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Middle East Digest - April 20, 2010

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Washington, DC
April 20, 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 April 20, 2010

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1:23 p.m. EDT

QUESTION: I want to ask about this meeting with the Syrian yesterday. Does the U.S. have evidence or reason to believe that Syria has, in fact, transferred SCUDs to Hezbollah?

MR. CROWLEY: Let me put the meeting in context and then answer your question. There had recently been a statement by the Syrian ambassador to the United States that we have not raised this issue. In fact, we have raised this issue multiple times going back to February. So yesterday evening, we did call in the DCM of the Embassy here just to make sure that he understood that we take this issue very seriously and to remove any doubt about the concern that we have and how important we think it is to the region. And so that was the context within which the meeting last night took place, and we will continue to have these ongoing discussions with Syria about this issue.

We are still looking into it. We haven’t reached any particular judgment at this point as to whether any transfer has taken place. But we made it clear both today, last night, and in other meetings that this is something that we have great concern about. It is a violation, prospectively, of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 in terms of weaponry, advanced weaponry, coming into Lebanon. That is the province, rightfully of the Government of Lebanon, and that under 1701 only the Government of Lebanon is permitted to bring in weapons of this kind.

QUESTION: Well, what was the – if you don’t know or you don’t have evidence or reason to believe that there’s been such transfers, why have all these meetings? Why are you raising it?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we’re raising it because we’ve seen reporting on it and we are studying it closely. But the proximate reason for the meeting last night was expressly because there have been some direct suggest – public comments by the Syrian ambassador to the United States that we hadn’t raised this issue. And we had raised it, but we want to make sure that they understood completely that, in fact, this is an issue of great concern to the United States.


MR. CROWLEY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: The Syrian Government has denied today the accusation --

MR. CROWLEY: I understand that, but at least now they cannot say that we haven’t raised this issue.

QUESTION: I know, but yet--

MR. CROWLEY: And we have raised it on several occasions.

QUESTION: They’re warning again from yet again that the United States would go ahead and take a lead from the Israeli intelligence for the United States accusation of Syria. Even the prime minister of Lebanon has indicated to the fact that this case seems like it is a repetition of what happened in Iraq when Iraq was accused of having nuclear capability. Yet you are blaming a coalition that is taking place between Syria and Lebanon to defend their existence against aggressive Israel, when in the same time an Israeli minister has said to a British newspaper – has threatened that Israel was going to bomb Syria to take it back to the stone age.

MR. CROWLEY: Well --

QUESTION: I mean, do you have any reaction to this?

MR. CROWLEY: I will be happy to – let’s take these issues – there has been public reporting about a possible transfer of SCUD missiles to Hezbollah. As I said, the United States has not reached a judgment as to whether such a transfer has taken place. But this is not a new issue. Take it more broadly from the question of a missile like the SCUD. The arming of Hezbollah represents a significant threat to regional stability. This is why the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1701 in 2006. So this is not a new issue. And it’s based because – off of a UN resolution. This is not about any one country or any one concern. This is about a pattern of activity that threatens regional stability.

So the importation of any sort of weapons into Lebanon is the province, the rightful province, of the sovereign Government of Lebanon, and it gets to choose what kind of weapons will be in its country to serve its own self-defense. So the fact that you have a separate country prospectively arming a militia inside of Lebanon is a threat to Lebanon’s sovereignty. And we are committed to support Lebanon, its sovereignty, and regional security and stability. So this was the context behind our very clear message to Syria that this is a great concern to the United States.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: P.J., when you answered Matt, you said we have seen reports. What are these reports? Are these the Israeli reports? Do you think they are credible?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I’m not going to get into our intelligence activities. There have been reports. It’s one of the reasons you people have been asking this question. And – but this is the context behind the meeting we had last night.

QUESTION: The wording of the statement said “provocative behavior regarding potential transfers.” I’m wondering, if you haven’t determined whether or not they’ve made this transfer, then what provocative behavior are you referring to specifically?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, Andy, I’d just go back to what I said. The issue of the arming of militia like Hezbollah by outside countries is a great concern to us. It’s a great and legitimate concern to the sovereign Government of Lebanon. So this is not a new issue. It may be new in the context of marching up the scale in terms of the kinds of weapons that Hezbollah may try to obtain. But we want to be clear that matters of – and legitimate matters of self-defense in Lebanon, that’s a matter for the sovereign Government of Lebanon and it’s not for outside countries or factions to meddle in Lebanese affairs.

QUESTION: All right. Well, if it is the sovereign right of the Lebanese Government and the Lebanese armed forces to defend themselves, so you wouldn't have a problem if the Lebanese army, say, wanted to buy SCUD missiles from Syria?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, we’ll --

QUESTION: Or are you suggesting that the introduction of SCUDS --

MR. CROWLEY: Let’s not get into hypotheticals, Matt. I mean, obviously --

QUESTION: Hold on.

MR. CROWLEY: Whoa, whoa --

QUESTION: I’m not the one getting – you put out an entire statement yesterday based on a hypothetical, based on this idea you say you don’t have any evidence to support the claim that Syria has transferred these SCUDs to Hezbollah. That’s a hypothetical. So --

MR. CROWLEY: Your question?

QUESTION: You’re concerned about Hezbollah getting SCUD missiles. Wouldn't you also be concerned about the Lebanese army getting SCUD missiles?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we – well, again, without going too far down a hypothetical path, we frequently comment on our assessment of what any country might be doing and the impact that what any country might be doing on regional stability and security. So we have an ongoing conversation with Lebanon and the UN contributes significantly, obviously, to stability in Lebanon as well. So – but these are decisions that – for Lebanon to make. It’s not judgments for other countries, neighboring countries, to decide what kind of weaponry might be available to a particular faction that might have an impact --

QUESTION: All right. Well, I just (inaudible), you wouldn’t have a problem if --

MR. CROWLEY: Well --

QUESTION: You wouldn’t have a problem with – and I’m not going to use the word “if” – you would not have a problem with Lebanon’s army –


QUESTION: -- acquiring SCUDs from Syria.

MR. CROWLEY: If there’s a particular defense need that Lebanon or any other country has, we’ll be happy to have a conversation with that country in terms of advising it as to what the impact of any notional arms transfer would have on regional stability. But to the self defense of Lebanon, this is a matter for the sovereign government to decide what – how – what best serves its self defense, not for an armed militia.

QUESTION: But, sir, the prime minister of Lebanon himself has –

MR. CROWLEY: And I understand that and –

QUESTION: -- disagree with the statement --

MR. CROWLEY: And I understand that. Okay? And this is part of our intensive dialogue with Syria. It’s one of the reasons why we want to put an ambassador in place in Damascus as soon as possible, so that we can make sure there are clear understandings as to behaviors that we think are constructive in the region and behaviors that we think are provocative and counterproductive.

Go ahead, Michel.

QUESTION: Do we have proof that Syria is providing arms to Hezbollah, not SCUD missiles?

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll take that question.

QUESTION: And do you have any reaction to the Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri that you are repeating the same scenario that happened in Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: We’re not doing anything but making sure that all nations in the region are playing a constructive role in our tour and maintaining and promoting regional security.

QUESTION: Any reaction to the statement made by the minister or high official – Israeli official that they would bomb Syria, bring it to the – back to the Stone Age. I mean do you see provocative action or a threat by Israel through such a statement by high official talking to a British newspaper, issuing such a threat when Israel has 200 nuclear bomb and none of the Arab countries has any?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, I sense an escalation in our questions here. Look, one of the reasons why we came into office committed to pursue Middle East peace in all of its tracks, not just between Israelis and Palestinians, but Israelis and Lebanese, Israelis and Syrians, is because we recognize that armed conflict will not solve the broader conflict, that this can only be done through a negotiated settlement, a comprehensive settlement. That’s why we’re pursuing this as aggressively as we are.

QUESTION: P.J., did you get any kind of response from the DCM?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that we got a particular response last night, but obviously – I mean I think in various comments, public and private, the Syrians have said that the reports are not true.

QUESTION: Iran. The Turkish foreign minister is in Tehran and he, at a press conference, sort of formally suggested that Turkey should now play a mediating role and that Turkey could be the site – the third country for any possible transfer of uranium. I know you’ve talked about this in the past, but this seems to be a more formalistic announcement. Do you see any role for Turkey in this? Should they be a mediator? Would the U.S. welcome it?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, of course we see a role for Turkey. It is an immediate neighbor of Iran and whatever happens with respect to Iran, the future, Turkey is going to experience whatever happens first. So we recognize that the future of Iran as part of the region is vitally important to Turkey, just as it’s vitally important to the United States and other countries in the region. Can Turkey play a constructive role? Of course. Are they attempting to do so? Yes. Do we encourage that? Yes. I would only say that in order to play a mediation role, you have to have a country like Iran that is actually willing to engage seriously and that’s what’s been lacking over the past several months.

The international community, the United States, the P-5+1, and countries like Turkey have been willing to play a constructive role, have been trying to advance the agreement that was put on the table – or the proposal that was put on the table last fall. It has been Iran that in no way, shape, or form, whether it be with the United States, with the P-5+1, or with Turkey, have been willing to come forward and realistically and constructively seek a resolution.

QUESTION: If you’re skeptical of that report, what makes you not skeptical of other reports about SCUD missiles in Lebanon?

Well, you took the very unusual step of calling in the DCM of the Syrian Embassy. Or maybe that wasn’t so unusual, but then publicly volunteering this, accusing them of potentially provocative actions involving the potential transfer of these weapons. And I don’t know, I find it confusing. Without any proof that there has been any transfer --

QUESTION: A story floating around talking about a peace plan addressed by Mr. Brzezinski and Salazar --

MR. CROWLEY: Mr. Brzezinski and?

QUESTION: Zbigniew Brzezinski --


QUESTION: -- and the previous congressman, I don’t know his first name, Solozar, Salazar.

MR. CROWLEY: Oh, Steve Solarz?

QUESTION: Steve Solarz.

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, Solarz.

QUESTION: Solarz, sorry.

MR. CROWLEY: I thought the Interior Department was getting involved in this.

QUESTION: They’re insinuating that the Administration is involved to some extent with this kind of peace plan. Do you agree with this assumption or can you tell us anything about it, if you know?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, at this point what we’re focused on is getting the parties back into direct negotiations, and the proximity talks are a means to accomplish that. I think at this point in time, we are not contemplating putting a peace plan on the table.

QUESTION: At this point in time, are you contemplating sending Senator Mitchell back?

MR. CROWLEY: I think he will go back to the region in the near future, but I have nothing to announce.

QUESTION: At this point in time, can we say thank you?

MR. CROWLEY: Yes, you can.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:57 p.m.)

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