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Middle East Digest - April 18, 2011

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Washington, DC
April 18, 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 18, 2011

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1:34 p.m. EDT

MR. TONER: Welcome to the State Department. You already have a question?


MR. TONER: My goodness.

QUESTION: I am, in fact, ready to dive right in.

MR. TONER: (Laughter.) All right. Let me just do a couple things at the top and then I’ll get to your questions.

Just a readout from Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman’s trip to Bahrain: He was there April 17th and today, April 18th, where he met with Bahraini Government officials and representatives of Bahraini civil society. Assistant Secretary Feltman reaffirmed the longstanding commitment of the United States to a strong partnership with both the people and the Government of Bahrain. He also underscored the United States’ belief in universal rights and emphasized the fundamental need for respect for human rights.

Reiterating U.S. support for Bahraini national reconciliation and dialogue, he concurred with the Bahraini leadership’s own embrace of the principles of reform and the respect for rule of law and coexistence. Assistant Secretary Feltman also took the opportunity to compare notes with Bahraini officials on regional developments such as the situation – including U.S. concerns, rather, about Iran’s exploitation of the situation in the region. And he noted that the United States appreciates Bahrain’s cooperation on international efforts to help protect the people of Libya.

Staying in the region, the United States and Saudi Arabia initialed a U.S.-Saudi Arabia Open Skies Agreement. That took place earlier today. The agreement will be applied – which will be applied on the basis of reciprocity pending its entry into force, will liberalize our bilateral aviation relationship. This agreement strengthens and expands our already strong trade and tourism links with Saudi Arabia, and will benefit both American and Saudi Arabian businessmen and – or businesses and travelers. It will expand air service and encourage vigorous price competition by airlines while safeguarding aviation safety and security.


QUESTION: Defer to the wires first.

QUESTION: Can I start with Bahrain? So this time, Mr. Feltman was able to meet with leaders. How high were his meetings and how – I’m quite surprised by the tone of your statement because it seems like the push for demand for the respect of the rights of Bahrainis has been toned down quite a lot. You highlighted the concerns about Iran and your longstanding commitment to the people and the government who have been at loggerheads in recent weeks. Has this tone softened?

MR. TONER: Well, again, you’ve summarized some of what I said. But he also underscored the United States’ belief in universal values and conveyed that belief to the Bahraini authorities. And he also emphasized the fundamental need for respect for human rights. So I wouldn’t say there’s been any softening, but these talks took place in a very constructive atmosphere.

And we believe that this was done in a constructive manner and progress was made, and that going forward, we urge both that ongoing respect for human rights, but as well as the opposition and the Bahraini Government to engage in a political dialogue that leads to resolution.

QUESTION: Can you tell us some of the things that you expressed concerns about – the deaths in prisons, maybe?

MR. TONER: I think I – I mean, I think I’ve spoken to all of the incidents about which we have concern over the past week, including, as you noted, the death of a prominent human rights activist last week.

QUESTION: There are continued, I mean, deaths and human rights abuses taking place in Bahrain that have been documented by human rights groups over the last week and – I mean, the situation in Bahrain has been getting really bad. Last week, there were numerous criticisms of the United States and its approach to Bahrain, and, I mean, even if you’re couching your language at this podium, I hope that we can expect that – I mean, that Secretary Feltman took – can you say that he raised some of these serious issues?

And it sounds as if you’re talking about two different Bahrains because we’ve been talking at the podium about how horrible the situation is in Bahrain right now and U.S. concerns, whereas none of what you just said really reflected the seriousness of the situation there.

MR. TONER: Well, Elise, again, I disagree. Secretary Feltman went to Bahrain. He went there both to speak to the government as well as to the opposition, met with a wide range of actors, and did so in a constructive spirit. But we’ve been very, very clear about where we stand on this, that the Bahraini Government needs to respect human rights and needs to address the legitimate aspirations of its own people, and that was conveyed.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Different subject. I’ll just wait. Can – sorry. Can you explain what the concerns were about Iran’s exploitation? Was that particular to Bahrain in this case? And what is Iran’s exploitation of the crisis?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to get into – too deeply into details and specifics, but others have expressed that concern both with regard to Syria and with regard to Bahrain, the situation there, that Iran continues to play a less than constructive role in the region.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Did you say who he met with, by the way?

MR. TONER: I didn’t. I know that he met with, obviously, his counterpart. But I don’t know beyond that. I’ll try to get details.


QUESTION: Is the United --

MR. TONER: He just – he literally is there now, so I just – and I think on his way back.

Go ahead, James.

QUESTION: Is the United States Government, through any programs or means, trying to destabilize the Asad regime in Syria?

MR. TONER: Well, the premise of your question is whether we are engaged in --

QUESTION: There was no premise. There was no premise. It was a flat-out question. There was no predicate; there was no premise.

MR. TONER: Yes, but, as you know, James, we need to be careful in – to identify what we’re talking about because if you’re talking about a news story based on the contents of – or the alleged contents of classified cables, then I can’t speak to the specific substance of that.

QUESTION: I didn’t ask you to speak to anything specific. My question was, very broadly, is the United States Government, through any programs or means, presently working to destabilize the Asad regime in Syria? If the answer is no, you should feel free to say so.

MR. TONER: Well, we do – and look, this is a – to talk about Syria, but we should also talk globally here. The U.S. democracy and governance programs in Syria, it’s no different than programs that the United States has in many other democratic governments around the world – or countries around the world. This is part of our support for civil society and nongovernmental organizations. What’s different, I think, in this situation is that the Syrian Government perceives this kind of assistance as a threat to its control over the Syrian people.

QUESTION: Well, so, if I can just finish, you’ve responded to the same question twice now. The first time, you spoke to premises that weren’t present in the question. The second time, you told me that we need to speak globally. So I would appreciate it if you could address yourself to the question as I put it to you, and that is –

MR. TONER: Well, I – yeah. No. Then I – okay, James. What I’m trying to do is --

QUESTION: -- are we working to undermine that government or not? That’s a very simple –

MR. TONER: No. We are not working to undermine that government. What we are trying to do in Syria, through our civil society support, is to build the kind of democratic institutions, frankly, that we’re trying to do in countries around the globe. My own personal experience, when I was in Poland in the 1990s, we worked enormously with civil society and nongovernmental organizations. The difference here, as I said, is that the Syrian Government perceives this kind of assistance as a threat to its existence.

QUESTION: Is U.S. Government money continually – or continuing to be funding in any way the Movement for Justice and Development?


QUESTION: Can you talk about U.S. support for Barada TV?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to get into the details of what was in the – in today’s story in The Washington Post, beyond the fact that we are working with a variety of institutions and organizations to support their efforts. Freedom of the press, freedom of expression, is an important element of these kinds of programs. And obviously, again, it speaks to the broader context of what we’re trying to do, which is support institutions that promote democracy and democratic ideals.


QUESTION: Right, but actually, I don’t think the article did – I mean, the article talked about Barada TV, but it didn’t really have any information about U.S. support for TV. But isn’t it true that the U.S. Government is providing bandwidth and satellite capability for the TV station to keep it broadcasting in the face of blocking by Iranian Government?

MR. TONER: I’d have to get details of what exactly technical assistance we’re providing them.

QUESTION: But isn’t --

QUESTION: Is the United States funding opposition groups in Syria?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we are – we’re working with a variety of civil society actors in Syria, with the goal here of strengthening freedom of expression and the kind of institutions that we believe are going to be vital to a possible democratic future in Syria.

QUESTION: Given that –

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- President Asad’s regime continues to host Hamas, continues to provide arms and other assistance to Hezbollah, and continues a very close working relationship with Iran, which we have described as the central banker of modern terrorism, I guess it begs the question of why isn’t this Administration working actively to undermine the Asad regime?

MR. TONER: Well, because that’s not the goal of what our programs, our civil society programs, seek to accomplish overseas – around the world. But what they try to do is work within many different countries to build up democratic institutions and, again, try to allow these civil society organizations to strengthen themselves and to become more important actors in their own political transformation. Our goal here is to support the growth of democratic expression, free expression, and to support the universal rights of these populations.


QUESTION: Well, my question wasn’t limited to what our civil society programs are attempting to achieve. My question very broadly was, given everything we know about the Asad regime, why aren’t we as a government actively working to undermine it or destabilize it?

MR. TONER: Well, we are very concerned, and for all the reasons you just cited, about the Asad regime. Look, President Asad needs to address the legitimate aspirations of his people. He spoke, I believe, over the weekend and acknowledged the need to lift the state of emergency as well as implement broader reforms. And certainly, we’re watching closely now to see how those words translate into deed.

QUESTION: Explain how trying to promote democratic institutions in an undemocratic society is not trying to undermine that undemocratic society.

MR. TONER: Well, again, trying to promote a transformation to a more democratic process in the society is not undermining necessarily the existing government. What we’re trying to do, and what President Asad is facing right now, is a push by his very own people to move in a more democratic direction. We have been working for many years, both in Syria and other places in the world, to promote those ideals because we believe they’re in the long-range benefit to these societies.

QUESTION: So it might promote the society while undermining the undemocratic regimes that are holding back the democratic institutions?

MR. TONER: Again, I think it’s important to – we’re promoting stronger civil societies in these countries to address the very real aspirations of these populations and these peoples. If the government runs counter to that, then it’s up to those governments to address those aspirations. It’s not for the U.S. to address those.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Ambassador Feltman also visited Iraq.

MR. TONER: Ambassador?

QUESTION: Feltman.


QUESTION: Do you have anything on why he --

MR. TONER: I don’t have a readout. I think he may be on his way --

QUESTION: Before Bahrain, he went to Iraq --

MR. TONER: Before Bahrain – I’ll try to get you a readout.

QUESTION: -- on Friday.

MR. TONER: I’ll try to get you a readout.

QUESTION: You don’t have anything?

MR. TONER: I don’t have a clear readout. Actually, are you sure he was in Iraq before --


MR. TONER: Okay. I’ll try to get a readout.


QUESTION: Mark, do you think that this support for the Syrian opposition will affect the relations between the U.S. Administration and the Syrian Government?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. This --

QUESTION: The support for the opposition, the Syrian opposition, would affect the relations between your Administration and the Syrian Government?

MR. TONER: Well, I mean, Michel, look, we’re very candid in our relations with the Syrian Government, both in voicing our concerns about their most recent crackdown on the protests, legitimate protests, in the face of many, many years of oppressive government – governance by the Asad regime. And we believe that it’s incumbent on President Asad and his government to address these universal aspirations of their people. But we’re going to continue to press our message to the Syrian Government. And as I said, we have an ambassador, Robert Ford, who is on the ground there, and that makes this very clear to the government there very often.

QUESTION: Have you received any complaint from the Syrian Government?

MR. TONER: We’ve not, not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: We’ve heard a lot from the British, French, and German ambassadors about meeting with members of the government, the foreign minister, and criticizing the actions of the Syrian Government, but we haven’t heard that much from Ambassador Ford. Is he speaking out publicly against some of the actions of this government? Because we don’t – we’re really hearing more from the Europeans at this point.

MR. TONER: Right. Well, I do know that he meets regularly with the Syrian Government and uses those opportunities to push our message. I’m not aware of any of his public outreach.

QUESTION: Is it time for a transition in Syria?

MR. TONER: Look, it’s not for us to say when a transition should take place.

QUESTION: Really? I mean, you did say so in Egypt and you did so say in Yemen and you have said so in Libya. So it is – I mean, you have --

MR. TONER: Well, look --

QUESTION: -- said that it’s time for a transition in some countries.

MR. TONER: Look, what we have said is it is up to the people of those countries to dictate the pace and the scope of the reform that takes place. We’ve said so --

QUESTION: Well, it sounds like they’re dictating that the pace should be pretty fast.

MR. TONER: You’re absolutely right that President Asad is facing the very real and legitimate concerns of his people. He came out this weekend. He talked about some additional reforms. He talked about lifting the emergency law. These would be positive signs, but ultimately, it’s up to the Syrian people to interpret those as adequate. But the other thing is he said a lot of things before publicly, but we’ve seen very little in reality. We’ve seen very little in the way of action.

QUESTION: So what’s the barometer by which you think that the people have called for change? I mean, is it the size of the protest on the street?

MR. TONER: I mean, we talked about this a couple weeks ago. There is no universal barometer. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of these situations. Obviously, we’re dealing with a wave of reform and a wave of change that’s sweeping through the region. We’re assessing --

QUESTION: So you’re more riding that wave, trying not to dictate it --

MR. TONER: We’re assessing each country. We’re very clear about what we do support, which are the universal aspirations of these populations to express themselves, to ask their governments to do more for them, and to address their legitimate concerns. And indeed, it’s up to the government to address those concerns and to show that they’ve done enough. And if not, then the people will demand more.

QUESTION: Mark, does this Administration have anything to show for two years of attempted engagement with Damascus?

MR. TONER: James, I don’t think we ever thought that was going to be an easy engagement. We did make the case that Ambassador Ford should go to Damascus because we wanted that kind of senior voice to speak to the Syrian Government and to express our views on a variety of situations. He continues to do that.

I can’t tell you whether that plays into President Asad’s attempts to go further and to meet the concerns of his people. That’s a question really for the Syrian Government. But we continue to be very clear about our belief that he needs to do more, his government needs to do more.

QUESTION: The Egyptian foreign minister announced last week that Egypt is willing to resume diplomatic relations with Iran. Will this be a positive or negative development from the U.S. point of view?

MR. TONER: Well, Egypt is obviously transitioning to a – or through a very difficult period. They’re trying to establish a democratic process. They’re trying to address very real economic concerns that were set in motion by some of the events there. But as much as they’re trying to reestablish ties – and we believe would be a partner in expressing international concerns about Iran’s purported nuclear program, that we believe it would be beneficial or constructive. We think they could play a constructive role.

Great. Is that it? Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:02 p.m.)

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