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Middle East Digest - April 19, 2011


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Washington, DC
April 19, 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 19, 2011

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1:50 p.m. EDT

MR. TONER: I’ll go right to your questions.

Matt.

QUESTION: Yeah. The Brits today announced that they’re going to be sending some military advisors to the – to help out the TNC in Benghazi, and the EU is looking at trying to get authorization to send ground troops in to protect the humanitarian corridor for humanitarian aid to get through. What do you guys think of this, and are you considering the same things?

MR. TONER: Well, Matt, just in reference to ground troops, the President was clear at the onset of this operation that U.S. would not be putting in troops into Libya. We do have a representative in Benghazi. He has been consulting closely with the TNC, with representatives there. We are also obviously in close contact with our other allies on the ground there, the UK and others, talking about all of these possibilities and ways to improve communications and ways to help the opposition in its struggle.

QUESTION: And Chris Stevens has been there for how long now?

MR. TONER: I believe a week and a half, going on two weeks.

QUESTION: Yeah. Just about two weeks --

MR. TONER: And he’ll stay there as long as it remains productive.

QUESTION: Right. Well --

MR. TONER: It’s productive to have somebody on the ground with the –

QUESTION: Has he --

MR. TONER: -- to interact with the TNC.

QUESTION: Has he come to no conclusion yet about – I mean, two weeks is a long – it’s a long time and when you --

MR. TONER: Well, I mean, I think we’ve made – look, I think we made a lot of progress both in Berlin and in Doha last week.

QUESTION: Well, what exactly has changed?

MR. TONER: And – just let me finish. And Chris’s input is feeding into that analysis. Out of Doha last week, there was a statement about setting up a temporary financial mechanism. It’s still being fleshed out, but the idea behind that is to get financial assistance to the TNC so that they can continue to operate. And there’s other mechanisms being looked at in order to help both – well, in terms of nonlethal assistance to help out the opposition.

We are obviously very much aware of the situation in places like Misrata and the urgency of the situation. But again, it is very useful to have Chris on the ground giving us those kinds of real-time feedback.

QUESTION: I don’t doubt that it is very useful to have him on the ground. I’m just trying to figure out what exactly it – has changed since he got there. What is the U.S. doing for the opposition, for the TNC now, that it wasn’t doing two weeks ago?

MR. TONER: Well, again, there’s this temporary financial mechanism that truthfully – it truthfully hasn’t been --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. TONER: No, but I’m just saying that we are progressing along a line here in terms of what we’re doing for the TNC. We’re establishing contacts on the ground. We’re certainly providing humanitarian assistance and we’ve got a DART team on the ground who’s helping coordinate that. There are things underway. They’re incremental steps. But we are trying to help them out. We’re both fleshing out our understanding of what their needs are, and as we move forward we’re going to keep trying to increase our assistance.

QUESTION: Yeah. But if you don’t know after two weeks what their needs are, how long is it going to – I mean, how long is this going to take?

MR. TONER: Well --

QUESTION: And in the meantime, you’ve got Qadhafi’s forces hammering away at Misrata, hundreds of people dying, and you’re still waiting for input from a guy who has been there for two weeks already?

MR. TONER: But again, I want to – there’s not a – Chris is there on the ground. He’s playing a useful role both coordinating with the TNC, he is assessing their needs, he is helping. His experience there, his input, is helping us get a better understanding of who they are, what their needs are, and that will help moving forward. But he’s also there to serve as a liaison, so he’s going to be there as long as his role there remains productive.

QUESTION: Fair enough, and then I’ll drop it after this.

MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: But I mean, it’s – you’ve been assessing --

MR. TONER: No --

QUESTION: -- who they are and what they want and what they’re going to do for longer than the time that he’s been on the ground there. It’s been since the Secretary met with Jibril in Paris back early last month or mid last month. And now here it is the 19th of April, and nothing – and you still say you’re assessing. So where are you in this assessment?

MR. TONER: Well, I do think we’re progressing, and I said – as I said, in Doha last week there was the broad recognition among participants there that we needed to set in place some kind of financial mechanism that can help the opposition remain operational on the ground. And we realize they’re short of funds and that they need that kind of assistance to continue, but that’s being fleshed out right now, and we’re also looking at other terms of non-lethal assistance. I don’t have anything to announce right now, but it is being worked.

QUESTION: So the bottom line is that nothing – you are giving the rebels – the opposition nothing more now than you were two weeks ago or –

MR. TONER: Well, again, I wouldn’t say that – I mean, NATO’s operations are continuing –

QUESTION: Mark, I’m talking about just the U.S.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Okay. Sorry.

QUESTION: Just – not NATO.

MR. TONER: But, I mean – but the U.S. is playing a role in those operations, so –

QUESTION: Well –

MR. TONER: I don’t want to say that we’re somehow stalled. That’s not the case.

QUESTION: Well, the Brits are sending in these military advisors, and other countries are doing things – the French have recognized them.

MR. TONER: And we appreciate those efforts.

QUESTION: The Italians have recognized them.

MR. TONER: We appreciate those efforts. We appreciate the fact that –

QUESTION: But you’ve done nothing.

MR. TONER: Well, that’s not true. Again, in Operation Unified Protector, we’ve provided capabilities up front to set up that no-fly zone.

QUESTION: Yeah. (Inaudible) is part of the –

MR. TONER: We continue to provide support operations. We continue to fly support operations in terms of suppressing enemy air defenses and in-air refueling and other capabilities that we bring to the task. We are looking at a temporary financial mechanism that’ll help sustain the TNC going forward. There are things underway. We’re looking at other aspects of this –

QUESTION: But all of those are multilateral things. They’re things that you’re doing – they’re not things that the U.S. is doing on its own. Correct?

MR. TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: When do you think you might actually take some action, more than you have taken now?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to –

QUESTION: I mean, you keep saying that it’s urgent, and you keep saying that there’s a lot of concern about Misrata. I mean, those are all heavy words to use, but it doesn’t actually coordinate with what it is you’re actually doing on the ground.

MR. TONER: But again, there is – there’s actually been a lot done in terms of Libya in a very short span of time when you consider that it’s all been done on a multilateral basis: the standing up of two UN Security Council resolutions and the implementation of both of them, including one that involved a no-fly zone and a civilian protection component, getting NATO on board, and now looking at, again, in a coordinated multilateral fashion, how we can get them financial assistance that they can use to keep operating. Other partners and allies, as Matt mentioned, are also considering other roles to play, and have been –

QUESTION: What about going forward? This is all –

MR. TONER: Well, I know that. I’m just trying to put it in context here. And going forward, we’re considering, as I said, a number of non-lethal assistance options –

QUESTION: And when –

MR. TONER: -- on – in terms of arming the rebels, that option has not been taken off the table. All options remain on the table. I can’t predict how – I think things have moved along at a quick pace. I can’t predict when these next steps will happen, but I can assure you that, both within the State Department and on an interagency basis, we’re working hard on this issue.

Go ahead, Jill.

QUESTION: Mark, what are the questions that the U.S. wants answered? What don’t you know yet?

MR. TONER: About – is this about recognition again?

QUESTION: Some – well, it could – not necessarily –

MR. TONER: Or just --

QUESTION: -- recognition, but just next steps to help. You keep saying we need more information. What exactly do you want to know?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I – it’s not – I mean, to a certain extent, yes, we’re always assessing the opposition and their needs. But it’s also a matter of – we’re also always considering, like I said, next steps on what we can provide them with in terms of non-lethal assistance, and those things are underway. As I said, there’s an interagency process underway here that’s looking at all these options and making progress on them.

QUESTION: Mark –

MR. TONER: I mean, we are – we do recognize there’s an urgency here. We’re working, we feel, quickly with our international partners and within the U.S. Government to make sure we respond.

QUESTION: Well, can you just (inaudible) --

QUESTION: What are the –

QUESTION: -- just a little bit more specificity on what you need to know. Let’s say you’re saying, all right, potentially you could arm them. What are the issues, the questions that have to be answered before you would arm them?

MR. TONER: Well, again, the opposition in Libya is – it’s becoming more coherent, but it was a group of disparate individuals that has formed in the face of Qadhafi’s onslaught and oppression, and has done a good job, frankly, at coalescing, at forming a leadership, at creating certain values and communicating those values and ideals. We’re encouraged by what we’ve seen.

In terms of assessing their needs, certainly there’s humanitarian needs that are at the forefront right now, considering the pressure they’re under. But we’re looking at other forms of assistance, as I said.

Yeah.

QUESTION: One of the opposition spokesmen was quoted as saying that there were 10,000 fatalities since the fighting began. Do you have any means of assessing the accuracy of that?

MR. TONER: I really don’t have any way to corroborate that figure. No.

QUESTION: Mark, can I just finish --

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure. Go ahead.

QUESTIONS: -- Jill’s questions –

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: -- which basically was: What are the benchmarks that have to be met for the U.S. to go ahead and arm the rebels?

MR. TONER: I don’t know that there are specific benchmarks. I think we’re looking at a variety of options as we move forward. We continue to believe the key here is to protect the civilian population and to keep this no-fly zone. And I understand fully that Misrata poses certain challenges in this regard. And we’ve all been I think pretty upfront about saying that those are challenges that Qadhafi’s forces have adapted. They’ve infiltrated. And it’s been hard, from whatever 10,000 feet to hit some of these targets and to do a better job at protecting Misrata and enforcing that civilian protection aspect of it.

But that said, NATO talked today about Misrata. And they are hitting targets around there, surface-to-air missiles, tanks, three air defense missile sites, one mobile rocket launcher. So they are making progress on the Misrata component.

QUESTION: I’m not not interested in Misrata, but I am interested in some sort of specificity about arming the rebels.

MR. TONER: No, sorry. So just to continue – (laughter) – okay.

QUESTION: I apologize.

MR. TONER: So that’s the key component right now is this civilian protection, no-fly zone. We’re also looking at other ways – diplomatic pressure on Qadhafi continuing with the arms embargo, financial sanctions to put pressure on him and his regime to convince them that they need to step aside. If there is a way to do this, as I think Secretary – or Ambassador Rice said a couple of weeks ago, it doesn’t necessarily need to be done through the barrel of a gun. It can be done through diplomatic pressure. And we’re continuing to look at ways to apply that pressure.

QUESTION: If I can go back, one point what Matt made, three weeks ago also, I asked the same question I asked, that how long – how much time you will be giving to Qadhafi, and in the meantime, he will be slaughtering his own people, still he is doing, like Matt said. So how long now you will allow him to continue to kill his own people or slaughter them?

MR. TONER: Well, I mean, you’re right, Goyal, that he has flaunted every UN Security Council Resolution. He has talked about ceasefires and then continued to assault cities, and shows absolutely no concern for the welfare of the citizens of Libya. And, again, we are -- our focus remains on trying to protect those civilians through NATO’s operation. We’re obviously looking at a number of options going forward, and we’re going to continue to put pressure on him and his regime to make them step down.

QUESTION: Is this something either NATO is not capable of doing – I don’t mean the job, but to bring him down or stop what he is doing against his own people, or –

MR. TONER: Sure, Goyal.

QUESTION: -- there’s a pressure from China and Russia and others, because of their national interests with Libya?

MR. TONER: Well, Goyal, it’s a good question. NATO was never about – UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was never about removing Qadhafi from power. It was about stopping his assaults on Benghazi and other places. And obviously we were successful in Benghazi. He’s in Misrata now; that remains a challenge. But, again, we – the other side of this is continuing to apply the necessary diplomatic pressure, the financial sanctions, what have you, to make him – convince him to step aside.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I just – I just want to try this one more time. So in order to recognize and/or arm the opposition, you need to know more about them, who they are. So what don’t you know?

MR. TONER: Well, again, there is this idea that recognition is somehow the be all and end all. There is lots we can do for the opposition before or short of recognition. So I don’t want to imply that there’s some kind of –

QUESTION: So what have you done?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we’re continuing to assess their needs. We’re trying to figure out how we can be helpful in terms of non-lethal assistance at this point. It’s also recognition is not necessarily linked to arming the rebels. We’re still considering that option. So I don’t want to create the idea or the notion that somehow they’re all linked up, and when we – when and if we do recognize them, that’s going to set in motion other things. This is happening on a continuum. There’s a lot of different strands to this. But we continue to evaluate them and to figure out how we can best assist them.

Yeah. Go ahead, Jill.

QUESTION: On the diplomatic side, we had Musa Kusa a little while ago leaving. Are there any other signs that diplomacy is working, concrete signs?

MR. TONER: It’s a fair question. We did have Musa Kusa’s defection, which did show that his inner circle was obviously feeling the heat. We’ve not seen any recent defections, obviously. But we believe that they continue to feel that heat, and we just would urge them to recognize that they’re part of a failed regime that needs to step aside.

QUESTION: Mark, if there are a lot of ways to help or assist the opposition, the TNC, or whether it be the TNC or whether it be the actual armed rebels, short of recognizing them or short of arming them, which you say there are ways, why aren’t you doing any of them?

MR. TONER: Well, again, there’s a couple of things here. One is getting them the financial wherewithal, and I talked about that. And that is taking some time. It’s not just a matter of –

QUESTION: Well, but wait, wait. That isn’t something that came out of Doha. That’s an international thing.

MR. TONER: Right. But an international effort that –

QUESTION: Well –

MR. TONER: -- other – that –

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. TONER: -- individual countries are going to –

QUESTION: But the U.S. is in a position, if it wants to, to do things similar to what, say, the Brits have done today or what they have announced they’re going to do, and what the Italians have done, what the French have done. Why haven’t you done anything?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I’m not going to – it’s – look, what our partners and allies have done or are doing or are talking about doing in terms of Libya, we obviously support their efforts. They have been vital partners in this whole process, and we believe they are playing a very productive and constructive role. But that doesn’t mean necessarily that we’re going to follow suit or bring our capabilities to bear where they’re already bringing their capabilities to bear.

There’s a lot of aspects to this and pieces to it. We continue to provide capabilities where we can to be helpful. We’re going to keep talking to the opposition there. We’re going to keep Chris Stevens on the ground where he can be useful and play a productive role. Our DART team is there. I think we’re increasing their size or talking about increasing their size so they can help boost the humanitarian assistance. So, I mean, things are happening. I know it seems incremental to you all, but –

QUESTION: No. It doesn’t seem incremental. It seems like –

MR. TONER: It seems nonexistent?

QUESTION: Yes.

MR. TONER: Well, regardless, I –

QUESTION: It seems like it’s an increment of zero. (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: I can tell you that –

QUESTION: Flatlining all the way from –

MR. TONER: -- things are happening, and things are underway.

Yeah. Go ahead, Bob.

QUESTION: Qadhafi – his folks said today that they’ll attack in a Western military contingent that comes in even to support humanitarian operations. In light of that, does the U.S. think that that European idea is a good one?

MR. TONER: You said Qadhafi is going to attack any –

QUESTION: He’s announced that if any – if there’s any European military contingent that comes in, even just to protect the humanitarian side, he’ll go after them.

MR. TONER: Yeah. I haven’t seen those remarks, but it’s par for the course. I mean, he’s shown a complete and utter lack of – wait. He’s shown an utter disregard – Matt was looking at me ready to pounce – on – in terms of humanitarian aspects of this crisis. He clearly doesn’t care about his own people, so why would he care for Western forces? That said, our partners are sovereign nations and – make their own decisions.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: New subject?

MR. TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: I have a question on Afghanistan and Nepal. First on Afghanistan, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah is in the U.S. He has been – many are calling, maybe lobbying for his future in Afghanistan. He spoke at the Asia Society, and today he will be speaking at the Heritage Foundation. But he’s not very happy as far as President Karzai or things in Afghanistan are going or the future of Afghanistan according to him is not very bright at this time. What do you think what he told you or somebody back in the State Department?

MR. TONER: It’s a fair question. I’m not sure what we’ve had in terms of meetings. I can check on whether we’ve met or plan to meet with Abdullah Abdullah. I think we probably do. We’ll check on that for you. I mean, obviously – sorry, I’ll get to – I mean, obviously, Afghanistan remains a challenge. We believe we’re making progress both on the military front and in terms of pacifying new areas of the country, and then that allows then the governance to take hold and us to bring in the civilian component of our efforts there, and that’s really the only way. There’s no military solution, obviously, to the situation in Afghanistan. What needs to happen there is for the governance to – for the government to extend to more parts of the country, pacify more areas, and then really bring that civilian component to bear on improving lives on the ground.

QUESTION: In the same connection –

MR. TONER: But I agree it’s a challenging environment.

QUESTION: In the same connection, is Speaker John Boehner, who is in Pakistan, also his mission is about talking about Afghanistan or situation in Afghanistan?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. You said –

QUESTION: John Boehner.

MR. TONER: He’s in Pakistan.

QUESTION: (Inaudible).

MR. TONER: Now – right. And what –

QUESTION: Something to do his visit as far as Afghanistan is concerned or –

MR. TONER: I would refer you to his office. I’m not aware of the – of his travel itinerary. You said is he going to Afghanistan?

QUESTION: Yeah. Either if he’s going to Afghanistan or not or if he’s getting any message from here.

MR. TONER: Well, again, he – I mean, he speaks for the Legislative Branch, but is, obviously, in close contact with the State Department and other organizations. But I would just refer you to his office for the details of his trip.

Yeah. Go ahead, Jill.

QUESTION: Syria?

MR. TONER: Syria is fine. Sure.

QUESTION: Lifting of the emergency law, what’s your response to that?

MR. TONER: Well, look, it’s unclear – we’ve seen some reports. It’s unclear whether they’ve passed legislation to lift the emergency law, but that a new law requiring protestors that – to receive permission from the interior ministry before holding demonstrations may be in play here. In light of some of the comments that we’ve seen from the interior minister, rather, this new legislation may prove as restrictive as the emergency law it replaced.

More fundamentally, there was more violence overnight, soldiers firing on peaceful protestors. Obviously, the violence there continues to raise serious concerns, and it remains clear that the Syrian Government needs to urgently implement broader reforms and to, again, to cease violence against peaceful protestors.

QUESTION: And what about the speech?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I mean, he’s spoken several times now. He has cast himself for a while now as a reformer. But again, we’ve seen a lot of words and not a lot of action. But ultimately, it’s really for the Syrian people to decide if he’s said enough and if he’s done enough and whether his government’s done enough.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: So does the Secretary still consider him a reformer?

MR. TONER: I don’t think the Secretary ever said she considered him a reformer.

QUESTION: But she quoted somebody else.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Well, she did.

QUESTION: And one more question on Syria. There’s a report by AP saying the U.S. is opposing Syria’s candidacy to the U.N. Human Rights membership. Why are you opposing that?

MR. TONER: After what I just said? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I need a sound bite. (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: Look -- fair enough. Look, I mean, we don’t normally talk about these sorts of things, but I think in this particular case we feel compelled to comment given Syria’s actions against its own people that we believe it would be inappropriate and hypocritical for Syria to join the Human Rights Council.

QUESTION: Today in Egypt, the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar calling the U.S. Administration to consider the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, so – and even the Jemaah Islamiya for sometimes calling the same after the Egyptian revolution to release him from prison in New York. How do you react to such --

MR. TONER: I’ll have to look into it. I’m not aware of the comments, so I’ll get back to you on that.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Have there been any developments on the peace process front in advance of Netanyahu coming? And also, is anyone at State talking to the Palestinians about their plan to declare statehood or get statehood recognized at the UN in September?

MR. TONER: Well, Nicole, we continue to talk to, obviously, the Palestinians and the Israelis. And I know David Hale was in the region a little more than a week ago. I’m not sure where Senator Mitchell is. I believe he’s in New York but remains in contact with the parties. Obviously, we continue to press both sides to begin talking again and in direct negotiations. That continues to be our belief. And speaking to your second question about unilateral declaration, we’ve been very transparent in saying that we don’t believe it’s a good idea, we don’t believe it’s helpful.

QUESTION: Does that mean you’ll veto it? You, the U.S.?

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t want to preview how we might vote, but we don’t view it as a helpful step.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you have – did you – have you talked about Speaker Boehner’s invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to come speak to Congress? Have you?

MR. TONER: Oh, to speak – to address Congress. I have not.

QUESTION: Well, I’m asking you, what do you think of it now? What does the Administration think of this invitation?

MR. TONER: In terms of – it’s – I mean, it’s a congressional invitation.

QUESTION: Exactly.

MR. TONER: I don’t know much more about it than – I know the offer was extended and --

QUESTION: Well, do you think it’s a good thing if he comes and speaks to Congress, or would you prefer that there be a little bit more progress before --

MR. TONER: Well, again, I --

QUESTION: -- or any progress before he comes and makes a big speech?

MR. TONER: Well, again, his visit will be an opportunity to address all these issues, and certainly, him speaking to Congress will allow him to talk about some of these issues, to our Legislative Branch, which is an important part of our Middle – overall Middle East policy. So --

QUESTION: Well, it is, except that the Executive Branch sets foreign policy for this (inaudible) and not the Congress.

MR. TONER: I understand that, but I’m saying that – I guess what I’m saying is --

QUESTION: So would you like to know what he’s going to say to Congress before he comes and says it?

MR. TONER: Well, certainly, but --

QUESTION: Yes?

MR. TONER: We – again --

QUESTION: Yes, you would?

MR. TONER: What he’s going to say?

QUESTION: Yes. I mean, do you want him to come here and give a speech that surprises you in any way, shape, or form?

MR. TONER: Look, we’re in close contact with the Israeli Government and with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office and have good communications with them. It’s his decision, obviously, to – whether to address Congress. We believe it’s always useful to have him come and talk about these issues.

QUESTION: Thank you.

 

(The briefing was concluded at 2:28 p.m.)



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