political transition to a new democratic Syria. And in that respect, they had some discussion of the Geneva communiqué and elements of it that might be evergreen, so to speak, useful even at this point. And the Secretary was clear about her view that Geneva retains a great deal of value, but as we’ve long said, only if consequences are attached to it for noncompliance.
They spent some time reviewing efforts by the opposition to follow up on the Cairo meeting that was held under Arab League auspices in August, and efforts both inside and outside to coalesce the opposition, both on the political dimension and in terms of trying to deliver services on the ground in areas that the regime no longer controls.
And at the end of the meeting, they had a brief discussion about the ad hoc meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People on Friday, and they agreed that they would stay in touch over the next couple of days as he reflects on what, coming out of that meeting, might be useful for him and his purposes as he tries to carry his work forward. So that was Brahimi.
With Prime Minister Miqati, they had a very candid discussion about the issue of the protests that have unfolded over the last couple of weeks across the Middle East and North Africa, including in Lebanon. The Prime Minister discussed issues around the video and issues related to freedom of expression and this concept of defamation of religion. The Secretary had a very good reference in the President’s speech, which had just been given, to kind of walk through our perspective and our arguments, and it was actually quite a constructive, wide-ranging discussion on that set of issues.
They spent the bulk of the meeting talking about the potential risks and threats to Lebanon’s stability arising out of the conflict in Syria, including the refugee flows into Lebanon. And Prime Minister Miqati highlighted his concerns about extremists coming into Lebanon and potentially using the north as a platform for operations that would destabilize both Lebanon and the surrounding areas.
The Secretary very much acknowledged that risk and reinforced our view that there is risk in the south, a very acute risk in the south, and in fact more than a risk – an actuality of Hezbollah using its areas as a platform for destabilizing Syria and also creating real challenges in other parts of the world as well.
That meeting probably went 30 minutes. The meeting with Brahimi went about an hour. The end of the Miqati meeting they had a one-on-one that, because we were moving so quickly and I was coming over here, I haven’t gotten a readout on.
And then finally, with respect to tomorrow, the Germans, who are the hosts of the Security Council this month, have set up a very broad umbrella for this session. And so you can expect that, from a number of different members of the Council, they will raise a wide variety of issues – everything from the Middle East peace process to Syria, to the transitions, to the freedom of expression issues that we’ve been dealing with, to terrorism, and really the whole waterfront of challenges that are confronting the Middle East and North Africa.
The Secretary is going to focus her intervention on the United States’s view that despite the turbulent waters of the last couple of weeks, our course, with respect to supporting the transitions that are unfolding in transitioning countries and reform in other countries, is fundamentally the right course and our strategy is fundamentally the right strategy. And she will focus tomorrow more on the security dimensions of that, how we can support these countries as they try to strengthen their security sectors and rule of law. And then at the Deauville meeting later in the week she’ll carry that theme forward with a greater emphasis on the political and economic dimensions of these transitions.
So with that, I’d be happy to take a few questions. Well, not happy, but I will – (laughter).
MODERATOR: Elise, Elise.
QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit more about – as they discussed it, about Lebanon’s security? I didn’t understand – that he was worried that – is he worried about Hezbollah allowing extremists to use its territory to destabilize Syria? And I was just kind of – I was just wondering if you could flesh that out a little.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He’s worried about violent extremists coming into Lebanon, especially the north of Lebanon, from outside the country.
QUESTION: Right, right.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And potentially instigating violence inside Lebanon or using Lebanon as a base of operations to carry out violence elsewhere.
MODERATOR: Along the lines of what we’ve already seen.
QUESTION: Right. But I mean, you would think that they would – that Hezbollah would not allow its territory to do that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well --
QUESTION: Unless it was against the rebels --
MODERATOR: We’re talking about the north.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. So –
QUESTION: But could you – will you give us --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think – so the north of Lebanon obviously is not an area that Hezbollah controls.
QUESTION: And with Brahimi, did the Qatari speech to the General Assembly come up today, where he appears to call for military intervention in Syria by other Arab (inaudible)? Are you familiar with that? And even if it didn’t come up with Brahimi, what’s your view of it?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I saw a press report relating to a potential no-fly zone as a Plan B if the Brahimi effort doesn’t bear fruit. I’ve only seen that one press report, so I’m just not in a position to comment. We’ve made clear what our view is at the moment on questions related to military intervention and no-fly zones. It did not specifically come up in this meeting. Brahimi is very focused on how you create the conditions for some kind of diplomatic process to unfold. But he was also realistic, that right at the moment, we’re not around the corner from a diplomatic process being launched, and more work needs to be done to lay the ground.
QUESTION: Do you see momentum for that Plan B among Arab nations?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think on Friday we’ll have an opportunity to dig into questions relating to steps that various stakeholders can take beyond what we’ve taken so far. We’ve had intensive consultations with the Turks on the entire range of contingencies. We’ve obviously had conversations with our partners in the Gulf, with the Jordanians, and others.
I don’t regard the Qatari position as fundamentally new. This is something that they have discussed in the past and have raised as a prospect or possibility at the right time under the right circumstances. We have obviously never, at any point, taken anything off the table, but we’ve been clear that, in our view, military intervention from the outside right now would do more harm than good.
QUESTION: You mentioned what you thought Brahimi felt about there not being a diplomatic solution around the corner. I mean, does the Secretary share that view? And is there anything that she or the United States is trying to do at these meetings this week to get something going?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We believe that there is still room, as Brahimi does, for a negotiated transition, political transition that leads to an interim government and ultimately to a new Syria. The point I was trying to make is he doesn’t think that’s going to happen tomorrow or next week, that there has to be more consultation, more work done on both sides.
Now, with respect to what we’re trying to get done on Friday, one of the major focuses of the meeting – and [Senior State Department Official] will have a chance to give you a full preview of Friday’s meeting. But it’s fair to say that one of the major points of focus of the meeting on Friday will be to generate a common effort by all of the countries that are gathered to keep driving forward this follow-up to the August transition plan that the opposition put forward to try to create greater cohesion among a broad swath of the opposition and try to effectively connect the external opposition with the internal opposition on the ground. So in that respect, taking steps related to opposition cohesion is something I think the Secretary sees as an important predicate to an effective transition, an effective diplomatic process that produces the result we’re looking for.
QUESTION: Also to follow up on that, just so I’m sort of clear, you did talk about this idea of opposition cohesion as one central focus, but you also talked about the Qatari and another potential Plan B. Are these things going to go on parallel tracks, i.e, Brahimi will keep trying to create his diplomatic sort of playing field while you guys continue to actually start spelling out what Plan B is? Or is there some conflict there? I mean, can one – does the second one have to wait for – give Brahami time to do his thing?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We have, at various points over the last year, had references to Plan Bs, Plan Cs, Plan Ds. There’s kind of a consistent meme that emerges in the commentary on Syria. I think our view over the past few months has been that it’s more profitable to think about what the basic theory of the case is, and that is that we want to continue to ratchet up the pressure and increase the isolation on the regime so that they are more likely to be prepared – and those around them are more likely to be prepared – to be part of a transition process that leads to a new Syria.
So we are pursuing in parallel efforts to coalesce the opposition, efforts to pressure the regime, and efforts to support the opposition on the ground with nonlethal assistance like communications gear and other things, so that they can do – take measures to protect themselves and defend themselves and also to try to provide sort of a basic livelihood as they continue – to the people around them as they continue to face an unrelenting assault from the opposition – from the government.
So the bottom line is that we don’t see multiple different paths where you go down one for a while, stop, and get on another one. We see a number of tracks that operate in parallel that all add up to a common goal, which is to produce an endgame where the institutions of Syria remain intact, but Assad is gone, those around him are gone, and you have a democratic, representative, inclusive Syria in their place.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official] – sorry. Can I ask you about your statement that there’s still space for the diplomatic solution? Because I understand that the only redline that’s been outlined by this Administration is the use or deployment of chemical weapons. So space in theory would be eternal right now, because there’s no endpoint that would break that space for a diplomatic solution, right? There’s no point at which you are saying now we have to stop speaking, if that’s --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I guess I was making less of a policy statement there than a descriptive statement, which is to say that we believe that the conditions can be created for a diplomatic solution to this. This is not about drawing redlines or talking about pivots or things like that. I was merely trying to underscore that what Brahimi is trying to do is a tall order There’s no doubt about it. We face enormous challenges on the ground in Syria. The violence has escalated. The willingness of the regime to throw every asset it has at the people of Syria has been absolutely confirmed in blood.
And so we are mindful of how difficult and challenging this is, but we also believe that there remains the potential and possibility of working out some kind of political transition that leads to an interim authority and ultimately to a new government.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So in saying that, I’m not trying to suggest that that’s going to go for a while and then we move on to the next thing.
MODERATOR: I mean, this is not new on our part. The Secretary’s been talking for months now about parallel tracks of pressure, cohesion of the opposition to create the conditions for transition.
QUESTION: Right. But how do you add urgency to the process if it just seems open-ended, that there is no point at which that space for diplomacy is going to close? It doesn’t really drive home to the Assad regime that (inaudible).
QUESTION: And can I just add on to that respect, please? It does seem that all your tracks lead to – the one thing is that this opposition piece – no matter how successful you are on these other tracks, this opposition piece is really one of the most critical, because if the other tracks are working and the opposition isn’t ready, you’re in trouble. It just – I see this as what’s dog – like like bedeviling.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: So urgency first. (Laughter.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Urgency first, bedeviling second. Is that where we are? (Laughter.)
On the urgency point, I guess I’m pausing because I’m trying to make sure I fully understand the question. Assad and those around him are clearly facing a substantial amount of pressure and are paying a heavy price for doing what they’re doing in their isolation in the international community, in the squeeze on their economy, in the defections that have gone on, in the military pressure they’re feeling on the ground from the opposition. So there are a substantial number of pressure points that are not creating just open running room for him to do as he pleases. Quite the contrary –
MODERATOR: And the territory he’s already lost.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- he has been losing territory. He has been losing currency. He has been losing friends. And he’s been losing regime supporters. So from our perspective, there are a number of elements here which absolutely point up the urgency of what the opposition on the ground, first and foremost, but then the international community behind them are trying to do. And I would just caution against having as the only metric of urgency be military action by someone outside the country.
On the issue of the opposition, this is a complicated, multisided, diplomatic effort involving people on the inside and people on the outside, involving people of different backgrounds and different professions and different regions of the country. And it is not surprising that it takes both time and real spadework to try to create a cohesive opposition that can effectively steward a transition.
But I think you are right to say that it is a fundamentally important ingredient to a long-term, viable solution in Syria, and that’s why we’re putting so much energy and effort into it. And it’s why today the Secretary was very much encouraging Special Representative Brahimi to himself be very focused on this element of it; that as he tries to pursue diplomacy, it is in his interest to help contribute to a more cohesive opposition that can play an effective role in carrying out the transition.
MODERATOR: Margaret and then Michel.
QUESTION: Thanks. You said Assad’s losing friends. Is there any reason to believe that the reception at the UN is going to be more warm on the fourth try to get action versus the past three which have failed because they’ve having holdouts in the Security Council in the past (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: When you say the fourth try, what are you referring to?
QUESTION: The three previous tries to have some sort of UN intervention or any kind of consequence. You talked about adding more bite to some of the efforts to stop the violence.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. I mean, it’s basically been our view since the third veto by the Russians and the Chinese that the most profitable investment of our time and energy is not, at the moment, in the Security Council. It’s in supporting the opposition on the ground, trying to get the opposition cohered, attending to the --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Russians?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I’m not. We – as the Secretary was very, I think, candid about in Vladivostok, we have not seen eye-to-eye with the Russians on this. It is our view that, over time, as the fears they express about what a protracted struggle in Syria means for regional stability become clearer, that they will eventually recognize that being part of the solution is in their fundamental interests. But they haven’t done that yet.
QUESTION: Is it correct, [Senior State Department Official], that Brahimi feels the same way that Kofi did about the Geneva plan, that he’s – or is he not doing that? Is he not coming out in favor of that because he knows it’s a --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He took that on board. He didn’t opine on the subject today. So the short answer is that we didn’t hear directly from him today what his view is on how to best implement the Geneva plan. The Secretary described her view of consequences and he --
QUESTION: I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I really understand the point of the meeting. I mean, if you hung everything on the Geneva plan --
MODERATOR: No. You’re over-reading what [Senior State Department Official] said. What [Senior State Department Official] said was that as Brahimi develops his plan, which is going to include --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Elements – I said elements of the Geneva plan would be part of it. The Secretary was --
MODERATOR: You shouldn’t draw --
QUESTION: The implementation of it is not something that would be discussed?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I guess I’m not sure I’m following what you’re saying.
QUESTION: Well --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Brahimi’s trying to --
QUESTION: Brahimi has inherited this thing, this plan, from Kofi, and the job from him.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: When – before Kofi left, he was talking about how he needed the tools, he needed a resolution.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: You guys supported it. The Russians and the Chinese didn’t.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: To actually implement it of course. And I’m wondering if Brahimi feels the same way. And what I think you just said is that they didn’t discuss that. So I’m puzzled as to why – the only thing that you have going for you, you didn’t talk about implementing it.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me try to clarify. Brahimi inherited the job from Kofi; he didn’t inherit any particular plan from Kofi. He’s coming at this, trying to do a round or multiple rounds of consultations before he decides what the vehicle is he wants to use to drive forward. Today --
QUESTION: So he --
QUESTION: Introducing it as a basis?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Today, they talked about how elements of the Geneva plan could be useful as he constructs the components of his political transition strategy or his negotiating strategy. Then there’s the added dimension of, having done that, what is the vehicle through which you implement it. Is it a Security Council resolution with consequences, is it some other mechanism? And I guess the point I’m making is they did not get into detail on that today.
QUESTION: So the --
MODERATOR: Okay. We’re going to take – we’re going to let Michel over here – we’re going to take two more and then [Senior State Department Official] has got to go.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], is the Secretary planning to meet with the opposition this week for Walid Muallem?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, Robert can – not with Walid Muallem, but she is planning to meet with opposition figures who would participate in the ad hoc meeting on Friday, and Robert can give you the specifics on who will come.
MODERATOR: We’re going to have a pre-brief of the Friends of Syrian People ad hoc on Thursday when we have a little bit better sense of the outlines, so we’ll give you – on that.
And last one for Jo.
QUESTION: Thank you. You mentioned that possible tracks was to support the opposition as they seek to protect themselves and defend themselves. Is there anything more you can tell us about that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. I mean, we are – we’ve been very clear about our assistance and the type of assistance we’re providing and to whom. And that’s going to continue, and --
QUESTION: Is it going to be increased in any form?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ll have more to say about that on Friday, so I think you can expect to hear from her some announcements relating to opposition support funding – not changes in the fundamental character, but as we have – we had an initial $15 million. As we’ve sent it through, obviously, we need to address that question, and she’ll speak to that on Friday.
QUESTION: But they’re still talking about nonlethal aid?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right.
QUESTION: So would it be fair to say she’s going to announce additional support?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I --
QUESTION: I mean, you – I mean, is that something --
MODERATOR: We’ll have more when we have more for you, but I think [Senior State Department Official] just leaned into it, right? Let’s --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I leaned into it.
QUESTION: Suggested it.
MODERATOR: (Laughter.) All right, and we need to let him go.