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Middle East Digest - March 9, 2011

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Washington, DC
March 9, 2011


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 March 9, 2011

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MR. TONER: Welcome.

QUESTION: Okay. Has the Secretary had any calls today or conversations about the situation in Libya?


QUESTION: So it’s no longer a priority issue for --

MR. TONER: It’s certainly a priority issue, but she just – I’m just speaking to the – your question about calls so far today.

QUESTION: Okay. So where do things stand in terms of the – what the Administration’s position is on – what it is doing, what it has done, what it is doing, and what you may do in the future?

MR. TONER: Sure. Well, things remain in motion. And obviously, events on the ground are tremendously fluid. But there is a meeting today at the White House where it will be discussed, but I’d defer you to the White House on the details of that. And obviously, there’s a NATO defense ministerial tomorrow taking place in Brussels.

But it’s also important – we’ve made a lot of progress so far in a short period of time. We’ve got strong sanctions in place, over 30 billion of Qadhafi’s regime’s assets frozen through these sanctions, and we’ve coordinated these through our European partners and through the United Nations. We’ve joined the UN Security Council resolution that refers the Qadhafi regime to the ICC, and we’ve devoted resources to monitoring human rights in Libya abuses, to support future accountability measures. We’ve used U.S. assets on the ground to evacuate those who fled the violence as well as dedicated emergency funding to those who fled across the border.

So we’ve accomplished quite a lot in a short period of time. I just would add that perspective to – when we’re asking what’s next, certainly all options remain on the table. But we’ve already accomplished a great deal.

QUESTION: Well, now that you’ve defended yourself against criticism that wasn’t – that I didn’t make, maybe you could explain a little bit further on the third point of that, which was after joining the UN resolution and supporting the ICC – referring it to the ICC, you said something about you’re doing human rights --

MR. TONER: Just monitoring human rights abuses. I mean, we continue to collect and monitor --

QUESTION: How are you doing that?

MR. TONER: Well, through a variety of means. Obviously, we don’t have eyes and ears on the ground, which is limiting to us. But we continue to reach out to – as Ambassador Cretz was doing and others are getting to talk to people within and without – and outside of Libya to get a better sense of what’s going on there.

QUESTION: Are there any plans to get eyes and ears on the ground, at least --

MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of at this time.

QUESTION: -- in the eastern – so you’re monitoring from what? Watching television?

MR. TONER: We’re also – I mean, we’ve also got DART teams on the ground, on the border. I mean, there’s a variety of ways that we’re monitoring the situation.

QUESTION: Mark, on the issue of sanctions --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- the White House said today that they – their sort of understanding of the UN arms embargo on Libya is that it allows flexibility to arm rebels, should that decision be taken. I’m wondering if you can explain where that flexibility is in the arms embargo, why – and is the U.S. any closer to making any kind of decision on arming the rebels?

MR. TONER: I wouldn’t say that, in answer to your last question. But my understanding – and I’m by no means an expert on UN Security Council resolutions, certainly – but 1970 does have a waiver aspect to it that I believe could be – given the consensus, that could be used in this case.

QUESTION: So that would be a wavier from the Sanctions Committee would still be required?

MR. TONER: I believe so. I’ll try to get more detail on that for you.


MR. TONER: It’s a legitimate question. I think that’s right.

Go ahead, Christophe.

QUESTION: I’d like to know more about your conversations with the opposition, the rebels. We learned yesterday that there was a meeting in Cairo. Does this continue? Did you try to reach out to other people?

MR. TONER: Right. I believe you’re referring to what P.J. said yesterday, that Ambassador Cretz did – had meetings in both Rome and Cairo, as well as he’s back here in Washington, and he and others continue to reach out and try to get a better sense of what’s going on. We’re still building that sense of what’s actually taking place on the ground. And to Matt’s point, it is difficult without eyes and ears on the ground.

QUESTION: So who are the people who you are talking to?

MR. TONER: We don’t want to get into specific names for a variety of reasons. We’re trying to talk to a wide range of people and personalities, trying to get a candid assessment of what the situation is.

QUESTION: What are the –

MR. TONER: The variety of reasons?


MR. TONER: Well, again, we don’t want to – it’s – because once we start naming names, it looks like we’re picking contenders, it looks like we’re picking sides – well, in terms of the opposition that’s emerging – and we just don’t want to be in that position.

QUESTION: Well, just simply by meeting with them, aren’t you picking sides or making --

MR. TONER: Again, we’re – it’s – we’re trying to do it as broadly and in as broad a fashion as possible.

QUESTION: So you are picking sides; you just won’t want to admit it? Are you cheering -- (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: Anybody got the latest score in Georgetown? I don’t know; are they coming back? (Laughter.) Oh, my gosh.

QUESTION: Speaking of picking sides, Mark –

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- the Italian foreign minister said that he believes that two emissaries from Qadhafi’s government are on their way to Brussels, where they want to talk to the EU and to NATO. I’m wondering if you have any information –

MR. TONER: I’m sorry? From the –

QUESTION: From Qadhafi.

MR. TONER: From Qadhafi’s –

QUESTION: Yeah, if you have any information on that, and would the U.S. – for instance, the NATO ambassador – be open to meeting with them?

MR. TONER: Well, I don’t want to get out in front of what I’m not – I can’t confirm. Our position has been quite clear – we want Qadhafi to leave and to step down, and short of that, I’m not sure what we would do in terms of meetings. I mean, I think we remain – avenue – we want to keep avenues of communication open, but in terms of meeting with him, I’m just not sure, Andy. I’ll find out about the meeting.

Yeah, James..

QUESTION: Two things: Is the United States actively trying to dissuade the Russians from their opposition toward the establishment of a no-fly zone?

MR. TONER: Actively trying to dissuade? Sorry, just to make sure I have your question clear – from a no-fly zone, okay. No. I think it’s a matter of discussion. There are people within the UN, there are individuals and countries within the UN who question the efficacy of the no-fly zone, the need for a no-fly zone, what it would entail. And I think those are somewhat justified questions. We’re still evaluating the option of a no-fly zone.

QUESTION: A couple of other things: Is what’s happening in Libya right now properly characterized as a civil war?

MR. TONER: It’s a good question. I would just say that what we have is a leader who used not just arms, but heavy weaponry against his people and is now in a situation where he’s lost all legitimacy. We repeat our call for him to step down as a way to resolve the violence that’s going on and the bloodshed. I’m not trying to avoid your question; I know what your question was. I just don’t have a clear answer for you.

I think what we’re seeing more is a situation where a leader has forfeited his legitimacy, turned arms against his own people who are peacefully protesting, and you’ve got a situation now of – that’s extremely violent, and we just want to see the bloodshed end and the innocent civilians spared any more violence.

QUESTION: And one last thing here: Ambassador Rice, on March the 1st, told Good Morning America, “We are going to keep the pressure on Qadhafi until he steps down.” First question: You agree with that statement; that is an accurate assessment or summary of U.S. policy right now?

MR. TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: When the United Nations ambassador says that the United States is going to take actions – i.e., the application of pressure – until a foreign head of state leaves office and there is a new head of state, that is a policy of regime change, is it not?

MR. TONER: James, you certainly enjoy the political – discussion of political philosophy and terminology. Again, what’s clear here is that we want to see Colonel Qadhafi step down, leave Libya, and for the violence to end, the bloodshed to end. We believe that’s the best way for that to happen. And this is not the U.S. acting alone; this is the U.S. acting in concert with the international community. We’ve been quite clear, and it’s been quite apparent throughout, that we have been in lockstep with both our process at the UN and at NATO in building international consensus on any actions that we’re taking.

QUESTION: Driving toward a change of the regime, correct?

MR. TONER: Driving towards a resolution of the current conflict and trying to, through that resolution, create an opportunity for a democratic government to emerge, or a better government to emerge in Libya.

QUESTION: Via regime change?

MR. TONER: Call it what you will, James.

QUESTION: After the meeting in Cairo and other conversations that you had, do you have a better sense of what the opposition wants from the West, for instance, in terms of a no-fly zone?

MR. TONER: Well, again, there’s – all of this is still under discussion. That’s a good question, Christophe. I wish I knew what we had – I mean, I wish we had a better sense of what the opposition was and that’s emerging there. I think it still is emerging. So we’re hearing a lot of disparate voices, but also, hopefully, that’ll coalesce as we move forward. Certainly, the no-fly zone is being discussed by Arab leaders in the region, and we’ve heard various people speaking out on it. It’s certainly an option that remains on the table, one we’re considering, but one we’re considering along – again, in concert with our partners and allies.

QUESTION: Mark, can you --

MR. TONER: Go ahead, Jill.

QUESTION: -- give a little more a specific definition of what the international community is? Secretary Clinton seems to be saying it’s the United Nations, the Security Council. But could it also be NATO working with other –

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: -- countries – the Arab League, the African Union, et cetera?

MR. TONER: Yeah, Ambassador Daalder spoke to this the other day. We would – NATO is poised to take a variety of actions, and he talked about some of those actions the other day. But certainly, we want to move, again, in concert with international opinion and international consensus, which we’re working on towards the UN.

So I mean, we – certainly, we want UN support. We’d like to see that UN support

QUESTION: Right, but could you do something without the United Nations? Let’s say if NATO, in concert with the African Union and other – some other countries --

MR. TONER: I think --

QUESTION: -- decided to do that.

MR. TONER: Sure. The short answer is that we’ll continue to work with the UN, trying to get that support. We would certainly want to move forward with UN support, but --

QUESTION: Is it an absolute requirement?

MR. TONER: It’s always desirable.

QUESTION: Isn’t it the definition of the international community? I was always under the assumption --

MR. TONER: It’s not necessarily the UN.

QUESTION: No, no, I know, but isn’t it basically the United States and whoever agrees with it?

MR. TONER: (Laughter.) I’m sorry, did Georgetown just take the lead? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Do you have any update on the status of Zawia right now? Do you understand Zawia to be under Qadhafi’s control?

MR. TONER: I don’t have an update. I know there was intense fighting there. We saw from the images that Sky News and others put out that it’s a pretty compelling fight there, but I don’t have any updates on the situation.

QUESTION: So do you understand it to be fluid in Zawia?

MR. TONER: Yes, I would say so. That’s my understanding.

QUESTION: Is the resurgence in the government forces – is that changing the thinking in any way?

MR. TONER: Not at all. Again, we’ve – we remain adamant in our position that Qadhafi needs to go.

Yeah, Michel in the back – I’m sorry, go ahead, Brad --

QUESTION: Do you have any indication --

MR. TONER: I’ll get back to --

QUESTION: I mean, there have been reports of shelling against the oil port in Sidra, and I wonder if the U.S. has any information about that. Do you see Qadhafi sabotaging the oil industry, and what are you – are you worried about that?

MR. TONER: I’ve not heard anything that indicates any shelling of the oil port. We can certainly check on it. I mean, he’s a desperate man and I would imagine that he’s not immune to desperate measures. But we’ve seen nothing that indicates he’s doing that.

QUESTION: Just to get back, when officials said in the last few days, or, let’s say, last week, that this is for the Libyan people to decide, we don’t want this to become a U.S.-led process, that was much easier to say when it seemed like the opponents of Qadhafi were on an onward march to Tripoli. Now that that’s going in the other direction, perhaps, how does that change not only what you say, but how you think about this?

MR. TONER: Well, I understand the question, Brad, and it’s all – I mean, certainly, from what we can glean from the situation on the ground certainly weighs in our decision-making and certainly weighs into how we’re looking at all the options that are in front of us. I mean, that’s just prudent operational analysis.

James --

QUESTION: To close it.

MR. TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Any update on the humanitarian situation? Because there have been reports of the flow out of Libya into Tunisia being slowed.

MR. TONER: Yes, I do. Hold on, I’m just looking at the correct numbers here. There are approximately 16,000 people in the transit camp in Tunisia near the border. That includes some 13- to 14,000 Bangladeshi nationals. And at the Egypt-Libya border, there’s approximately 5,000 individuals. And all of these people are waiting for onward transportation as flights become available.

And also, just to remind you that we’ve got our Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Eric Schwartz on the ground. He was up to the Tunisia-Libya border and saw the conditions and spoke with the evacuees firsthand about the humanitarian situation inside Libya, which speaks to your question about how we’re getting some information about human rights abuses. And he also visited a transit camp near the border.

QUESTION: And did they relay to him any abuses and --

MR. TONER: I don’t know. I haven’t been updated.

QUESTION: -- being shot at?

QUESTION: Where are those flights going?

MR. TONER: That’s a good question. Hold on one second. Some are going to – I mean, we’re – some – we’re working through the International Organization for Migration on many of these flights. But my understanding is two – is that there’s two C-130s that are taking some Egyptians as well, and they would go to Cairo. As for the International Organization of Migration, those, I assume, chartered flights. Again, there’s 13- to 14,000 Bangladeshi nationals. I would assume that’s a destination.

QUESTION: Just on the no-fly zone things, Mark, earlier in this briefing, I asked if you were actively trying to dissuade the Russians from their opposition to it, and you said no. But then in the specific context of the no-fly zone, you went on in this briefing to say that we’re continuing to work with the UN, trying to get that support. So how do you get that support in the UN if it doesn’t involve dissuading the Russians?

MR. TONER: Oh, I don’t think I said that about the UN. What I – and let me correct myself if I indicated that. I think we, along with other entities, other people, other nations within the UN are looking at all of these options and trying to analyze and trying to find the best way forward.

QUESTION: And so we’re not committed to the British-French effort to get a draft?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we’re working in concert with Britain and France, among others, but we’re trying to – our goal here is to try to increase the pressure on the Qadhafi regime and to convince them to step down, as --

QUESTION: Was Secretary Clinton in touch with Senator Lugar prior to his issuance of his statement on the subject?

MR. TONER: I will check on that, James.

QUESTION: Just following up on comments of the Director General of the IAEA and the U.S. ambassador to IAEA, is it presently the view of the United States Government that Iran is actively working on weaponization of a nuclear weapon?

MR. TONER: On weaponization --

QUESTION: That Iran is actively engaged in weaponization research or activity?

MR. TONER: All right, we went back and forth on this I guess a couple of weeks ago. What we’ve said about Iran is quite clear – Iran has a choice before it, it needs to come clean to the international community about its nuclear program. There is a way for it to do that through the IAEA. We’ve tried to engage Iran repeatedly through the P-5+1 forum to address the international community’s concerns, and we’re going to continue to do that.

QUESTION: Is it still the view of the United States Government, as last expressed publicly in the 2007 NIE, that Iran halted its weaponization work in 2003 and has not resumed it?

MR. TONER: James, I don’t have the latest intelligence as to (inaudible). I’m not sure I could share it with you if I did. Sorry.

QUESTION: Sir, just on Iran, yesterday I think P.J. took a question on this Iranian delegation that was supposed to be --

MR. TONER: Yeah, I’m not sure --

QUESTION: Did he get anything on that?

MR. TONER: I wasn’t --

QUESTION: Just sort of – there was a delegation. He said that he heard that they had applied to come and – the question was do we have any more information?

MR. TONER: Did we – okay, we’ll put something out. We’ll issue it when we do have a clarification or more details.

QUESTION: Staying in Iran and then moving a little bit farther afield just to get all three of these out of the way in one fell swoop. Are there any new developments on Levinson and the Levinson case?


QUESTION: And then – no?


QUESTION: All right. And then just get the other two: Davis in Pakistan --


QUESTION: -- and Gross in Cuba?

MR. TONER: Davis in Pakistan, I believe there’s at least one, if not two, hearings next week – the Lahore high – the Lahore court is going to --

QUESTION: Alan Gross’s trial or verdict, any idea when that’s going to come?

MR. TONER: No, nothing to announce on that or nothing to –

Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: Mark, can I try one on Yemen, please?


QUESTION: There have been deaths in the last 24-hour news cycle there, the first in a week of otherwise peaceful protests against the government. Does the State Department have any views on this?

MR. TONER: You’re right, there was violence overnight there. We’re still working to establish the facts of what happened. We’re aware that there was an altercation where security forces reportedly used tear gas and live fire to disperse protestors. We understand there was one fatality, and we certainly extend our condolences to that individual’s family. And we urge the Government of Yemen to investigate and hold accountable those who appear to have utilized excessive force.

Again, we’ve seen security forces in Sana’a. They’ve made efforts to improve security by preventing clashes between the demonstrators and the – screening demonstrators for weapons. But they need to do more to prevent these kinds of incidents in the future. We remain deeply concerned about ongoing violence in Yemen, and we continue to call on security forces and demonstrators alike to exercise restraint and to refrain from violence.

Yeah, sure. Dave.

QUESTION: On Macedonia, the advisor to the president there is suggesting that the United States is taking a much harder line on them during the – this current Administration than the Bush Administration trying to force them to change their name and – or they will have no NATO membership, et cetera.

MR. TONER: Yeah, Dave. The U.S. policy has been very consistent, and that it’s up to Macedonia and Greece to resolve their differences on the name issue. We’ve encouraged both sides to see opportunities for a way forward. This is not a zero-sum game here, and neither Ambassador Reeker nor any other U.S. officials have ever sought to dictate how they should do that. The decisions are up to them. We remain hopeful, however, that the issue will be resolved and that Macedonia will be able to take its place within Euro-Atlantic institutions, i.e. NATO.

QUESTION: I have one Egypt. I’m just wondering if the State Department has any concern over, sort of, the turn of events in Egypt, particularly in Tahrir Square where the women’s protest the other day – march, was disrupted by thugs. There have been more thugs in the square today. People are talking about sort of a counterrevolution, or at least an attempt at one. Are things going okay in Egypt as far as you’re concerned?

MR. TONER: It’s a fair question. There was also some violence against cops as well that we’re concerned about and, obviously, condemn the violence. It’s important, I think, for everyone – for Egyptians to remember the sense of unity in Tahrir Square just a few weeks ago and to refrain from any kind of violence and to go back to that sense of peaceful demonstration and expression that was the hallmark of the protests that brought Mubarak out of power.

QUESTION: Does the U.S. feel or suspect that the military is in any involved with or condones this violence?

MR. TONER: We don’t have any indications of that. Obviously we continue to talk to the Egyptian Government. But no, there’s no indications of that.

QUESTION: With all the clashes between the Muslims and the cops, did you talk to the Egyptian Government about these events?

MR. TONER: We have urged the Egyptian transitional government to act swiftly to bring the perpetrators of that violence to justice.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:13 p.m.)

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