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Middle East Digest - April 4, 2011


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Washington, DC
April 4, 2011

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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 4, 2011

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QUESTION: Does the United States Government believe that President Saleh should step down?

MR. TONER: I think that’s not necessarily a decision for us to make, Arshad. What we’re trying to work for, or what we believe should be the final outcome, is that the Yemeni people should determine both the scope of change and the pace of change and when a transition, a peaceful transition of power, takes place that meets their aspirations.

QUESTION: Have you presented him with anything – a plan or a transition, ideas, proposals?

MR. TONER: I don’t want to get into the substance of our discussions with the Yemeni Government. I’d just say that we continue to consult intensively, both here and in Sana’a with the parties, and our – again, our ultimate goal is a peaceful solution.

QUESTION: There are --

QUESTION: Is it correct that the United States is speeding up that process? I mean, he said he has – he is going to step down at the end of the year. But is it correct to say that the U.S. wants that to happen sooner?

MR. TONER: Well, Jill, I’ve talked a lot from the podium last week, even, just saying that there is a gap between what President Saleh said and what the people have asked for. And certainly, in our discussions both in – both with the government and with the opposition, that we’re helping, or talking about bridging that gap. Again, our goal here is to see a peaceful solution to the violence and to the crisis, one that meets the – really, it’s the Yemeni people’s aspirations that need to be addressed.

QUESTION: Is the gap that you’re referring to the gap between people calling for him to go and his remaining in power, or is it a different gap?

MR. TONER: Well, part of it, as Jill mentioned, is the timeline. But again, it – this is something the Yemeni people have expressed and asked. And we, again, just feel that it’s really up to them to talk about the pace of this and the scope of it.

QUESTION: But Mark, right now, there are some Yemeni people who believe that it should be speeded up. I mean, you continue to have the president saying, “I’m not going any further,” you have more demonstrations, more people are dying, some people say it’s not enough for him eventually to step down. Is – can you possibly let this go on? I mean, can Yemen – but also with the urging of the United States, can this go on?

MR. TONER: Well – sure. Again, I don’t want to get into the substance of our diplomatic discussions, but we’ve made it clear to President Saleh, both in public as I’m doing now and in private, that violence is not a solution and that an agreement with the opposition needs to be reached as soon as possible.

QUESTION: For about --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: For about how long has this policy been the policy of the Administration? That is, pushing for a peaceful transition with Saleh, not --

MR. TONER: All along.

QUESTION: Yeah. So a couple months, yeah?

MR. TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: So there’s not – so --

MR. TONER: I think that’s accurate. I mean, I don’t have a timeline here, but we’ve been calling for an end to the violence and for the Government of Yemen to address the concerns of its people in a timely fashion for some time.

QUESTION: And that includes this transition that you mentioned; correct?

MR. TONER: Agree, yes.

QUESTION: And so this is not something that happened in the last day or last week?

MR. TONER: I wouldn’t – no, I wouldn’t characterize it in that way.

QUESTION: Well, could --

MR. TONER: No.

QUESTION: Can you – well --

MR. TONER: This is not --

QUESTION: Can you talk – can you say --

MR. TONER: Okay, sure.

QUESTION: -- how long this has been the U.S. position?

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t have a timeline in front of me, but from the beginning of the crisis in Yemen --

QUESTION: Which was?

MR. TONER: -- which was several months or a couple months now, that we’ve been clear in saying that there – that it cannot be resolved through force nor through violence, and that President Saleh needs to take concrete steps to address the concerns of his people.

QUESTION: Okay. So just to put a fine – the finest point, I think, on it, is there anything new in your policy today or yesterday? Was there anything new yesterday?

MR. TONER: No, we’ve been consistent --

QUESTION: So – okay. And then my last question.

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: When was the last time that the ambassador attended one of these meetings between Saleh’s representatives and the representatives of the opposition? Was it last week?

MR. TONER: I will have to get back to you. I should have that, but I don’t. I believe it was as recently as last week, yes.

QUESTION: He has – do you know how many of those kinds of meetings he has attended?

MR. TONER: I don’t have a number, but he meets regularly with the Yemeni Government.

QUESTION: If it’s at all possible --

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: -- could you ask?

MR. TONER: I can do that.

QUESTION: Since – in particular since the Secretary went to Sana’a and met with the opposition.

MR. TONER: We can do that. Fair enough.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Just staying with this, I know you just said that violence is not the answer. Can you address specifically the reports that police and plainclothes – armed men in plain clothes have been firing on demonstrators in at least two Yemeni cities?

MR. TONER: This is Hodeidah and --

QUESTION: And Taiz. And we have reports of at least 15 dead and 30 wounded in Taiz. And in Hodeidah our report says three people were hit by bullets, around 30 stabbed with knives, and 270 suffered from the effects of inhaling tear gas.

MR. TONER: Well, we’re certainly aware of the violence, and thanks for raising it, Arshad. It’s appalling, as you just recounted. The violence is mounting and we’re very concerned. We condemn all acts of violence against peaceful protestors, and we obviously extend our condolences to the family and friends of those killed. And we urge the Yemeni authorities and the government to ensure security forces exercise maximum restraint.

QUESTION: Why not explicitly call for him to go when his police and, presumably, plainclothes operatives are firing on his own people?

MR. TONER: Well, again, just to go back to what I said previously, there has been – he has made overtures that we’re all aware of and talked about a timeline. And yet the problems there continue. The violence continues. But it’s really important to not make us the center of this, but to reiterate that it’s really – this is something that the Yemeni people need to dictate and demand, and that he needs to respond to their aspirations. It’s not for us to impose a solution.

QUESTION: Mark?

MR. TONER: Jill.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that if he does leave, or when he eventually leaves, it will be detrimental to the fight against al-Qaida?

MR. TONER: Well, I spoke to this last week. We continue our counterterrorism cooperation throughout the current situation, and we believe that our shared interests in fighting counterterrorism extends beyond one individual.

Anything else? Are we done with Yemen?

QUESTION: Yeah. Can we go to Libya?

MR. TONER: We can go to Libya.

QUESTION: The Italians today, or yesterday, said that they’re now recognizing the Transitional Council as the legitimate government.

MR. TONER: I saw that.

QUESTION: Interesting. Are you guys going to jump on the bandwagon?

MR. TONER: Well, nothing to announce here, but we continue to work closely with the opposition. We continue to advise them and communicate with them regularly. But nothing new on that front.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, I mean, it is being considered though still, right?

MR. TONER: Yes. I mean, one of many – yes. Yes, it is still being considered among other things as well. I mean, we’ve always talked about a range of options that we’re considering, which is also recognition.

QUESTION: Well, just to make sure that you’re not – you’re not saying you might change your mind and say --

MR. TONER: No.

QUESTION: -- go back to Qadhafi and say, well, you’re --

MR. TONER: No, no, no. Sorry, no.

QUESTION: That’s not an option that --

MR. TONER: No, I’m talking about other forms of assistance and counseling them and non-lethal forms of assistance is what I meant by that.

QUESTION: Gotcha.

MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Just Libya and al-Qaida. There are – we have a report saying that al-Qaida is exploiting – excuse me – the conflict in Libya to acquire weaponry, including surface-to-air missiles, and is smuggling them into northern Mali. Do you have any reason to believe that is true?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we’re aware of these reports too, and it’s been one of the topics of our conversation with the opposition government and – or the opposition forces, rather. And we’ve made very clear of our concerns, and they have also pledged that they will look into it.

QUESTION: You’ve raised it with them because you believe that this is occurring or this may be occurring in portions of the --

MR. TONER: It may be occurring.

QUESTION: -- in portions of the country that are, at least in theory, under their control?

MR. TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: And did they – beyond saying that they would look into it, did they have any reason to believe that this was occurring?

MR. TONER: I don’t believe they confirmed it either way, but they said they would take our concerns into consideration and look into it. They pledged to look into it.

QUESTION: Do you have your own reporting suggesting this is happening, or is your raising these concerns a function of press reporting about it?

MR. TONER: That’s a fair question and one I’m not sure I can answer, frankly. Not that I’m aware of in terms of our own reporting, but that may involve other assets and other methods.

QUESTION: If it’s in the “you can address,” can you take it?

MR. TONER: Address. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Michel.

QUESTION: On Lebanon?

MR. TONER: Are we okay? Let’s finish with Libya first.

QUESTION: On Libya?

MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: Mark, when all of the – all of this began, there was a briefing here at the State Department, in fact, in which a senior Administration official said that the transition to NATO wouldn’t affect operations. And yet now you have NATO asking the U.S. to continue flying some of the planes that have special capabilities – those A-10s and the AC-130s. Doesn’t that undercut that belief that NATO can do it on its own?

MR. TONER: I mean, I’m straying outside my expertise in trying to talk about operational details, and so I would refer you to the Department of Defense and to NATO Command Structure to address those concerns, but – or those questions, rather.

But look, I mean, we’ve – I don’t think that we ever said that we wouldn’t provide support whenever we could and that we would remain engaged, although our role would be – would gradually diminish. And I think this is an example where we could provide assistance, and we did.

Yeah, Kirit.

QUESTION: Do you have any insight into the credibility of – or readouts from some of the meetings that Qadhafi’s envoys – some of his sons’ envoys have had in their meetings with European countries over the past couple days?

MR. TONER: Yeah, I don’t. The meetings in Greece, you’re talking about?

QUESTION: Among others, but yeah.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Well, I don’t have any readouts. We didn’t participate in any way. And at least – and the ones in Greece, I’m not aware of any of them we have participated in. Our position throughout all of this remains that Qadhafi must go and must be held accountable for his actions.

QUESTION: Do you have any insight or do you lend any credibility to reports to – that his sons are seeking to find a way for the father to step aside and they take over?

MR. TONER: We’ve certainly heard those rumors, but I have nothing to confirm from here.

QUESTION: Would that be an acceptable outcome?

MR. TONER: That Qadhafi’s sons took over?

QUESTION: Mm-hmm.

MR. TONER: I mean, again, ultimately it’s not something that the U.S. needs to decide. This is something that the Libyan people need to decide. Our – again, our bottom line remains that we believe he’s delegitimized as a leader, he needs to step down, and he needs to be held accountable.

QUESTION: Okay. And then my last question was that there’s been other reports of bickering amongst the opposition, specifically on the military front. Are you concerned about that? Has that lent to any of your concerns about whether or not to provide arms to them?

MR. TONER: Well, as I said, we remain in close contact with them, and we’re working with them as best we can to help advise them as they do discuss the makeup of their government, their composition, their goals, their objectives, their capabilities. And this was among the things that they discussed with Secretary Clinton last week in London. They’ve issued a number of statements that – to try to define some of those capabilities and goals and objectives which I encourage all of you to look at. But we’re working closely working with them. It’s obviously a work in progress, but –

QUESTION: And can you say specifically whether you have any concerns about their cohesion as a unit, as a unified opposition?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think that’s part of the reason why we continue to reach out to them, to talk to as broad an array of opposition figures as possible to get a better sense of that cohesion process, if you will – how they’re coming together, how they’re defining themselves, and how they’re evolving.

QUESTION: Can you say how you assess that at this point?

MR. TONER: Look, I mean, they’re clearly – I mean, it’s a very fluid situation. They’re under attack by Qadhafi’s forces, and obviously at the same time while they’re seeking to define themselves as an opposition and to create leadership and maintain that leadership. So it’s just very fluid.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Have you had any contact yet with Musa Kusa post-defection?

MR. TONER: We’ve not, Matt. I checked, and I don’t know that we’ve actually requested to talk to him yet.

Yeah, Michel – oh.

QUESTION: Not even – sorry, not even for law enforcement channels, seeing as how he’s wanted in an inquiry for the Pan Am thing?

MR. TONER: I’d check with DOJ but – Department of Justice, sorry – but I’m not aware of any movement on that front. There may well be, but –

QUESTION: Two questions, one on Syria and one on Lebanon. On Syria, have you evacuated any American families from there?

MR. TONER: It’s an excellent question. We did issue a voluntary authorized departure. I’m not aware that any flights have left today. Are you, Heide? Do you know if any flights have left?

I’ll find out, but we did obviously issue the updated Travel Warning yesterday approving authorized departure of eligible family members. But I’m not aware at this time that any planes have left.

QUESTION: What’s behind this decision?

MR. TONER: Well, I mean, the situation is increasingly volatile in Syria, and we obviously monitor these kinds of situations very closely, both for the welfare of our embassy family but also for the welfare of any Americans living in the country. That’s usually our – well, not usually – it always is our paramount goal in any kind of situation like this is the protection and welfare of American citizens abroad.

QUESTION: Did you talk to the Syrian Government about the –

MR. TONER: Yes, I’m sure we conveyed what we were doing to the Syrian Government.

QUESTION: Has Ambassador Ford had any luck in getting a meeting with anyone above the level of –

MR. TONER: I don’t have an update on his –

QUESTION: -- cafeteria worker in the Syrian foreign ministry? (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: I’m certain it’s higher than that, Matt, but I don’t know what level. But I know he meets regularly with –

QUESTION: Well, can you say who he’s met – who he last met with?

MR. TONER: I don’t know at what level he’s met with, but I’ll check on that.

QUESTION: On Lebanon.

MR. TONER: Oh, Lebanon, yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, Wall Street Journal has reported that the U.S. has frozen weapon shipments to the Lebanese army following the collapse of Hariri’s government. Can you confirm this report?

MR. TONER: Well, I could just say that our assistance programs to the Lebanese armed forces continue and that no decision regarding any kind of freeze has been made at this time.

QUESTION: But can you confirm that there are arms shipments at this time to the Lebanese army?

MR. TONER: Well, I think I just said our – we haven’t – I mean, they continue. Our assistance programs continue. I don’t know about specific shipments, but we haven’t made any decision to freeze our assistance.

QUESTION: Okay. So the review continues?

MR. TONER: No, the review has concluded, Matt, a while back.

QUESTION: Well, yeah, but then after the political developments back in January, there was another one undertaken.

MR. TONER: Right, but no decision is made. There’s no – right, freeze to – yeah –

QUESTION: So that suggests that the review continues if you say no decisions have been made.

MR. TONER: Yes. Yes, okay.

QUESTION: But the program includes training.

MR. TONER: Yeah, I’m not aware. I would imagine that would encompass training.

QUESTION: All the aspects of the program?

MR. TONER: As far as I’m aware, yes.

QUESTION: Can we stay in the region for just a bit?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: I’m just wondering if you have any reaction or if you feel vindicated at all by Judge Goldstone’s apparent reassessment of his report.

MR. TONER: Well, we certainly read it with – his reflections in The Washington Post with great interest. We’ve made clear from when the Goldstone Report was initially presented and maintained ever since that we didn’t see any evidence that the Israeli Government had intentionally targeted civilians or otherwise engaged in any war crimes. And now that we see that Justice Goldstone has reached the same conclusion, and then also we believe that Israel has since undertaken credible internal processes to assess its own conduct of hostilities, and I think that’s something that he acknowledged as well.

QUESTION: What – considering that this had its origins in the Human Rights Council –

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: Granted you weren’t on the council when the mandate was given. But the one main problem that you had with it was the mandate of – was the mandate he was given. Do you think – do you still think that this was the result – that the result, which he’s now essentially repudiated, was a function of the poor mandate or the problems with the mandate?

MR. TONER: I’ll just say that --

QUESTION: Or do you think that his team intentionally ignored evidence that would have supported the Israeli position?

MR. TONER: I can’t speak to his team’s work, but I can say that we remain concerned and will continue working to an end to the – what we believe is anti-Israeli – Israel bias in the Human Rights Council.

QUESTION: Well, wait a second. You just said that you don’t – you can’t comment on the team’s work?

MR. TONER: Well, I --

QUESTION: I mean, you just said that it was --

MR. TONER: I mean, I don’t comment how they --

QUESTION: -- you thought it was bad.

MR. TONER: What you implied by your question was their information gathering, and I don't have an assessment of that

MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about the situation in Afghanistan?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: With the violence following the Qu’ran burning in Florida, it seems as if President Karzai is just inflaming this situation, first by talking about it when relatively few people even knew it had happened, and now by asking for apologies. Is he helping or hurting this situation?

MR. TONER: Well, we believe he’s made some constructive statements in the sense that he did come out after the Mazar e-Sharif demonstrations and killings. He did say that he considered them to be a destructive action on the – “of a group of partial people who abuse their right of demonstration” – I’m quoting from his statement – “and have participated in violent action against United Nations employees who are helping the Afghan people in that province as contrary to Islamic and Afghan values.” So we do appreciate his comments.

QUESTION: What can be done, do you think, to lessen the tensions over this?

MR. TONER: It’s a good question. Obviously, we need to continue our vital work in Afghanistan. It’s important, and these UN workers were obviously carrying out that commitment. And we need to be very clear that the actions of the Florida pastor were, we believe, contrary to the values and the tradition of the American people, and we need to keep communicating that message.



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