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 1, 2011
1:35 p.m. EDT
MR. TONER: Welcome to the State Department. Just a few things at the top. First, I just wanted to let you know that we can confirm that the two American citizens who were detained in Syria for the past several days have been released. Due to privacy considerations, I can’t provide any further information. And to answer your follow-up question, we never did receive consular access to them. But we are, of course, satisfied that they have been released.
QUESTION: Well, how do you know they have been released?
MR. TONER: We’re in contact with them.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) their welfare?
MR. TONER: I really can’t because of privacy act considerations, but we’ll work closely with them, and –
QUESTION: Is everyone in the federal government affected by these privacy considerations?
MR. TONER: I’m not sure what you mean, Matt.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, Senator Leahy’s office doesn’t seem to have a problem with talking about this and using the names and that kind of thing.
MR. TONER: Well –
QUESTION: Is he – so Congress is –
MR. TONER: I’m actually not sure whether Congress is –
QUESTION: Congress is excluded from this?
MR. TONER: I’m not certain. It is a different branch of our federal government.
QUESTION: Oh, I am aware of the separation of powers, but –
MR. TONER: I’m not sure. I’ll refer you to a congressional historian and legal expert.
QUESTION: Were they journalists?
MR. TONER: They were not. I don’t want to provide information other – beyond where I’ve already – what I’ve already said, but no.
QUESTION: Mark, the Travel Warning had a lot of specific information specifically about the people being held not (inaudible), no consular access. I mean, is this a pattern? Is it –
MR. TONER: Well, it’s in our Travel Warning. You’re absolutely right, Jill. It is a pattern and one we’ve raised many, many times with the Syrian Government both here in Washington and in Damascus.
MR. TONER: I don’t want to attempt to articulate what their views on this are, but they understand clearly our position.
QUESTION: Are you – do you have anything else?
MR. TONER: Well, I just – obviously, you’re all aware of the attack on UNAMA compound today. We’re deeply shocked and saddened by these reports that United Nations personnel were killed in an attack that targeted the Mazar-e-Sharif compound in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. We condemn this attack on UN staff, both international and Afghan, in the strongest possible terms and convey our deep condolences to the families of the victims and to the leadership of the United Nations. There’s no justification for the murder of the innocent – of innocent people. And I call your attention to the very strong statement the President also just issued. We stand firmly with the special representative of the secretary general and his colleagues at this difficult moment. We are in close contact with our UN colleagues to gather additional information about the situation on the ground at this time and are standing by to assist in any possible way. And we recognize the vital role that the United Nations plays in Afghanistan supporting the Afghan people as they build a stronger, more prosperous future. I’ll take your questions.
Yeah, go ahead, Kirit.
QUESTION: Two follow-ups on that real quick?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: First would be: Do you have anything to say about the incidents that led to that happening, namely the burning of the Qu’ran by Pastor Jones?
MR. TONER: Well, again, it’s premature for us to speculate what the exact cause – causes were of today’s demonstrations and killings. But to speak to your broader question about the burning of the Qu’ran, we’ve been very clear in saying that this is an isolated act done by a small group of people, and it’s indeed very contrary to the American people’s traditions. It doesn’t reflect the respect that the people of the United States have toward Islam, and we absolutely reject this kind of religious intolerance.
QUESTION: Do you have any effort to try to express that in the regions so people understand that a little better?
MR. TONER: I believe our missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world are conveying that publicly and have conveyed it publicly already.
QUESTION: And my last one on that – none of these were AmCits, were they? Any of the victims?
MR. TONER: We’re still trying to confirm all the identities. I can say that all official Americans have been accounted for. I –
QUESTION: Sorry, as in part of your mission, but – those are all accounted for, but what about – were any of the UN personnel –
MR. TONER: Not that I – I don’t believe so.
QUESTION: Sorry. (Inaudible) you say it doesn’t reflect the respect that – what was the rest of that?
MR. TONER: Sorry. It doesn’t reflect the respect that the people of the United States have toward Islam.
QUESTION: How exactly do you quantify that? How do you know it doesn’t reflect the views?
MR. TONER: Well, Matt, clearly America is a country that is marked by religious tolerance. It’s part of our ethos, it’s part of our Constitution. And so this kind of action we don’t think reflects the best traditions of this nation.
Go ahead, (inaudible).
QUESTION: Mark, is there concern that this would happen in other places? Has security been ramped up in other places as a result of the burning of the Qu’ran in Gainesville?
MR. TONER: It’s a good question. I don’t have a complete rundown. It’s certainly the case that embassies review their security posture when events like this occur. I’ll try to get a more accurate readout of whether we’ve done that elsewhere. That certainly would be likely in many countries. And again, we’re just – it’s an abhorrent act, and we reject it as anti-American.
QUESTION: Back to Syria.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Just for a bit. What is your take on events today in Syria? Has Ambassador Ford had any discussions with anyone in the Syrian Government or, for that matter, anyone else had any discussions with the Syrians?
MR. TONER: Well, I don’t have a lot new for you. I do know that Ambassador Ford remains in close contact with the Syrian Government. Obviously, we’re concerned about the situation there. We’ve condemned the violence. We condemn today’s violence against peaceful protestors, and we’ve been very clear all along in our support for their essential rights to express their views.
QUESTION: Have you discussed with the Syrians as to why the president of Syria did not suggest that he was lifting the emergency law that has been in place for 48 years? And I say this because a member of the national council just came out on television, I believe Al-Arabiya TV, and he said that (inaudible) and Bashar Asad does not have the right to repeal the law, it is only in the hands of the council of the people. Has that been discussed in any way with you?
MR. TONER: I don’t know in what detail it’s been discussed. Obviously, we’ve made clear that we believe that lifting the emergency law would be a necessary step, in fact, in the right direction and a significant one for the Syrian people. But as to how that would take place legally within the Syrian Government framework, that’s a question for the Syrians.
QUESTION: Okay. But the Syrians did not come to you and say, hey, not so fast, there’s a mechanism that should be followed, or anything like this?
MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of. But again, that’s for them to set that in motion and then to clearly explain it to their people what – the processes in play.
QUESTION: Mark, the Syrian Government continues to say that this is outside agitators. What is the view of the United States?
MR. TONER: Our view is that, as I said the other day, is that that’s an easy answer to what’s going on there and that this is, in our view, a manifestation of what’s taking place across the Arab world in many other countries, including Syria; and that is the people, the citizens of Syria, expressing their aspirations, and we believe they should be allowed to do so peacefully.
QUESTION: So when you say it’s an easy answer, you think it is an incorrect answer?
MR. TONER: Yeah. Right.
QUESTION: It’s a red herring?
MR. TONER: Thank you.
QUESTION: A quick follow-up, Mark.
MR. TONER: Tejinder, and then I’ll get to you. Go ahead.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Sorry about that. I was going to ask that – are we standing by just the condemnation that was issued, like a day or two ago? Or there’s something else in the offing as the demonstrations seem to --
MR. TONER: Well, we continue to monitor the situation and condemn any violence that continues to take place, call on the Syrian authorities to allow peaceful demonstrations to take place.
QUESTION: What is the U.S. take on the statement of Afghan President Karzai in Tehran?
MR. TONER: I haven’t seen his statement. Sorry, no reaction.
QUESTION: He reacted – he attended the ceremony in Tehran.
MR. TONER: Tejinder, I’m sorry, I don’t have a reaction for you. I’ll try to get you one.
QUESTION: On AQAP, local reports from there suggesting that they have now taken control of a southern province. Can you corroborate anything along those lines?
MR. TONER: I can’t, honestly. I can try to get more information for you. But obviously, we remain very concerned about AQAP’s presence in Yemen and elsewhere. But I don’t have any specific details on that.
QUESTION: It would stand to reason that if this is true, it perhaps is related to the explosion that we saw at the ammunition depot.
MR. TONER: Right. Several days ago, the munitions factory. I’ve not seen any corroboration. I’ve seen the news reports. But obviously, if we get more details, we’ll share them with you.
QUESTION: And then finally, just whether or not – aside from these developments, it would seem as if the president and the government have had more pressing issues on their mind than what may be our interests there. What distractions have you noticed on that that’s deterring from combating the terrorist elements?
MR. TONER: Well, it’s clearly a concern, but as we’ve said, our counterterrorism cooperation continues in Yemen. And frankly, it’s not something that’s directed at one person; it’s ongoing cooperation with the Government of Yemen. But obviously, we want to see a resolution to the unrest in Yemen. We believe that President Saleh has made some movement on his side, the demonstrators have made some movements, but they need to obviously come together and forge a way forward. But clearly, the counterterrorism efforts in Yemen are foremost on our minds and our assistance and our counterterrorism cooperation continues.
QUESTION: Can we go to --
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: I want to go to Libya.
MR. TONER: Kirit, you got another Yemen or --
QUESTION: Libya as well, so go ahead.
MR. TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: How goes the fierce Administration debate about whether to arm the rebels or not?
MR. TONER: Just to echo what others have said, we haven’t ruled it out, we haven’t ruled it in.
QUESTION: And in terms of contacts with the opposition?
MR. TONER: They continue. I don’t have any updates on that.
QUESTION: Can you say what efforts you’re taking today to encourage this string of defections to continue, to encourage others to follow suit?
MR. TONER: Well, I really can’t speak to that other than what we’ve said publicly, that we believe that Musa Kusa’s departure is yet another sign of fracturing within the regime, and we would urge others within the regime to follow his example.
QUESTION: Can you say whether at least, if you don’t want to get into specifics, whether generally the U.S. is taking any steps to encourage anybody --
MR. TONER: Kirit, I don't know if we’ve had any further conversations with members of the Libyan Government, if that’s what you’re asking.
QUESTION: That’s part of it, but if there’s anything else, I mean, any other offers or any sort of --
MR. TONER: Well, again, we’ve been very explicit in saying that we believe they should read the writing on the wall, that they should step down, that time is not on their side. And I can probably come up with a couple more metaphors, but – but that they should – that it’s quite clear that they need to step aside and that they’re – and in fact, Colonel Qadhafi himself is delegitimized and needs to step down.
QUESTION: Has there been any contact with Musa Kusa since his post defection --
MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: You just said that you don’t rule anything in or anything out as far as aiding the rebels are concerned. However, the Secretary of Defense yesterday was all very clear on not aiding the – that of – aiding the rebels, that this had to be done by someone other than the United States.
MR. TONER: I’m aware of his remarks, and I would --
QUESTION: So --
MR. TONER: -- also put my remarks in the context of the broader international coalition that is looking at Libya and focused on Libya and the situation there. But there’s more to this than just arming the rebels. I mean, obviously, we’re working to get a better understanding of the opposition. We’re making every effort to help them and assist them in nonlethal ways, through political and humanitarian means. But – and then also, the other side of this coin is to keep the pressure up on the Libyan regime, on Qadhafi’s regime, through the arms embargo, through other sanctions, through the visa restrictions. So we believe there’s other ways to skin this cat, if you will.
QUESTION: Is it fair to assume that you don’t see eye to eye--
MR. TONER: I’ll get – I will—yeah --
QUESTION: -- that you don’t see eye to eye --
MR. TONER: And I’ll probably hear from – (laughter) – thank you.
QUESTION: That’s right.
MR. TONER: Sorry. Go ahead. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Then is it fair to assume that you don’t see eye to eye with the Department of Defense on this issue, aiding or not aiding the rebels?
MR. TONER: Yes. There’s --
QUESTION: There are --
MR. TONER: Look, I don't know how to say it. Everybody’s – it’s not ruled in, it’s not ruled out. All options remain on the table. But as I said, there’s other ways to approach this issue, and one of those is looking at nonlethal ways to keep the pressure up on Qadhafi and to also help the opposition solidify and provide them with humanitarian and other forms of assistance.
QUESTION: Did we see any concrete stand from the U.S. over the weekend? Because the Brussels is saying that this rule – neither ruling it – or nor ruling it out is confusing. And also --
MR. TONER: Who – I’m sorry. The who?
QUESTION: The diplomats in Brussels are saying that they are not getting a clear signal from the U.S. which way to proceed. And the second one is that have you replied to the Italians about their proceeding to give Libyan leader a kind of way out?
MR. TONER: Well, I’m sorry, you’re talking about the Italian proposal?
MR. TONER: Look, there’s many proposals, and our view is simply that all options should be considered, that we would welcome Colonel Qadhafi stepping aside.
QUESTION: Have you replied to the Italians?
MR. TONER: I don't know that we’ve been in direct contact with them. I know that a lot of things have been on the table, a lot of things have been discussed both when we were in London last – this past week and prior to that. And of course, we keep in close contact within the contact group and in the broader coalition. Look, there’s obviously questions about accountability and justice if he did step aside, and those need to be addressed. But what we want to see is him as a ruler step aside and allow a democratic transition to take place.
QUESTION: Mark, what would you tell us about this representative of Saif Qadhafi, I believe, who is in London? There was some reaching out?
MR. TONER: Yeah, I tried to find more details. I don't have any details on that. You’re talking about the son, the son --
QUESTION: Yeah, yes, exactly.
MR. TONER: If I get more information, I’ll let you know. I don't have a lot of --
QUESTION: So there’s no confirmation at this --
MR. TONER: No confirmation, and we just don’t have any more details, frankly.
QUESTION: All right. And also, we’ve – it’s been, I guess, a few weeks now that we keep hearing it’s hard to get to know the opposition, who are they. And in the beginning, it was understandable. But why is it so difficult to get to know who they are?
MR. TONER: Well, again, the opposition is emerging, for one thing. It’s evolving and its leadership is evolving. And that’s been something, frankly, that’s been really well covered by many of the journalists who are on the ground in eastern Libya, risking their lives and providing that kind of coverage.
But we are in close contact with them. Ambassador Cretz spoke to this one week ago, and we remain in close contact. We’re advising them where we can. They’re beginning to provide public statements about their goals, their aspirations, and I would encourage all of you to read them. But this is an evolution taking place in their structure and as they’re coming together, and I think it’s prudent for us to move cautiously but supportively.
QUESTION: So at this point, do you feel more, I don't know, comfortable with their – where they’re headed?
MR. TONER: I think so, sure. I think we’re seeing very positive signs, and I believe Ambassador Cretz said as much last week.
QUESTION: Do you have any particular methodology to determine their identity? I mean --
MR. TONER: I’m sorry. Any --
QUESTION: Do you use any particular methodology to determine their identity?
MR. TONER: I --
QUESTION: In other words, do you bring in people and ask them what is their political orientation or what is their affiliation or all that?
MR. TONER: Sure. All those things, I think, are in play. And we’re obviously speaking to a broad array of people who are – who purport or are from the opposition, and trying to get a better sense of who they are.
Yeah, go ahead (inaudible).
QUESTION: Well, who are you hoping would inform you if they are infiltrated by extremists, or if the opposition is?
MR. TONER: I’m not sure I know how to answer that question. I mean, look, these are professional diplomats who are conducting these kinds of outreaches, and so these are – they’re used to assessing political environments and political opposition groups, and their judgment is sound. Is that it?
QUESTION: Is the State Department envoys already on ground in the eastern part of (inaudible)?
MR. TONER: I’m sorry, the State Department?
MR. TONER: Not yet.
QUESTION: Not yet.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Great, thanks.