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Middle East Digest - May 4, 2009

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Washington, DC
May 4, 2009


The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.

From the Daily Press Briefing of May 4, 2009

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MR. WOOD: Good afternoon, all. Happy rainy Monday. Welcome to the briefing. I don’t have anything, so we can go right to your questions.

QUESTION: Any consideration to changing the conditions for talking to Hamas?

MR. WOOD: Nope.


MR. WOOD: I said, “Nope.”

QUESTION: Oh, just curious.

QUESTION: A follow-up on this. President Asad has told Washington to establish dialogue with Hamas and Hezbollah, and he said that if you should like to make a peace, you should talk to them. And he added that Syria is ready to facilitate this dialogue. What’s your reaction?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’d like to see Syria change the behavior of these two groups. We’ve already stated what our position is with regard to sitting down with Hamas and Hezbollah, which is also a terrorist organization, needs to renounce violence and be a productive player in the region. These two groups have not. We call on Syria to use its influence to make these two groups play a much more – play a constructive role in the region. As I said, up until now they haven’t. They know what they need to do, and we hope Syria will use its influence on these two groups.


QUESTION: Apparently, the Russians will be arranging a ministerial level meeting on the Middle East in New York in, I guess, about a week’s time. Is that something which the Secretary will take part in?

MR. WOOD: I don’t believe she is going to be taking part in that meeting. I believe it’ll be Ambassador Rice who will be representing the United States at that meeting.

QUESTION: Are you speaking about the Quartet meeting?

MR. WOOD: No, I’m talking about the Middle East meeting at the UN. I think this is a meeting that the Russians, I think, were trying to put together.

QUESTION: Okay. And the Russians are also speaking about a Quartet meeting next Monday in New York. Are you aware of that?

MR. WOOD: I think I’ve heard about the possibility of a Quartet meeting. I don’t have any of the details, but certainly we’d have a representative at that meeting, if indeed there is a Quartet meeting.

QUESTION: But – so it wouldn't be the Secretary?

MR. WOOD: Not at this point, no.

QUESTION: Why not? Why doesn't the Secretary plan to attend either of the two?

MR. WOOD: Well, I just – it’s my understanding that she’s not planning to attend. I can’t give you the reasons why at this point. I’m sure it has to do with, you know, scheduling and what have you. But that’s all I know at this point. I just know that she’s not planning to attend.

QUESTION: With the Government of Pakistan being, as President Obama himself put it, very fragile right now, does that situation make it more important or more likely for the U.S. Government to be reaching out to opposition groups in Pakistan?

MR. WOOD: Well, James, we talk to all groups in Pakistan. And what we’ve tried to do by reaching out to all of these various groups is to encourage them to step up to the plate and meet the challenges that confront them, both economically, politically, the threat from terrorism within and without. And we’re going to continue to work and talk with these various groups because we have an interest, obviously, like other countries in the region, in seeing Pakistan deal successfully with the threat it faces from the Taliban. So it’s not unusual for us to have these types of discussions.

QUESTION: And what role could an opposition group or an opposition leader play in the current situation in Pakistan that would be helpful, in the view of the United States?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, what Pakistan is facing, as we’ve said, is an existential threat from these violent extremists. And I’m not sure what opposition leaders can do to help deal with that threat from these violent extremists who are not open to dialogue, who are only interested in death and destruction. What’s important here is, as we’ve said, is that these violent extremists be confronted. And the Pakistani Government and military realize the threat and are taking steps to try to address that threat, and you have to continue, as others have been doing as well, encourage them to continue to step up that fight, because this is an existential threat that the Government of Pakistan faces, and it realizes that. And others in the international community need to provide support and assistance to Pakistan as it tries to deal with this threat. And as I said, we will be doing that.

QUESTION: If you’re not sure what an opposition leader or group can do, then why would you be wasting your time talking to them?

MR. WOOD: Well, we talk to opposition leaders in many countries. We talk to them because we think it’s important that there be political unity in the country to deal with this type of a threat that Pakistan faces. So – and we’ll continue to do that. But what’s important here is that Pakistan deal with these violent extremists, and so that they don’t – so that these extremists don’t at some point create an even larger threat for the region.


QUESTION: With President Zardari coming this week, I know a couple of weeks ago the Secretary testified in the House there was still some obvious frustration on the part of the U.S. that perhaps the Pakistani Government didn’t – hadn’t quite woken up to the depth of the threat. Is there a sense now that that message has registered with the Pakistanis? And in that case, will there be a somewhat different reception for the president, or will there still be a great deal of pressure being brought to bear by the Secretary and others?

MR. WOOD: I think the Pakistan Government and military have received the message; however, that message continues to need to be reinforced because, as I said, these violent extremists pose a very serious threat to not only Pakistan, but countries of the region. And I know that the President and the Secretary look forward to the trilateral discussions that are coming up this week. And we have said that we will support Pakistan and Afghanistan as they confront these violent extremists. And, you know, as far as we’re concerned, the Pakistani Government is taking steps. And I think you’ve – what you’ve seen over the last few days is an indication that they understand the nature of this threat.

But as I said, it’s important that we not rest and that we continue to confront these violent extremists, and we’re going to be encouraging Pakistan to continue to take steps like they’ve taken over the last few days.

QUESTION: And what are the goals for the trilateral talks?

MR. WOOD: Well, it’s to coordinate, and that’s the real purpose here, is to coordinate our activities as we try to deal with the fundamental problems that Pakistan and Afghanistan face, not just from terrorism but economic – the economic situation and the impact that the global economic crisis is having on the region, to try to do what we can to better deliver services in government to the peoples of both countries.

And, you know, we’ve – for quite some time, as you know, we’ve been working on this strategic review, and we want to have some follow-up discussions with the two countries’ leaders. And we will be looking to see how we can all best go forward together in a coordinated fashion to deal with the threats that exist, and to give the people of the region some hope for a better future. And so this is all going to – these discussions are going to be very – I believe will be very productive.

And the important thing is we want to send a signal to the people of the region that we care, their concerns are our concerns, and that we have to confront these violent extremists so that they cannot recruit further and to do more harm to the region than they’ve already done. So – and we’ll obviously provide you with a readout once those discussions are over.

QUESTION: Why do you believe the discussions will be productive?

MR. WOOD: Because I think there’s a good sense amongst our government, within our government, the Pakistani Government, the Afghan Government, and other interested parties that now is the time for us to act. We’ve been very concerned about how this situation has deteriorated over time. And we think everybody is – has the same view with regard to what needs to be done. And so that’s why I’m optimistic that I think these talks will be very productive.

But again, we’ll have to see how – what the outcome is. But I think the level of concern and the level of agreement on how to move forward will likely make these talks productive. But again, you’re right; I mean, we’ll have to see how they come out. But I’m optimistic about it.


QUESTION: Is the U.S. considering intervening in Pakistan directly if you consider that the nuclear arsenal is not safe?

MR. WOOD: I’ve heard no discussions about that, Sylvie. As President Obama said last week, we’re confident that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will remain out of militant hands. Command and control of that nuclear arsenal is a high priority for the Government of Pakistan, and Pakistan has been engaged with the IAEA in a very intense discussion. It’s got export control legislation that it has put forward. So we do not have that concern.

QUESTION: You say you are confident that the arsenal is safe; but at the same time, you say that the government is very fragile. So how can you reconciliate both?

MR. WOOD: Well, first and foremost, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is dispersed. There, as I said, is a very solid command and control structure in place with regard to that arsenal. What we mean by a fragile government is that a government that doesn’t have the resources to be able to meet some of these challenges, both political, economic, and we in the international community need to do what we can to support Pakistan as it tries to meet these challenges. So, you know, it’s a complex situation in Pakistan.

But as I said, I think all of the leaders of the region and the United States understand what’s at stake here and the need to move forward aggressively on a strategy that deals not only with confronting the violent extremists, but also in dealing with the economic dislocation and crisis in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Robert, can I check a word you used.

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: I think you said Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is dispersed. Was that the word you used, meaning in multiple locations?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think the Secretary pointed to that in her testimony the other day.

QUESTION: Okay, so that was your word, “dispersed”?

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah. And does the U.S. Government actually know where Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is located?

MR. WOOD: You know, obviously, I wouldn’t talk about something like that even if I knew, Arshad. So --

QUESTION: But I’m not asking where it is. I’m just asking if you know where it is.

MR. WOOD: I really don’t want to talk about – those are – that’s getting into intelligence. I really don’t want to go beyond what I said.

QUESTION: Robert, do you have anything new regarding Assistant Secretary Feltman’s trip to Damascus?

MR. WOOD: No, I don’t, Michel. Not at this point.

QUESTION: A follow-up on this. Israeli officials have expressed their concern about the rapprochement between Washington and Damascus, and they consider that there is no justification for this. Do you have any reaction?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, we hope to have a dialogue with Syria about a number of concerns that we have in the region. And we hope that that will result in Syria taking some steps that we want to see. And our interests are the same as Israel’s in terms of trying to get Syria to play a much more productive role in the region, to cease from supporting terrorist groups.

So we’ve got a long way to go before we actually have a good relationship with Syria. As I said, we have a number of outstanding concerns, and hopefully we’ll be able to address them as we go along. We think Syria has an opportunity to play a positive role in the region. We encourage it to do so.

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