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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The U.S. Government Response in Syria

Senior Administration Officials
Washington, DC
August 19, 2011

11:00 A.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Okay. Hello and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today, we have an on-background roundtable on Syria with two Senior Administration Officials. Without further ado, here are the officials.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks. I think you all know me, or have met you on the way in here. Welcome.

Look, you’re all well aware of the actions that took place yesterday. As significant as they were, they’re – obviously, they weren’t taken in isolation. What we’ve seen over the past months and indeed the last couple of weeks that’s ramped up even more is a growing chorus of international pressure and international voices speaking out against the Asad regime’s actions in Syria. Yesterday’s announcement and words and also sanctions, additional sanctions from the White House and then echoed by the Secretary, are just a further step in the direction – in that direction, calling for Asad to – indeed to step aside and allow for a democratic transition to take place in Syria.

We’re seeing additional action today. I believe the EU is meeting to talk about strengthening some of their existing sanctions and to consider proposals for sanctions that would hit at Syria’s energy sector, which is exactly in line with what we’re trying to move forward with in terms of our strategy, and that is to choke off the Syrian regime’s, Asad’s regime’s access to revenue so that they heed the international community’s message and cease the violence against innocent civilians.

I think I’ll stop there because I don’t want to reiterate everything we talked about yesterday, and hand it over to Senior Official Number Two and let him talk a little bit about the sanctions, and then happy to take your questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. Well, thanks, and again, thanks for having me. I just thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about the sanctions which were imposed yesterday and talk about how we can – they sort of fit into the bigger sanctions picture and the sanctions regime that we and the international community have been building over the course of the last several months.

The sanctions that we’ll announce tomorrow are in the form of an Executive Order signed by the President, which do a number of things. First, it calls for an immediate freeze of all Syrian Government assets that are in the control of U.S. persons, and also includes a ban on all – prohibition on all transactions with the Government of Syria by U.S. persons. Secondly, and I think this is crucial, it targets a crucial income stream of the Syrian regime by targeting the Syrian energy sector, the Syrian petroleum sector. It prohibits the import of any Syrian petroleum to the United States, and again, prohibits of the dealing with the Syrian petroleum sector of – by any U.S. person.

Along with that, we identified five specific Syrian state-owned companies in the Syrian energy sector, in the Syrian petroleum sector, which are specifically – which we have specifically prohibited U.S. persons from dealing with, but more broadly, any Syrian company – Syrian-owned company in the energy sector would be banned.

This builds on a series of actions that we’ve taken over the past several months to apply financial and economic pressure on the Government of Syria, beginning in April with an Executive Order which targeted Syrian and other individuals who are involved in human rights violations, and we’ve identified a number of Syrian Government officials, Syrian entities, and Iranian entities and individuals under that authority. We’ve built on that the following month by an expanded Executive Order assigned by the President which targeted Syrian Government officials more broadly.

We also – with – followed that up with designations under a variety of Executive Orders that we’ve had in the past, to include targeting the Commercial Bank of Syria, which is the largest financial entity in Syria under our authority relating to the weapons of mass destruction, and then this being sort of the final piece in that puzzle, targeting the entire Government of Syria and freezing all their assets that are in control of the (inaudible).

So with that, I’m happy to answer any questions.

MODERATOR: As we move to Q&A, can you just state your name and publication for the transcript and keep your questions brief so that everybody gets a chance? But please go ahead now.

QUESTION: Mina Al-Orabi with Asharq Al Awsat newspaper. I wanted to ask some specifics about the sanction.


QUESTION: In effect, how does this actually impact the Syrian regime, the U.S. sanctions? Everyone’s holding out saying that the European sanctions will be more effectual. So in effect, does this actually impact them? And did you in any way have any transactions with the Syrian Government because of previous sanctions? And if I can link that into beyond embassy grounds and embassy bank accounts here, are there any other assets that you would seize or freeze?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No – thanks, and it’s an important question. It’s always the case that multilateral sanctions are more effective than unilateral sanctions, and that’s why we’re so pleased to hear about the discussions that are going on right now in Europe with respect to imposing sanctions of their own. The Europeans already have some sanctions, and we hope and expect that they’re going to follow it up very quickly with sanctions which are quite similar to the ones that we’re talking about today. So I certainly agree with the proposition that European action on this is quite important, and we look forward to seeing that action.

That said, I do think the actions that we’ve taken are quite important, the actions we’ve taken specifically in the last couple of days. As an initial matter, it – the actions that we’ve taken complicates the ability of any Syrian Government entity to transact in dollar – to conduct dollar transactions, and as you know, most oil transactions are denominated in dollars. So it will have a destructive effect broadly.

It also – because of the way the international financial system works, most financial institutions around the world bring themselves into compliance with the types of measures that we’ve put into effect today. So it is going to complicate, as a general matter, the ability of Syrian Government officials and the Syrian Government in general to access the international financial center – the system. And that’s the goal of all this, is to isolate the Government of Syria and Syrian officials from the international financial system. I mean, this is a big step in that direction. The next step in that direction, obviously, is to multilateralize this as much as possible by action from Europe and by action from other countries.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: And just to clarify – it was clarified at the briefing yesterday – the Syrian Embassy is actually exempt from these sanctions. There was an [Office of Foreign Asset Control] OFAC license, I think, issued yesterday, and that’s in keeping with our Vienna Convention obligations to allow them to continue to function here.

QUESTION: I have just a quick follow-up on that one. I’m wondering why – given there was so much discussion and getting on the same page, particularly with the Europeans ahead of this announcement, why these announcements were not made in tandem? I mean, why did our announcement come yesterday, and they’re just saying today that they’re looking at new measures? If you wanted to speak with one voice, why wasn’t that one voice saying the same thing on the same day?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Can I just speak to the larger --


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think two things. One is we did speak with one voice in terms of telling Asad that it’s time for him to go and to allow for a peaceful and democratic transition to take place in Syria. So, I mean, I think rhetorically, we were exactly on the same page, and that was forceful.

I think in terms of sanctions, it’s important. We’ve talked for weeks about how we’re working non-stop to tighten the noose and – I mean, [Senior Administration Official Two] can speak more to the timing, but I think it’s important that we were ready to act. The EU, as we said today, is taking steps in that direction. But the sooner we can implement these kinds of sanctions, I think, the better for our overall strategy.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. Well, you took the words right out of my mouth. I – no, no, thank you. I think that’s exactly right. We’re on precisely the same page with the Europeans, and we have spoken with one voice. We spoke with one voice yesterday on the broad issues. As far as implementation of sanctions, it’s certainly not unusual. We each have our own processes and our own way of implementing sanctions. The EU is a multilateral body that has – that has their own processes to implement sanctions. But I’m quite confident that the EU is moving towards sanctions in the same direction that we moved yesterday.

QUESTION: I’m Lachlan Carmichael from AFP, and I just wanted to know what was happening with India, China, and Russia. The Secretary did raise the possibility that they could take steps. It sounded like India and China would be in the energy sector, but could you elaborate on what that would be? And on Russia, she made, clearly, a call to have them suspend their arms deliveries.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, again, those are, I think – sorry, (inaudible) --

QUESTION: I mean, you --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: It’s certainly (inaudible), but I just want to say that you’re absolutely right. We’ve made those calls. We continue to – oh, sorry – we continue to talk about this. She continues to talk about it with her counterparts from these countries. I – we don’t have anything to announce. Obviously, it’s up to these countries to make these kinds of decisions in accordance with their laws and their timelines.

But certainly, as [Senior Administration Official Two] pointed to, we’ve – these – yesterday’s sanctions are made even more powerful when they’re taken in tandem with other countries’ sanctions, with other countries’ actions. And so it’s important that we continue to work towards applying additional pressure. You’ve said it exactly right that energy sector sanctions are extremely important, and as we can echo what we did yesterday in other – by other countries or other multilateral organizations like the EU, it’s just going to add to the pressure.

Again, let’s look at where we’ve come in a relatively short time. We’ve taken multiple unilateral steps to apply pressure on Asad. Those have been echoed, certainly by the EU, with whom we’re really in lockstep moving forward against the Asad regime, and working and coordinating closely. But we’ve brought on board Russia and China and the UN for a strong statement last week. And we’ve seen the Arab League and the GCC and others, again, come out very strongly against Asad. Turkey’s been a new voice and a vital voice in condemning what’s going on there. So this is all part of the hard work of diplomacy, but in building that kind of pressure, that’s going to have – ultimately have an effect.

QUESTION: But specifically, what steps could China and India take, and what impact would they have? I’m not really sure what their business interests are with Syria.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. I mean, again, just to echo [Senior Administration Official One’s] points, this is about financially isolating the Syrian Government from the international financial system. It’s about gradually tightening the financial noose around the Government of Syria, and every step along the way is important. And I think the action that we took yesterday is a very important step forward in that. As more countries come online with their own sets of sanctions, it’s going to become increasingly important, and each country is going to have to look at what sort of leverage they have over Syria, what sort of sanctions regimes they have the ability to put into place, and what they’re willing to do.

And as [Senior Administration Official One] said, the – our challenge is to engage with those countries, to talk to them about it, and try to – to try to keep a strong international coalition together. And I’m confident that we’re going to be able to do that, both with Europe and with respect to other countries.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. Like – I mean, I know you’re trying to get into the specifics. I mean, it’s really up to those countries to define their business relationships with Syria.

QUESTION: Dmitry Kirsanov with Itar-Tass. I just can’t understand, why did you guys decide to single out Russia, China, and India? Isn’t it – all the petroleum and oil and gas go to European countries. You – it’s common knowledge. It’s not like Russia, China, and India buy those products. And you’re speaking about choking off the revenue stream of the Asad government, and yet you decide to bash only Russia, China, and India, while publicly saying that they do not shame your European partners as well. And then you just drop this. Why? Isn’t it a bit hypocritical and counterproductive, basically?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Let me check and respond and then [Senior Administration Official Two] can chime in.

I think we’ve been very forthright in saying that our sanctions that we took yesterday are only going to have an impact if they’re taken in – well, are going to have a stronger impact, rather, if they’re taken in tandem with other steps by other countries. We’ve talked about the EU looking at this. The Secretary’s mentioned other countries. But again, this is part of what I’ve talked about. The hard work of diplomacy is working with these partners and these countries to figure out ways that we can individually and together apply that kind of pressure. I don’t think it’s fair to say we’re signaling people out. We’re looking at what we can do and we’re asking others to do more as well.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Chris McGreal from The Guardian, UK.


QUESTION: Hi. I wonder where you take this beyond sanctions. As Libya shows, it takes a lot more than just sanctions to remove a regime, and it’s one thing to make life difficult in the financial sector. But beyond this, unless you expect sanctions to be sufficient to bring Asad down, beyond this, where do you take it? And do you think sanctions themselves will be sufficient to (inaudible)?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: You’re right in that this is going to be, I think, a long process, and it’s not going to be an easy one. We’ve – it’s – you mentioned Libya, and we don’t like to compare countries to other countries beyond the general movement of the Arab Spring that’s affecting so many of these countries, but we can apply the same approach to each country. And in fact, in Syria, we did have very little contact with the government. We had very little economic interests there. We’ve taken these steps, these sanctions, both targeting individuals within the government but also the energy sector, as [Senior Administration Official Two] explained, to apply whatever pressure we can do. But we have also been working with other regional partners to ramp up the pressure that they’re putting on Asad. And so people – the countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, organizations like the GCC and the Arab League, are also playing an important role. But it’s taken time to get to this point.

The Secretary has spoken to this and others have spoken to it. We’ve – time and time again, as this situation in Syria has evolved, we’ve seen Asad promise reforms, then back away from them; promise the violence is over, only to ramp it up and to target more cities and more civilian centers and use armor against innocent civilians. So I think, as this has gone on, more and more countries around the world have woken up to the fact that what’s going on in Syria cannot stand.

As to where this all leads to and whether sanctions are enough, that’s a very tough call. The opposition in Syria is coming together, but as someone explained yesterday, it’s like waking up from a 40-year political coma. They’re trying to coalesce; this is a very grassroots movement that’s taken place there. But increasingly, we’re seeing them come together, we’re seeing a broader cross-section of society come together in Syria that truly represents a broad-based opposition. And that’s going to have to continue, and we’re going to continue to support them in their efforts.

When AmbAsador Ford went to Hama a few weeks ago or a month or so ago, that was in support of the Syrian people and the protests, and we’re going to continue to provide that moral support. Additional steps I could foresee, or, as we talked about, additional sanctions, additional work at the UN, but this is going to be a process that’s going to build over time. But we’re hopeful that, in the end – well, we’re confident in the end that Asad’s time is over and that a democratic transition will take place.

I don’t know if there’s anything you want to add to that.

QUESTION: Sorry, can I just follow up on that?


QUESTION: I mean, the danger of this, as with in all these situations, is that extended sanctions do enormous economic damage, affect the broader population, which isn’t particularly well-off anyways. And in that process, you start undermining what you’re trying to achieve. Have you taken that --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: And the Secretary and others have spoken to the fact that we are trying to mitigate any adverse effects that this may have on the Syrian people, the innocent civilians. And I don’t know if you’ve been --

QUESTION: How do you do that? How do you actually mitigate it?

QUESTION: The revenue – the oil revenue is really what they’re – that’s where that’s going.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Look, I mean, as with all sanctions programs, we have a general licensing process and a specific licensing process that allows us to permit any number of types of economic activity, humanitarian assistance, medical assistance, food assistance, things like that. It’s certainly not the goal of the sanctions program to harm the Syrian people.

That said, the most direct threat to the well-being of the Syrian people right now is not the U.S. sanctions program, it’s the Government of Syria itself. So the fastest way to alleviate the plight of the Syrian people is, as [Senior Administration Official One] was saying, to focus on the democratic transition within Syria.


QUESTION: Thank you. Yasmeen Alamiri from Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: You sound like you have a terrible cold. I’m so sorry for you.

QUESTION: It’s really, really attractive right now. I apologize. (Laughter.)

But my question kind of was off of the same thing, and I don’t know if PR is the right word, but how much consideration has the Administration given to the fact that the Syrians watched the kind of swift action that the U.S. took against regimes like the one of Muammar Qadhafi, and how they kind of played a role in all the other uprisings? Then when it got to this stage where – I mean, you see, like, day by day, the Asad regime is taking greater action and violence towards its people, and I guess sanctions would work on the government level, but it’s the people themselves that are being killed or harmed or – and so what will the Administration do on the ground level to work with the people? And also off of that, are you pressuring or asking or communicating with the countries in the region to take some action, I guess, for, like, sending people out to the ground of Syria?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, the answer to your first question, we have, I think, been on the right side of this movement that’s going on in Syria from the very beginning, and we’ve been really playing a leading role in pushing the international community to bring more pressure to bear on Asad. We’ve kept our ambAsador in Syria, in part, because he has been so vocal in support of the Syrian people and then showing solidarity with them.

And again, I talked about his trip to Hama, but he was greeted in the streets, very, very powerfully in the sense that they were – they saw that the U.S. ambAsador was there on the ground, and it was a very powerful moment for them. He’s going to stay there, both to continue to convey our view and our policies to the Syrian Government, but increasingly, to offer that kind of moral support to the Syrian people as they move forward. But it’s – we’ve been asked many, many times to try to compare what’s happening in Syria to what’s happening elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, and it’s very difficult to make – on some levels it’s easy to make comparisons, but it’s very difficult as well, and it’s more complex than that. What we’re – we believe that we’re moving forward in the right way in Syria, which is in support of the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.

In terms of working in the region, we’re going to continue to work with partners like Turkey, like Saudi Arabia, to look at ways that they can also apply pressure on Asad and his regime. We’ve got to somehow convey to them that the status quo is unsustainable, that the violence needs to end, and that they’ve lost legitimacy.

QUESTION: But you don’t have any specifics on what you’re asking those governments?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: No. I’d rather not, frankly, get into specifics. It’s really up to them to define what actions they may or may not take in terms of Syria. I think you’ve seen, at least in terms of public statements, very strongly worded comments, most recently by Prime Minister Erdogan, about the situation there.

QUESTION: You wouldn’t expect an Arab leader to call on Asad to step down because they themselves would feel vulnerable to similar calls in their own country, right?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, again, I think that they have come out with strong statements condemning the violence there, and those have been powerful in their own respect.

QUESTION: I mean, the Secretary alluded to it when she said it’d be great if the Saudi leader and the Turks called for him to step down. But you don’t really seriously expect either one to do that, right?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Look, again, I don’t want to speak to what our expectations may or may not be. I don’t want to speculate on what they or may not do. I think what they’ve done so far has been significant.

QUESTION: Just a couple of loose ends.


QUESTION: What is the exact amount of money frozen in the U.S. financial system, the Syrian Government assets, first? And second, you said that the Embassy accounts are exempt. Is it Embassy only or all diplomatic missions? I don’t even know if they have like consulates somewhere outside of Washington.


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, with respect to the amount frozen, that’s something that we learn over time. We never know how much money is going to get frozen on a particular sanctions regime. We issue the sanction, and then it’s the responsibility of financial institutions to report to us what they’ve found and how much they’ve frozen. Although – and you never know what you’re going to find. In the case of Libya, we actually found quite a bit and quite a bit got frozen. You just don’t know what – you don’t know what –

QUESTION: At this point of time, you don’t even have the sense?



SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: With respect to the scope of the general license relating to the Syrian diplomatic missions, I don’t – my sense is it probably applies to all diplomatic missions, but we could get a more specific answer.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: You were asking about – I’m sorry, the last bit was?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Whether the general license applies to just the Syrian Embassy or whether it applies to all diplomatic –

QUESTION: Yeah. The Embassy or all diplomatic missions.



SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And to the UN – and to the consulate to the UN and things like that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. That’s a fair question. I’ll get back to you, Dmitry, on that.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.


QUESTION: Can I ask you – you said there’s –

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think I had it somewhere in my – the actual OFAC license, but –

QUESTION: You said there was possible action or you hoped for possible action at the UN – further action. Is that feasible? And if so, I mean, what sorts of sanctions would you look at if –

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Again, I’m not going to predict what these actions might look like, but it’s certainly something we continue to push for. We had the statement a couple weeks ago. It was – it took some work, but we got it done, and it showed that there’s unity on condemning Asad and his regime. There was – I’m trying to get the exact wording, but there was a human rights – the Human Rights Council yesterday announced its decision that it’s going to hold a special session, I think next week, on the situation in Syria. So the UN is engaged on this. And for our part, we’re going to continue to push for stronger and stronger action.

QUESTION: The ICC has said –


QUESTION: Sorry, to follow up on that exactly –

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Okay, just – yeah. Because we’re running close on time.

QUESTION: I mean, the ICC says it doesn’t have jurisdiction because Syria hasn’t signed the treaty, but that the Security Council can refer it to the ICC. Would the U.S. back a move for the Security Council to ask the ICC to investigate?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Again, I think our strong condemnation of human rights abuses in Syria is well-documented. I think that we’ve been very vocal about saying that Asad and his regime will and should be held accountable for their actions. But let’s let the process play out in New York before we comment on that.

MODERATOR: Okay, I think one of our –

QUESTION: Just one very short –



QUESTION: Is there any kind of deadline that you guys – that the U.S. is shooting for in trying to see any kind of action from the Asad regime of letting up at all (inaudible)?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: It’s such a nebulous thing because – and again, we’ve seen time and time again just empty rhetoric from Asad where he’s promised reforms. He promised the Turks and even the secretary general the other day that military action had stopped, when indeed we soon found it had not. His security forces were still in the field and carrying out human rights abuses. So it’s – it is a very difficult thing to predict.

MODERATOR: I think we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you all for coming. This event is now concluded.

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