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Middle East Digest - April 29, 2010

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Washington, DC
April 29, 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 29, 2010

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12:50 p.m. EDT

MR. CROWLEY: This evening, the Secretary will address the American Jewish Committee dinner. I think you already have been provided remarks, text as prepared. But she will reflect on the very real threats that affect Israel and express our concerns about the behavior of the Syrian Government and their provision of arms to various groups in violation of Resolution 1701. But she’ll also say that this is expressly why we need an ambassador in Syria. Not that we’re engaging as a reward or a concession, but that engagement is a tool that can give us added leverage and insight and greater ability to convey strong and clear messages aimed at changing Syria’s behavior.

She will also reflect on our current work at the United Nations to craft new tough sanctions. We are committed to pursuing the diplomatic path, but will not compromise our commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. She will reflect on the status of Middle East peace and that we are working around the clock to move forward with proximity talks which we hope will set the stage for a resumption of direct negotiations on all permanent status issues as soon as possible.

And she will underscore the importance of the Arab Peace Initiative and – but that it is time for all those in allegiance to support the parties in this effort and advance this proposal with actions, not just with words.

QUESTION: Have you gone ahead and approved the visa for Ahmadinejad and his delegation to come to the UN?

MR. CROWLEY: The visas for the Iranian delegation for the NPT conference are still being processed.

QUESTION: What is your understanding – and I’ve been out for a few days, but what exactly are the Syrians providing Hizballah? I mean, is it – are there components of SCUDs, entire SCUDs, SCUD technology? Are you able to be specific about that?

MR. CROWLEY: Much of this touches on intelligence matters, which I cannot share. I mean, there’s a broader issue and a narrower issue. Let me talk about the broader issue: Are we concerned about the nature of missiles that are being provided from Syria to Hizballah? Absolutely, and that is at the heart of why Syria is a member of the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. We have had direct conversations with Syria about the nature of their assistance to Hizballah. It is destabilizing. As the Secretary will say in her speech tonight, these are issues that are fundamental to war and peace in the region.

As to SCUDs, let us say we have concerns and we are – continue to watch that issue very carefully. But we are concerned about the broader issue of the nature of Syrian support to Hizballah on a range – involving a range of missiles, including that one.

QUESTION: Ambassador Holbrooke had a very difficult time, it seemed, from those of us in the peanut gallery of persuading members of the House that there is an actual need for an ambassador in Damascus. Is there any concern here at State that perhaps the nomination of Mr. Wood might be held up --

MR. CROWLEY: Mr. Ford.

QUESTION: Mr. Ford – excuse me – might be held up on the Senate side?

MR. CROWLEY: We want to see Ambassador Ford confirmed and on the job in Damascus as soon as possible. That remains our position. It is what we are communicating to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We understand that there are concerns, not only about the Syrian behavior in the region, but we think that actually makes the compelling case that we need an ambassador there who is making clear to Syria what we think it needs to do going forward.

QUESTION: But there seemed to be this lack of understanding of cultural sensitivities within the Middle East, which members of the House – granted they can’t vote on Mr. Ford’s nomination – but they just do not seem to understand that import of having someone at a very high level engaged in face-to-face conversations with the foreign minister in Damascus, as opposed to a cable being sent across the ocean.

MR. CROWLEY: We want to see Syria play a more constructive role in the region. And we think by having daily conversations with Syria, that is a more effective way to proceed than having episodic conversations through other visitors to Damascus on an ongoing basis.


QUESTION: What’s the long-term harm of not having him there?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, it’s a matter of – we think it’s time to engage Syria – again, not as a reward. It is in our national interest to see Syria evolve as a more constructive player in the Middle East. It is in our national interest to see Syria actually engage directly with Israel to pursue the Syrian track of Middle East peace. We think that we can pursue our national interest more effectively by having an ambassador there by – rather than having someone do that from here.

QUESTION: Why do you not use the same argument with Iran and North Korea? And before you start telling me the differences, I’m well aware that you have diplomatic relations with Syria, but you don’t have them with Iran or North Korea. But there was --

MR. CROWLEY: We have diplomatic relations with Syria and not with Iran and North Korea.

QUESTION: But there was a push not so long ago to have an interests section in Iran. There was not so long ago a State Department office in Pyongyang that was helping the – helping with the Yongbyon dismantlement.

And if you’re arguing to the Hill that you need direct conversation to make your point clear with the Syrians, why don’t you make this – why aren’t you trying to make the same point with Iran and North Korea?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, in the case of North Korea, we think there are fundamental things that North Korea has to do first. I mean, there’s no cookie-cutter approach here.

QUESTION: Well, but why doesn’t Syria --

MR. CROWLEY: Let me – it’s a fair question. I mean, we evaluate how can our engagement be as effective as possible, whether it’s with relation to Syria, whether it’s relation to North Korea, whether it’s relation to Iran. In the case of North Korea, we have said, very specifically, if you want to have a normal bilateral relationship with the United States, there is a clear path to get there, but there are things that North Korea has to do first.

In the case of Iran, could you envision some change down the road? I know the previous administration thought about this, but you have to have a partner that is willing to engage in order to have that conversation.

In the case of Syria, we actually do have a country that is willing to engage. And we have assessed that at this stage of our relationship – and it is Syria – we’ll evaluate this on a case-by-case basis – that we think it’s most effective at this point to have an ambassador on the ground in Damascus. That serves our interest.

QUESTION: Oh, I thought the whole problem was that the Syrians weren’t willing to engage on this, particularly.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think they’re willing to engage. We can debate whether they’re – I mean, we have very specific concerns about their behavior, which the Secretary will address tonight.

QUESTION: There are lots of reports that these – whatever this missile technology that you’re referring to that may be going to Hizballah actually --

MR. CROWLEY: I think I’m referring to actual – not to a specific system, but in many cases, we’re talking about actual missiles, not technology.

QUESTION: Okay. Well – but that they are actually sourced from North Korea. Is there a – does the State Department make any spillover? I mean, what about putting North Korea back on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, if that’s where it’s coming from?

MR. CROWLEY: That’s hard to answer without getting into intelligence. I think there are multiple systems and there are multiple sources. Some of those sources are actually in Syria.

QUESTION: Is there any plans for the Secretary to meet with the Syrian foreign minister at the NPT conference?

MR. CROWLEY: I haven’t seen her schedule. She will have bilaterals while she’s in New York. As to who, we’ll maybe try to get you that by tomorrow.

QUESTION: Is there any possibility of any pull-asides with the Iranian delegation, assuming that the visas are approved?

MR. CROWLEY: I think that a face-to-face meeting between a U.S. diplomat and an Iranian diplomat is highly unlikely.

QUESTION: But not out of the question?

MR. CROWLEY: I just think it’s highly unlikely.

QUESTION: On Israel. We’ve reported at the Jerusalem Post this past week that Israel feels it’s no longer obliged to keep – to take down the 23 outposts it pledged to do, because it feels that the U.S. hasn’t kept its own commitment regarding understandings reached with Israel over the settlements. So I’m looking for a U.S. reaction to that.

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, we have made clear that these are important issues, they’re final status issues, and that the parties need to take affirmative steps that create an improved atmosphere for negotiations to proceed and they need to avoid actions which inhibit progress. And certainly, settlements are a contentious issue. The United States has a clear policy with regard to settlements, feeling they are illegitimate. And we believe that this is – we should, number one, avoid actions that complicate this process, and number two, the only way to resolve the status of borders, refugees, settlements, security, Jerusalem is to get into formal negotiations. And we’re pushing hard to get them into proximity talks as soon as possible that we hope will lead to those direct negotiations.

QUESTION: But the outposts were supposed to come down anyway, regardless of proximity talks.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, and – but the Israeli Government has pledged to take specific actions. I mean, in the broader context, for a number of years, they have responsibilities, and we would expect them to fulfill those responsibilities.

QUESTION: How close is the U.S. to getting to proximity talks?

MR. CROWLEY: How close are the parties to --


MR. CROWLEY: -- to get – let’s see where we are this weekend.

QUESTION: Do you have anything more about reports that perhaps the latest Mehsud who was said to have been killed in Pakistan may not have actually been killed after all, and according to the Taliban is alive?

MR. CROWLEY: I have no idea.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:14 p.m.)

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