State Department leads interagency team to talk Syria in Turkey

State Department leads interagency team to talk Syria in Turkey

The State Department is leading an interagency team to Istanbul to hold the first round of talks with the Turkish government Wednesday on coordinating increased help for the Syrian opposition.

The administration team, which left Washington today, is being led by Acting Assistant Secretary Beth Jones and will include representatives from the Defense Department and the intelligence community. The trip is part of what the Obama administration has styled as its efforts to promote a change in the Syrian government outside of the U.N. Security Council, through interactions with like-minded countries and increased interactions with the internal Syrian opposition.

The meetings Wednesday represent the first implementation of the new arrangement with the Turkish government, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced following her Aug. 11 visit to Turkey. Reports from the trip said that Clinton had agreed to consider a no-fly zone and increase operational planning with the Turks, but this week the State Department sought to manage expectations about the "new" approach.

"[R]emember what the secretary committed to when she was in Istanbul, which was an interagency conversation, U.S. and Turkey sitting down together to share operational picture, to talk about the effectiveness of what we’re doing now, and about what more we can do," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. "So this was not a bricks-and-mortar center. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. This is a bilateral conversation across the interagency."

Clinton made a point on her trip to Turkey of meeting with Syrian activists who operate inside Syria but she snubbed the Syrian National Council, which has set itself up as the main civilian body representing the opposition. Clinton did not meet with leaders of the Free Syrian Army, however.

"Our position on this one hasn’t changed. We are providing nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition… but also, increasingly, training for those future leaders of the NGO sector, some of the types of groups that the secretary met with when she was in Istanbul," Nuland said.

Some of those activists have been complaining that they aren’t getting the non-lethal assistance. A Washington Post report Monday said that activists were turning to the black market for gear because they hadn’t received any satellite phones or other components of the $25 million the administration has authorized in non-lethal aid.

The Office of Syrian Opposition Support, which is in charge of the aid program, began working in June and has faced delays in getting the aid to the people on the ground, the Post reported. It is "fair to say that it’s very much a work in progress. We are moving as aggressively as possible now that we have cleared many of the cobwebs in our own system and with our allies," Assistant Secretary of State Rick Barton told the paper.

Nuland defended the State Department’s activity at Tuesday’s briefing and suggested that the activists who spoke with the Post just happened not to be the ones getting the assistance.

"We are doing training on free media, countering the government’s circumvention technology, legal and justice and accountability issues, and how to deal with the crimes that have been committed during this conflict, programs for student activists who are encouraging peaceful protest on the university campuses, programs for women," she said. "So we are extremely active, and if there are a few guys who are hanging out in Turkey who haven’t actually gotten this stuff, it’s because we’re focused on the groups inside Syria."