Victoria Nuland
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
February 13, 2013

Index for Today's Briefing
    • Readout of Secretary Kerry's Call with Pakistani President Zardari
    • Secretary Kerry's Remarks
    • Russian Relationship with Assad Regime / Continued Russian Resupply
    • Continuing to Work Toward Peaceful Political Transition
    • U.S. Support to Opposition / Nonlethal Assistance
    • European Union Sanctions
    • Syrians Must Work Out Transition Plan / Accountability for Assad
    • SOC Calling for Discussion
    • Sanctions Are Having an Effect
    • U.S. Support for Defectors
    • Core Group for Reconciliation
    • Threats Against Akram Aylisi


This video is available on YouTube with closed captions.

1:39 p.m. EST

MS. NULAND: All right, everybody. Happy Wednesday. The Secretary did most of the work today, so I’m thinking we can clean up here with a dispatch. I have one thing at the top, and then we’ll go to what’s on your minds.

In the context of the phone calls that the Secretary has been making to foreign leaders, he spoke by phone yesterday with Pakistani President Zardari. As you may know, Secretary Kerry has a longstanding relationship with many Pakistani leaders, and he used the opportunity of the phone call to underscore the continuing importance of an effective, strong, and mutually beneficial U.S.-Pakistani relationship. He emphasized that Pakistan and the United States have many shared interests, including fighting terrorism and extremism, supporting democratic civilian institutions, and supporting Pakistan’s efforts to increase economic growth, and obviously the – our shared interest in regional stability, including a secure and peaceful future for Afghanistan. And he noted our ongoing interest in finding a concrete way to act jointly in support of all of these goals, and he made clear that he looks forward to working with President Zardari going forward.

So let’s go to what’s on your minds.

QUESTION: Do you have any other --

MS. NULAND: That was --

QUESTION: -- only call to report?

MS. NULAND: Well, he’s made many calls --

QUESTION: Other than frantically trying to call Foreign Minister Lavrov.

MS. NULAND: There’s been nothing frantic about it. He’s reached out to Foreign Minister --

QUESTION: Really? He’s not sitting there with the redial button?

MS. NULAND: He’s – he reached out to Foreign Minister Lavrov yesterday, made it clear again today that he’s ready to talk whenever Foreign Minister Lavrov can find the time.

QUESTION: All right. So --

MS. NULAND: There have been a number of other calls, though. I can give you a list, but I didn’t bring readouts on all of them today.

QUESTION: Well, maybe we can do that at the very end or on background or something.


QUESTION: In the interest of being brief and with the expectation that I’m going to get an extremely brief non-answer, I just wanted to ask you if there was any way you could elaborate at all on what the Secretary said upstairs just now about him having a good sense of what he wants to propose or what should be proposed to change Assad – President Assad’s thinking about clutching to power.

MS. NULAND: Well, as you heard, the Secretary spoke pretty extensively about our concerns with regard to --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) He said a lot of words, but there wasn’t a lot of specifics in it in terms of what he – his ideas and what his good sense is of what --

MS. NULAND: Well, he – what he did talk about was the need to change Assad’s calculation with regard to his staying power. He also spoke extensively about the President’s preference, his preference – that we find a peaceful political solution whereby Assad goes and an interim government that is consensually agreed takes power. He also made clear that this is a subject that he’s going to be working on and consulting with other leaders on in the coming days and weeks. So as you predicted, Matt, I’m not going to improve on his words.

QUESTION: Okay. There is no – there’s nothing that you can offer to elaborate on his ideas for changing Assad’s thinking?

MS. NULAND: I think he made clear that as thinking develops, he’ll be sharing it with you.


QUESTION: But Victoria, just a little bit more clarification, because I’m not quite sure I understand it. Is the idea --

MS. NULAND: That’s a good technique, Jill. Let’s see if that’s going to work.

QUESTION: Well, it’s true. I’m speaking out of complete ignorance, so I just want to be informed. Is he saying that there is an effort to change Assad’s mind about whether he can stay in power?

MS. NULAND: Without going too deeply into it, I think what he – what the Secretary was indicating was that Assad may think that he can ride this out. We don’t think that’s right. The Syrian opposition is making steady gains. So he needs to understand that his days are numbered and that the best way to save his country, if he truly cares about it, and his people, although his acts would belie that, is to allow a real discussion about a peaceful political transition.

QUESTION: Toria --

QUESTION: Would this be a direct way – I’m sorry, but would this be making an overture directly to him to convince him of this, or is this to change something on the ground to make him see it?

MS. NULAND: Again, Jill, I don’t want to get ahead of what the Secretary may be thinking as he begins to work with other governments. I think we’ll be hearing more about this in coming days and weeks.

QUESTION: Victoria, on this very point, there seems to be a – the Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Judeh, they don’t see eye to eye on this issue. Secretary Kerry made it firm that Assad must step down, and Foreign Minister Judeh said that we need to meet somewhere in the middle. So, do you see this as a discrepancy between the two?

MS. NULAND: I have to tell you that neither in the meeting nor in the press conference did I feel any difference between the two men on this subject, that the question is whether we can move this to a peaceful political transition. The Foreign Minister was simply stating the fact that there is one position in Assad’s mind and another position in the SOC’s mind. I think both men were talking about how the international community supports the SOC and supports the Syrian people in trying to get that political process started because that’s the best way to end the bloodshed.

QUESTION: But he did say we must meet in the middle somewhere, we’re looking for a solution – at least that’s the message.

MS. NULAND: Again, I think you’re making – creating a difference that didn’t exist.

Kim, please.

QUESTION: The only thing that will likely change President Assad’s calculation and make him realize that he needs to move towards the exit is if the power balance changes on the ground, and the only way to do that is to arm the rebels. And Senator Kerry, in May, said exactly that. So when Secretary Kerry today says, “My goal is to change the calculation of President Assad,” is that what he’s referring to?

MS. NULAND: Well, Kim, I don’t know that I’m going to accept your premise at the start of the question, that there is only one --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) put forward by Senator Kerry himself.

MS. NULAND: Understood. He’s obviously now Secretary Kerry, working as the President’s Secretary of State in an interagency process. But I think you felt him today, I hope you felt him today, very much grasping what needs to be done here and working hard inside the Administration and soon with counterparts to try to change the calculation. But I’m not going to foreshadow what specific steps might be coming.

QUESTION: How big a role does Russia play in helping to change his calculation? There was mention today that the Jordanian King is going to be going to Russia --


QUESTION: -- I would imagine to discuss Syria and what efforts Russia can bring to bear on Assad.

MS. NULAND: Well, Jo, we’ve talked about this a lot here over the last year. When you talk about what might change, what’s going through Assad’s mind, we’ve talked many times about the fact that they still feel comfortable in their relationship with the Russian Federation, that even though we’ve had public statements recently from high-level Russians saying that they don’t have any particular love for Assad, as – if they continue to resupply arms, if they continue to help him economically, then he doesn’t have to feel much pressure from them. So that’s certainly one aspect that, were it to change, which we think and we haven’t been shy about this, could have an impact, could be part of changing the calculation.

Miss Michele in the back, please. Nice to see you in the room.

QUESTION: Okay. Senator Kerry, when he was senator, also had met several times with Bashar al-Assad, and I wonder if he’s made any effort to reach out directly to him since he’s been --

MS. NULAND: Absolutely not, and I would not be expecting that.


MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: But, I mean, if you’re trying to change your calculation, dealing with someone you’ve had a relationship with before might be one way to start.

MS. NULAND: Suffice to say at the time that he had the relationship with him, it was well before he was involved in the bloody massacre of thousands and thousands of his own people.

QUESTION: Let me just ask about the Russia, because Russia announced today that it is going to continue fulfilling contracts. Has – is the State Department raising this with the Russians? Have you done anything, responded to it directly?

QUESTION: He won’t pick up the phone. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: If you can’t get him on the phone --

MS. NULAND: I think it’s fair to say, Michele, that in every conversation with a senior Russian leader, from President Putin through Foreign Minister Lavrov and all the way down, the issue of Russia’s continued resupply of Syria comes up.

QUESTION: Maybe you can text him. (Laughter.) Can I just ask you, in response to Kim’s question, about what then-Senator Kerry said about the way to change the – are you saying now that Secretary Kerry’s thinking may not be the same as Senator Kerry’s thinking?

MS. NULAND: I’m saying simply that I’m not going to get ahead of the work that the Secretary is doing on this, that the thinking that he is going through, that the consultations that he’s had in the interagency, and he will talk more about this, I’m sure, in coming days and weeks.

QUESTION: So you’re leaving open the option that what he averred as a senator may change after he gets in the interagency process, that his thinking might change?

MS. NULAND: I’m leaving all options open with regard to U.S. policy vis-à-vis Syria.

QUESTION: And then just for clarity, you mentioned again a little bit earlier his days are numbered. Do you remember exactly or roughly how many days ago you first said that?

MS. NULAND: Well, there’s no secret that the President said it more than year ago, and we’ve been working since then --

QUESTION: At least 365 days, right?

MS. NULAND: I’m glad somebody’s counting.

QUESTION: Is that – well, I just – I mean, how long can you keep saying that before – or is it already – it’s already lost its meaning, has it not?

MS. NULAND: As the Secretary said at length today, we are continuing to look at everything that we can do to change the calculation, to change the situation in terms of getting to that peaceful political transition. We’ll just have to see where this goes.


QUESTION: As a practical matter of diplomacy in which you have direct, real world experience, does the act of announcing to the world at large that you plan to change someone’s calculus make it harder, in fact, for you to do so?

MS. NULAND: There is private diplomacy, there’s public diplomacy. Obviously, I don’t think there’s any secret among the countries that have been working to increase the pressure on Assad that he’s living in his own fantasy world about his staying power. But clearly his own way of thinking about this needs to be changed if we stand any chance of him cooperating in a peaceful transition, which would obviously be the fastest way. So I think what you heard the Secretary saying there was saying publicly something that many countries have been saying privately, including the United States, that he should feel less comfortable.


QUESTION: Syria’s former --

MS. NULAND: Can you tell me who you are, please? Yeah.

QUESTION: Joseph Khawly from Sky News Arabia. Syria’s former foreign ministry said today to a statement sent to Sky News Arabia that he is leaving the country because of the polarization and violence and left no place for moderation and diplomacy, so he defected. So you think there is --

MS. NULAND: Who are you talking about? Sorry.

QUESTION: Jihad Makdissi, the – Syria’s former foreign ministry spokesman.


QUESTION: So basically he defected. So do you think, like, when people are more defecting like that, do you think, like, the regime is on its last days?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve certainly, for some time, been calling on those close to Assad, those who have supported the regime in the past, whether they are civilians like this gentleman or whether they are members of the military who are still fighting on his behalf, that they should see the writing on the wall, that they should make their own decision of conscience to break with him, because he’s not going to last, and the Syrian people are going to hold them accountable for the actions that they do, that they take on his behalf.

QUESTION: Yeah, but --


QUESTION: I just want to follow up on something you just said when you were replying to Matt. You said you would like to keep all options open when it comes to U.S. foreign policy towards Syria. Does that mean that you are reconsidering your approach about arming the rebels?

And my second question is: Today, or yesterday, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said that when he heard the statements made by Secretary Kerry, he sensed a change in America’s position vis-a-vis the Assad regime. So it sounds to me as though the Syrians believe that you are changing your calculations and that they are able to pressure you into changing the way you look at Syria and Assad’s staying power. He said we feel like the Americans may be a little bit more – may be a little bit softer now towards the Assad government.

MS. NULAND: Well, I want to certainly reject that thought. I don’t think that one could take anything that Secretary Kerry said in the last two hours in that spirit. He was very clear, as I said, that it’s people who have that kind of feeling, whose understanding of reality needs to be adjusted, if you will.

With regard to my comment about all options on the table, we’ve always said that. We’ve said that with regard to Syria. But we’ve also said that at the moment where we are is that we are providing nonlethal assistance of all kinds, everything from communications equipment to medical supplies to training for the Syrian opposition to support for people inside Syria in liberated areas who are trying to now stand up local governments. So that will continue, but I think you could feel the Secretary making clear that he is looking very hard at all of these things.

QUESTION: Victoria, what if the regime has more staying power, that can stay for another year or 18 months, as we have seen in the last two years? What is your Plan B?

MS. NULAND: Said, let’s stay with where we are today, and the Secretary spoke to that.

QUESTION: You still believe that his days are numbered?

MS. NULAND: We do. We do.

QUESTION: Whose days are not numbered? Your days are numbered; my days are numbered. True?

MS. NULAND: We’re talking about – (laughter) --

QUESTION: Your rhetorical device lost its meaning and effect many, many months ago.

MS. NULAND: And thank you, James, for reminding all of us of our mortality. I think I’ll go have a glass of vodka now. (Laughter.)


QUESTION: How is the U.S. stance regarding the lifting or relaxing the EU arms embargo on rebels? I believe it’s set to expire within few weeks.

MS. NULAND: That’s an issue for the EU to decide. We’ll obviously continue to consult with the European Union on the sanctions that it has on the Assad regime.

QUESTION: Is it open to support lifting this embargo?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to get ahead of decisions that the Europeans have not yet made.


QUESTION: Couple of --

QUESTION: Can I just --

MS. NULAND: I’d like to give Annie a chance, because we don’t have a lot of time today.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I just follow on this what’s possible question here? I mean, do you still believe that there is a framework of a deal under which Assad would voluntarily agree to walk out the door and live somewhere else? And has the United States changed its view of what should happen to him in terms of accountability, International Criminal Court, or whatever, if that were to happen?

MS. NULAND: We’ve always said with regard to Assad, with regard to anybody else with blood on their hands, that there needs to be accountability, that accountability and how it is meted out needs to be a decision that Syrians make in the context of the transition.

That said, we have seen in other regions of the world that when there has been a transition plan on the table that includes the leader stepping down, sometimes in the context of that the population makes a decision that getting rid of the guy is the most important and expedient thing. I think, again, this is something that has to be worked out and talked through by Syrians with Syrians. But from where we are standing, a transition needs to begin, it needs to be consensual, and it cannot include Assad.

QUESTION: To follow on that, what efforts has the United States Government made toward finding a potential place where Assad might live?

MS. NULAND: I’m simply going to say in response to that, James, that a number of countries have made overtures to Assad – I will let them speak to – for themselves – offering save haven, et cetera. He has, heretofore, not chosen to avail himself of those.

QUESTION: It seems as if, several months ago you were not as emphatic that the opposition should be negotiating with the regime for a political solution, that you said that there was some kind of political solution that was possible, but it started with Assad stepping down and handing over to a transitional government. And now you do seem to be emphasizing the importance of both sides negotiating this together. So are you – and the Secretary also kind of called Mr. Khatib’s talk about negotiating courageous and brave. So are you encouraging the opposition to hold negotiations with the – with President Assad?

MS. NULAND: We are encouraging the opposition, as we have been since Geneva, to unify around a plan for how the principles in Geneva could be implemented. One of the principles in Geneva is that any transitional government has to be broad-based, has to represent all Syrians, and has to be consensual. Since that time, the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the group that we have recognized as representing the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people, has come forward saying, very much in keeping with Geneva, that he would be willing to sit down with Assad’s vice president and talk through how this kind of transition could be implemented if Assad would just let him. So of course we’ve been supportive of what the SOC itself has been calling for. It’s Assad and his cronies who haven’t allowed it to happen.

QUESTION: But is Assad stepping down a precondition, should be a precondition of that?

MS. NULAND: Again, this is something for the Syrians themselves to decide. Geneva is relatively open-ended about how this can go. And the exact sequencing, that’s something Syrians should work through. We just don’t see a future and we don’t see a transition that includes Assad.

QUESTION: Does that mean that you would – you take no position on who it is that the opposition talks to? They – talking to Assad himself, if that was okay with the opposition, would be okay with you?

MS. NULAND: What we’ve said on this, Matt, as you know, since July, is that, based on what the opposition has said to us, based on what its own documents call for, based on the Geneva document which says that those participating in the transitional government need to be decided by consensus, it’s hard to imagine that Assad would be part of it.

QUESTION: But I’m just wondering – it’s not as if Farouk al-Shara is Mister Clean here. He was Hafez’s hatchet man for decades. So I – if you’re saying that you don’t think it’s a good idea or it’s hard to imagine how Assad himself could be an interlocutor, how is it that you’re able to imagine Farouk al-Shara as one?

MS. NULAND: I didn’t speak about interlocutors. I said we can’t imagine Assad being part of the transitional government or remaining in that context. We will support the Syrian opposition in getting itself into discussions about a transitional government however they deem appropriate.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on something you said to me earlier in this briefing, how as a practical matter, as a practical matter of working diplomacy, would you seek to affect the calculation of someone whom you regard as, quote-unquote, “living in a fantasy world”?

MS. NULAND: James, I think I’m not going to open the whole toolbox here and rifle through it. But you’re experienced enough to know that there are many ways to change a leader’s calculation, including among them what we discussed with Jo here, that they’re feeling quite comfortable as a result of the Russian support. But there are many tools, but I’m not going to sort of foreshadow where we may be going with this.

QUESTION: In other words, the task of changing a foreign leader’s calculus is not any more difficult when you regard that foreign leader to be “living in a fantasy world”?

MS. NULAND: The point here is that the guy is making assumptions now that he can fight his way out of this. We don’t think that’s right, and we don’t think that’s right for Syria, and we don’t think Syrians think it’s right. So he needs to be disabused of that.

QUESTION: But if you’ve ruled out --

MS. NULAND: Guys, I think we’ve really exhausted --


MS. NULAND: -- the seminar here on Syria, no?

QUESTION: Well, I mean, if you’ve ruled out any type of military action, arming the rebels, a safe haven, anything that would – you’ve essentially ruled out anything when that would dramatically help the military balance on the ground for the rebels, wouldn’t you assume that he would have the calculus that he – without some kind of outside help, that he can continue to fight another day?

MS. NULAND: I think I said in the context of a previous answer and the Secretary himself has said that we’re looking at the full range of issues here.

QUESTION: Just very quick.


QUESTION: A year ago this time, you were strong arguing about economic sanctions and the diplomatic isolation. A year later, do you think these two main elements of the U.S. policy regarding Syria have failed?

And the second is: You just called again the defected soldiers or Syrian military personnel to defect. On the other hand, Syrians are arguing that U.S. simply doesn’t do anything to encourage them given that how hard it is for anyone to leave the regime and go somewhere else. What’s your response to that, without giving any kind of encouragement?

MS. NULAND: Well, first of all with regard to the economic and sanctions aspect of the policy, we do believe that the growing number of countries who are squeezing the Assad regime, refusing to trade with it, putting pressure on it, putting unilateral sanctions on it, is having an effect inside and is one of the issues that could continue to play a role in changing the calculation. I think you know that Assad and his cronies have run through more than half of the gold reserves of the country because they can’t trade anymore and maintain their sources of hard currency, et cetera. There is obviously quite a bit of scrimping and saving going on, and it makes it harder for him to rearm. So we think that is an effective aspect of policy that needs to continue to be strengthened and tightened in cooperation with our international partners.

With regard to our work to encourage folks, particularly fighters, to defect, I think I would completely reject your premise. We’ve been sending public and private messages for a very, very long time. We’ve been working with neighboring countries who have taken in quite a number of defectors and made sure that they and their families were safe. And I think some of those stories are beginning to trickle back into Syria. That’s also another way that one can change the calculation, is making it clear that if you leave him, you don’t lose everything and you may have a future in a better, newer, more democratic, more pluralistic Syria.

Let’s do two more, and then I got to go. I apologize. Let’s just quickly change the subject, okay, because we haven’t done anything else today.

QUESTION: Without changing the subject, short of a total and sudden collapse much like Germany after World War I, do you envision any resolution to Syria that is not negotiated with the regime?

MS. NULAND: Said, we’ve talked a lot here about how this can end. And it can end in a negotiated way, it can end in an increasingly bloody and extremist way, and that’s the danger that we’re all trying to prevent.


QUESTION: Move on to Pakistan?


QUESTION: Secretary’s phone call to President Zardari, do you know how long this call lasted?

MS. NULAND: I apologize to you, Lalit. I do not know. I forgot to ask that question. Let me get if for you.

QUESTION: And secondly, on Afghanistan’s reconciliation process, did it came up? I think you read out some little bit on this. What is Secretary Kerry’s expectations for Pakistan on the Afghanistan’s peace reconciliation process that’s going on?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we have been in a good place in recent months – Afghanistan, Pakistan, U.S. – in terms of using the core group that we established to support Afghanistan reconciliation to work through some of the practical issues like safe passage for Taliban who are willing to consider reconciliation, those kinds of things. As you can see from some of the moves that have been going on between Afghanistan and Pakistan, they are also having a better dialogue now about facilitating reconciliation. So we would hope that that trend could continue.

I’m going to take one more.

QUESTION: And also, did bilateral relations between India and Pakistan came up during his talks with President Zardari?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything on that. I’ll check that for you as well.


QUESTION: The last question, on Azerbaijan. An Azerbaijani writer, Akram Aylisli, is facing life threats now in Baku. He published a novel about peaceful interaction between some Armenian and Azerbaijani people, and both the government and the opposition seems to be furious. The opposition leader yesterday suggested $12,000 reward for cutting his ear, for example, and his family members were forced to retire. So does this building follow the development, and do you interact with Azerbaijani Government in this regard?

MS. NULAND: We have been watching this very closely. It’s our understanding today that the Modern Musavat party has now rescinded the offer and law enforcement authorities have called in this individual for questioning, which is the right way for this to go. Obviously, we strongly support and believe in respect for freedom of expression. We urge the Azerbaijani Government to uphold its commitments to protect the safety and security of Mr. Aylisli and all of its citizens.

QUESTION: And your embassy is interacting with people?

MS. NULAND: They are. They are. Thanks very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:08 p.m.)

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