A background briefing transcript from yesterday might aid in larger understanding of White House policy and strategic objectives toward Syria, Russia, North Korea and China.
[Transcript] – SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: (In progress) — on the relationship between the leaders of the United States, our President and Premier Xi, and then applying that newly formed relationship to complex problem sets from the Middle East to Northeast Asia, and then a result in the United Nations, it helps advance our mutual interests and the interests of all civilized people.
So I think it’s difficult to portray this as anything but a really great week for our citizens and the United States.
♦ Q Thanks so much. Japanese media is reporting that the USS Carl Vinson is in operations with the Japanese naval forces. As you know, they have a (inaudible.) What happens if there is a confrontation this week between North Korean forces and Japanese and U.S. forces? And how will you prevent this from spiraling into a broader military conflict?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: Well, as you heard from the President many times, we’re not in the business of trying to predict with a high degree of certainty precisely what our response is going to be.
I think what we demonstrated last week was the ability of the President’s national security team to come together, convened by the National Security Council, to look at events such as those that might occur on the Korean Peninsula, quickly analyze those events, place them in context with U.S. vital interests, establish objectives that protect American citizens and advance our interests, and then develop and present the President with options.
So we have a team that is, I think, particularly adept at doing that. And if there were to be continued destabilizing and aggressive behavior by the North Korean regime, that’s how the national security team would respond.
♦ Q Did the President personally ask President Xi and China to abstain from the U.N. resolution? And I have a second question on Russia. The President said relations are at an all-time low. What will it take for them to improve relations there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: On the conversation with President Xi, I don’t think the President would want me to go into the specifics of the conversation. I would just say that it was a very warm conversation based on not only the two leaders meeting, but their spouses meeting, and President Xi’s ability to meet the President’s extended family, and especially his grandchildren, which had, I think, a big effect on the relationship.
I think what I can say about the conversation is that it was a very frank and open conversation about two very complicated problems — one in the Middle East involving Syria, and one in Northeast Asia involving the North Korean regime and its behavior and the unacceptable threat posed by a regime such as that that has nuclear weapons.
So it was a great conversation, and I think that President Xi’s decision speaks for itself in terms of his leadership and his determination to not obstruct the U.N.’s ability to sanction the Assad regime for its behavior.
And in terms of the exercises with Japan, I just think it is obviously prudent for us to maintain our high level of vigilance in Northeast Asia, and it’s also prudent for us to maintain the close relationships and high-level training that we have with our allies in the region.
♦ Q And what about Russia — how to improve — what should they do to improve relations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I’ll defer to my colleague on that because he’s the one who just had the conversations. But it sounds like, from the press conference that they did, that there is a way ahead. And you mentioned the working groups and so forth. You have probably as good a knowledge as I do on that right now based on the press conference.
♦ Q A couple questions. One, why do we hold Syria accountable for its use of chemical weapons but not Russia for its support of Syria using its chemical weapons? What’s the policy thought behind that?
Two, is there any movement in terms of our Special Forces in Syria? Are you taking any precautions to ensure that there isn’t any retaliation against them? And lastly, how are we doing in Raqqa? Has this operation impacted our resources in terms of our ability to go into Raqqa and recapture the city?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay, for the last one first, it has not impacted in any way the offensive in Raqqa. I defer any specifics for you to follow back to the Defense Department.
I think it wasn’t just us, but I think it was the entire international community that is holding not only the Assad regime but its sponsors responsible for this reprehensible and inhumane behavior of the regime that involves the chemical attack but also involves indiscriminate mass murder attacks against its citizens and through a number of other means as well.
♦ Q I have two questions for you. You’ve cited the abstention by China in today’s U.N. Security Council vote as a positive step for our national security. There has also been news today that the President is no longer labeling China a “currency manipulator.”
Circumstantially, it seems as perhaps those two events could be related. Is that accurate? Was there some sort of, perhaps, deal worked out at the summit or negotiations that the President undertook?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll defer to my colleague on that. But I will just say in general that both decisions were made on the merits of those decisions separately. There was no explicit linkage that I’m aware of between the two of those.
♦ Q And then my second question on Russia. You said that there’s a tremendous opportunity available to the Kremlin to play a role here while, at the same time, obviously having very harsh language against the Assad regime. What gives you personally — you’ve seen this — what gives you hope that Russia is just going to change its mind?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that maybe with the very strong international condemnation of their support for the Assad regime that this could change. And also I think what you have seen in the last week is a United States that is committed to leading in the region. And that creates opportunities for all kinds of people — even Russia. And so I think that it’s time for a recalculation of how they can best protect their interests there.
♦ Q After the strike?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And for us, you know, maybe it’s not as rational as it should be. But based on what Russian interests are in Syria, there is no reason that we can see that they can’t pursue their interests in a way that would allow them to be more productive and helpful in ending that civil war and moving toward a sustainable political outcome.
There also, as you know, have been some very dedicated diplomats working on this from an international perspective for many years. And even they who have been working on it for many years are encouraged — skeptically so, maybe — but encouraged by recent developments. And we owe it to humanity, we owe it to the Syrian people to do everything we can to allow Russia an avenue to play a productive role.
So I was going to go to all the way in the back.
♦ Q General McMaster, what is the difference between Syrian civilians getting killed by chlorine bombs versus by sarin gas? Would the use of chlorine bombs, which the regime has used several times in the past, be a new red line for this administration?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it wasn’t a new red line, the use of chemical weapons. The weapons — the nerve agent in particular. But the President, as you know, in every question he’s asked about this, doesn’t think it’s really helpful to speculate about what a reaction will be in a specific case. What he’s determined to do is do what’s best for the American people in every one of these instances.
What we have been able to do across the national security team — and by that I mean all the departments and agencies and their heads coming together — is I think we’ve been able to impart a much higher degree of clarity to our policy by framing these problem sets.
Whether it’s the approach to China and that relationship, or the very serious problem associated with North Korea and the Korean regime and its nuclear capabilities; the very complicated and difficult situation in Syria and across into Iraq involving ISIS, but also the sectarian civil war and the civil war broadly, and the multi-party conflict in Syria; the role of Iran; the relationship with Russia and how to deter Russia’s destabilizing behavior, but also the ability to look for areas of cooperation.
So these are really strategic problems and opportunities. And what we’ve been able to do in just a few short weeks is frame those problems and opportunities to understand the situations in each of these areas, to view those situations through the lens of our vital interests and the vital interests of the American people, the security of the American people and the nation’s interest, and then to establish objectives.
So what’s happening now is — when events happen, we are able then to understand better how to sort of torque that even or to regard that event in a way that allows us to respond to it and move toward an objective. And so what this also allows for is a much higher degree of common understanding with our allies and partners and across our government as well.
So what you’re seeing is a team now I think that’s able to achieve a much higher degree of agility in the area of foreign relations and the area of national security. And I think it’s going to continue to pay off in the weeks and months ahead as well.
♦ Q Thank you. You said we owe it to humanity to give Russia — to play a role. Would the U.S. consider joining, getting involved somehow in the Astana talks already going on?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I would ask Secretary Tillerson that question. I know that we’re fully supportive of the Geneva process. I know that, of course, the dynamics have changed now, and we’ll see how they’ve changed.
What we would like to do is to use this opportunity for a reevaluation for all the parties to understand better how to use this new situation to move more rapidly toward a sustainable, political outcome in Syria that resolves that civil war and results, obviously, in the defeat of ISIS, al Qaeda and related groups — denies them the ability to control population centers and territory in Syria and Iraq — and then allows the consolidation of those military gains politically such that reconstruction can begin, the return of refugees and the long-suffering Syrian people in particular can return.
So to answer your question indirectly, we know that there has to be a political process. We’re very supportive of the Geneva process, and obviously I think the President will rely on Secretary Tillerson to determine whether or not there’s a role for Astana in the days and weeks ahead.
♦ Q General?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
♦ Q General, thank you. You used the words events. It reminds us of Prime Minister — British Prime Minister Macmillan: Events, events, events, needless to say. When will events — this is a question of urgency — can events actually spiral out of control? And might it be time for the two most powerful men in the world — President Trump and President Putin — to meet together for their own special summit to try to resolve all of these issues?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, obviously, that’s up to the President and President Putin. I think what you see is an extremely positive and appropriate step taken already with Secretary Tillerson’s visit, during which he had extensive talks with Foreign Minister Lavrov and President Putin. And so it really remains to be seen based on the work that Secretary Tillerson has done there what an appropriate path ahead is.
So again, as you know, from the President’s many interactions with you, he is not doctrinaire about very many things, and he will look at this opportunistically. I think what you’ve seen with the President in the last couple — at least I have as a member of the team here — is someone who sees possibilities where many others would see only difficulties.
♦ Q So you’re saying that that possibility is off the table, General?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no, I’m not. I didn’t say that. Come on. (Laughter.)
♦ Q Thank you, General.
♦ Q Thank you. The President described relations possibly at an all-time low. Secretary Tillerson echoed those comments as well. Vladimir Putin said that they appear “deteriorated.” Yet you just described today as a positive step, and you also said that there appears to be a way ahead. So I’m trying to grasp both of those. My first question to you I guess is, is today viewed as a good day? It didn’t apparently seem that way.
Then my second question, if you don’t mind, on the call last night, can you say if currency manipulation was discussed with President Xi?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I’m not going to talk about the content of those phone calls because I think having a privileged channel of communication between Premier Xi and the President is really important to have. So I just want both leaders to be confident that the discussions they have can be held in confidence, and that’s really best for everybody.
In terms of the Russian threat, it really gets to the previous question on recognizing that there is always a risk, right? That there could be unintended consequences of any action, and it is much better to talk than to not talk.
And when I was alluding to a way ahead I was really alluding to a way ahead procedurally that Secretary Tillerson had laid out in his press conference with Foreign Minister Lavrov. Whether or not anything positive substantively happens, that remains to be seen obviously.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay, so I’ll do one more.
♦ Q One option that the President himself has mentioned several times is safe zones. Where is that option now? Is that under active consideration? And how exactly would that work? Could Raqqa, for example, become a safe zone if it’s liberated?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as you know, in the areas in the far south and some of the areas in the east and areas in the — I’m sorry, in the west — and the northeast, those areas where as these brutal, murderous criminals, terrorists are defeated become a safe zone. And for those of you who have been in these areas, you know that it’s almost astonishing how quickly life can return to these areas and to people who have suffered almost unspeakable brutality.
So there already some safe zones, right? And while really what is important is how can the security gains be translated into sustainable, political outcomes consistent with the kind of security that we’d like to see — enduring security for the Syrian people and a political settlement and a resolution that’s in our mutual interest, right?
And so that’s the work that has to be done. And you know that there are some key people at the U.N. working on this, and we’re working in partnership with many others, and we hope maybe with even more partners in the future to be able to move to that political outcome.
Thanks a lot, everybody.
♦ Q Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just a reminder, we were on background, senior administration official. Thanks.
♦ Q No embargo, right?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, embargoed till it’s over, so now it’s over.