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Middle East Digest - February 18, 2010

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Washington, DC
February 18, 2010


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 February 18, 2010

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1:34 p.m. EST

U.S. Under Secretary of State Bill Burns, having been in Syria yesterday, was in Turkey today for meetings led by Foreign Minister Davutoglu. I’m sure that the foreign minister gave him an update of his trip to Tehran. Clearly, they were following up on a very detailed discussion that Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister Erdogan had in Doha earlier this week. But one of the reasons for the meeting was the end review of the comprehensive strategic relationship between the United States and Turkey. But I’m sure they – in addition to talking about our joint concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, talked about Afghanistan, Iraq, the peace process, efforts of the Minsk Group, and the ongoing efforts towards a rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia.

Dan Benjamin, our Coordinator for Counterterrorism, met today with Syrian officials. He led a delegation that included representatives from the Embassy, also David Heyman from the Department of Homeland Security, Maura Connelly from the NEA Bureau here at State, and NSC Director Meaghen McDermott.

And Richard Holbrooke is in Pakistan today, and while he is there, will have meetings with President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani, Foreign Minister Bashir, opposition leaders, and Generals Kayani and Pasha. Then he will travel for his first visit as the SRAP to the `Stans, as well as Georgia and Germany.

QUESTION: Do you have any readout of exactly what was on the menu for Dan Benjamin’s meeting with the Syrians?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t. I think it’s – it is – obviously, we have shared counterterrorism concerns, review threats to the region. But beyond that, not a lot more.

QUESTION: U.S. and Syria have shared terrorism?

MR. CROWLEY: They do, but just as --

QUESTION: No, I’m just asking.

MR. CROWLEY: No – yeah – well, we have concerns – shared concerns about terrorism in the region, and we also have our concerns about Syria itself. And I’m sure that was part of our discussion today and also with Under Secretary Burns when he was in Syria as well.

QUESTION: Why you are reversing the status of diplomacy in Damascus, raising it to full ambassador, was any consideration --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we’re restoring an ambassador there --

QUESTION: Well, restoring, all right.

MR. CROWLEY: -- yeah, I mean, primarily because we think that at this --

QUESTION: Status quo ante--

MR. CROWLEY: -- point in time, given the issues in the region, we thought it was appropriate to have a representative there full time, to be able to have the kind of discussion and dialogue with Syria that we need, to encourage them where we think they’re taking steps that are positive, and also to continue very direct dialogue to continue to express to Syria our concerns about its relationships with various elements in the region as well. Syria has, in the past, been interested in engagement with a variety of countries. We clearly want to see comprehensive peace and that would involve progress on the Syrian-Israeli track as well as the other tracks.

QUESTION: No, I understand. I was – about to get to the point of being on the terrorism list. Was consideration being given or can it be done only certain times of the year or whatever to – Syria is what, now one of four countries. It sort of sticks out when you do something like this.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, although this is a fact-based process --


MR. CROWLEY: -- and we do continue to have concerns about Syria, its ongoing support of terrorist elements in the region. There are a variety of actors in Damascus that we think should not be there. And should Syria make progress in this area, then we will evaluate. But I’m not aware of any effort right now to consider removing Syria from the terrorism list.

QUESTION: P.J., there’s a Pew study out showing that support for al-Qaida and other radicals Islamic ideologies are falling out of favor with mainstream Muslims. Do you think that’s the case? And what is the State Department doing to foster that sort of turning the tide against supporting Muslim – radical Muslim ideologies?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, actually that was one of the major aspects of the Secretary’s trip to the U.S.-Islamic Forum in Doha – to continue the engagement of the United States with Muslim-majority countries throughout the world. It’s why, over the past year, you’ve had the Secretary in a range of countries – not only in the Middle East, but also in Asia, in Indonesia, other countries – and this is vitally important. And I think we share that perspective that you have a very, very small, virulent minority who have tried to hijack a great religion. They are isolated, literally and philosophically. And you’re seeing the kind of dialogue within Muslim communities around the world on the implications of the perverted vision that al-Qaida has tried to propagate.

And in countries such as Afghanistan, while there are issues involving concerns that Afghan citizens have about the presence of international forces there, at the same time, that there is declining – I mean, single-digit support for al-Qaida and the Taliban, expressly because these people want what we all want – a chance to practice religion in all of its forums, have a pluralistic kind of society, not another rigid vision of how Islam – of Islam, and then have the opportunity to give education to all citizens, not just half of the citizens of society.

So I think, broadly speaking, in Muslim communities around the world, you see a rejection of that rigid image and vision of Islam. And we are happy through our various – Farah Pandith, Rashad Hussain, now the new envoy to the OIC, to – and the Secretary herself, and certainly the President in terms of continuing to follow through on the vision that he enunciated last year in Cairo to do everything we can to engage in a variety of ways and encourage the kind of debate that you’re seeing now.

QUESTION: Follow-up?


QUESTION: Do you have the recent developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan where top Taliban leaders have been arrested or captured? Do you think you are moving towards a situation where you can declare victory against them in the war (inaudible)?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think anyone’s declaring victory at this point. You’re seeing a very determined, patient operation in Afghanistan. But clearly, we’re encountering some level of resistance. It will be incumbent upon us as we continue to expand the zone of security to various parts of Afghanistan that we move aggressively in with – to demonstrate that with the Government of Afghanistan, for example, we can deliver better services more relevant to everyone’s daily lives than the Taliban could. And likewise, we see determined action on the Pakistani side of the border. And again, we are adapting our assistance programs to Pakistan to make sure that we are delivering the kind of assistance that is directly relevant to lives of average Pakistani citizens.

I think we’re also encouraged that notwithstanding the tragic attack in India, that this is not derailing important dialogue between Pakistan and India. So I think if – this indicates that we have momentum on our side, that there are lots of things to be encouraged by, but I don’t think we’re at the point where we can declare victory.

QUESTION: On Iran, do you have anything on the latest IAEA report that says that Iran has been enriching uranium at higher levels? And also, it raises concern about kind of undisclosed activities regarding nuclear payload for a missile, a lot of concerning things from this report.

MR. CROWLEY: Sure. This was a periodic report that the IAEA puts out on Iran. I think there was also a report today on Syria. But this was the first report by Director Amano, but also the first report since the revelation of the secret facility in Qom. There is no explanation for that facility that is consistent with the needs of a civilian nuclear program. And it characterizes the way in which Iran has conducted its relations with the IAEA and its failure to satisfactorily explain what its activities and ambitions are in the nuclear sphere.

So I think the conclusions of the report are consistent with what the Secretary was saying in the region this week. We have ongoing concerns about Iran’s activities. We cannot explain why it refuses to come to the table and engage constructively to answer the questions that have been raised, and you have to draw some conclusions from that.

QUESTION: I have two questions related to India and Pakistan.

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: One question is about upcoming February 25th meeting between foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan. How do you view this in view of the --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we touched on that a minute ago. This is vitally important. There have been times in the past where India and Pakistan have had formal and informal dialogue. We think that this is a vitally important relationship to stability in the region and we’re most pleased with the political courage showed by leaders on both sides that notwithstanding the attack which was directly aimed at derailing this dialogue, that there is this political commitment to move forward with talks. And we think that’s going to be extremely important.

QUESTION: What would be your expectations from this meeting?

MR. CROWLEY: I think the real key is: What are the expectations on both sides? But we think that there are significant issues. There are tensions, obviously, in the relationship, but they can be best resolved through dialogue. And India and Pakistan share a threat of extremism and we think that – we are totally supportive of these meetings and look forward to seeing the results.

QUESTION: And secondly on – you have – the Administration has been giving lot of foreign aid to Pakistan, civilian and military. But this Ambassador – Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.S. Mr. Husain Haqqani recently in a speech in Lahore, he said that they need two things from USA: one is more military aid so that they can come at par with Indian military sites; and they also need a civilian nuclear deal just like the U.S. had with India. How do you address these two questions?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, and in fact, we are addressing them specifically. We have a significant military relationship and provide security assistance, but we are – we have restructured the nature of our assistance so that more of it is civilian in nature, particular emphasis on energy and the delivery of electricity. Perhaps it’s time to get our energy czar back down here to talk about where that has – how that has progressed.

But we are, in fact – we have a different balance than we have in the past in terms of making sure that not only can we help Pakistan meet its security needs, but more importantly, we’re helping the Government of Pakistan with the delivery of services so that we can improve the lives of the average Pakistani citizen, and in doing so not only – in all parts of Pakistan. That is going to be, in the long term, the best way to combat extremism.

QUESTION: Is civilian nuclear deal is being considered by the Administration with Pakistan?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m – I don’t know.

QUESTION: A question that was asked yesterday about the meeting between Taliban and Afghanistan Government in Maldives, do you have anything on that? Are you supporting of that peace talks between Taliban and Maldives in – between Taliban and Afghan Government in Maldives?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t have anything further.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:04 p.m.)

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