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Middle East Digest - April 11, 2011

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Washington, DC
April 11, 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 April 11, 2011

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MR. TONER: Go ahead, Arshad. Sorry.

QUESTION: So can you explain, as you will have noted, when the Secretary was speaking with Foreign Minister Stubb, she listed a series of things that she described as nonnegotiable, and on that list she did not include the departure of Qadhafi from power and from Libya. Was that intentional? I mean, is she trying to sort of keep some flexibility in there to try to keep this AU peace plan alive?

MR. TONER: Look, we want to see the departure of Colonel Qadhafi. We’ve said this from this podium. The Secretary has said it many times. She said it again today. I’m not going to parse where in her remarks that she put it, but that’s clearly still our demand. And in fact, we saw that the TNC opposition also called for his departure.

QUESTION: Is it a nonnegotiable demand?

MR. TONER: We’ve said it’s our bottom line. It’s a nonnegotiable demand.

QUESTION: His departure is a nonnegotiable demand?

MR. TONER: We believe he needs to depart power. He needs to step down. He’s delegitimized as a leader.

Go ahead. Welcome back.

QUESTION: Thank you. With the country currently split in half, are you concerned that there’s going to be a sort of Sudan-like secession, that this – that Libya will be split into two? I know that that’s not what anyone wants, but –

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: (inaudible) on the ground.

MR. TONER: Well, I mean, it’s – I think it’s premature to talk about any eventuality. What we’re working for and what we remain focused on is a democratic transition that is, first and foremost, just to reiterate what I just said, founded on Colonel Qadhafi’s departure from power. And then we went to see a credible democratic transition that meets the aspirations of the Libyan people. We believe that’s – that can happen. We believe that we can apply – continue to apply political pressure on Qadhafi and his regime so that he gets the message that it’s time for him to go. But what’s going on right now is you’ve also got UN Security Resolution 1973, which is, again, maintaining the no-fly zone and allowing humanitarian assistance into the opposition areas.

But you’re right. It is a difficult situation. It’s obviously – there is a – there’s an urgent need, I think, to get humanitarian assistance in to the people of Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya, and – but we continue to believe that, through diplomatic pressure, we can end it.


QUESTION: Benghazi, do you have an update on what Chris Stevens is up to?

MR. TONER: I don’t have a lot of detail. I know he’s still in Benghazi. He’s – continues to talk to the TNC leadership. He’s talking about their political structure as well as what other needs they might have. I don’t know if he’s got a set departure date yet. He still remains (inaudible) there. So clearly, his discussions are having value. But obviously, the security situation remains foremost of our --


MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: You believe his discussions are having value --

MR. TONER: No, I mean to the – he’s remaining --

QUESTION: -- why is that clear?

MR. TONER: -- quite clearly, because he’s remaining there to continue these discussions, so they’re having value, and they’re helping us get a better understanding of the opposition.

QUESTION: Yeah. But another way to look at it would be that he’s staying there, that he’s not getting – it’s not clear that he’s making any progress or getting anywhere, that he has to stay longer.

MR. TONER: I guess so, but I would just add that we believe he’s – he has – he is having valuable discussions with the opposition. He is getting a clear understanding of who they are, what they need. Obviously, security concerns are paramount and – but for the time being, he remains there working –

QUESTION: So if he’s --

QUESTION: Who are they and what do they need? (Inaudible) because multiple senior officials have said you don’t know enough about them. And I suppose you never know enough about anybody, but do you feel like you now, for example, know enough about them to give them U.S. funds?

MR. TONER: It’s – that’s an absolutely fair question, Arshad, and I don’t have a terrific answer because Chris is still on the ground. He’s still assessing the situation. I think there is a clearer profile emerging. We can see from their public statements that they’re committed to democracy, they’re committed to human rights, they’re committed to a pluralist system or a pluralist approach to government that takes into account all Libyans, so we’re seeing positive trends. And certainly, there’s a lot of disparate groups that make up the opposition. The Secretary has spoken to this. She talks about the fact that a lot of these people were not politicians or not even soldiers, those who are fighting in the opposition. But now this group is coming together, they’re evolving, and we’re still assessing. I know it seems like I said that a lot, but I think we’re still assessing who they are. We’re getting closer and we’re still trying to figure out how we can best help them.

Yeah, go ahead, Michel.

QUESTION: Yeah. On Syria, do you have credible information coming from Syria? Are you concerned about the situation there?

MR. TONER: We don’t have very credible information coming from Syria, frankly. It’s very hard to get a clear picture about what’s going on on the ground. We obviously – we’re aware of the continuing protests on a massive scale or a large scale, but we don’t know the numbers, and that’s largely because the situation is so volatile and also government restrictions on media access.

We, however, condemn the violence that we have been able to hear about against peaceful protestors by the Syrian authorities, and we obviously extend our condolences to those who were injured or killed in those – in that violence. We call on Syrian authorities to refrain from any further violence against peaceful protestors as well as arbitrary arrests, and we also urge them to allow this free flow of information that will allow – that will permit the international community to better follow, in fact, what’s going on on the ground there.

QUESTION: Are you in contacts with the government, with President Asad?

MR. TONER: We do remain in contact. I know Ambassador Ford and others have remained in contact with the Syrian Government and continue to convey our concerns.

QUESTION: Two journalists, two U.S. – two American journalists have been detained in Libya, James Foley and Clare Morgana Gillis.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: What is the U.S. Government doing to get them released?

MR. TONER: Well, we talked a little bit about this last week, but we continue to work through our contacts on the ground. Obviously, we don’t have a mission there, so that’s a hindrance. But we do work through, I believe, the Turks, for example, but other interlocutors to try to figure out where they are and to work for their release.

QUESTION: There are other foreign journalists in Libya –

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- that have been detained. Al Jazeera has – Ammar Al-Hamdan and Kamel Al Tallou have been detained for several weeks in Libya. What can the U.S. Government do to get the freedom of non-American journalists in Libya, or do you focus only on --

MR. TONER: No. I mean, first and foremost, we do focus on American citizens for obvious reasons. But there have been other cases where we’ve – we’re aware of journalists. We’re obviously – when we do get information that journalists have been detained, we try to monitor where they are and monitor their cases. It is difficult, frankly. We are limited in what we can do in Libya right now except to make public appeals like I’m – I can do right now. But beyond that, we can work through our protecting power there and try to get better information about their whereabouts. But we are limited, unfortunately.

Go ahead, (inaudible).

QUESTION: The Swiss ambassador to Iran is in Washington today --

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- discussing with Secretary Clinton – can you tell us which issues they are going to discuss?

MR. TONER: Right. I believe she’s actually meeting with Under Secretary Burns, but the Secretary may try to stop by, and I think, in part, just to thank her. We deeply appreciated – appreciate Ambassador Agosti’s dedication and her efforts on behalf of the U.S. citizens who are currently detained in Iran. She’s greatly assisted our government in our efforts to ensure their fair and humane treatment. So we do appreciate what the Swiss have done for us, and I think it’s to thank her for her efforts and to obviously also get her readout of the situation on the ground.

QUESTION: But is there any news about the detained citizens in Iran?

QUESTION: (Sneezes.)

MR. TONER: God bless you. God bless you, sorry. No, it’s part of her regular consultations, so I don't know that she’s bringing any particular news to share. She’s here. We always meet with her when she is here at a high level. We value her work and her insight, and obviously, we deeply appreciate the efforts of the Swiss in trying to secure the freedom of American citizens in Iran.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Thanks.

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