Following is the transcript of the press conference held in Vienna, Austria of US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura as released by the US Department of State.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good afternoon. I thank all of you for your patience today and appreciate your waiting around here so we had a moment to come and share some thoughts with you. I want to begin by thanking all of our foreign minister counterparts. Sergey Lavrov and I asked many people to come and many dropped things at the last minute. They changed their schedules and made themselves available. And we’re very grateful that they all sensed the importance of taking time out of their schedules in order to be here, and I think that really underscores the urgency of this issue. I want to thank the United Nations represented by Staffan de Mistura for the role they will play going forward. And I’m very grateful for Staffan’s willingness to take this on.
Four and a half years of war in Syria we all believe has been far too long, and the consequences of that war for so many people, innocent people, is beyond description – devastation in refugee camps, migration effects all over. The result has been a lot of suffering and far too much damage to the economic and social and political fabric of the region. And so we came here – the foreign ministers who came here today – with the conviction that the fighting and the killing absolutely has to end. And it’s up to us to try to find a way to do that.
Our shared task is to find a way to use the tools of diplomacy in order to make that happen. This is a relatively large diplomatic group that met today because there are a lot of people who are stakeholders because there are a lot of neighbors, and there are a lot of people who are supporting, one way or the other, one side or another. And so it will take pressure from many different directions to reverse the escalation of conflict and to lay a credible groundwork for peace.
Daesh and other terrorist organizations, we all believe, can never be allowed to unite or govern Syria. The United States position regarding Syria, I emphasize, has not changed. Sergey Lavrov and Prime Minister Zarif and I and others agree to disagree. The United States position is there is no way that President Assad can unite and govern Syria. And we believe that Syrians deserve a different choice, and our goal is to work with Syrians from many factions to develop that choice.
But we can’t allow that difference to get in the way of the possibility of diplomacy to end the killing and to find the solution. And that is a significance of the decision that was really made here today was that even though we acknowledge the difference, we know it is urgent to get to the table and to begin the process of real negotiations. So we’re employing a two-pronged approach. Speaking for the United States, we are intensifying our counter-Daesh campaign and we are intensifying our diplomatic efforts in order to end the conflict. And we believe these steps are mutually reinforcing. And that is why today President Obama made an announcement about stepping up the fight against Daesh. He authorized a small complement of U.S. Special Operations Forces to deploy to northern Syria where they will help to coordinate local ground forces and coalition efforts in order to counter Daesh.
But at the end of the day, the United States and our coalition partners believe that there is absolutely nothing that would do more to fight Daesh than to achieve a political transition that strengthens the governance capacity of Syria, sidelines the person that we believe attracts so many foreign fighters and so much terror, and unite the country against extremism. Make no mistake, the answer to the Syrian civil war is not found in a military alliance with Assad, from our point of view. But I am convinced that it can be found through a broadly supported diplomatic initiative aimed at a negotiated political transition, consistent with the Geneva communique.
And I want to thank Sergey Lavrov for his efforts to try to find that diplomatic solution and for the commitment of Russia even as it is engaged in supporting Assad, which is not a secret, in believing that we need to move towards a political solution. There is nothing inevitable in our judgment about the war in Syria. The war came about because of choices that people made. And what people have the power to choose, they have the power to change.
To change the pattern of violence in Syria, we have to change some of the patterns of thinking, so that the choice is not between a dictator and Daesh, but between war and peace, between destroying and building, between catering to the violent extremes and empowering the political center.
We’re not going to succeed in that by focusing on how we got to where we are. And frankly, we spent a fair amount of time today making sure that the discussion didn’t get bogged down in the past. And I appreciate the discipline and the effort that all of the participants made to look to the future and to try to find the ways to move there. We have to be creative and we have to be determined in deciding how we go from here and where we go from here. And that was the subject of today’s discussions.
I want to make it clear also, none of us expected today to walk in and have one side or other say to the other, “Hey, Assad’s not an issue anymore,” or, “Assad’s going to do this or that.” That was not ever in anybody’s contemplation. This is the beginning of a new diplomatic process, not the final chapter. But I can tell you that all of us were convinced of the importance of finding a way to get back to the negotiating in a way that’s real. And what makes it real this time, unlike any other previous meeting, every stakeholder was represented there in terms of all of the countries who are supporting one side or another in this conflict.
So I will leave for the rest of my overseas trip with a fresh sense of the possibility of encouragement. I’m a realist. I know it’s difficult and I saw today in some of the conversation just how complicated and difficult it is indeed. But I believe the diplomatic situation is today more promising than it has been in some time because all of the stakeholders came to this table. There were tough conversations today. They were honest, frank. But there is more willingness and commitment by all the parties there today to continue to talk about practical steps, and there is more clarity about intentions. I’m not going to make any great claims here. I’m not going to blow anything up beyond the difficult path that it is. But I can report that we did make progress on the following.
The participants agreed today that Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character are fundamental. We agreed that Syria’s state institutions will remain intact. We agreed that the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination, must be protected. We agreed that it is imperative to accelerate all diplomatic efforts to end the war. We agreed that humanitarian access must be assured throughout the territory of Syria, and the participants will increase support for internally displaced persons, refugees, and their host countries.
We agreed that Daesh and other terrorist groups as designated by the UN Security Council and as agreed by the participants must be defeated. Pursuant to the 2012 Geneva communique and UN Security Council Resolution 2118, we invited the UN to convene representatives of the Government of Syria and the Syrian opposition for a political process leading to a credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance followed by a new constitution and elections. We agreed that these elections must be administered under UN supervision to the satisfaction of the government and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, free and fair, with all Syrians, including the diaspora, eligible to participate.
We agreed that this political process will be Syrian-led and Syrian-owned and that the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria. And we agreed together with the United Nations to explore modalities for and implementation of a nationwide ceasefire to be initiated on a date certain and in parallel with this renewed political process.
We will spend the coming days working to narrow remaining areas of disagreement and to build on the areas of agreement, and we will reconvene within two weeks to continue these discussions.
So in closing, let me just reiterate that we all have a sense of urgency. We all know what it is stake. And personally, I have met with refugees, the survivors of barrel bombing, the unspeakable torture that has taken place. I’ve talked to women who struggle to hold their families together despite constant danger, bitter cold, and shortages of shelter and medicine and food. And I’ve heard the blood-chilling stories of doctors and relief workers who are dealing with the humanitarian trauma that this war is creating on a daily basis.
I am aware, as you are, of atrocities that have been committed and are being committed by the extremes on both sides. As I said a couple of days ago, the challenge is nothing less than to chart a course out of hell. And that’s not going to happen overnight, but I am convinced that the steps that we worked on today, if followed up on, if worked on in good faith, can begin to move us in the right direction. And it’s our job to accelerate the momentum so that we’re not back here next year or even the year after facing a Middle East with even more refugees, with even greater numbers of dead and displaced, and with even more suffering and more eroding hope. The time has come to stop the building – stop the bleeding and start the building, and that is exactly what we have set out to do. And I thank Staffan and I thank Sergey for the efforts to at least try to open a new chapter.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: I’ll speak in Russian for the benefit of the Russian media. There is translation.
(Via interpreter) Ladies and gentlemen, today we held a meeting of a group that can be called, as suggested by Mr. de Mistura, a contact group or a Syria support group. As John has already said – and John made a decisive contribution today to our work – all stakeholders have gathered today here at the table.
From the very beginning of the crisis we have pushed for the principle of inclusiveness in – both in all Syrian political process and in the process supported by the external players for the Syria. And I believe that today’s meeting has enshrined a common understanding that it should be that way.
John has talked a lot today about the suffering endured by the Syrian people, about the terrible bloodshed, about displaced people who lost their homes. We want to stop that situation and not to let the terrorists gain power in that country. The terrorist topic was vocal in all the speeches by the participants, and we reached some agreement.
We had agreed upon today and it is stated also in the joint statement that we want to committedly and firmly fight ISIS organizations and all the other terrorist organizations listed by the UN Security Council, as well as to hold additional consultations on how to list other terrorist organizations not yet listed by the UN Security Council.
Russia is committed to fighting terrorism based on the solid basis of international law, whether we’re talking about the military interventions from air or the ground operations. These need to be conducted in agreement with the government or with the UN Security Council.
That is – we are talking about the decision just made by the U.S. President, and John Kerry just said about it. Our position in that regard has not changed, and we want to continuously fight terrorism on the – with the agreement and with the common understanding.
I would also like to highlight some modalities of the joint statement. We have agreed to continue with Syria as a unit, and so that Syria keeps its territorial integrity, so it would be a united country with secular government and to retain the institutions. The rights of all Syrians, despite their religious beliefs or ethnic group, should be protected and observed. Humanitarian access should be provided and the momentum should be accelerated to help refugees and internally displaced people.
And one of the most important agreements of today’s meeting is that this group is asking the UN to invite stakeholders, the Syrian Government and the opposition, to begin the political process. This inclusive political group should create the basis for an inclusive administration, so this administration can create the new constitution and new institutions. We have also agreed so that the new elections would be conducted under the active participation of the UN, and so that all Syrian people, despite of where they are – whether they are refugees or in the neighboring countries – should be able to take part in those elections.
We have also discussed the issue of a ceasefire parallel to the political process, and there was a consensus that the ceasefire should be held in the consultations with the UN with the understanding that if the ceasefire is declared, no terrorist organizations should be subject to that.
As John has said, we have no agreement on the destiny of Assad. Russia believes that it is up to Syrian people to decide within the framework of the political process. It is said in the joint statement that the political process should be done by the Syrian people and belong to the Syrian people, and the Syrian people should decide the future of their country.
Some colleagues leaving the conference were saying that – mentioning that there could be an impression among the observers and the journalists that we are trying to obscure some problem and some issues. That is not so. We are honestly talking to you about these disagreements. The principles that we have created here today in the joint statement lay the basis for serious work, which will be hard, I have no doubt; it will be not a fast process. But this work would make it possible to create trust, especially among the countries of the region. They have some serious issues, but today they sat down at the negotiating table and they held talks. With that kind of trust, we can make sure that Syrian people have the chance to decide their future.
We have tried to create a compromise, and there will be further discussions and consultations. I think the next talks are scheduled to be held no later than in two weeks’ time. The certain date will be stated later. I would like to thank John Kerry for his input today. I would also like to thank Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy, and all his office for the support and his work. And I would like to wish every success to my counterparts, because they have very responsible missions to fulfill.
That was for you. (Laughter.)
MR DE MISTURA: Well, I have very little to add. You saw it, you have heard it. Would you have imagined a few weeks ago that we would have been able to have what Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been asking for months, that the Russia and United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and many other countries are involved in this conflict in one form or the other, sitting on the same table, and today having both of you sitting here, having come with a meeting of seven hours. No one left the room. No one disagreed fundamentally on the major issues. There is, obviously, areas which have been not covered by an agreement. But look at the outcome – proof. They are going to meet again in this type of contact group, which we can call a special contact group for the peace in Syria – again, within 14 days.
Think about the fact that they have come to quite a convergence on the issue of concrete deliveries. Look at the fact that there will be a push with their support – the UN cannot do it alone – with their support for actual ceasefires and humanitarian aid. The Syrian people need to hear that. They need to see that this is not another conference; this is serious. Seven hours of discussions, constructive discussion.
And then the issue about the political process. And look at the political process between all sides about an inclusive, all-inclusive Syrian governance leading to a new – I repeat, a new constitution, and leading to new elections under UN supervision according to the strictest international criteria, and agreement that at the end of the day, terrorism is the priority but can only be won and defeated if there is a parallel political process. And that’s what we’ll be talking about.
Of course, the work starts now. And it’s going to be a heavy work. But look how much has been already achieved and what type of message we are trying to say together to the international community, but also to the Syrian people: We are serious, they are serious, and everyone is serious about ending this conflict.
So thank you, and congratulations on the both of you for what you have been able to do, and for the rest of the meeting. Thank you. The UN will do its part, by the way. Yeah, I know you have been both challenging the UN – (laughter) – and I have to say, it’s quite a challenge, but we’ll do our part. That’s what we are meant for.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, Staffan.
MR TONER: Great. We have time for three questions. The first question goes to David Sanger from The New York Times.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you all for coming here and seeing – and talking with us. Can you tell us, Secretary Kerry, how the decision to deploy the special forces bolsters this diplomacy, how you believe that additional special forces’ work out there will in fact encourage Mr. Assad to participate in either the ceasefire or the rewriting of the constitution and subsequent elections?
And Mr. Lavrov, could you tell us whether or not you believe that the President’s decision would accelerate what some have viewed as something of a proxy war in which the United States seems to be backing the rebels and in which Russia has said, as you said just a few moments ago, that you do not necessarily believe that Mr. Assad needs to go? And of course, we believe Russian forces have been attacking some of those rebel groups the U.S. has supported.
SECRETARY KERRY: David, it’s very simple. I think I just said it. First of all, there are too many people who have been made to believe that the choice they have for life in Syria is between Assad or terrorism. And it drives people to Assad, or it drives them out of the country. So to the degree that we can join together with everybody who is united in an effort to end this reign of tyranny that has attempted – it’s not a reign, but this tyranny that is perpetrated by Daesh – to whatever degree that is diminished and people see there is a better alternative, which is this political process, versus what they currently had – that’s a better choice, in our judgment. And we think that will help the process.
Secondly, to whatever degree we show our bona fides in putting our effort into counter Daesh, I think it earns credibility with all of the stakeholders that are involved in this. And that can help us to build the good faith necessary to have a solution.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) I did not say that Assad has to go or that Assad has to stay. I said that Assad’s destiny should be decided by the Syrian people, as well as all other aspects of further development of the Syrian state.
As for certain concerns about the fact that Russian air forces are striking some groups supported by the U.S., terrorist and non-terrorist – from the very beginning, I would like to say and highlight here that we are conducting this operation under request of the Syrian Government. And we asked the U.S. to arrange our cooperation in that sphere. Right now we are at the point where our U.S. colleagues agreed only to create a mechanism of de-confliction, but we’re sure that more can be done and we can more effectively fight terrorism. And I believe – I hope that the agreement that we have today to create a list of terrorist organizations would also help that.
I have already talked about our evaluation of President Obama’s decision to unilaterally introduce some broad contingency, so to speak, to fight ISIS. I believe that neither the U.S. nor Russia want to go back to the so-called proxy war, but the fact that this situation makes the cooperation between the militaries ever more important is very apparent to me. We have a common enemy and we need to make sure that this enemy does not come to power in Syria or in any other country.
MR TONER: Next question will be —
SECRETARY KERRY: I just – hello, I just want to add one thing quickly because I think it’s important to the fabric of this. We have succeeded in doing sort of a minimal and most important level of preventing conflict in the operations between our militaries, and Minister Lavrov is correct that there’s been a request to try to do more. And we clearly want to be responsible about the effort with respect to ISIL – Daesh – and so we discussed today how it might be possible to be able to do more. And one of those ingredients is this cooperation with respect to the political track, which can open up the horizon, perhaps.
But we have some ideas which we discussed today that I’m taking back to Washington. They would need the President’s approval, and so I will keep them to myself until I pass them on to the President. But I’m confident the President wants to make certain that we are maximizing our effort against the terrorists as well as maximizing our effort to bring peace through a political track.
MR TONER: Next question is Stas Natanzon from Russia 24.
QUESTION: Thank you. I shall follow my compatriot speaking in Russian for the same reason, if you don’t mind. There is interpreter, so there is no problem.
(Via interpreter) I would like to go back to the discussion of the contingency introduced to Syria. This information came just at the time when the Vienna reconciliation talks were taking place. Is this an attempt to influence the negotiations or the lack of concerted actions between the military and the political authorities in the U.S.? Or if you can give me any other reason, I would be happy to listen to that. Also, I would like to ask you about the timeline and conditions for the ceasefire in Syria.
Sorry, first question of course was for Mr. Kerry and the second one was for all of you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, I was happily not listening because they were talking – (laughter). Can you give me the question, please?
INTERPRETER: I would like to go back to the introduction of the contingencies to Syria. The information about the —
SECRETARY KERRY: What would you mean by “contingencies”?
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: Contingents.
SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, the new people.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: Yeah.
INTERPRETER: The special operations forces.
SECRETARY KERRY: Yes.
INTERPRETER: This information came just at the time when the Vienna talks were taking place. Is this an attempt to influence the negotiations, to show the power? Or this is the lack of concerted actions between the military and the political authorities in the U.S.? Or if there is any other reason, could you please explain it?
SECRETARY KERRY: None of the above.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: John, we did not plant this question. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY KERRY: No. This has been a process that I’ve been engaged in – and all of us have on the President’s security team – for many months now. And it happens that it really coincided; it’s coincidence more than anything. The President has been determined to try to make certain that we were going to increase our efforts against Daesh because, to everybody’s obvious perception, more needs to be done.
We’re actually very proud of what we have done over the course of the year. We’ve had over 7,300 strikes in Iraq and in Syria. We believe that those strikes help to keep Daesh from moving further towards Baghdad and gaining more territory. Tikrit has been liberated; 100,000 Sunni have been able to return to their homes in Tikrit. Baiji has been liberated. Ramadi is currently a fight that is ongoing, but we’re going to be doing more to help there.
And in addition to that, Kobani, which many people gave up originally in the media, was saved. Other communities in Syria have been liberated. Eighty-five percent of the northern border of Syria has been liberated of Daesh. There’s still a component there where we intend to do some work together with the Turks in order to make sure Daesh is no longer present there.
So it’s been a serious effort. And we’ve said from the very beginning that if Russia is there, indeed, to fight against Daesh, there are ways for us to be able to be cooperative and find a way to do more. So it’s really a coincidence that it came out today. I had no idea as we were – we began the day, I had heard about it, but it wasn’t until this morning that I knew that the decision had been made.
QUESTION: The second part.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) So the second part of the question was about the timeline, the conditions of the ceasefire. It was discussed in the Joint Plan of Action and the decision was made to continue the discussions with our UN colleagues. There were no conditions to that, apart from the fact that no terrorist groups would be subject to the ceasefire.
MR DE MISTURA: The UN will do its work on that, of course, supported by the international players and partners, and we will be engaging both the Syrian authorities and the opposition in order to make sure that there are areas where we can do the ceasefires and humanitarian assistance. In any case, you will see that whenever there will be a message that there is a political process, the ceasefires will be, by far, easier to be achieved. That’s why the two things need to work in parallel.
SECRETARY KERRY: And the theory of the ceasefire is very simple: Certain parties control or influence people with guns and the ability to fight. And if we do reach an agreement with respect to some of the road forward, there would be a responsibility for those with influence and those with – those who have direct control over certain parties, they would control them. Obviously, with respect to Daesh and al-Nusrah, there is no ceasefire, there would be none, and those are the early parameters. But much more needs to be discussed between militaries, the politics. There’s work yet to be done, but there is a fundamental concept in mind that could bring even greater capacity to do the humanitarian aid to even restore people’s ability to come out of being a refugee back to a home. There are all kinds of possibilities, but they remain to be explored.
MR TONER: Last question is Christian Ultsch from Die Presse.
QUESTION: Yes, hello. Good evening. A question to Mr. de Mistura: When, how, and where do you want to bring representatives of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian authorities to the negotiating table?
And a question to Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov: Today, you have negotiated about Syria without Syrians. Does the contact group has any intention to invite Syrian delegates to their sessions?
MR DE MISTURA: Let me start by addressing even the second question, because it was raised yesterday – why the Syrian representatives or the Syrian Government is not present yet. Well, I’ve been – as you know, that’s one of the privileges of the UN; we meet everyone. So I’ve been meeting a lot of Syrians, especially during July and during the so-called Geneva consultations – 230 different entities, groups, and the government. And they all told me the same thing: We are unable to come to any type of common conclusion unless the international community, the regional partners, players, and the broader international community and the P5 come to some common understanding. Then, we will have enough critical mass to actually come and meet.
Well, what happened today is in that direction; what will happen in 14 days will be in that direction. And I think that will help, especially if those who have an influence – and they were all around the table, believe me – those who have an influence on both the government and the opposition will tell them, time to sit now. That will be soon, I hope, especially if the message comes across from everyone who was attending this meeting today.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.
MR DE MISTURA: John, you want to —
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, just to say that the United Nations is the entity that is responsible for and that we have asked to invite the Syrians. The Syrian opposition wasn’t invited today, Assad wasn’t invited today. Because first, a lot of stakeholders who have had very strong positions had to come together and see if they could find a common ground that would make it possible for the United Nations to then engage. And we are both, all of us – I mean Minister Lavrov, myself, all of the ministers who are here today are supportive of trying to get the political process going, understanding that there are still some differences of opinion about how it works. But that’s our job, is to work at that.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) I agree with John. Today, we wanted to reach an agreement on – at least on some aspects and to encourage further political process. Right now, we do not see a unified delegation from the opposition. This was discussed today, and Staffan de Mistura with his team will be doing work in that direction. We have thanked each other already for the great work, and in the end, I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to the Austrian Government, to the hospitable city of Vienna, and to all Austrians for this great conference and their hospitability.
We will be back. (Laughter.)
MR DE MISTURA: This is the statement that came out today. You will have it, all of you. It will show there are nine points. All of them are very concrete, and they are the outcome of seven hours of serious, constructive discussions. Thank you.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: More than one point an hour.