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 30, 2011
1:50 p.m. EDT
QUESTION: All right. And you don’t want to say anything about the Human Rights Council since you put that statement out about it at 6:30 in the morning? Were you actually up when that statement –
MR. TONER: I was. I was up, had already run five miles. I mean, nothing to add. I mean, just to amplify the statement itself which underscored the fact that U.S. engagement in the Human Rights Council resulted in real progress for the Council, we believe, and that it’s led to a substantial track record, positive track record at the Council since joining it – the U.S. And we remain determined to continue to push the Council in this positive direction. And to this end, we intend to pursue a second term at the Council at the HRC elections in New York in May of 2012.
QUESTION: What’s the track record?
MR. TONER: Well, we put out a fact sheet that elaborates on that. But just to – we’ve helped to mobilize the Council’s will to address serious problems in Libya, Iran, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere for the first time.
QUESTION: What actions stem from – on the ground from our participation in the Human Rights Council? How did it make the world better is what I’m asking.
MR. TONER: Well, just to use an example of Iran, the people of Iran now have a voice at the UN to speak for them and to raise their concerns internationally. Countries can no longer (inaudible) international sanctions for blasphemy laws, and certainly women’s rights and issues related to sexual orientation, freedom of expression and assembly. And all these issues have been raised and supported at the Council, and this is due to U.S. leadership.
QUESTION: You cited in your statement this morning that you have these continued concerns about their disproportionate focus on Israel. Over the course of U.S. presence on the Council, have you seen any progress at all in decreasing that focus? Do you think it’s less disproportionate than it was two years ago?
MR. TONER: I can’t cite real progress on that front, but we’re obviously working in good faith with member states to address those kinds of issues.
QUESTION: Okay. Is that it on this?
QUESTION: On the same topic?
MR. TONER: Yeah, sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: The Syrian Government applied yesterday to join the Council. Will the U.S. support them – support their membership?
MR. TONER: I would refer you to our mission in New York, but – for more details, but Syria’s track record on human rights is subpar.
QUESTION: So carrying on that theme, what did you make of Bashir Asad’s speech?
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, ultimately it’s going to be the Syrian people, obviously, who are the ones that judge what they heard today and whether or not Asad – President Asad demonstrated positive movement forward in meeting their aspirations and in hearing their call for political and economic and social reform. But we expect they’re going to be disappointed. We feel the speech fell short with respects to the kinds of reforms that the Syrian people demanded and what President Asad’s own advisors suggested was coming.
QUESTION: And will you make this – your feelings known to the Syrians in any way? Will Ambassador Ford be speaking with them, or will you be speaking with the Syrians?
MR. TONER: Well, I think I’ve done so publicly. But obviously, Ambassador Ford does remain engaged on the ground in Damascus.
QUESTION: Right. But I mean, there is a slight difference between you saying it from the podium and then someone actually going face-to-face to the Embassy here or bringing them to – here or --
MR. TONER: I can’t confirm if he has already, but I have no doubt he will.
QUESTION: Can you address President’s Asad’s assertion that there are conspiracies over the Syrian homeland that are responsible for the unrest there?
MR. TONER: His assertions that there are --
QUESTION: Conspiracies over the homeland was the way he put it.
MR. TONER: Look, he’s confronted with popular demonstrations calling for change. We’ve seen these kind of demonstrations all over the Middle East, and it goes back to the Secretary’s speech in Doha that leadership of many of these countries need to respond to the legitimate aspirations of their people. It’s far too easy to look for conspiracy theories and respond in a meaningful way for the call for reform.
QUESTION: Were you expecting that at least he would take some concrete steps like lifting the martial law?
MR. TONER: I think we said that. We’re --
QUESTION: No, on – specifically on the martial law, were you expecting that he would at least come out and say, “Today, we lift the martial law.”
MR. TONER: I think those are the kinds of reforms I was – I made mention to. The emergency law is incompatible – sorry – with the rights of citizens who are seeking to exercise their universal aspirations and rights.
QUESTION: Okay. Mark, just a quick follow-up. You said that the Syrians will be – it’s less than what they expected. Are you disappointed? Were you expecting something else in his speech?
MR. TONER: Again, (inaudible), it’s not for us – I mean, it’s ultimately the Syrian people who are going to judge the merits of this speech from what they heard today. But I think it’s clear to us that it didn’t really have much substance to it and didn’t talk about specific reforms as was suggested in the run up to the speech.
QUESTION: Okay. And lastly, have you been reassured, or in any way told indirectly, that consistent with Ms. Shaaban said last week that the martial law will be lifting – lifted in the foreseeable future?
MR. TONER: I think we would be hopeful that it would be. It would be the kind of step that would indicate reform.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Do you have any other suggestions as to how the Syrian people should vent their disappointment with the speech or --
MR. TONER: Well, we understand that protests are scheduled, I believe, for Friday and, obviously, we would strongly condemn any violence against those protestors. And at the same time, we’ve been consistent in saying that demonstrators need to pursue a peaceful path.
QUESTION: Do you support them?
MR. TONER: Do we support the demonstrators? We support the rights of all citizens throughout the Middle East and North Africa to express their universal aspirations.
QUESTION: So it’s fair to say that you haven’t – given what has happened in the crackdown that’s happened so far in Syria, that you do have concerns that something --
MR. TONER: I think we do have concerns given --
QUESTION: -- similar might happen on Friday?
MR. TONER: Yes, yes.
QUESTION: How central is Syria to the success of the Obama Administration’s Mideast policy?
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, we’ve – when you’re talking about – for example, one of the priorities, which is Middle East peace, obviously there’s a regional aspect to that in which Syria is a part of. And we’ve long called for Syria to play a more constructive role in the region, and we believe that it’s important that it does so in order to meet those goals of a comprehensive peace, for example, between Israel and Palestine, but also to increase stability across the region.
QUESTION: Is it safe to say, at this point, more than two years into this Administration, that attempts at engagement with Syria have failed?
MR. TONER: Well, I think we’re always – we’re clear-eyed pragmatists about dealing with a government like Syria, but we felt it was important to put somebody at a senior level there, which is why we pushed so hard for Ambassador Ford to go there. At the very least, at least we’re communicating clearly our expectations and able to convey our concerns directly to the Syrian Government.
QUESTION: Have attempts at engagement failed?
MR. TONER: As I said, it is – it’s not a situation where we – that we thought would be easy, but we feel it’s important to communicate clearly our expectations, our concerns to the Syrian Government. Ultimately, we can’t – we can’t tell the Syrian Government what to do or compel them to action.
QUESTION: Are you disappointed that – I’m sorry – that the Administration did everything possible and sending Ambassador Ford, as a matter of fact, while Congress was not in session? Are you disappointed that the Syrians – now, they sort of put you in a difficult position, untenable situation, they should have responded in a different way, a more positive way?
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, you’ll have to ask the Syrian Government. I think that governments across the region, and certainly Syria’s no exception, are dealing with a popular call for reform. And these governments need to be responsive, and Syria is no exception.
QUESTION: Also, do you think that Secretary Clinton still consider President Asad a reformer after the speech today?
MR. TONER: I don’t think she ever called him a reformer. I think she referred to members of Congress.
QUESTION: She referred to both, yes.
MR. TONER: Again, I think we’re looking for actions versus words.
QUESTION: Can we change – can we move on?
MR. TONER: Yeah, Andy had a --
QUESTION: On Bahrain (inaudible)?
QUESTION: One on Syria. Are you able to characterize the rebellion in Syria? This General Stavridis said yesterday in Senate that we cannot profile the rebels in Libya, for example. There is no evidence related – they are related to terrorist groups, but we cannot be sure about their profile. What about Syria?
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, we’re, I think, in a more fortunate position in Syria because we do have an Embassy there and we do have contacts, a wide variety of contacts, among the opposition. But it’s always difficult to characterize these types of movement beyond the fact that we’re seeing a popular expression and a call for these universal rights, and we respect those.
Matt. Matt, or Bahrain.
QUESTION: Just a quick –
MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- Bahrain, it seems like they’re continuing a crackdown on Shiite opposition despite your calls, and they’ve arrested a well-known blogger, a Shiite blogger. First, do you have any reaction to the arrest? Secondly, do – have any – can you give us any sense of whether you think things are going in the right or wrong direction in Bahrain? And there’s also – was a report by Human Rights Watch that they are actively targeting people who are injured in these antigovernment protests, who are in the hospital – beating them up and so on. Do you have any information on that?
MR. TONER: Well, in your first question concerning the Bahraini blogger, Mahmood Al Yousif, well, we’re deeply concerned about his arrest. He’s a prominent and respected blogger. We’re also concerned about reports of the detention of two other Internet activists who have expressed their views on recent events in Bahrain. We hope that the Bahraini Government’s decision to arrest bloggers and Internet activists will not make it more difficult to resume a national dialogue that solicits the views and opinions of all Bahrainis.
And I think that pivots to your second question, which is – and you mentioned about the – going into hospitals and other places --
QUESTION: The Human Rights Watch report.
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve been – right. I think we’ve been clear in previous statements that we’re obviously very concerned about those kinds of reports. We condemn the violence against civilians and peaceful protesters, and we continue to call for a credible political process. As the Secretary said many times, there’s no security solution to the situation in Bahrain. It needs to be a political one.
QUESTION: You said, in relation to the arrests, that you hope that it will not make it more difficult to engage in a national dialogue. Does that mean that you’re telling the protesters that they should basically turn the other cheek and ignore this?
MR. TONER: Well --
QUESTION: Or are you telling the government that they should be released?
MR. TONER: I think we’re saying that the Bahraini Government needs to engage in that kind of national dialogue, as does the opposition, in order to move this process forward, and that arresting bloggers doesn’t help in that respect.
Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Still on Bahrain?
QUESTION: I want to go to Libya.
MR. TONER: Libya, everyone? Okay.
QUESTION: If that’s okay. I read this morning in a major newspaper that, apparently, there is a, quote, “fierce debate,” end quote, going on within the Administration about arming the Libyan rebels, which is a bit of a surprise to me because it doesn’t seem like that there has been any decision made on this, and if there is a debate, it would appear to be a debate between those who are stressing caution and those who are stressing more caution. Who’s right?
MR. TONER: Well, the newspaper report notwithstanding that you refer to, we’ve been pretty consistent and clear on the question of arming the rebels, which is that we haven’t ruled it out. It’s still under consideration, but no decisions have been made one way or the other.
QUESTION: Okay, but who –
MR. TONER: But we’re looking – but also to stress that --
QUESTION: Are you aware of anyone in the Administration who’s actively pushing, actively out there saying that they should be armed?
MR. TONER: I’m not going to characterize what internal discussions may be, but not that I’m aware of. But I’m also – I’m not going to attempt to characterize any kind of interagency or intergovernmental debate beyond what I’ve just said.
QUESTION: Are you aware of anyone in the government who is saying anything other than let’s be cautious and wait and see what the rebels are – who they are, what their aims are, and what their capabilities are?
MR. TONER: I think we’ve been clear about the point that we’re still getting to know the opposition. And while they’ve said many of the right things, and we’ve looked to establish broader contacts with them through both Ambassador Cretz through his work and also with our envoy, and also the Secretary’s meetings in London that we’re trying to deepen our contact and relationship with them. But we’re still finding out who they are as an entity.
QUESTION: Mark, I was wondering, there seems to be a different interpretation between the United States and some other members of the Security Council on what actually is allowed under 1973. And that was spotlit yesterday by the Secretary’s comments where she said it’s our understanding that it does allow some wiggle room if there were a decision to be made to arm the rebels, whereas you have completely contradictory comments coming from other members of the Security Council. I’m just wondering if there’s been any communication, any sense, any attempt to actually establish what the legal framework is here before we even talk about whether or not it’s going to be done. Is the U.S. going to try and reach common understanding with other members of the Sanctions Committee particularly?
MR. TONER: Well, it’s a fair question, and I’d refer you to our mission at the UN for the details of any dialogue or conversations that are going on there. Our position is that Resolutions 1970 and 1973 neither specify nor preclude such an action, so that it would allow it, would allow the possibility of arming the rebels.
QUESTION: Could you just follow up on --
MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Now, are you prepared, or do you discuss the eventuality of armed rebel civilian groups fighting armed loyal civilian groups? And how is that juxtaposed with 1970 and 1973?
MR. TONER: There are all – I mean, these are all considerations, obviously. And there’s a lot of hypothetical situations that could come up in Libya. That’s why we’re trying to stay focused right now on the implementation of 1973 and the civilian protection aspects of that as well as the humanitarian assistance. Are we thinking of all possible scenarios? Sure. I mean, that’s prudent planning. But right now our clear focus is on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and then, obviously, with the broader political goal of convincing Colonel Qadhafi to step down.
QUESTION: But is it fair to say that until you get a better handle on who the rebels are, their aims and their intentions and their capabilities, that any fierce debate inside the Administration on arming them is not – that that will have to wait until – a decision will have to wait until you have a better idea of who they are, right? Is that --
MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to try to characterize the conversations that are going on.
QUESTION: Without just – well, without getting in --
MR. TONER: But I think that we’re looking at many different ways to assist the opposition.
QUESTION: Well --
MR. TONER: And the Secretary’s spoken to that, the President’s spoken to that, and Ambassador Rice at the UN has spoken to that. But obviously, we’re seeking to understand them better. And while that remains under consideration, we’re still trying to get – trying to understand more about the opposition before --
QUESTION: Right. Without getting into any internal discussions --
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- I mean, is it fair to say that the decision on – that a decision on arming them or even providing them different types of aid or recognition depends on your analysis --
MR. TONER: Assessment.
QUESTION: -- final assessment of who they are, what they want, and what they can do?
MR. TONER: I think that our assessment will help define our actions as we move forward.
MR. TONER: Yeah, Paul.
QUESTION: We’ve been hearing comments from different officials of the government about to what extent there’s a threat of extremism and extremists in eastern Libya in particular. How much of a factor is that in the Administration’s caution about arming the opposition?
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, it’s obviously a concern. We’re aware of it, and it’s obviously being – something that we’re considering as we’re – that, as you mentioned, the possibility that AQ or al-Qaida or al-Qaida (inaudible), as it’s called – in Maghreb – is looking to take advantage of the situation. That’s part of our overall assessment, absolutely.
QUESTION: Has the special envoy traveled to Benghazi or not yet?
MR. TONER: Not yet.
QUESTION: When do you --
MR. TONER: I don't have a date for that. It depends, as I’ve said repeatedly, on the security situation.
Yeah, James, and then in the back.
QUESTION: Mark, does the United States want these Libyan rebels to prevail?
MR. TONER: We want, I think, a resolution to the situation in Libya, one that involves Mr. Qadhafi stepping away from power. How that’s achieved is really a matter for the Libyan people.
QUESTION: Do you regard it as being within our capabilities to supply arms to these Libyan rebels?
MR. TONER: Well --
QUESTION: Is it something that if we decided to do it, we could?
MR. TONER: That’s an operational or a military aspect – or a question that I can’t answer from here. I mean, I think I can just speak to the UN Security Council resolution, and we believe it does not preclude that option.
QUESTION: But you – are you precluded from saying whether you want them to win?
MR. TONER: I think that we want actions on the ground in Libya to lead to a democratic transition. We don’t --
QUESTION: You’ve got a hot war going on.
MR. TONER: And obviously the violence is of concern. But we believe that the choice is really for Colonel Qadhafi to make. He’s delegitimized as a leader, and he needs to step away and allow for that peaceful transition to take place.
QUESTION: So you want to help civilians, but not necessarily the rebels?
MR. TONER: Well, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 is in support of the civilian population and their protection.
QUESTION: So the rebels are on their own?
MR. TONER: Look, I mean, we’re been quite clear that we’ve reached out to the opposition, that we’re working with them, that we’re trying to assist them in their efforts to bring about that transition to a democratic process.
QUESTION: So you do want them to win?
MR. TONER: We want to say – I don't know how I can be more clear in saying that what we want to see emerge is Qadhafi to step down, to see a peaceful transition to a democratic process. The opposition will, obviously, play – the Transitional National Council will obviously play an important role in that process, but that’s our goal. The specific goal of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 is to help protect the civilian population that, at present, is under attack from Qadhafi’s forces.
QUESTION: Is it safe to say that until Chris Stevens arrives the Administration won’t make a decision (inaudible)?
MR. TONER: No. I don't want to say that because we’re in contact with them in London. Ambassador Cretz is in contact with them. But certainly that will help our overall assessment and allow us to better assess their needs.
QUESTION: Is it – is there – there was more than a suggestion that – it was said that they were going to open up a representative office here in Washington. Do you know if that’s actually up and running?
MR. TONER: I don’t. I’ll have to check on the status of that. That’s a good question.
QUESTION: Okay. And then yesterday, the Secretary said that in her discussions with the Transitional Council people that there was some talk about financial assistance, how we might help them out.
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: But there were no specifics. I’m just wondering if you could give us any thinking on how the international community and specifically the United States could help them with their finances.
MR. TONER: Well, there – I mean, I don’t have many specific details. I think those options are still being assessed and – as we move forward in trying to find practical ways that we can help them. I mean, obviously, the 32 billion, I believe it is, more or less, is being held and safeguarded for – to be returned to the Libyan people at some point. But I think there’s many different options being considered. I don’t have – I can try to find out more.
QUESTION: This trip to Benghazi that Mr. Stevens is taking, can you just start from zero on that and tell us what that’s about and who’s going, and --
MR. TONER: You mean the envoy?
QUESTION: Yeah, please.
MR. TONER: He’s not – I mean, he’s – there’s been no trip yet, but obviously, he is an individual who will give us a better assessment once he’s able to go into Libya. And again, his safety, frankly, is paramount here, and that’s our utmost consideration right now in deciding whether to deploy him to Benghazi. But once there, he’ll work with the opposition, try to get a better picture of their needs, try to assess how we can better assist them, and really try to fill in the picture and the gaps that we know about the opposition, but also to strengthen our ability to support them.
QUESTION: Is he going to need a visa? Is he going to need a visa to get into Libya? And who else is going to be --
MR. TONER: I’m not aware. I imagine that’s all being worked out, but I don't know if he’ll need an official visa or not.
QUESTION: According to the reports today, the Turkish foreign affairs minister gave a roadmap to Madam Secretary, and Madam Secretary said yes, it’s a good plan. So the first part of the plan is there will be ceasefire in Libya, then the second, Qadhafi will leave, the Turk part – there will be political parties, et cetera. Do you know --
MR. TONER: There’s a lot of different plans and ideas being bandied about. I would just refer back to yesterday, which is we have a contact group established that is looking at the political process as we move forward. And now NATO is in control of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 implementation. But this contact group will help move the political process forward.
QUESTION: Just one more. Can you --
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Have you been able to figure out what Musa Kusa is doing in Tripoli – I mean, in Tunisia? And --
MR. TONER: In Tunisia – I have not gotten a clear picture. I’ll ask --
QUESTION: And also --
MR. TONER: -- if we can get more information.
QUESTION: -- it seems like there are countries, or at least one country coming forward, saying they’d be willing to take Qadhafi in exile. Do you have any --
MR. TONER: I don’t have any details.
QUESTION: -- comment on that or where you’ve --
MR. TONER: I think I’d just say we’ve seen a lot of different plans and a lot of different ideas. That’s not – the UN – the --
QUESTION: Well, do you have a preferred – is there a preferred U.S. destination for Qadhafi, other than perhaps the Netherlands? (Laughter.) And a follow-up to that --
MR. TONER: I mean, that’s a good answer. I think what’s important is that he does not get a free pass; he’s held accountable for his actions, as are his regime.
QUESTION: According to the Turkish plan, Qadhafi will not leave Libya, but it will be Mubarak – like Mubarak case, and it will be – be living in – within the Libya.
MR. TONER: I mean, ultimately, there’s – this is a Libyan question and a Libyan process. But what’s important is that, as I said, that he’s – the UN is going to hold him accountable for his actions.
QUESTION: Mark, could you clarify something that you --
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- said on providing financial aid? Did you say that the frozen fund, $32 billion or whatever, could conceivably be used to finance?
MR. TONER: I think it’s being held. We – it’s been, obviously, frozen from Colonel Qadhafi and it’s being held for the Libyan people. I mean, it’s --
QUESTION: Right, but then is it conceivably – could it be used to finance the rebel or finance the humanitarian needs of people in Benghazi --
MR. TONER: Again, we’re looking at a variety of ways to assist them, including financial, but I don’t have any details right now.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Can I change subjects? Could you share with us anything new or any development or what is the status of the Israeli-Palestinian talks or the peace process?
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, we remain hard at work. I don’t know that – I mean, I don’t have – and I can get you more details --
MR. TONER: -- on Senator Mitchell and what his immediate plans might be. But I know we remain in contact and we’re trying to ultimately get both sides back to the table and into good-faith, direct negotiations. Obviously, recent events have not been helpful. The rockets into Israel and of course the bombing in Jerusalem have not been helpful in creating an atmosphere that’s conducive to direct talks.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
QUESTION: Oh, just on that. There were a bunch of lawmakers who wrote a letter to Secretary Clinton yesterday saying that she should speak out more about Palestinian – alleged Palestinian incitement of violence against the Israelis. Do you know if she’s gotten that letter, and if she has, if she plans to do anything --
MR. TONER: I’ll confirm if we received the letter and whether we have a reaction.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Okay, let’s just – yeah, thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:23 p.m.)