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Middle East Digest - March 24, 2011

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Washington, DC
March 24, 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 24, 2011

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MR. TONER: Just two other things: The United States congratulates the Human Rights Council in Geneva on the establishment of a Special Rapporteur on Iran. This marks a significant step forward for the people of Iran as well as a significant step forward for the Council. Because of this action, the people of Iran, despite every attempt by the Iranian Government to silence opposition and dissent, will have a voice devoted to their human rights within the international community.

And then also in Geneva, we also applaud the adoption of the resolution at the Human Rights Council on combating religious discrimination, violence, and intolerance. This resolution represents a sea change in the global dialogue on these issues and on countering offensive and hateful speech based upon religion or belief. This resolution also confirms the central role of freedom of speech and open debate in combating religious intolerance and discrimination. That’s it.

Sorry, just one brief update. Just on the Jerusalem bombing yesterday, we can confirm that six U.S. citizens were injured in that blast in Jerusalem, and U.S. consular officers are engaged and providing all appropriate consular assistance.

QUESTION: Do you have any idea – know what their conditions are?

MR. TONER: What their conditions are?


MR. TONER: I believe the majority of them are not serious.

QUESTION: Moving to Libya.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: What do you expect out of the NAC meeting today in Brussels, and can you bring us up to date on any phone calls that the Secretary may have had about the situation?

MR. TONER: Your second question first. She did have – just finished a phone call with UK Foreign Secretary Hague, France Foreign Minister Juppe, and Turkey – Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu. And it just finished; I don’t have a clear readout. We’ll try to get you something on that.

QUESTION: It was a three-way call?

MR. TONER: It was a – well, a four-way call.


MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: All right. Okay. And so --

MR. TONER: Including the Secretary of State, yeah.

QUESTION: Did she tell the foreign secretary that she planned or did not plan to attend the big meeting he’s hosting next week?

MR. TONER: We don’t have anything to announce on that, but --

QUESTION: Well, did she tell him?

MR. TONER: Again, I didn’t get --

QUESTION: Whether or not you have anything to --

MR. TONER: I didn’t get a readout of it. Sorry, Matt.

QUESTION: All right. And then --

MR. TONER: I’ll get something for you.

QUESTION: -- what is it that you expect out of the NATO meeting today?

MR. TONER: Well, again, NATO, within the North Atlantic Council, remains hard at work. Permanent representatives there remain hard at work, and I believe they began meeting today at 4:30 Brussels time. I’m not sure that they’ve broken from the meeting. But I think we’ve been clear that we want to see a transition away from these early stages. We want to see a coalition moving forward that preserves – or utilizes, rather, NATO’s unique capabilities in terms of command and control.

QUESTION: Would you characterize Turkey’s position as the main obstacle to achieving that goal?

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t want to get into play by play or he said/she said or any of that. I just – there’s ongoing discussions within the North Atlantic Council. That is a forum for candid exchanges. And again, just a reminder, there’s 28 capitals that are involved in this discussion, too, so that also plays into the process here.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) be a particular problem?

MR. TONER: (Laughter.) But --

QUESTION: On that, in Ankara, the Turkish parliament has voted to support military action. Do you have anything to say about that?

MR. TONER: Well, again, Turkey’s been an important partner in this process and obviously, we remain closely in touch with them on that.

QUESTION: Well, do you have any reaction to the vote in parliament?

MR. TONER: To support the --

QUESTION: That’s my understanding --

MR. TONER: -- UN Security Council Resolution 1973? Is that what you’re asking about?

QUESTION: I believe that’s what --

MR. TONER: I don’t have – I mean, other than what I just said, I don’t have a specific reaction to that.

QUESTION: I have a question with regards to --

MR. TONER: Goyal asked, but – Goyal asked first. Then I’ll get to you. Sorry.

QUESTION: Thank you. Also on Libya?

MR. TONER: That’s fine.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: We’re on Libya writ large, NATO.

QUESTION: One – as far as UN Security Council resolution was concerned, it was a mixed resolution, number one, because five countries abstained – major five countries. And also on this resolution, there is – there’s – Russia is on odds, prime minister and president. And finally, as far as this Libya – attack in Libya or war in Libya is concerned, do you think your mission or U.S. mission will affect in Afghanistan and in Iraq?

MR. TONER: I just missed the last actual question, the part --


MR. TONER: No, I’m not – I just missed the – do you think it will affect the mission in Afghanistan, did you say?


MR. TONER: Well, we’re actually well aware that the burden, and I think Secretary Gates, obviously, has spoken about the burdens on the U.S. military at this time. So we’re obviously keenly aware of those burdens, but again – which is why we’ve been clear all along that the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya is clearly an international effort, and with the U.S. obviously in the lead in front with some other key allies and partners, but evolving more into an international partnership.

Back and then you, Jeff, sorry. On Turkey?

QUESTION: Yeah, yes.

MR. TONER: Is this a Turkey question?

QUESTION: Yeah. According to the Turkish officials, there was negotiations ongoing in Ankara before the operation, before the last Saturday, and – between the opposition party in Libya and the pro-Qadhafi circles, and Turkey was a kind of mediator in these negotiations. And U.S. side was aware of it, but suddenly French Government has started to bomb to Libya soil. Do you have any comment on that?

MR. TONER: I’m not aware of any details on that story. I don’t have anything to say. I mean, I’m not aware of it.

QUESTION: And have you been informed about a negotiation like that in Ankara before the operation?

MR. TONER: Between Turkey and Libya?

QUESTION: Between opposition parties in Libya and the pro-Qadhafi (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: I’m not. We can look into it, but I’ve not heard anything about that.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) other negotiations – the AU apparently has invited representatives from the Qadhafi government as well as opposition members, UN Security Council representatives and Arab countries, so on, for a meeting in Addis tomorrow. Have you – were you – was the United States informed of this? Do you think it’s a good idea? Do you think there’s something to talk about in such a meeting at this point?

MR. TONER: Well, we have been engaged with the highest levels of the African Union and its member states since the crisis began in Libya, and I think Matt’s been asking me every day why she’s calling certain members of – or certain African leaders. But that’s part of it. We will – obviously are seeking to work with the African Union, again to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1973 as well as the overall objective, increasing pressure on Qadhafi. But I’ll see if we have any response or reaction to that specific meeting.

QUESTION: Okay. I mean, because one could infer from what you just said that the Secretary was in some way promoting this type of gathering or something.

MR. TONER: I did not say that.

QUESTION: You don’t think that’s the case?

MR. TONER: What I’m talking about is our efforts to engage with the African Union. Obviously, Libya is a member and was a prominent member, is a prominent member, but – so we’ve been working within them as – with likeminded countries within the African Union to help forward our efforts.

QUESTION: Sorry, clarification on the four-way call?

MR. TONER: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Are there still differences between the U.S. and France over transferring command to a NATO (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t have an exact readout of the call, and so I don’t know what the conversation entailed. But President Obama spoke with President Sarkozy the other day and there was a readout after that that – I’m paraphrasing, but that indicated that we were in agreement. And we’ve always been in – I think – in agreement in terms of what NATO’s – NATO – the unique capabilities that NATO would bring to this kind of operation.

QUESTION: Now, there was some reporting –

MR. TONER: Jeff actually asked before, and then – I apologize.

QUESTION: You talk about engagement. What’s – since the imposition of the no-fly zone, what’s been the level of contact between the U.S. and opposition forces? How significant, what level, who’s involved, and to what end does that raise their – the opposition’s profile, perhaps, in –

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: -- in terms of –

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- who’s running the country in the eyes of the U.S. and so forth?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we’ve maintained contact with elements of the Libyan opposition, both inside and outside Libya. And as you just said, the goal there is to develop a fuller understanding of who they are, what their leadership structure is, and, frankly, what their intentions are, and to discuss ways that we can support them. We also contact them for updates on the situation on the ground. As we’ve said many times, we don’t have eyes and ears in Libya now, so we rely on the opposition to give us some of those eyes and ears on what’s happening, as well as their plans. So we do remain in close contact with opposition figures both within Libya and outside.

QUESTION: Do you – just as a follow-up – do you – what – how do you see – how solidified do you see this opposition being in the eyes of the U.S.? Because there are some – at the beginning of the conflict inside the country, you saw different aspects and –

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- the national council forming and so forth. How gelled do you see it?

MR. TONER: And – well, we – I think we’ve seen progress. As you said, the TNC, the Transitional National Council which has been formed, I know they’ve been putting out statements and – to the public, and there’s a clear indication that there is – that they are evolving as an organization, as – and as an organized opposition, but clearly, that evolution is still in process.

QUESTION: One last follow-up on that. You see reports that fuel shortages and so forth are happening in the country. It’s one thing to have a level of contact; it’s another thing to support the opposition. What concrete ways is the U.S. directly or through the coalition trying – attempting to support the opposition?

MR. TONER: It’s a good question, Jeff. I mean, right now, again, the – for the past week or so, our focus has been entirely on humanitarian assistance. And even prior to that, as Assistant Secretary Schwartz said when he came down here and spoke about the humanitarian efforts that the U.S. is providing, both within Libya through NGOs – private NGOs that are operating there – as well as along the border area, have sought to meet those – some of those humanitarian needs. But again, all options remain on the table, so we’re continually discussing best ways to support them.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: You were mentioning that there were some talks with Britain and also with France, but there were some reports that Italy, that is providing some of the airspace and bases, is not very in love with all these operations because there is not a full plan ahead, and they may change their view on these. Do you have any view on that?

MR. TONER: Well, again, there is an effort, and I – in Brussels to address the next phase. And clearly, that’s ongoing. But we’re confident that from that will emerge a plan for the next steps of this and a way for NATO to provide command and control. And Italy has been a very stalwart partner so far in this process. As you noted, they’ve provided us with air bases and overflight, and we hope that continues.

Yeah, go ahead. You look like you just got a note, so –

QUESTION: Yeah, I – as far as –

MR. TONER: But recognizing that I haven’t. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah. As far as you know –

MR. TONER: I’m flying blind.

QUESTION: -- when you came out here, there was no deal at NATO when you came out here, right?

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: It looks like there is one now. Just –

MR. TONER: Great. And you know what? I’m not –

QUESTION: I’m not going to ask you for your reaction.

MR. TONER: Okay, thank you. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I know you --

MR. TONER: No, but seriously, what I was going to say about the – what’s going on at NATO is – I appreciate that – what I was going to say about what’s going on at NATO is there is a deal and there may well be one. We’ll certainly seek to inform you about it, to talk to some of you about that, but we’ll try to get you our reaction.

QUESTION: I just want to check on one thing.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: You said that you have no eyes and ears on the ground in Libya. Is that – are you speaking for all government agencies when you say that, or just the State Department? (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: Next question. (Laughter.) Sean. I mean, Matt, I can’t speak for – no, I’m talking about the State Department.

QUESTION: You mean the Press Office –

MR. TONER: That’s right, the Press Office, thank you. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: How about two North Korea questions?

MR. TONER: Are we done with Libya?

QUESTION: Are we done with Libya?

QUESTION: One more on Libya?

MR. TONER: Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. Any more conversations between the State Department and the Libyan regime? Say, Musa Kusa or –

MR. TONER: Well, yeah, there was --

QUESTION: -- Abdullah Sanussi?

MR. TONER: Right, and I – and those have taken place. I think the last time they happened was over the weekend, and they were indeed with our Secretary – Assistant Secretary, rather, for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeff Feltman. Nothing since then. These have been – I don’t think we’ve – we’ve been pretty transparent about saying that they call us from time to time. We also maintain contact with them for updates, again, on the situation on the ground. And we can’t get into many more details than that, but they have taken place. I think the most recent, though, was Sunday, I believe.

QUESTION: How about direct contacts with members, extended or otherwise, of the Qadhafi family?

MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no.

QUESTION: No brothers at all?

MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no.

QUESTION: No Saif al-Islam, no --

MR. TONER: We can look and – we can ask, but I’m not aware of the –

QUESTION: Is there any role of Turkish Government in – as a protected power of U.S. in Libya?

MR. TONER: Well, I mean, we’re deeply appreciative of their role, and they played a tremendously helpful role in getting our four journalists out of Turkey – out of Libya, excuse me. And certainly moving forward, they are our protecting power and would help maintain contacts with --

QUESTION: I have a question about Pakistan. In the wake of the Ray Davis case, has the U.S. been pulling any U.S. personnel out of Pakistan?

MR. TONER: No, not – certainly, I’m not aware of. I don’t believe we have – we were – in the days immediately following the resolution of Mr. Davis’s case, we were certainly on a heightened security awareness, but there’s been no measures to reduce our footprint in Pakistan. In fact, I would say we’re getting back to business as usual in terms of cooperating with the Pakistani Government and the Pakistani people in trying to forward our agenda there, which is to build Pakistani institutions and capacity to bring greater economic prosperity and political freedom there.

QUESTION: If I could just follow up, there was a report that the Pakistanis have given the U.S. a list of people that they were going to declare persona non grata. These are military, maybe from other agencies, whatever.

MR. TONER: I’m not aware of that.

Go ahead, Dave.

QUESTION: Mark, are you guys impressed with these announcements from the Syrians that Asad has instructed the formation of a committee to lift the emergency decree that’s been in effect for years.

MR. TONER: Right. Words are words, and we’ll obviously look for action. We – as we said in our statement yesterday, we were – we are and remain – we were and obviously remain deeply troubled by the violence and civilian deaths, especially in Dara’a, at the hands of Syrian security forces. And overall, we’re concerned about the Syrian Government’s use of violence in suppressing the Syrian people’s right to freely express themselves.

QUESTION: But are you pleased with this notion that --

MR. TONER: Again, it’s – I think we’re going to see what happens on the ground.

QUESTION: Is there any news from the ambassador in Damascus?

MR. TONER: He remains in contact with the Syrian Government – obviously that’s his role there – and conveys our views to them on a regular basis. But I don’t have any – I haven’t spoken with him.

QUESTION: Any comments on the presence yesterday of Israeli officials – deputy prime minister – that met yesterday with Deputy Assistant Secretary Steinberg?

MR. TONER: I do know they met. I don’t have a very fulsome readout. I believe they just discussed, obviously, regional issues, but I don’t really have anything beyond that.

QUESTION: I have a question on Nepal and Bangladesh, please? As far as Nepal is concerned, finally they have a new prime minister but without a full constitution. My question is: What do you think about this (inaudible) which Nepalese are not very happy and also they have no constitution, and if U.S. is playing any role in their new constitution?

MR. TONER: Well, we’ve – we’re obviously willing to assist and have been assisting Nepal as it moves forward. But I’d have to check on what our specific role is.

QUESTION: As far as Bangladesh is concerned, any update on Dr. Muhammad Yunus and also Assistant Secretary Blake was there in Bangladesh and --


QUESTION: -- he had discussions. And if Secretary still wants him to visit the U.S. – Dr. Muhammad Yunus.

MR. TONER: That’s a good question. I’ll check. It’s a legitimate question. I don’t have any update on Secretary Blake. I do know he was there and he visited there, and there’s been no change. We still hope a mutually beneficial resolution can be reached.

Yeah, in the back, Lalit. Sorry.

QUESTION: Yeah. Several civil liberties group have written a letter to Secretary Clinton about denying a visa to Afghan woman human rights activist. Do you have anything to say on that? Why was it denied?

MR. TONER: Are you speaking about Malalai Joya?


MR. TONER: She has been issued a visa. I can confirm that she’s been issued a visa, so --

QUESTION: Why it was denied in the first place?

QUESTION: Wait, what happened to the confidentiality of visa records, Mark?

MR. TONER: Well, I can’t give you any additional details about it – (laughter) – but I can say she’s been issued a visa.

QUESTION: I thought all visa records were confidential.

QUESTION: I’m going to remember that one.

MR. TONER: You’re trying to --

QUESTION: It’s only when you deny the visa? It’s only when it’s actually news that you’re not allowed to speak about it and you’re denying a visa?

MR. TONER: I think this is news as well, that we’ve – we have issued the visa.

QUESTION: So in other words, the policy is all that all visa records are --

MR. TONER: I said I didn’t – I couldn't give you any more details beyond that. Those are confidential.

QUESTION: All visa records are confidential unless you – unless this building thinks that it’s in its interest to make them public; is that correct?

MR. TONER: (Laughter.) Any other questions? Yeah, Lalit.

QUESTION: -- thing back to – you mentioned Jerusalem in the top of your briefing.

MR. TONER: Right, right, right.

QUESTION: Secretary Gates was in the region.

MR. TONER: That’s right.

QUESTION: And he called for bold action by Palestinians on a two-state solution. So what sort of bold action is – are you talking about, and how’s everything affected by the bombing?

MR. TONER: Well, I haven’t seen his comments. Obviously, as far as I’m aware, there’s been no claim of responsibility. The Secretary and the President as well both were quick to condemn the bombing yesterday and reiterating that terrorism and the targeting of civilians are certainly never justified, and urging the importance of calm and all concerned to do everything in their power to prevent further violence. And ultimately, I can’t speak for Secretary Gates, again, but what we ultimately need to see is both sides come back to the negotiating table.

QUESTION: But you don’t think the process is knocked off track by things like this?

MR. TONER: By these kinds of things? It’s certainly not helpful. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you.


(The briefing was concluded at 2:34 p.m.)

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