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 25, 2011
MR. TONER: First of all, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Grossman – Marc Grossman – departed Thursday, March 24th, for travel to Brussels and to Moscow as part of Secretary Clinton’s outreach to Afghanistan’s neighbors, allies, and partners to further the diplomatic surge that she outlined in her February 18 remarks at the Asia Society in New York.
In Brussels, Ambassador Grossman will meet with NATO and EU partners and participate on a panel of the Brussels Forum entitled, “Bridging the Trust Deficit with Pakistan.” In Moscow, Ambassador Grossman is scheduled to meet with Deputy Foreign Minister Borodavkin, Director of the Federal Drug Control Service Viktor Ivanov, as well as Special Presidential Representative to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov to discuss a range of issues related to Afghanistan, including counternarcotics cooperation, to ensure mutually reinforcing efforts.
Following President Karzai’s March 22nd announcement of the start of the transition, close coordination between the U.S., our allies and partners is even more essential as we begin to realign our civilian and military resources to support the Afghan Government's increasing responsibility for security and essential service delivery for its citizens.
QUESTION: So just going back to Libya for a second --
MR. TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- what is your understanding of where things stand at NATO right now?
MR. TONER: Sure. Many of you, I think, got greater clarity – we did a background call last night on this topic.
QUESTION: I think --
QUESTION: I think there was less clarity.
QUESTION: Yeah. I think there would be a lot of people who would say --
QUESTION: Opacity. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: -- clarity was not forthcoming.
MR. TONER: Well, I’ll take a stab. (Laughter.)
Essentially, what NATO agreed to was to assume command and control of the no-fly zone from the coalition, starting immediately, and has already assumed – and I’m sorry, had already previously assumed responsibility for enforcing the arms embargo. And obviously, yesterday’s agreement to assume command and control is a big step forward for us.
What also happened was that the 28 allies also authorized military authorities to develop an operations plan for NATO to take on the broader civilian protection mission under UNSCR 1973. And this decision to go forward with the planning reflects an agreement in principle by allies that this mission should be integrated into NATO’s command and control role, but it will not be formally agreed until allies approve the plan, which will take place likely Sunday or Monday – Sunday March 27th or Monday March 28th.
So essentially, there was an agreement in principle. It’s now over to the – you understand – obviously, you all know the political side and the military side – it’s been handed over to military planners on the broader civilian protection mission. Once they get that plan back, they’ll --
QUESTION: Well, why not do it all in one fell swoop?
MR. TONER: It’s partly the process that occurs at NATO. It’s the – like any international body, it’s got its own standard procedures.
QUESTION: Well, could you be a little bit more specific about what the problem was?
MR. TONER: As I said, there was – there’s agreement for allies, or for the military committee to begin planning, and for military authorities to develop an operations plan regarding the civilian protection side of it. Once the North Atlantic Council gets that, then they’ll reach a decision.
QUESTION: Well, as of quarter to 6:00 – 5:30 yesterday – this building was under the impression that NATO would announce the whole thing all at once.
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: That did not happen.
MR. TONER: Again --
QUESTION: Why did it not happen?
MR. TONER: Again, it was an agreement in principle. But now it shifts to the military committee to develop a plan of action. They already had the plan in train for the no-fly zone. But they’re looking at – and they’re going to decide Sunday or Monday.
QUESTION: Well, I guess, why wasn’t the plan for the civilian protection --
MR. TONER: You’ll have to ask NATO about that. I don’t know.
QUESTION: Well, but you know. Why aren’t you telling us?
MR. TONER: (Laughter.) I don’t. I mean, I --
QUESTION: There are certain countries, or a country, who are members of – who are – that is a member of NATO that have problems with this. Why can’t you say --
MR. TONER: I’m sorry, your question again? There were certain countries --
QUESTION: Yeah. I’m just – I just want – trying to tease out on the record what most of us or if not all of us, know to be the case about the Turks.
MR. TONER: Well, again, I mean, look, what – the dialogue and consensus building that takes place in the North Atlantic Council takes place in there and is confidential. You’ll have to ask the Turkish Government if you want an answer on their stance and their position. What I can tell you is what was agreed on yesterday, which is a decision to move forward with command and control of the no-fly zone and a decision to begin planning for the other broader civilian protection aspects of it. They’ll make a decision on Sunday or Monday.
Sure, go ahead. Dmitry, I’m sorry, I didn’t get you in with Ambassador Cretz.
QUESTION: That’s okay. Perhaps you could address that, if not the ambassador – the issue – perhaps you could address the issue of the Libyan diplomatic representation at the UN headquarters in New York.
As you know, both Ambassador Shalgam and his deputy joined the opposition and were fired by the Qadhafi regime. And as far as I understand, the current Government of Libya nominated the new ambassador. Now, in light of what Ambassador Cretz just said, and despite your obligations as a host nation of the United – UN headquarters, are you not going to issue him visa?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t have any information about whether his visa has been issued or whether he’s not been issued a visa. But I think we were pretty clear that we suspended operations with the Libyan embassy here in light of our suspension of operations in Libya. But I don’t have any further details on the UN mission.
QUESTION: Can we move on?
MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.
MR. TONER: Go ahead, sir.
QUESTION: Can we have one on Syria?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. Mark, the Syria situation is really getting out of hand. Besides the condemnation message that came out yesterday, the statement, are you doing anything else?
MR. TONER: Well, it’s a fair question. And obviously, we did condemn and are very much concerned by the Syrian Government’s brutal repression of the demonstrations and the violence and killings at the hand of Syrian – Syria’s security forces. Again, this is something that we’re actively discussing here. We’re monitoring the situation closely. We’ve been, obviously, using our – or having our ambassador in Damascus make clear our position and urge the Syrian Government to end all violence against peaceful protesters. But I don’t have anything beyond that.
QUESTION: Are you having any contacts with the oppositions in Syria?
MR. TONER: I can imagine that the Embassy has a range of contacts and – like they would anywhere, and is in touch with all sides and all parties. And again, our message would be a peaceful expression of what we call universal expression of the people’s aspirations, but we would call for that in Syria as well. And again, our strong message to the government is that they need to let these demonstrators peacefully express themselves.
QUESTION: Mark, has the brutal repression by the Syrian Government of its people reached the point where the – Assad is no longer a legitimate leader?
MR. TONER: Look, we feel right now that the Government of Syria needs to end the violence against its people and needs to allow them to express those universal rights, but I don’t have anything more to say about his legitimacy as a leader.
QUESTION: Well, at what point do you – well, you made that – but you made that judgment on – with Qadhafi when he turned his troops against his people, and –
MR. TONER: And every day, you’re picking another country and trying to apply the same standard and --
QUESTION: Well, that’s because you –
MR. TONER: And I say every day that --
QUESTION: -- put that out there.
MR. TONER: And I say every day that --
QUESTION: You said that Qadhafi lost his legitimacy, so when are we going to see a no-fly zone for Syria? (Laughter.)
MR. TONER: Again, you’re trying to apply this one size fits all approach, Matt, and in fact, there is a wave of change sweeping the region, but what happened and is happening in Libya, frankly, stands apart. That said, any violence anywhere against peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable, and we call on that to desist.
QUESTION: So the situation in Syria, you don’t see yet as compelling enough to intervene as Libya?
MR. TONER: We are obviously concerned about it, and we’re concerned about the violence, and we’ve been clear in our public and private comments about that concern.
QUESTION: Yeah, but you were also clear –
MR. TONER: But what you had happen in Libya is just – it’s – again, it’s in different size and scope. And you had the international community recognizing that we were on the verge of – Ambassador Cretz said it – a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, and we acted to stop that.
QUESTION: Well, yeah, but you have Syrian security forces opening fire on crowds –
MR. TONER: I’m aware. I’m aware.
QUESTION: -- killing dozens and dozens and dozens of people, potentially more than the people who have been killed in Libya.
MR. TONER: Right. I’m aware of the situation in Syria. Again, we strongly condemn that violence. And in both our private and public statements, we’ve been quite clear that the Syrian Government needs to stop the violence and to respect people’s right to express themselves.
QUESTION: Right. Okay, and I’ll stop after this, but you did – but you also said that to the – about the – you also said the same thing to the Libyan Government, and it didn’t stop, and you –
MR. TONER: We did, and --
QUESTION: So you envisage a situation in Syria that –
MR. TONER: I certainly hope not.
QUESTION: -- where the international community is compelled, as it was in Libya, to respond and to intervene militarily?
MR. TONER: What we want to see in Syria is the Government of Syria to allow the people of Syria to peacefully demonstrate and express their free will and express their universal rights, and to --
QUESTION: And if they don’t?
MR. TONER: -- and to back away from violence.
QUESTION: Can they – can the Assad regime expect to see the international community act in the same way that it’s acting against Libya?
MR. TONER: I just think the Assad regime needs to respect the rights of its people.
Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: If they don’t, would you consider sanction, at least?
MR. TONER: We’re discussing the situation and monitoring the situation in Syria quite closely, but I don’t have anything to announce.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Pakistan? You talked about there being a trust deficit with Pakistan. Can you give us a sense what is it? In the opening remarks, you talked about trust deficit with Pakistan.
QUESTION: (Off mike.)
MR. TONER: Right, right. Well --
QUESTION: What is it about, and how you are addressing it?
MR. TONER: Sure. I don’t have his remarks, so I can’t really speak to what he’s going to say specifically. I’d refer you to him. I mean, obviously, our relationship with Pakistan is geared towards building a stronger political process, building stronger institutions, so that Pakistan is better able to cope with both the threat of terrorism in its midst as well as be a cooperative partner moving forward, which is how we envisage the relationship. But clearly, as many have noted, we’ve had some bumps in the road to that – in that partnership, and I think he’s going to speak to that.
QUESTION: Change –
MR. TONER: Yes, Sean.
QUESTION: Do you know the purpose of Bill Burns’s meeting this morning with the Chinese ambassador?
MR. TONER: I don’t. I can try to get a readout for you.
MR. TONER: I mean, beyond a periodic exchange on the bilateral relationship. If it’s more than that, I’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Can I go around the horn here –
MR. TONER: Yeah. Yeah.
QUESTION: -- to Yemen? And reports that President Saleh would like to strike some deal to step down over the next couple days and –
MR. TONER: Right. You’re --
QUESTION: -- and ongoing unrest; I’ll throw that in there as well, if you have anything to say.
MR. TONER: Well, you’re right. It was an eventful day in Yemen. We saw that President Saleh has publicly expressed his willingness to engage in a peaceful transition of power. And the timing and form of this transition should be identified, we believe, through dialogue and negotiation. This includes genuine participation by all sides in an open and transparent process that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people.
Go ahead, Lauren. Then I’ll – Lauren, then you’re --
QUESTION: Are you satisfied with this – with President Saleh –
MR. TONER: Are we --
QUESTION: Are you satisfied with his promises?
MR. TONER: I think that he’s obviously reached out to the Yemeni people, but obviously, we’re also waiting for his – for further action on both sides. As I spoke about the other day, I think we’ve got to – that both sides, both the government and the demonstrators, need to come together and decide for the best way forward for Yemen.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR. TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Secretary Gates, on his recent trip, said that there was virtually no planning within the government at that stage, which was about four or five days ago, for a post-Saleh Yemen. Has that planning now begun?
MR. TONER: I’m not sure to what, in fact, he was referring to. I haven’t read his remarks in detail. We obviously remain engaged with the Yemeni Government, and I think, when I was asked about it the other day, I talked a little bit about our cooperation with them, and certainly on the counterterrorism front. And that goes beyond any one individual.
Go ahead, Lauren. Sorry – wait so long.
QUESTION: On North Korea, the World Food Program came out today with their report. Have you been looking at that already? And is that going to increase the speed with which you finish your own determination of food aid?
MR. TONER: It’s still ongoing, but I don’t have anything to announce.
QUESTION: New topic?
MR. TONER: (Inaudible) Paul. Paul, why don’t you go, and then over to (inaudible). I apologize.
QUESTION: I’m going to back you up to Libya for a second –
MR. TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: First of all, is it fair to say from what you said about NATO and the decision there that there are some NATO members who are not yet sold on the idea of NATO conducting airstrikes on ground targets?
MR. TONER: Again, it’s not really for me to characterize what NATO allies may or may not --
QUESTION: Let me put the question this way.
MR. TONER: What I – but --
QUESTION: Is there unanimous support, as required in NATO, for the idea of NATO planes striking ground targets?
MR. TONER: Well, again, what came out of yesterday was the decision to move forward on the planning for such an operation to protect civilians on the ground. The planning --
QUESTION: But does that presuppose that there’s agreement? Or is there not yet unanimity on that?
MR. TONER: Well, that’s a fair question. What it does is – I mean, there’s the political decision that’s been made. Now it’s over to the NATO planners to develop the plan of action, and then they need to digest that and to make a final decision. We believe it’s going to be a positive outcome.
QUESTION: Okay. Second question. The ambassador referred to legal obstacles to recognition. You may have talked about this in the past, but I’m not up to date on it. So can you give us any idea of what those are?
MR. TONER: I mean, there’s always legal obstacles. But really, I’m not – I’d have to get a legal expert to inform me. I mean, it’s always – I think what his point was is that it’s not as easy as just saying we recognize the opposition as the legitimate government. There’s a legal process that you need to go through. That’s my understanding, but I’ll definitely look into it. It’s a fair question.
QUESTION: France did.
MR. TONER: I know. I can’t speak to the French system.
QUESTION: Okay. Can you change topic?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. Secretary Gates today met with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. Is there anything new with --
MR. TONER: You said Secretary Gates?
QUESTION: Yes, sir.
MR. TONER: I’m not aware of anything that came out of that meeting.
QUESTION: So did -- nothing --
QUESTION: (Off mike.)
MR. TONER: Would I be aware of --
QUESTION: Well, I mean it just happened, and you don’t speak for the Pentagon, do you? So you’re --
MR. TONER: Precisely. Thank you. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: My point is, is there any kind of --
MR. TONER: I was getting to that.
QUESTION: -- is there any kind of coordination between the State Department and his visit to Ramallah and perhaps there’s a new initiative in the offing--
MR. TONER: I mean, of course there’s coordination. Of course there’s coordination. I don't know that there’s any specific action coming out of this. But we always remain in close contact with our partners across the river. And obviously, our goal remains to see both sides get back to the negotiating table.
QUESTION: One last one on Libya. I understand that the British are organizing the conference in London, and it’s not you. But do you think it’s going to be the coalition only countries meeting or you also want others invited to the – even those who oppose this operation?
MR. TONER: I don't want to speak to it because it’s obviously a British event. Obviously, the close allies and partners who’ve been implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1973 will be there. The broader coalition may be there as well.